This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.
MURASAKI SHIKIBU (974-1031)
This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.
MURASAKI SHIKIBU (974-1031)
from Letters To A Young Student…
How do I know when I am moving in the right direction?
It’s simple questions, like this one, that lead us in the right direction. This is what I mean by a heartfelt question. Questions asked from the heart don’t have intellectual answers. Ultimately a question like yours is about how to live one’s life. Living a life is not intellectual, not even for an intellectual!
So I will reflect on this question, not only for you, but for myself as well.
You are asking this question in the context of the work of F.M. Alexander, so let’s begin with a famous quip of Alexander’s. “There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a think as a right direction.”
Let’s first zoom out and get the big picture and then work our way into the center. Alexander implies here that what you want is not a posture, not a place, nothing fixed. So if we feel held, placed, or fixed in any way then we are off. He seems to be saying that it’s about “the way” rather than “the form.” Taoism immediately comes to mind as it did for Aldous Huxley who referred to Alexander as the first Western Taoist. Lao Tzu’s references to “wu-wei”, translated non-doing, effortless effort, or harmonious activity, his reverence for water, the watercourse, his love of the valley rather than the mountain, of space over substance, his praise of softness over hardness, his desire for less rather than for more.
Ironically the best book on Alexander’s work may have been written 2400 years before Alexander was born, and may still be the best guide for pointing us in the “right direction.” That’s why I’ve spent the last eight years studying and writing my own interpretation of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching, because my experience tells me this text is the predecessor to Alexander’s work.
I would however go a step further. I would say not only is there no right position, I would say there is also no right direction, no one right direction. Being on “a way” is important. In Japan, where I live half the year, people study such disciplines as Kyudo, the way of the bow, Aikido, the way of harmonizing energy, Sado, the way of tea, Shodo, the way of calligraphy, etc.
But being on a way, doesn’t mean we don’t lose our way because we do. Sometimes we have doubts about the path we are on, whether we are getting anywhere, whether it is the right path for us, whether or not we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way, whether we are ever going to get where we are going.
Perhaps a certain amount of doubt goes with the territory. Alexander asked us not to try to be right, not to try to feel that we are right. Not even to care whether we were right. In fact he’d sometimes begin lessons saying, “Let’s hope something goes wrong.”
When we don’t know for certain where we are, we sometimes begin to see where we are, to experience where we are. We open to what is around us.
Yet still, something in us wants some confirmation that we are moving in a good direction. There must be signs, and if there are, what are they?
Alexander gives us a hint when he says,
“When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing that we are doing is exactly what is being done in nature, where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.”
What does Alexander mean by “right conditions?” I’m not sure, but maybe it’s similar to Aldo Leopolds’s definition of right. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Perhaps Alexander is telling us that the way we know we are right, is when we are conducting ourselves in accordance with nature, that is, when we are tending toward the preservation of our integrity, stability, and (inner) beauty. And we are out of balance when we are not.
Let’s zoom into the biotic community within us and return to the question of knowing when we are moving in the right direction.
If we are a fractal of our larger ecosystem, then we too would be moving in a right direction when we are tending toward integration, stability, and beauty. I would add the complimentary opposites to these indicators: integration and differentiation, stability and mobility, and beauty and functionality. Complimentary opposites work with one another. Opposing opposites work against one another. My experience tells me that when we are experiencing an integration of complimentary opposites within us, we are moving in the right direction.
When we are feeling unified and articulate.
When we are feeling stable and mobile.
When we are feeling functional and beautiful.
When we are feeling light and substantial.
When we are feeling still as a mountain and moving as a river.
When we are feeling rest and support.
When we are feeling gathered and expansive.
When we are feeling within and without.
When we are feeling open and focused.
When we are feeling connected and independent.
When we are feeling committed and free.
When we are feeling spontaneous and deliberate.
When we are feeling soft and powerful.
When we are feeling relaxed and ready.
When we are feeling near and far.
When we are feeling time and the timeless.
When we are feeling gravity and grace.
When we are feeling self and others.
When we are feeling self and no self.
When we are doing less and receiving more.
If we decide to use the word direction in the strict Alexander sense of the word, and then ask how do we know when we are moving in the right direction, the answer may be hiding in The Use of the Self, one of Alexander’s books I read some 40 years ago. Somewhere, I believe in a footnote, Alexander mentions that a direction is a message we send to a part of the body. If the message is correct, if it is a right direction or order, it will conduct the energy within that part of the body in a way that will result in a general improvement of one’s overall integration.
