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Posts from the ‘Judaism’ Category

When The Child Was A Child

Messengers 

In Wings Over Berlin, two angels, invisible to humans, softly, silently offer comfort, sometimes, but not always, lifting the spell of isolation and despair from suffering human souls.

They touch humans lightly, tenderly. Through their empathic presence an opening, where there had been none, would suddenly appear, a way to go forward now lay before them.

from Wings Over Berlin

from Wings Over Berlin

In Hebrew malach means both messenger and angel. In Greek too, aggelos means messenger and angel.

Messengers send messages. A message is a communication through writing, speech, or signals of some sort. A little like the angels in Wings Over Berlin, we Alexander teachers convey messages through touch. A message can be an underlying idea. It can also be an inspiring or sacred communication.

Now I am no angel. I am hopelessly human. I am not always at peace. I sometimes butt heads with people. I am not a spiritual being. I have no wings. I live on the ground. But I think we can and do serve as messengers for one another. Sometimes, unbeknownst to us, we do something, say something or write something that helps someone. Others sometimes unbeknownst to them, do, say, or write something that helps us, that may even change our lives. We may not be angels, but sometimes we perform our angelic function as messengers.    

from Wings Over Berlin

from Wings Over Berlin

In our Alexander community we refer to teaching through “procedures.” How do we “proceed” to impart the principles underlying Alexander’s work? Some of us use the procedures Alexander developed. Some of us also use procedures other teachers have developed, like Walter Carrington’s saddle work, or Raymond Dart’s developmental movements, or Marjorie Barstow’s working in activity. Others of us use procedures we ourselves have developed. To my surprise, I seem to have evolved a procedure, a way to proceed, that enables people to make use of the principles underlying Alexander’s work under trying conditions and when coping with harsh realities. I call it Working Situationally.

When The Child Was A Child

When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it was a child. Everything was full of life, and all life was one. When the child was a child, it had no opinion about anything, no habits. It often sat cross-legged, took off running, had a cowlick in its hair, and didn’t make faces when photographed. – from Wings Over Berlin by Wim Wender and Peter Hendke

It’s not easy growing up. We have all known times when our arms stopped swinging, when the puddle was just a puddle. Times when we’ve felt exhausted, empty, our world shattered. Times when nothing was new under the sun, when we were unable to pick ourselves up from the ground, let alone take off running, when we put on yet another smiling face for yet another silly photo.

“When have you experienced yourself lost, without support, helpless and afraid,” I ask a group of fairly new Alexander teachers? “Can you see where you are, the situation you’re in; can you see what’s going on?”

Michiko, a small, middle aged woman in the back of the room says,“I’m going through a divorce. I have yet another session in court next week where I have to plea for the custody of my children. I am terrified of losing them.”

All eyes in the room lower at once.

“Thank you.” Let’s see if there is a way, through Alexander’s work to help ourselves when we really need it, when we’re feeling threatened, when our life’s hanging in the balance. How can we develop the wherewithal to be how we want to be in these situations, how not only to survive them, but to meet them?”

When The Master Is Home

“Michiko. Look around and see who can help you set up your scenario. Look and see who can help you, and how you can arrange the space.” Everyone springs into action. Seriously playful commotion fills the room. I sit back and watch as the space is transformed into a courtroom.

In the front of the room sits a judge. Michiko’s husband and his lawyer sit to the judge’s left, Michiko and her lawyer to the right. I’ve got a translator behind me, ready to whisper into my ear.

The judge begins. “We are here today to determine who is most deserving of the privilege of caring for your children. As you know I do not approve of divorce. I believe children should grow up with a mother and a father in the same house. But for whatever reasons, both of you seem incapable of doing this. Michiko, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“Judge, I am the parent who has spent the most time with my children. I am the one who cooks for them, who packs their lunches, who takes them and picks them up from school, who helps them with their homework. I am the one who does their laundry and who takes them shopping for sneakers and who gets out of bed at night when they have nightmares. I’m their mom.”

Yamato, Michiko’s husband blurts out, “And I am the breadwinner in this family. I’m the one that pays for the food you cook, who bought the nice car you drive to that top notch private school that I also pay for, not to mention the designer sneakers. I’m the guy that pays for the roof over your very head.” By the end, Yamato’s face is beet red.

It’s working. The scene’s been set up well enough that Michiko’s beginning to cringe from the sound of Yamato’s voice. But I don’t intervene. I want to see where this is going.

“Judge, Michiko says, right now I have 32 private piano students who I see every week. I earn enough money to take care of my own children. My children have already told you they want to live with me, that they don’t want to move to Tokyo, leave their school, and live with their father.”

“And I, the judge says, don’t appreciate your telling me again. I am well aware of what your children want, but they are children and have no idea as to what is, in the long run, best for them. The decision is up to me, not up to them, and not up to you.”

“They have also told you they are terrified of their father,” Michiko adds cowering.

“You liar! You total and complete liar, Yamato yells standing up and throwing his pen across the room, almost hitting Michiko in the face.

Terror. There it is, Michiko’s eyes frozen in fear. As she sits there, glued to her chair, her body looks weak and hopeless.

I quietly enter,  kneel down beside her, place my right hand softly over her shoulders and my left hand over her clenched hands that sit on her lap. “Michiko, let’s just freeze the frame here. Stay exactly as you are in your body and from the bottom up describe to me what you are sensing.” 

Michiko says, “I’m pulling my feet almost off the ground. My knees are touching and I feel like I’m jamming my thighs back into my hip sockets. My stomach is tight. I’m not breathing. The middle of my back is pressing against the back of the chair. My hands hurt. My shoulder blades are hunched up toward my ears, and my head is pressed down between them.” “Michiko, can you see the exact shape your whole body is taking, as if you were looking at a puppet?” “Yes, I can see it,” Michiko says. “Let me ask you, do you want to be like this?” “No, I don’t.” “You are now about a third of the way home.”

“Okay Michiko. If you are the one holding yourself in this position, then you are the one who can let go of holding yourself in this position. Let’s begin by letting your feet come back to the ground. What happens as you do that?” “My legs come down and my knees begin to separate a little.” I place the hand that was over her hands onto her left knee and then over to her right knee suggesting that her knees could release slightly away from her hip joints. I watch more air enter her lungs but say nothing about it. I quietly stand up behind Michiko, place my hands along the sides of her ribs and ask her to let the entire surface of her back spread out against the back of the chair. I feel more air coming into her lungs. I reach around and gently place my index finger onto the top of her sternum and from there gently guide her head back on top of her spine. Her eyelids flutter for a few seconds, followed by two slow blinks. Her eyes appear to settle back into their eye sockets. She’s calm.

“Okay Michiko. Now you are two-thirds of the way home. This next part I can’t help you with. Only you can do it. I want you to find out what would happen it you decided not to fight, not to flee, not to freeze, and not to fidget. Can you make the decision not to fight…not to flee…not to freeze…and not to fidget?” I wait and watch Michiko as she becomes deeply and quietly strong. “Can you sense what happens when you make that decision?”  “Yes I can.” “Good. Now be that decision.” 

I ask Yamato to continue.

Yamato looks at the judge and says. “Judge, my wife is lying to you. She’s a compulsive liar. That is what she does best. My kids don’t hate me.” Yamato turns toward Michiko, glares at her and says, “You wait. You just wait.”

Michiko’s body remains strong and open, her face calm. She’s breathing.“Quietly Michiko stands up, looks at the judge, and says, “Your honor, I’d like to submit for your judgement the evidence just set before you. Thank you for considering it.”

The judge turns, looks at Yamato, then at Michiko, and says nothing.  He appears to be reconsidering, reevaluating the situation.

“Michiko, I say. That is what it feels like when the master is home.”

Teaching Moments

In the Alexander Alliance, when we want to direct our student’s attention to pedagogy, to why we did what we did, or to why what we did worked or didn’t work, we make a T shape with our two hands, as if we were a referee at a football game. This means we are going to stop and step out of what we are doing and move into commentary.

“Okay class, what was Michiko’s goal?” “Not to lose custody of her kids.” “That’s right. That’s what she told us.”

“You can’t practice “the means whereby” unless you’ve got an end. Our work is about ends and means, about how we are being as we move toward our end, whatever that end may be. The idea is not to compromise the means for the end, not to sacrifice our integrity, no matter what happens. That’s the practice. That’s why I don’t like thinking about Alexander’s work as a technique. I think of it as a practice, because it’s hard, and I fail a lot. And sometimes I don’t. It takes practice.”

So let’s see if we can find the means whereby inside of what just happened. Where does it begin?” 

“You stopped everything.” “That’s true, and what is also true is that in real life you can’t stop a situation like that. You can’t say, “Okay judge. This is getting too intense. Let’s just take a pause here so I can calm down.” Here is an idea I want you to understand. Alexandrian inhibition does not necessarily happen just because you stop an action. It only happens when you succeed in stopping your habitual holding pattern within the action. So when I froze the frame, I only stopped the action. Stopping the action, freezing the frame, pausing, is a teaching device allowing me to slow everything down. So, what happened after I froze the frame?”

“You asked her what she was sensing.” “Right. Michiko shifts from being kinesthetically unconscious, to being kinesthetically conscious, which means she can now begin to sense how she is doing what she is doing. Once Michiko knows what she’s doing to herself, she has the chance of undoing it. As Marj Barstow used to tell us, “You have to know where you are before you can make a change.” So because she knew where she was, and because Michiko has had a good bit of training, she could pretty much come out of this pattern with only a little guidance from me.”

“I was sending her messages, I was fulfilling my angelic duty. Alexander called messages, directions. I think of messages as messages in a bottle that drift to the edge of the shore. You pick up the bottle, reach in and read the message. My first message to Michiko was, you are not alone, and then, Michiko, become aware of yourself, and then, come to your senses, and then, you’re one-third of the way home, and then, do you want to be this way, and so on. Messages were being communicated not only through my words, but though how I was in my own body and being, through the quality of my voice, and of course through touch, through her knees, and ribs, and sternum.  I was sending her messages and she made good use of them.

“And next?” “Well, all along you could actually begin to see Michiko’s primary movement emerging. As soon as her legs began to let go I could see her neck begin to free and her head poise returning, and I could see her whole body opening up and the air filling her lungs. But the most impressive change was her face, how the fear fell away.”

So far we have,

One, the goal, the end.

(the employment of freezing the frame, a pedagogical device and not necessarily part of the means whereby.)

Two, kinesthetic consciousness.

Three/Four/Five, Alexandrian Inhibition/Direction/Primary Movement.

In actual time, it’s virtually impossible to separate these. My words, my voice, and my touch helped Michiko let go, that is, neurologically inhibit. Within that letting go, though she likely did not think the words, ‘neck free, head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen, immediately direction was happening, because I was embodying and passing on, to the best of my ability, those directions through touch to Michiko, and because Michiko has had so much training, those directions were wordlessly operating within her primary movement. 

“And then?” You asked her to make a decision not to fight or flee or freeze or fidget. “Right. This is me preparing Michiko for the critical moment, for that moment when she’s going to want to go back to her old way of reacting to Yamato and to the judge. Michiko’s decision is going to have to be incredibly strong. Walt Whitman says it perfectly in Song Of The Open Road when he writes, Gently, but with undeniable will divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.  You can’t say it better than that. Erika Whittaker, when I asked her what Alexandrian inhibition was  answered me in one word. She said, “Inhibition is decision. It’s sticking to your decision against your habit of life.”

“So I’m watching to make sure Michiko is accessing tremendous inhibitory power within herself, and then I tell her, I send her a message, and that message is?”  To be that decision.  “Yes, because Alexandrian Inhibition is not something we can do. It’s only a way we can be.” 

Six, passing through the critical moment.

And then what happened?

Michiko responded to Yamato and to the judge the way she wanted. “And what do we call that in the Alexander world?” Choice? “That’s a good answer.” Freedom. “Another good answer. I have something else in mind.”

“We could call it Primary Control. For me Alexander’s Primary Control is the Great Protector. Imagine babies and toddlers. They are not well coordinated, but more often than not, they don’t get hurt. They scream, but they don’t hurt their voices. They fall, but rarely bang their heads. There is a force at work within them continually integrating them, keeping them whole as they gradually figure out how to coordinate themselves.”

“But as adults we lose touch with this integrative, protective force within us. When Michiko adhered to the means whereby she was protected. She didn’t disintegrate. She could function. She could say what she wanted to say the way she wanted to say it, without hurting herself, without fighting, without withdrawing, and with less fear. She could think on her feet. She could take care of herself, and to the best of her ability, her children.”

“Will she get custody of her children? Will she achieve her end? We don’t know. But we do know she was her best self in that courtroom. We watched her find her integrity, her dignity. We can’t entirely control how our lives unfold, nor the lives of our children. But with training, we can learn to attend to our integrity. And we can let our children see that. 

When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it was a child. Everything was full of life, and all life was one. When the child was a child, it had no opinion about anything, no habits. It often sat cross-legged, took off running, had a cowlick in its hair, and didn’t make faces when photographed.

          

from Wings Over Berlin

from Wings Over Berlin

 

Genesis Revisited

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

 There was once a little girl and she was terribly bored. There was nothing to do, and not only was there nothing to do, there was absolutely nothing at all.

On The First Day

Since there was absolutely nothing the little girl decided, quite confidently, that the first thing she needed was space. “Nothing is nothing, she thought, but space is definitely something. It’s open and it can be filled.” She was surprised how easy it was to create space. Just like that.

The little girl liked space. It made her feel free. For quite a long while that was enough for her. Until she felt the need for something else, something a little more substantial, though she didn’t want to lose the sense of space she loved so much.

On The Second Day

She created moisture. She was proud of herself for coming up with such a good solution. Her creation still felt infinitely spacious and yet now, it also felt full. She closed her eyes sensing the coolness of the moisture upon her skin, and as she did she saw darkness, a darkness as vast and as beautiful as the space she had created. The little girl rested within this moist coolness and safe darkness for a long time. She enjoyed being creative.

On The Third Day

Feeling mischievous, she awoke with a sparkle in her eyes. She wanted an adventure. She decided, in one fell swoop, to create every thing in the world that ever would be. She hadn’t realized that she had inadvertently created time, and she had no idea of just how many things that would be, but then again she had made a tremendous amount of space. To make sure she had indeed created all the stuff of the world, she made light to shine upon everything she created. It was turning out to be an exceptionally busy but good day.

Suddenly there was utter chaos, and it was exhilarating. She hadn’t as yet names for anything, and she hadn’t the foggiest idea of what all these things were for, but she loved watching them floating in her space. Some things were moving slowly and some things were whizzing by dangerously fast, so fast that sometimes things would collide into one another, creating loud sounds. She had never heard sounds before.

All this commotion was intoxicating. It was awesome. But after a while the little girl began to get dizzy. Nothing ever stayed in the same place! Something would appear that she loved and then, in a flash, it would be gone. Never to be seen again. Or worse, something would smash into what she loved and it would shatter into a thousand pieces.

On The Fourth Day

Her dizzy spells continued. She didn’t want to get rid of everything. She didn’t even know for sure whether she could de-create something. Then she came up with what she thought was a great idea. She decided to create gravity and ground, and the moment she did, everything, literally, fell into place.