The metaphor I use to get a picture of this is that of a lock and key. A joint in your body would be a lock, the key, its direction. It’s necessary to examine the lock to find out its structure. Then you can make a key to fit the lock. When the key fits the lock, the lock opens. This opens a door which allows you to enter into your house, your body, where you reside, your abode, your dwelling place, your refuge, your sanctuary.
Eventually, through study, whether that is on your own, or with the help of a teacher or teachers, you come to discover and learn about many of the doors and their locks, and you construct ever more precise keys to these doors which lead you through the gates into the holy city.
You learn, in Alexander’s enigmatic term, how to free into your primary control, or your true and primary movement, or as I sometimes refer to it as, your primary pattern, which is a fluid, moving, organizing pattern.
You learn how to enter into this fluid organization, into this knowing river within us, and it is the river who knows where to go, knows what a right direction is. Our job is to surrender to the river, to let the river take us to a place known to it, forever unknown to us.
Health insurance in Japan actually does a conscientious job of insuring its people’s health. Being a person who now has health insurance in Japan, I decided to go to doctors and actually find out how I am, something I have avoided doing in the United States as my deductible does not cover the first $5000 of my medical expenditures. Yet still the cost of my health insurance in America is double of what I pay for health insurance in Japan. Last week I had a comprehensive physical unlike any I have ever experienced in America. Discovering that, at 61, I am in exceptionally good health, but also finding out what I should keep my eye on, gave me great peace of mind. Strangely, rather than feel happy I felt even sadder than I had been for all of us in America who pay so much for our health care and receive so little health care. And there are the millions of us who cannot afford health care. It’s not easy having a peaceful mind when in the back of that mind we’re worrying about what happens if we or our loved ones get severely sick or injured.
Having been a gymnast, modern dancer, and martial artist, and having survived a couple of car accidents, my body has had a lot of practice at mending injuries and keeping me all of a piece. I’m grateful. I do have a knee that is not like it used to be, and now one hip that is asking for some help. My father had 4 hip replacements over 35 years, and like the rest of us he only had two hips! But now nothing prevents me from going for an MRI which I will do this afternoon. When I had a cold I went to a cold clinic where there were 50 people waiting to be seen, but in one hour I walked out having been thoroughly diagnosed, cared for, and given a prescription for medicine. I walked 50 yards to the pharmacy and in 2 minutes I had my medicine. In one day I felt better. A week earlier, I went to the dentist, which was also covered by my insurance.
If everyone in America could experience what it feels like to receive good health care I have no doubt that we’d have good, comprehensive health care in America. Most Americans don’t know what they are missing. What overwhelmed me was suddenly realizing that I was being treated with respect, that my dignity was being honored, that I was a person of value. I felt a little guilty receiving this kind of care when countless others are not. Knowing more about how I am naturally makes me want to actively take care of myself.
So three times a week I go to a gym, which is a 3 minute walk from my apartment. It costs me $60 a month. I have been swimming, stretching, and using weights, which are helping a lot. The gym is sparkling. You could literally eat off the floor. Really. All the equipment seems brand new. Everything works perfectly. There are daily classes, all free, in Pilates, Tai Chi, Spinning, Dance, Yoga, Swimming, and more. The instructors are very good. And I have super high standards when it comes to movement teachers. These teachers are good. A facility like this in America would be reserved for the wealthy. Here it is available to almost everyone.
Bathing is an art in Japan. Into the steam room, then onto a low stool that sits in front of a mirror, a bucket for water near by and a hand held shower nozzle. Perfect water pressure. Nothing is broken. Everyone takes their time and cleans every pore, shaves, brushes their teeth, only turning on the water when they need it. Your body is warm from having been in the steam room so there’s no need to stay under continuous running water. After this almost ritualistic cleaning, you soak in a communal O furo, a hot tub, really hot. When a family baths at home, the O furo is filled and covered as not to lose heat. One by one, each person takes their time getting cleaner than clean then soaks in the tub. The tub is not as long as an American tub, but it’s higher. In America we lie down in a tub. In Japan we sit in a furo. With less surface water exposed to the cool air, the water stays warmer longer. Once out, the furo is covered, ready for the next person.