She couldn’t believe how good this felt. It was as magnificent as her first experience of space. Everything was sitting comfortably. Everything was at rest. Everything was settled and seemed entirely happy exactly where it was, and exactly being what it was. There was some logic to where everything was but the little girl did not yet know what it meant for something to be logical.

After a while she realized that even with all the stuff that was now in her world there still seemed to be an equally infinite amount of space. This seemed mysterious to her. And there was still plenty of moisture. In fact, by creating gravity and the ground, some of the moisture had become more substantial and concentrated and had fallen, making oceans and rivers and waterfalls, which for some unknown reason made her feel quiet inside and happy.

Everything looked beautiful to her. All at once she realized that, since she started creating, she hadn’t been bored for a second! It was as if she had discovered the secret to happiness. Creativity. She was content for a very, very long time, for eons.

On The Fifth Day

The little girl was so utterly content, that is until she realized she had not had a really creative idea in a long time. And then she did. Out of the blue, (why the sky was blue she did not know), another idea popped into her head. She wondered where on earth these ideas came from. She thought, “What if I could create creatures who had entirely different ways of perceiving and experiencing this beautiful world I have made?” So she created creatures that could see her world from above, and creatures that could see under the water, and creatures that lived within the ground itself, and creatures that lived in the trees. She created creatures that lived where it was hot and creatures that lived where it was cold, creatures that could see, and smell, and taste, and hear and touch the world she had created, all simultaneously experiencing the same world differently. “Why, she thought, that would be like creating millions of worlds inside of the one world I created! That struck her as quite clever and efficient.

The little girl spent a long, long time just watching all these creatures and comparing one to the other. Again there was some kind of logic to the whole thing but still she did not know what that meant. Soon this was to change.

After a long while her curiosity got the better of her. What was making her world go round? What made the creatures in the air able to be up there? Why did some creatures eat other creatures? Most amazing to her was how these creatures seemed to come and go. New creatures would appear while older ones would disappear. Creatures tended to be small at first and then got bigger, and the trees too. What was that? The questions seemed endless.

Another idea popped into her head, but she was not sure whether it was a good idea or not so she did not act upon it right away, which she thought was very mature. She loved the world so much as it was, even if she didn’t understand it. “My world seems to understand itself, she thought. It knows exactly what to do. Maybe I should stop here. This feels complete. Everything works. It’s beautiful. It’s interesting. Who cares if I don’t understand it?” But the questions kept coming. They were beginning to make her uncomfortable, sometimes even unhappy.

On The Sixth Day

The little girl decided to take one of the creatures she had created and make them capable of thinking about her creation. Personally, she did not want to think too much about it. That wasn’t her thing. She didn’t feel very smart, just very creative. Besides, there were just too many questions. The little girl became very serious and thought, “If I were to make every individual creature of this particular kind able to think maybe, eventually, this creature would be able to answer my questions.”

And so even though the little girl felt a funny feeling in her stomach, she went ahead and did it anyway. She thought, “Well, how am I going to find out if this is a good idea or not if I don’t try?” There seemed to be something logical about that too.

She mustered up her courage and made it so this one kind of creature could think and then right away she realized these creatures would need to be able to communicate their thoughts to one another if they were to be able to figure things out together, and so she created a bunch of languages because she thought a bunch of languages would be more interesting than just creating one.

On The Seventh Day

Without noticing it, (she had been so, so busy), the little girl was growing older. She had seen a lot, and done a lot. She began feeling tired, something she’d never felt before. “Perhaps it would be good for me to rest for a while and spend a little time not creating,” she thought. The little girl spent a long while simply gazing at her creation. “It’s good,” she thought, “very good.” She loved her world. Sleep was coming over her as if she were being covered with a soft, warm blanket. She thought, “I think the world will be okay for a little while if I don’t watch it.” Again there was that funny feeling in her stomach, but before she knew it she had fallen fast asleep.

This brings us exactly to where we are now. Our little girl remains asleep. As she sleeps our thinking creatures have been busy trying to figure everything out. They’ve found a lot of answers to a lot of her questions. On this front, they are doing very well, even though there remain far more questions to be answered than the ones they have answered because each answer they come up with seems to create new questions. These creatures may be busy for a long time, maybe forever.

I say maybe forever because it seems that thinking as much as these thinking creatures do brings with it strange side effects, something the little girl could not have predicted. One of the side effects is that these creatures seem not to care very much about the other creatures or, for that matter, about anything the little girl created. The thinking creatures seem so busy thinking and trying to figure everything out that they don’t notice how beautiful everything is, how everything works together, how well it all takes care of itself.

As our little girl sleeps, the world continues on its own course without her. I know that sooner or later she will wake up, and when she does I wonder what she will find and what she will think about it. I am sure once she sees the lay of the land another idea will pop into her head.

After all, she is a very creative little girl.

Commentary

You might wonder how this story of Genesis popped into my head. Without my knowing it, it had been writing itself for a long time.

After many years I began to discern a sequence within my method for helping people create more of the kind of world they wished to live in. The story of our little girl, and the creation of her world, unfolds precisely in this sequence. It’s a story that contains within it my pedagogy, the genesis of one way of working with people.

First there is nothing.

There is nothing like the concept of nothingness to put life into perspective. The prospect of individual non-existence can have a sobering affect. And it can have a freeing affect too. Eliphalet Oram Lyte wrote a little ditty that expresses my attitude as a teacher, the mood I do my best to create within my workshops and classes.

Row, row, row your boat

gently down the stream,

merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

life is but a dream

 We’re all here rowing our own boats. We are all going down the same stream to the same place. It’s not our stream. We don’t know where the stream will carry us. Our boats don’t belong to us either, but we are responsible for taking care of them. We want to learn how to row our boats gently, that means to me, without excessive force. We want to develop the sensitivity to discern the undercurrents, and the perceptivity to read the river. And when we can, why not bring a bit of merriment to our little adventure…merriment, that is, buoyancy, liveliness, zest, lightheartedness, warmth, friendship, festivity, hilarity, and pleasure?

Life is but a dream. Could be. Who knows for sure? Can we know for certain that we are not being dreamt? Could it be we are but figments of one creative imagination, seemingly alive within a very realistic dream?

But whatever the case may be, best not to take ourselves too seriously. When something seems unimportant, that’s the time to take it seriously. When something seems vitally important, that’s the time to crack a joke, to smile, to have some fun.

Why? Because it just works better that way. When people are not trying too hard to get it right they have more fun, and when they have more fun, they learn more.

One the first day she thought, Nothing is nothing, but space is definitely something. Its open and it can be filled.

 That’s where I begin, with a person’s sense of space. For me, the sense of space is a sense, just like our other senses. There is essentially no space within our bodies, but with training we can come to sense a tremendous amount of space within us. We can be in a packed subway car, everyone pressed against one another, and feel a tremendous sense of space and relaxation. There is learning to see and sense the space all around us in such a way that it actually supports us like an invisible spider web, allowing us to sit comfortably in the center of our world. There is the lively space between, between us and our computers, between us and our food, between us and our thoughts, between us and those we love and those we don’t. This is where I begin.

One the second day she closed her eyes sensing the coolness of the moisture upon her skin and as she did she saw darkness, a darkness as vast and as beautiful as the space she had created. 

When I begin to use my hands to help awaken a person’s kinesthesia and propriception my hands have a way of getting under the skin, of finding fluidity within them, a kind of underground stream streaming throughout them. I am water touching water. This sense of moisture is new to most people and they find their eyes closing. They want to sense this moisture within a vast inner space.

On the third day some things were moving slowly and some things were whizzing by dangerously fast, so fast that sometimes things would collide into one another, creating loud sounds. She had never heard sounds before.