In general people in Japan use about a fifth of the energy we use. Yoshiko, my wife, thinks our utilities bills are high. Outside I’m looking concerned. Inside I’m smiling. They don’t, or I should say we don’t heat our homes centrally. We only heat where we are at the moment. This might mean sitting on an electrically heated two foot by two foot piece of carpet. Or it may mean working at a small, low desk, a kotatsu, which is designed such that under the table top surface is a large quilted blanket, and under the blanket is a small heater built into the table. You put your legs under the table and cover your lower body with the blanket, perhaps along with three other people, with their legs under the table, while everyone eats dinner together. Warm, cozy, and fun. Who needs to have all that heat floating up to the ceilings, which also are low, inside of rooms that are small. In Japan we don’t use hot water to clean clothes, nor clothes dryers, nor dishwashers. We use cold water to wash dishes, and we don’t run the water when we soap up the dishes. When I say we I mean 99.9% of Japanese people. It’s taught in school from the get go. Refrigerators are tiny. No huge ovens. No pilot lights for hot water heaters, or stoves. All localized heat. Because of the Fukushima disaster Japanese people decided to use even less energy than they had been using. All but two of their fifty-four nuclear reactors remain shut down, at least for now. A lot of people would like to keep it that way, though given the politics here that is likely not to happen. That is another story. The point is that even in the summer when it is 105 degrees, day in and day out, in super high humidity in steaming cities, no one is using their air conditioners, even old people for whom it is dangerous not to do so. The contrast between Japanese and American culture is enlightening, and challenging.
Then there is simply walking down the street and seeing no overweight people. Maybe one person in every 100 is overweight, and those people are usually under 25 and eating mostly at McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The streets are buzzing with people walking in every direction while bicycles weave smoothly and effortlessly in and out. It’s a dance. Who needs a car when you have bikes and trains everywhere? Bikes are cheap. Mine cost $50 and I love my bike. I don’t think I’ve waited more than 7 minutes for a train and that’s after I just missed one. Usually there’s no wait. The trains are quiet and clean. No graffiti. No smell of urine here and there. Yes, sometimes the trains are beyond crowded but people have the courtesy to wear white sanitary masks that cover their mouth and nose if they have a cold. That’s thoughtful. People are taught to be aware of other people, and they are.
The trains and the streets are safe at any hour for anyone, kids included. In 2006 there were a grand total of 2 homicides. There are no guns around here. Little kids walk to school by themselves. If you leave your umbrella next to the ticket counter you can be sure it will have been given to the office. When you go to get it, they person will literally run to get it for you, knowing right where it is.
If you get off the train, let’s say at Osaka Station, and decide to buy some Japanese sweets at a department store, the moment you approach the counter, which has five people in uniform standing side by side, one of them will ask you if they can help you. Once you have bought your sweets they will ask you if you would like them wrapped as a gift. If you say yes you will witness hands that work differently than ours. Quickly and precisely. As you are leaving and ask them where the bathroom might be, they will likely take you there, and then bow and thank you. Can you imagine someone at Walmart or Staples bowing to you and thanking you for buying something at their store?
Ironically, living in Japan I feel how much I love America. I just know we could be better than we are. Living in Japan makes me care more about Americans. About everybody. And I realize how lucky I’ve been to be able to live in two cultures, for real.
For one, I’m not going to wait around for American culture to change. What I can do is adopt what I like about Japanese culture and live my life in a way that feels good and right for me. I can model what I care about.
In America I can practice being more aware of the needs of other people. I can use energy more modestly. I can eat less meat and cheese, more fish and vegetables. I can serve people. Thank people. Apologize when it feels right. I can be on time.
In America I will need to make an extra effort to take care of my own health.
And I will walk down the street unafraid. In a country that has grown so fearful, it will be my practice not to perpetuate fear, but to exude trust, and kindness.
Look at the faces of these students. There’s the answer.
I confess. I don’t enjoy doing more than one thing at a time. I don’t enjoy waiting on hold for a real person to pick up while I am chatting on Facebook and listening to iTunes. That’s over the top for me. I can do it, but why?
When we are multi-tasking sometimes we are mono-sensing. When straining to read some small print on some chat window at the bottom of the screen that popped up just as I was getting ready to sign off on Facebook, my hearing, touching, and kinesthesia plummeted without my knowing it. When the person finally picks up on the other end of the line after 20 minutes, having forgotten all about them, I hussel through my open windows looking for the very little icon I have to click, not feeling much of anything other than a general sense of panic and that all too familiar tightness in my neck that goes with it. I can’t hear her because iTunes is still playing and a song just came on that reminds me of a really hard time in my life that I’d rather forget. I quickly locate the speaker-off button, push it, and that God awful song in gone as well as the woman’s voice I waited 20 minutes for, the women I need to speak with because yesterday my car insurance expired. I quickly push the speaker-on button and that song returns accompanied by a strange gulping sound meaning someone has just hung up on the other end, like they did on that day I’m trying to forget.