 The world sometimes feels like this when we’ve got lots to do. We’ve got to get to work, but first we have to make lunches for the kids, and drop them off at school, then pick up our coworker whose car broke down. I ask students to bring me the “stuff” their lives are made of, their responsibilities, their projects, their problems, their pain, and their pleasures. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. It’s as if the world we’re whirling around us. It’s as if someone were stirring things up. How can we allow the stirring to stop, how can we let the mud settle to the bottom until the water is clear?

On the fourth day she decided to create gravity and ground, and the moment she did, everything, literally, fell into place.

 Humans need mobility and stability. Objects are great at showing us how to be stable. They know how to sit, how to receive support from the ground, so they can rest, so they can just be where they are and what they are. They know how not to fidget, how to be still. Humans need to learn this too. As far as gravity is concerned there is only space and stuff in this world, and humans classify as stuff. Gravity treats us the same way it treats every thing and every one. Gravity is fair. It’s our responsibility to learn how to work with gravity. We live on common ground, shared ground. The same ground supports us all. We’ve got to learn how to come down to the ground. We must come to realize we were all created equal. From where doth our support come? It comes from the ground. But sometimes we must go down to get it.

On the fifth day the little girl thought, What if I could create creatures who had entirely different ways of perceiving and experiencing this beautiful world I have made?

 A big part of my work is re-introducing the sensory world to people. We have spent time becoming oriented, fluid, and stable. Now it’s time to enliven and refine our sensory life. It’s not about sensory indulgence. The senses can take us way beyond pleasure. The senses allow us to gratefully receive the subtle magnificence of the world in which we live. Paradoxically, through the senses we get a glimpse of something beyond the senses, we get a glimpse of the essence of life itself, of life speaking directly through its own language without interpretation. Through the senses we experience communion.

On the sixth day the little girl decided to take one of the creatures she had invented and make them capable of thinking about her creation.

 Once my students have had glimpses into another way moving, sensing, and being in their world, their curiosity awakens. The questions start coming. “How come we lose our mobility and stability?” “Are there cultures who don’t lose it as much?” How about other animals?” “Is there some structural flaw in our upright structure?” “What makes us able to be upright?” “Why is it so difficult to continue to sense ourselves kinesthetically?” Mostly I say, “I don’t really know for sure.” We begin to think about thinking? Are there different ways to think? Cognition. Meditation. Contemplation. Awareness. Consciousness. Intelligence. Sensory Intelligence. We begin to find language for our new experiences. Together we enter a world of wondering.

On the seventh day the little girl thought,Perhaps it would be good for me to rest for a while and spend a little time not creating, she thought. The little girl spent a long while simply gazing at her creation. Its good, very good, she thought. She loved her world.

 You can’t do anything forever. Obsessing doesn’t help. It’s not healthy. Sometimes you just have to forget about the whole thing. Take a break. Don’t think about yourself or your work. “You’re fine exactly the way you are,” I tell my students. I tell them, “Never change. I love you just the way you are!” Everyone smiles. I encourage people. I know people do the best they can. I don’t evaluate people. Through this work goodness in people rises to the surface by itself. I don’t know why. Goodness, and love too. Love for the world, love for others, love for themselves. And love for that little girl.

Inside The Majesty

 

image45

Photo: B. Fertman Monument Valley – The Three Sisters

“Okay.  What’s a Movement Meditation? What do you think, I ask my class?”

It’s when you’re doing some kind of movement and you drop into the zone, like when shooting hoops, or doing Aikido, or running, or rock climbing.

I don’t think it has to be anything really fancy. Maybe I could be immersed in what I’m doing when I’m folding my laundry, or raking the leaves in my back yard.

Good examples. How about Kinesthetic Contemplation? What’s that?”

It could be when we are having a new sensation within us, a moving sensation, and we want to understand it, we want to know where it’s coming from, how it’s changing us, and what it means. So that makes it a form of contemplation.

Sounds good to me. How about a Senso-Spiritual Practice? We’re getting weirder and weirder.”

I think this one is simple. It’s like you’re taking a walk and you see a sunflower and you stop and look at it for a while. You see this incredible geometric pattern and you smell its perfume and feel how powdery soft it is and you get this feeling of it being totally miraculous, this simple sunflower. It almost makes me cry just thinking about it.

I love that example. Can someone give me another example?”

When I play Bach sonatas, which I do almost every morning, even though Bach wasn’t very religious, I hear something that feels sacred to me, like a river running into the sea. It’s hard to explain, but as the years go by, and the more I practice, the stronger this feeling gets. And this feeling opens me up. I think it actually makes me more loving.

Wow. That almost makes me cry just thinking about it. Anything else?”

Something happens to me when I get up early and go bird watching with my birder friends. The air is cool and fresh, and here we are, looking for these little birds, and some of them are so beautiful, like an indigo bunting, or a western tanager. And most of the time I’m so busy I just pass this beautiful world by. But when I’m bird watching my senses get finely tuned, my hearing, my seeing. Even my movements change. I can be still and silent for a very long time. And for some reason, at a certain moment, something comes over me and I feel grateful to be alive on the earth. I go home and my wife and kids are just getting up and I feel great. I’m in a great mood.

You see, maybe this one is not weird at all. Maybe the sensory world and the spiritual world go hand in hand, and maybe it’s so obvious we just miss it. Maybe this notion that the senses are physical and the spiritual is mental isn’t quite right. We go looking for our spirituality, God knows where, and there it is surrounding us all the time.  Maybe by better attending to our senses, we can more easily find entrance into the spiritual world. Sometimes I get sad thinking how little most cultures spend on the arts because art is a great way into senso-spiritual life, and nature is too.”

“Once, many years ago now, I was invited to Omega Institute in Upstate New York to teach a 5-day workshop. All the teachers who were giving workshops met the day before to get to know one another a little. A woman with the bluest, wisest eyes, a deep ecologist by the name of Joanna Macy was there. And a man, a tracker, by the name John Stokes was there with a few of his apprentices.”

“There was this burly guy with a thick beard, large forearms, and calloused palms who was as soft as a big teddy bear. He came up to me and asked me what I was teaching and I said something about sensory awareness.” He said, “That’s very much what I teach too, except I’m not the one who’s really teaching my students about their senses. The woods do that for me. How do you teach your students about their senses without the woods?”

Okay. Here’s the one no one can answer. What’s a Post-Proprioceptive Prayer?

Silence descends upon the room.

“You’re close. Can you say a little more?”

Well, proprioception has something to do with the position we are in, with knowing exactly where we are. So post-proprioceptive prayer…hmm…I don’t know.

Let’s begin at the beginning. This may take a while. I’ve got to go step by step. But it will be worth it, so hang in there with me.”

Pre-proprioception and Proprioception

When we are born, so I am told, as I have no conscious memory of this, we cannot identify what is our body and what is not. We don’t have an identity. We are not an “I”. We are a little bundle of sensation with no awareness that we are a bundle. Maybe Descartes was right when he said, “I think therefore I am.” Maybe there is no “I am” before we begin thinking. As a newborn we are alive but we don’t know we are alive. It’s a mystery to me how we transition from pre-proprioception to proprioception. Here are my musings on the subject.”

“Proprioception tells us our position or shape, for example it tells us if our elbow is flexed or straight. Proprioception tells us about location, where one part of our body is in relation to another part, and in relation to the body as a whole.  Your right arm may be flexed and you sense its shape, but is it over your head or by your side? Proprioception tells us about orientation. Where is our body in space? Are we lying down or are we standing up? And some might say that proprioception tells us if we are moving or not. I tend to associate movement with the kinesthetic sense. But in living it is almost impossible to separate touch, proprioception, and kinesthesia.”