That’s why I like doing one simple thing at a time, like washing dishes. In fact, even doing one thing at a time for me is a lot. Because I am a multi-senser, often happily lost in a world of multi-sensorial experience. I’m washing a bowl. I’m enjoying its shape, visually and tactually. I’m listening to the water, feeling its coolness. (We’re all saving energy here in Japan). The sinks are lower here so I am finding a wider stance and a little more flexion in my leg joints. I feel like an athlete ready to wash a mound of dishes, the more the merrier. We’ve got an assembly line going. I’m washing. Yoshiko’s rinsing, and Masako’s drying. It’s great being with them. Warms my heart.
Maybe sometimes we’re doing more but living less. I don’t know. Maybe so. It’s worth considering.
Alexander Alliance International – Japan Retreat
Youfukugi Buddhist Temple, Yase Hieizanguchi
Autumn, November 23-25, 2012
Midori Shinkai, her graduates, and trainees are impressive. Well coordinated each and every one. Every one helps every one. Every one has a good time, learns seemingly without effort, though every one knows they work hard at what they love.
Every one is skillful with their hands. They’re fluid yet organized. They’re upright though not rigid. They’re light and substantial. They can sense with their hands, see with their eyes, feel with their hearts.
After a day of study every one relaxes together enjoying one another’s company. Up until 3am laughing and telling stories, eating everything from chocolate covered almonds, to surumeika, (yes, dried squid), to Ritz crackers, to umeshu, (plums marinated in wine for three years), well you get the idea – an international school in Japan. Sure some wine, or beer, or sake too, but not too much because…
8:30am is breakfast and at 9 morning movements begin. And there every one is, ready to go as if they had slept for 8 hours.
Alexander Alliance International Japan, Midori Shinkai, director, her graduates and trainees…as impressive and colorful as autumn leaves.
Sure, I am bias. I know. My kids are great. My neighbors are great. My wife is great. My Alliance teachers are great. My students are great. That’s just how I feel about the people I am blessed to be among. Oh yes, and my dog is great!
It’s exciting going back to the Alexander Alliance Germany. It’s like seeing a six month old child, and then seeing them six months later. The change is dramatic. That’s what it’s like seeing my students again. While I was living in Coyote, my students were studying with Celia Jurdant-Davis, and Margarete Tueshaus, so of course they have changed for the better. Being a community/school is like that. What we do, collectively, as a faculty is so much more than any one of us could do alone.
My house is almost in order, asleep for the long, hard winter up here in the Jemez mountains. My bags are almost packed, too heavy as usual. Because, after teaching for two weeks in Germany, and visiting my dear friends for a week, I take off for Osaka for five months. But I am just an email away. Write to me whenever you want. I always write back.
Barn’s burnt down –
I can see the moon.
photo by B. Fertman
A Tradition of Orginality
During our last conversation Marj said to me that one person can only do so much. She was thinking about her life and her contributions but she was, in her understated way, also telling me to get going.
Marj opened important doors for us. Most importantly, she kept the door of originality wide open. F.M. was original. So was Marj. I felt and still feel obligated to carry this tradition of originality forward.
Being original doesn’t mean being different just to be different. It means being in touch with the origins. It means dipping way down into that deep well of nothingness from which grace appears. “All I’m trying to do is show you a little bit of nothing.” She did, and it was everything.
This nothingness from which true originality springs is the source of our work. You cannot copy originality, because once you copy it it’s no longer original. Being original happens when we dip down into that deep well of emptiness which is forever alive and fresh. Marj drew her work out of that deep well, day in and day out, for so many of us.
Marj kept doors open that, without her, might have closed forever. Sometimes Alexander worked with people in activities. Marj found this way of working to be the most direct and personal approach to helping people become sensitive and capable of putting into practice what they were beginning to understand about themselves.
Marj enjoyed her training, which took place in the context of a group, and she saw no good reason why group teaching should only be limited to trainees. Everyone could benefit from watching and listening to others.