“Close your eyes and slowly touch your nose with your index finger. Sense how you can kinesthetically feel that your finger is moving, but that your nose is not moving. The only way you are going to have any idea where your nose is, is through your proprioceptive sense.”

“So we enter this world and we have no clue about the shape of our body, or of any part of our body. And we’ve no clue where one part of our body is in relation to another part. And we have not the faintest idea where we are in relation to the environment, because we can’t tell the difference, we can’t differentiate. And as far as whether we are moving or still, well how could we possibly know what is moving, our mother or us, the bed or us. We are pre-proprioceptive.”

“But we come out into the world with a great sense of touch. We’re transitioning from relating to a fluid environment to a solid environment. We feel this. We start rolling against a hard surface. We’re experiencing gravity when we try to lift our formidably large heads. But we’re strangers in a strange land. If we’re lucky, we have people around who love us and love touching us a lot. We’re feeling a little squeeze on our calf, or a kiss on the cheek. Suddenly we are being squeezed around the ribs and lifted high above someone’s smiling face. People are putting us in silly looking clothes and increasingly, through almost constant sensorial research we are, literally, figuring out where we are.”

Extended Proprioception

Extended proprioception grows out of proprioception. The potential for extending proprioception is built into us, but we also have to work at it. Babies work at it. Children work at it. And adults work at it.”

“We extend proprioception when we can get an object to do what we want. It’s as if we extend our nervous system into the object, much as amputees with sensorialized prostheses are now able to do.  You can watch a baby learn to manipulate a baby bottle, pick up a pea, eventually write with a pencil, button a shirt, tie a shoe, ride a bike, fly a kite, and eventually drive a car. Oh no! You can see how persistently babies and kids work on extending proprioception.”

“Extending proprioception can get pretty sophisticated, playing a musical instrument, fencing, fly fishing, kayaking, knitting.” 

“Not only can we extend our proprioception into objects, which is exciting enough, we can extend our proprioception into creatures as well. When my daughter was hardly a year old I’d take her to see horses at a nearby stable and she’d go wild. In the worst way she wanted to touch those horses and sit on those horses. I’m convinced there’s a horsemanship gene. Watch a great equestrian and you will see extended proprioception, two creatures moving as one. Or watch  great Aikidoists, or great tango dancers.”

“This brings us to the relationship between extending proprioception and intimacy. It’s no mistake that dancing and courtship go hand in hand. Whether it is swing, or tango, or contact improvisation most humans love physical intimacy. It doesn’t matter whether this physical intimacy is sexual or nonsexual. Physical intimacy brings people literally and figuratively in touch with one another.”

“Paradoxically, proprioception helps us to differentiate ourselves from what is not us and, at the same time, it has the potential, when extended, to unite us with others and with the things of this world. It has the capacity to distinguish and to unify.”

“Marjorie Barstow, my mentor, once told me to watch my hands all through the day and see if I ever distorted them.” “Bruce, if you catch your hands looking ugly or distorted, if they wouldn’t look beautiful in a photograph, then stop right away, and you will see that you are distorting your whole body. Wait until you know exactly where you are, the relationship of the parts of your body, one to the other, as well as the shape of your body as a whole, and then release the distortion throughout your entire body and work out a way of using your whole body and your hands without distortion. Because when we are distorted, we cannot relate well to anything.”

“Marj was talking about proprioception and extending proprioception. Marj’s ability to extend proprioception was extraordinarily refined. She knew precisely where she was so when, as an Alexander teacher, she touched me it was as if I became part of her exquisite nervous system, and without any effort I became, like her, beautifully integrated. Her touch was intimate in that her hands did not feel separate from my body. They felt like they were under my skin, not on my skin. Her hands were a part of me. Yet her touch was non-sexual in nature. It was as if Marj was overlapping into me, like one circle intersecting another.  We were two people with one nervous system.”

“How are you doing? Are you following me? Do you need a break? I don’t usually talk this much, but this is a bit complex. Shall I go on?”

I get nods of approval, so I continue.

Prayer

Now we have some understanding of pre-proprioception, proprioception, and extended proprioception. Before we can understand post proprioception, and what a post-proprioceptive prayer is, let’s think about what it means to pray, and what is a prayer. Again these are just my musings on the subject.”

“When I was four years old I slept in a little room with a little window near the foot of my bed. My mom would come into my room and we’d pray. Quietly she’d say, and I would say with her, Now I lay me down to sleep I pray to God my soul to keep, and if I should die before I wake, If I should die! What is she talking about? I pray to God my soul to take.” And then finally, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. Bedbugs! What bedbugs! “After she would leave, I was wide awake. To calm down I would do my own praying. I would sit at the foot of my bed, on my knees, in seiza, and look up out my window at the few stars I could see. Only one star was red so I decided to pray to that star. A couple years later, I found out that my red star was a red light sitting on top of a radio tower. That was disappointing.”

“I would pray for things I wanted. I remember praying for a puppy dog, and when I finally got my soft, playful puppy, which I adored, I was soon infested with worms and before I knew it my puppy was gone. After that praying lost some of its appeal.”

“It wasn’t until I was considerably older, around thirty, that I actually began to pray for other people. I no longer believed in a God who could grant wishes, but I found myself wanting to be with people, in my heart and mind, that I cared about who were in need, as if I were keeping them company.”

“Many years later, after a particularly long, dark period in my life, I shifted into a different kind of praying. I completely stopped wishing or hoping for anything, for me or for anyone else. I was beginning to accept and appreciate exactly how things were.”

“If I was suffering, or someone else, rather than making a request I would ask a question. “If God is good, then what is good about what is happening now?” And then I’d become deeply quiet, do nothing, and wait without waiting for anything. Sometimes the answer would arise almost immediately and at other times not for weeks.”

“The more I began to experience everything as good, the more I found myself feeling grateful, often for little things I had up to now taken for granted, like being able to walk, or see, or having work that mattered to me, or that my kids were healthy. Just being alive rather than not, statistically speaking, seemed totally miraculous, and I found myself silently saying thank you almost all day long. And this thankfulness became a new, more mature form of prayer for me. It seemed I was almost in a perpetual state of prayer.”

“But there was one more shift yet to happen.”

“It’s a lot like when you first fall crazy in love with someone. You find yourself intoxicated, under a spell. Everything seems perfect because you are filled with this feeling of being in love with someone. Instead of writing thank-you letters all day long, I began writing love letters all day long!”

Post Proprioception

Step by step. We are almost there. Now we know what is pre-proprioception, proprioception, and extended proprioception. We know what mature prayer is, gratitude and love. Once we know what post-proprioception is, we can put it all together and you’ll know what I mean by a post-proprioceptive prayer.”

When we extend our proprioception exceptionally well we find ourselves in a harmonious relationship with an object, tool, instrument, device, or with nature, an animal or a person. There are however brief moments, when a merging happens, when we no longer feel as if we are in a relationship. We, as a separate I, are no longer there. It’s a post-proprioceptive moment. It’s as if we have reverted to a pre-proprioceptive condition, but it’s not pre-proprioceptive because we’re conscious of it. Often these moments verge on the ecstatic.”

“Ecstatic, in Greek, ekstasis, means a dis-placement, a removal from a proper place. Proper, as in proprio, as in property, means that which is you. So a post-proprioceptive moment is a felt dis-placement or absence of that which is you. In colloquial terms, it’s a moment when we are ‘blown away.’”

In Judaism we have a prayer you are supposed to say every night before going to sleep, and if you are lucky enough, at the moment you are leaving this world. It’s called the Shema. The Shema  means, as a Rabbi once told me, Listen, you person who wrestles with God, I will give you a hint. God is one, not two.”

“There was a woman with whom I was deeply in love. Sometimes I’d see her and spontaneously a poem would arise in me, fully formed. All that was left was to quickly write it down and give it to her. Here’s an example of a post-proprioceptive poem or prayer, written now long ago. Note the element of mergence, a felt dis-placement, of an absence self, and of gratitude.”

Have you ever been walking in the woods

Hearing no sound of a stream, and then suddenly you hear it?

Have you ever been walking for so long in the sound of the stream

That you cannot imagine how a sound could enter and fill you so completely,

Leaving no space for words

Or even for the thought of a stream sounding

Until the sound, streaming in your veins,

Sends the trees and rocks rolling into white clouds upon a hill

That meets your back in soft green grass, where you land,

Safely, staring up at the sky, so blue, wondering,

Not who you are, but that you are?

Post-Proprioceptive Prayer

Some people believe that this ability to enter into a post-proprioceptive condition is the basis for all religious sentiment.”

“Roman Rolland, a French dramatist, novelist, art historian and mystic was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915. He coined the term ‘oceanic feeling.’ It meant this felt experience of oneness or limitlessness. Freud’s opinion was that this oceanic feeling, felt by some people and not by others, was ‘merely’ a carry over of a primitive pre-egocentric feeling, what I would call a pre-proprioceptive condition. Rolland and other mystics would beg to differ. For the mystics this experience of oneness and limitlessness was not ‘merely’ primitive, not only primal but sacred.”

“Perhaps there is some connection between the unity a fetus experiences within its mother, the oneness experienced through sexual unity, and the oneness experienced through spiritual unity. God is one, not two.

“Here’s a Rumi poem that captures all three experiences of post-proprioception. How did he do that!”

The Freshness

When it’s cold and raining,

you are more beautiful.

And the snow brings me

even closer to your lips.

The inner secret, that which was never born,

you are that freshness, and I am with you now.

I can’t explain the goings,

or the comings. You enter suddenly,

and I am nowhere again.

Inside the majesty.

Translated by Coleman Barks

There you go, a post-proprioceptive prayer of the highest order.”

“Another one of my favorite mystics, Meister Eckhart, encourages us to practice shifting out of a proprioceptive condition into a post-proprioceptive condition. For him this is a spiritual practice.” Meister Eckhart writes,

Start with yourself therefore, and take leave of yourself. Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, take leave of yourself. This is the best way of all.

“Start with yourself. First we have to know where we are. First our proprioception must awaken and become accurate. That doesn’t happen all by itself. It takes study and practice.”

And take leave of yourself. What does this mean? What happens to us along the way is that we become ‘proprioceptively established.’ We have drawn an outline around where we are, and that outline becomes thicker and thicker and darker and darker, until it becomes like an exoskeleton separating ourselves from all that surrounds us. When this happens we can never change ‘where we are.’  We’ve locked ourselves in and lost the key. We can’t get out and nothing can get in. We are in a proprioceptive prison of the self.”

“Can we learn, gradually, to make our outline less thick, less dark? Can we learn to erase it? I think we can. You see, it’s as if  we are living our lives constantly inside of parentheses*. What would happen if we could delete our parentheses?  Let’s look.”

I go up to the whiteboard, pull the top off of a blue magic marker, and begin writing.

This is me.

(bruce fertman)

Without the parentheses, this is me:

bruce fertman

Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, take leave of yourself. 

We have mistakenly come to identify ourselves with the parentheses that contain us. Take note. Meister Eckhart does not tell us where to go. He simply says, Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, take leave of yourself. He doesn’t say, take leave of yourself and then go here. He doesn’t say, take leave of yourself and then do this or don’t do that. Our only job is to, one, examine ourselves, know where we are, and two, take leave of where we are. He’s having us practice a shifting from a proprioceptive sense of self to a post-proprioceptive way of being with the world.”

This is the best way of all, he says. Meister Eckhart is saying there is nothing better. This is as good as it gets. That has been my experience too.”

“A dramatic image for taking leave, for transitioning from proprioceptive life to post-proprioceptive life is that of a cicada metamorphosing out of its shell. One really gets the feel of a creature taking leave of itself.

image46

“Now we can’t always experience so dramatic a metamorphosis. Some of us may never experience such a dramatic transformation. To do so usually requires hitting bottom, surviving a dark night, enduring a long bardo, traversing the seven terraces of purgatory.”

“But transformation can be gradual as well. We can, little by little, emerge from ourselves. As Walt Whitman writes in Song Of The Open Road, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.”

When I work with you that’s what I am doing. I’m gently using my hands to help you divest yourself of the holds that hold you. I’m helping you to erase your outline, delete your parentheses and when this happens I hear some of you sometimes say, I don’t feel like myself.  This is not me.”

“That’s why when I work with you I will sometimes change one side of you and not the other. In other words, I’ll help you remove one parenthesis and not the other. I’ll ask you to draw an imaginary line down through your center, dividing right and left, and I’ll ask you Who are you on this side, and who are you on that side?”

I write on the board.

(Who are you on this side? And who are you on that side?

“Let me work with some of you now, just on one side, and let’s see what happens.” Everyone stands up, and I get to work.

I feel older on this side and younger on the other side.

This person on the left feels scared and that person on the right feels confident. 

This person is a fighter, and this person is a listener. 

I feel like I’m trying to be invisible on this side, and on this side I want people to see me.

This is what I mean when I speak of becoming less proprioceptively established. You are beginning to question the establishment, the ‘static quo.’  You are unfixed, in motion now, spreading into a free and unknown future, a future not wholly determined by the past.”

“Would you like me to give you some post-proprioceptive prayers to take home with you?” “Yes,” they say. I hand each of them a sheet of paper with seven post-proprioceptive prayers. “Some of these may be accessible to you and some may not. Play with them for a few weeks and see what happens.”

They begin reading.

One. 

Take a walk everyday and delete your parentheses as you take in what is all around you. That’s simple.

Two. 

Lie down on the floor, splayed out. Imagine that a friend of yours has a piece of black charcoal. Beginning at the top of your head they start to draw a black outline on the floor working down one side, tracing around your head, down your neck, along the outside of your arm all the way down to your hand, in and out of each finger, up the inside of the arm, way up into the arm pit, down the torso, down the leg, around the heel, up the inside of the leg, across the pelvic floor, and just keep going until you make your way back to where you began. Sense how that feels then repeat it two or three times, each time making a thicker and darker outline. Sense how that feels.

Then imagine you are very large, like a large land mass, and all around you in every direction is  land that just goes on forever.  Hundreds of years go by and gradually the sun bleaches away the dark outline, the winds blow away the outline, the rains wash the outline away until it’s completely gone and there’s nothing separating you from all that is around you every direction.

Three. 

When you are in a train, or a car, or a plane, whenever you happen to find yourself sitting next to a stranger, delete your parentheses. Sense how that feels. Then imagine a large hula hoop a place both yourself and the person next to you inside of the hula hoop and just rest inside the hoop together.

If you are brave enough, sit down next to a person who you feel some aversion toward, a seriously obese person, a mentally or physically challenged person, (that’s all of us), someone who looks homeless and unkempt and sit next to them. Delete your parentheses. Sit inside your imaginary hula hoop with them.

Four. 

You can do the following lying down, or sitting, or standing or walking, which basically is all humans do. Imagine, and when I say imagine I don’t mean seeing a picture on the movie screen inside your head, I mean kinesthetically imagine the movement within your body, and proprioceptively imagine your shape changing.  Imagine your whole body is bread dough rising, rising omni-directionally, getting lighter and more spacious within itself.

Five. 

This one is good when sitting but feel free to experiment. Imagine your whole body is a sponge. Imagine it’s soaking up warm water from a deep puddle below and the more it soaks up the softer and wider and deeper it becomes. There is so much water to soak up so the water seeps and soaks its way higher and higher as the sponge swells getting wider and wider, fatter and fatter, fuller and fuller, until the entire sponge can accept no more water. It’s important to take all these images right up to the very top of your head and beyond.