Marj wove together these two aspects of Alexander’s work – working in activity and group study – magically transforming and enlivening Alexander’s work for us.
Marj admired and respected her teachers: F.M. and A.R. Alexander, Ethel Webb, Irenie Stuart, and Irene Tasker. She knew that none of these fine teachers had ever graduated from a three-year teacher-training course. She knew that a small group of F.M.’s teachers had learned from him more informally, over a longer period of time. She admired these teachers, and she decided to bring about Alexander teachers based on this older, original model of training through apprenticeship.
Marj didn’t want people to stop living their lives to study Alexander’s work. She wanted us to bring Alexander’s work into the lives that we were currently living. For many of us that meant incorporating the work into our lives as performing artists, and as teachers.
I remember the first time I ever spoke to Marj. At Ed Maisel’s recommendation, I called her up and asked if I could study with her in Lincoln, Nebraska, at her Winter of 1975 workshop.
She asked me what I did. I told her I studied the Alexander Technique. She said, “Is that all? Is that all you do?” I said no, I also was a modern dancer, and studied T’ai Chi Chu’an and Aikido. Then she said, “Now that sounds like fun. You can come along.”
Marj liked working with people who were passionate about what they did. She liked working with people exactly when they were doing what they loved doing most, whatever that was… singing, dancing, acting, playing instruments, icing a cake, juggling, fencing, gardening, or throwing horse shoes, which was something Marj liked and that I liked doing with her.
Marj brought life to the work, and the work to life. It was as simple as that.
Like Alexander, Marj felt that institutions could not hold the truth, so she kept to herself, did her work, and made certain it was good. She kept the original apprenticeship model of becoming an Alexander teacher open, and for me, and for many of my colleagues, this approach to training was joyous, powerful and effective. Without this model of training it would have been impossible for many of us to become teachers.
There is one last door that Marj opened for which she remains relatively unknown. In fact, by some odd twist of fate Marj seems to have become known for attempting to close this door!
I had just finished teaching a workshop for teachers in Berlin.
The head, of what was then GLAT, had experienced my work at the Australian Congress and then and there invited me to teach in Berlin. He went on to teach at my school in Germany, and even came to America to study at my school in America. One of the teachers at this workshop in Berlin remarked about how skillfully I worked with my hands and how much I used my hands when I taught. She was under the impression that Barstow teachers didn’t use their hands much when they taught.
My heart sank. What moved me most about Marj was how she used her hands as a teacher. I fell deeply in love with her ability to bring about such beauty with utterly no force. For many years I watched people unfold and grow under Marj’s hands. I made a vow never to stop teaching until my hands were at least as good as Marj’s hands. I’ve held true to that vow.
When Marj died I was teaching in Japan.
For a couple days I seemed fine, and then it hit me. I was overwhelmed by dread, by doubt, that I had missed something, not heard something, that I didn’t learn what I was supposed to learn, that I failed her as a student. I didn’t know what to do. And then, suddenly, I knew.
I knew finally and completely that even though Marj is gone, the source remains. There in that deep well of nothingness is everything that I missed, everything that I did not hear, everything that I have yet to learn.
Photo by Tada “Anchan” Akihiro
This is a video of Jiro’s hands as a child. Kind of, sort of. Actually they are the hands of Master Shuhei, my friend’s son. You must watch this video until the end, well, you’ll see why. You will witness here how a human being actually learns how to use their hands.
When we are little we are not very coordinated. We have to learn how to sit, and stand, and walk, and how to button a shirt, for example, as you will see here. But the good news is that, when very young, we are inherently integrated, that is, all of a piece. It’s like we are programmed not to distort ourselves. The trick is to get kids to become coordinated without losing too much of their inherent integration.
Thankfully for Shuhei, he has Anchan as a father. I had asked Anchan to make this video for my students. Anchan picked out a few very challenging manual activities for Shuhei, and then videoed Master Shuhei. You will see here how patient Anchan is, and how positive. Needless to say my students adored this video.
By the way, Anchan has been my student for many years, and I have been his. He’s my photography teacher. Now Anchan also is my colleague, as are so many of my students – Alexander teachers who carry on “a tradition of originality” that begins with Mr. Alexander himself. For 15 years Anchan has photographed, and now also videos, life at the Alexander Alliance – Germany, New Mexico, Italy, Japan, Korea. He has an exceptional eye for the work, and for catching that moment when people let go.
Jiro’s hands – The Sequel.