Six. 

Imagine from high above you sand pouring finely down through a kind of funnel, pouring finely down through your “whales spout,” where the soft spot, the posterior fontanelle, is on an infant. Gradually the sand begins to make a little pile on the ground. As the sand continues, which it does for a long time, the little pile gets bigger and bigger. The sides of the pile make a perfect angle of repose. The sand continues to pour down until the point of the pile is about a foot above your head.

Seven. 

Go for a walk. First sense that the environment is all around you and that you are inside the environment. Walk that way for a while. At a certain moment play with reversing it. Imagine that the entire environment all you can see and hear and smell is within you and you are all around it. Everything is in you. See what happens.

“Okay. We are finished for the day. Let me leave you with one last image.”

I get my laptop and bring up a photo I took some 20 years ago of a church built around 1744, the Santa Rosa de Lima, a mile south of Abiquiu, New Mexico.

“Imagine you are the window frame,” I say to my students who all look decidedly softer and more open than they did when they entered the room this morning. 

“Who would you be without your frame?”

                               

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Our Undivided Attention

Prell Concentrate

I can’t remember. Was it me who coined the phrase, or F.M. Alexander, or Frank Pierce Jones? It seems many Alexander teachers use the phrase now, teachers who I have not trained. Did the phrase migrate through the Alexander world, or did it emerge from the contemporary collective unconscious of the Alexander community?

No matter. What I do remember is that one day the phrase presented itself to me.

It began when I began understanding the difference between what Alexander meant by concentration and attention. When I was a kid my mom brought home a new kind of shampoo called Prell Concentrate. Someone had figured out how to put a lot of shampoo in a little plastic container, thus spending less money to package their product. Prell Concentrate was so concentrated that you now only needed to use a tiny bit to work up a good lather. “That’s it, I thought. That’s what we do. That’s why Alexander discourages concentrating. When we concentrate it’s as if we’re squeezing ourselves into a smaller container.”  This strategy might be saving Prell a lot of money, but for us it was creating a lot of tension.

prell301

Krishnamurti

Lots of us were reading Krishnamurti in the early 70’s, when I first began studying Alexander’s work. It’s worth quoting Krishnamurti here at length on the subject.

Ojai, California

May 6, 1982

What do we mean by attention? What is the difference between awareness, concentration, and attention? Could we go into that together? To be aware; as one is sitting under these beautiful trees on a lovely morning, nice and cool, not too hot, one is aware of that woodpecker pecking away, one is aware of the green lawn, the beautiful trees and sunlight, the spotted light; and if you are looking from that direction, you are aware of those mountains. How does one look at them? …Do you observe it, aware of it without any choice, without any desire? …How does one react to all that? What is the feeling behind that awareness? …Is it related to our life; is it part of our life; …That’s part of awareness, the awareness of the external and the awareness of one’s own reactions to the external, and to be aware of the movement of this…

…And can one be aware without any choice at all, just to be aware of the extraordinary sense of the blue sky, the blue sky through the leaves, and just move with it all? And is one aware of one’s reactions, and when one is aware of one’s reactions is there a preference; one more desirable than the other, one more urgent than the other…and so from the outer move to the inner – you understand what I am saying – so that there is no division between the outer and the inner; it’s like a tide going out and coming in. That’s an awareness of this world outside of us and an awareness of the world deep inside of us…

What is concentration? To concentrate upon a page, upon a picture; to concentrate all one’s energy on a particular point: in that concentration is there not the effort to concentrate? …You are trying to read a particular page and out of the window you see a marvelous light on a flower and your thought wanders off to that, but you try then to pull that thought back, and concentrate on something. So there is this constant struggle to focus one’s energy, visual, and so on, so there is a resistance, a struggle, and all the time trying to focus on a particular point…

kphotoG12

Frank Pierce Jones

Frank Pierce Jones was a classics professor at Brown University who trained with F.M. Alexander, A.R. Alexander, and Marjorie Barstow. He had a way with words.

For Jones concentration was like using a spot light to light up a black stage. One small area was intensely lit while the rest of the stage remained black. Using a diffuse light was kin to attention, the whole stage being lit.

For Jones attention was “the simultaneous awareness of oneself-in-relation-to-ones-environment.” A good phrase, but not yet, the phrase.

In Judaism there is a central prayer called the Shema. It’s so important Jews are supposed to recite it every night before they go to sleep and if possible it should be upon their lips as they are dying. It basically means, Listen, God is One. I once asked my rabbi what it meant. He said, God is one, not two.

Jones idea of a simultaneous awareness of oneself-in-relation-to-ones-environment remained subtly dualistic. I wasn’t there yet.

The Field

In New Mexico it is said you live in the sky. You look around you and 95% of what you see is the sky. One day I was sitting in my little adobe casita in New Mexico and the question came to me, “Am I inside or outside?” I am in my house, but my house is outside in the world.” If I am inside my house, but my house is outside in the world, then am I not also outside in the world?” Suddenly my body and my mind expanded in all directions. It was like a satori. My container was gone. There was no separation between me and my environment. There was no longer an inside and an outside. There was only outside, and I was in it!  God is one, not two.

And there I said the words, the phrase, for the first time.

A unified field…a unified field of attention. That is what I was. My way of being in the world shifted that day, and with it my way of teaching Alexander’s work.

I loved the word field…a field, a pasture, a field of study, field notes, a force field, a field of vision.

It was like zooming in or zooming out, a metaphor for expressing this concept I was later to learn from Robyn Avalon, director of the Alexander Alliance in America. Zooming in was concentrating, and zooming out was expanding your field of attention. Unifying your field of attention was going one step further. It was you no longer behind the camera, because there was no longer a camera, and there was no longer a you in the center of anything. There was just a field, a field of attention.

Seurat

A Seurat exhibition was at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. There it was, the field. Nothing but points, all the same size, all of the same value, nothing more important or less important than anything else, no especially anything, or just especially everything…a homogenous field of tone and attention.

points copy

Gazing into a drawing of Seurat’s mother I began thinking about the Heart Sutra. The words were suddenly making sense. Finally I was physically sensing the truth behind the sutra.

Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.

That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.

Embroidery

Undivided Attention

Pixels. You take a digital photo; a person in the foreground, hills and sky in the background. All pixels, all the same size. Pixels making up the person, the hills, the sky. All equal, all the same. You zoom in and in and in only to find space. More and more space.

What if we were like this? What if we were less solid than we felt ourselves to be? What if the whole universe was like this? Stephen Hawkins writes:

“Now at first sight, all this evidence that the universe looks the same whichever direction we look in might seem to suggest there is something special about our place in the universe.  In particular, it might seem that if we observe all other galaxies to be moving away from us, then we must be at the center of the universe.  There is, however, an alternate explanation: the universe might look the same in every direction as seen from any other galaxy too.  We have no scientific evidence for, or against, this assumption.  We believe it on the grounds of modesty:  it would be most remarkable if the universe looked the same in every direction around us, but not around other points in the universe!  The situation is rather like a balloon with a number of spots painted on it being steadily blown up.  As the balloon expands, the distance between any two spots increases, but there is no spot that can be said to be the center of the expansion.”

It’s a very large field indeed, a unified field, a field with neither center nor circumference, neither inside nor outside. One unified field. How miraculous that, for however briefly, we get to give it our undivided attention, that we get to attend.

Nothing Else To Say

efg_24.197.2_283230_03

Words. They’re important. They’re worth thinking about. It’s worth taking the time and finding the precise word or words that express your truth. It’s worth visiting those words over and over again, as your understanding of what is true changes, and then changing those words, once again, until they express your truth as it lives within you now.

Certified. This word lacks beauty for me . Certified US Beef. Certified mail. Certified gluten free. Perhaps it has something to do with my having grown up in Philadelphia, a city founded by a Quaker, William Penn. It remains the only state where you don’t need a priest or a rabbi, or a government to certify that two people are married. What you need is a community. It’s your community that knows you, who recognizes you, and who cares about you. And it’s your community that supports you. A marriage has little chance of surviving in a vacuum. And so does an Alexander teacher.

Thirty five years ago, when Martha and I first founded the Alexander Alliance, we chose to award graduating students by giving them a document called a Statement Of Recognition. The words had meaning. The words matched what was happening. A person who had studied deeply, who had made a real commitment, was being recognized by their teachers, their colleagues, and their students. Perhaps most importantly, by the students they had begun to teach. The reason why I say most importantly by their students is because, ultimately, it’s your students who decide whether you are a teacher. No students. No teacher. If anyone certifies a teacher, it’s their students.

Marjorie Barstow didn’t certify us. She didn’t believe in certifying us. She didn’t believe it was necessary. She would say when asked if she certified teachers, “No, I don’t, however, some of my students have gone on to become excellent teachers of Alexander’s work.” She wanted us to know when we were ready to teach. Yes, there was a day when Marj said to me that she thought it would be good for my learning, if I began to teach more. But that was a suggestion. The decision was mine to make. Yes, she did write a letter saying I was a good Alexander teacher, but that was simply a letter of recommendation for a position I was applying for in a university theatre department.

And so it was, in this spirit, in Marj’s spirit,  that I chose the words I did for the document Martha and I gave to our graduating students.

Years have gone by. Almost three hundred people have graduated from the Alexander Alliance International. I felt it was time to look again at our Statement Of Recognition, and surprisingly, the words still rang true. But something was missing. In the original document I ended by saying that the graduate was “capable of imparting Alexander’s work to others.” I have changed this to, “and has made a commitment to imparting Alexander’s work to others, respectfully and benevolently.” Knowledge is not enough, not in our work. In Judaism we speak of possessing a “heart of wisdom.” That’s what I want to see from my students; that their knowledge of Alexander’s work emanate from the heart.

Soon another crop of students will graduate from the Alexander Alliance Germany. Their Statements of Recognition will read:

Germany Certification

Graduates. Open your hands and give. Really, there’s nothing else to say.

 

 

 

Leaving Myself In Your Hands

Guan-Yin-Close up

Bill Coco

“Show me how to do that?” And I would. I would stop my own workout and teach someone how to do what I had somehow figured out how to do, like a front somersault, or a reverse kip up on the rings, or circles on the side horse. No wonder I missed making the Olympic Team. I was busy coaching. Looking back, it’s clear; I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be learning how to use my hands to guide someone into balance, to indicate exactly from where to initiate a movement, in what direction, and with what quality of impulse; to punch it, or snap it, or swing it, or draw it out, or press it up, or let it go. I was supposed to be developing my ability to use language to facilitate coordination.

Unbeknownst to me, I was supposed to become an Alexander teacher, but when I was twelve, and first began using my hands to teach other kids how to move well, I had no idea what that was. As gymnasts we used our hands to help each other as a matter of course, and sometimes as a matter of life and death.

My first coach, Bill Coco, gave me my first experience of educative/nurturing touch. “Okay Bruce. You’re going to do your first back layout with a full twist. I want you to show me your round off. Remember no more than 3 preparatory steps, one back handspring, block with your feet so you transfer your horizontal power vertically, hands reaching toward the ceiling. Don’t look over your left shoulder until I say, “Look,” then wrap your arms quickly and closely across your chest, and leave the rest up to me. Got it?” “Got it.” My faith in Bill was total.

One step, round off, lightning fast back handspring, block, reach…”Look,” I hear Bill say! I look over my left shoulder, wrap my arms across my chest, and there’s Bill’s big hands, soft, light, around my hips. I’m suspended, my body laid out in an arch, weightless, floating two feet above Bill’s head. I’m ecstatic. Bill’s hands spin me to the left, and the next thing I know my feet have landed squarely on the ground. “There you go Bruce. Your first lay out with a full twist. You did 95% of it on your own. By the end of the week it will be yours.”

I guess that makes Bill Coco my first Alexander teacher. He taught be how to lead with my head and let my body follow. He used his hands exactly where, and only when needed, and only with the amount of force necessary. Bill looked like a boxer, more often than not with a fat, unlit, cigar in his mouth, disheveled, sported a sizable beer belly, seemed like a tough guy, and deep down was the softest, gentlest, hugest teddy bear alive. He died when he was forty. I was fifteen. But he passed on to me exactly what I needed, and no doubt he did for a lot of Philadelphia kids like myself.

Bill Coco

Bill Coco

And so it went. Teacher after teacher, teaching me exactly what I needed to learn to get exactly to where I am now; a person who knows how to use his hands to bring people into balance, a person who knows the language of movement, and pretty much a soft, gentle teddy bear of a person, minus the cigar.

But were my teachers only teachers? What else were they to me? How did they really pass onto me what I needed to learn? There are teachers, coaches, counselors, instructors, educators, professors, rabbis, priests, role models, idols, heroes, and mentors. We’ve got different names for people from whom we learn, people who pass on knowledge and skill to us, who bring out knowledge and skill from us. But what is the name for those teachers who pass themselves onto us?

It’s important for me to know what, and who I am to my students if I am to best serve them, if I am to pass on to them the best in me, if I am to leave myself in their hands. Sometimes I am teacher, father, friend, coach, holy man, enemy, sometimes mentor, advocate, adversary, role model. I am exactly, at any given moment, who my student perceives me to be, and needs me to be. I know I am, in essence, none of the roles I assume. I am the person who assumes them.

Marjorie Barstow

Marj Barstow was many things to me, which is why she made such an impression. Most importantly, she was a mirror into my future. She was the manifestation of my potentiality. I could see in her what was lying latent within me. And so I watched, and I listened as if my life depended on it, which it did.

She was not a holy person, not a guru, not a mother, Boy, did she not mother us. She was not a technique teacher, not a coach. She was an artist who showed us her art, over and over again, a kinesthetic sculptor. Humans were her medium. And sometimes horses. (Marj had trained world champion quarter horses.) Sometimes I think she really didn’t care all that much about us as people. She was not a person-centered teacher, as I am. She was a technique-centered teacher. She used us to work on her technique, on her art. That was okay with us. We benefited from her artistic obsession.

Marj inspired me. Her work was astoundingly beautiful, mesmerizing, like watching a master potter spin a clump of clay into a graceful bowl.

Marjorie Barstow working with me.  1977

Marjorie Barstow working with me.
1977

More than anything in the world, I wanted to be able to do what she did. I watched her work day after day, year after year, but I didn’t just watch her with my eyes alone. I watched her kinesthetically. I watched her with my whole body and being. I developed a kind of synesthesia. I was taking her in, at once, through all of my senses. It was like I was swallowing her whole. I “grokked” her.

When I was in college and read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, I knew that was how I needed to learn. “Grok” means water. To grok means to drink, to drink life. Not to chew it. Not to break it down to understand it. At the moment of grokking the water and the drinker become one substance. As the water becomes part of the drinker, the drinker becomes part of the water. What was once two separate realities become one reality, one experience, one event, one history, one purpose.

Marj didn’t break things down. Marj didn’t teach us how to use our hands. After we would watch her for a few hours Marj would say something like, “Okay. Let’s divide into smaller groups. Bill, Barbara, Don, Bruce, Martha, and Mio, go and teach for a while. (Or it could have been, Cathy, David, Diana, Catherine, and Pete.) The teaching just happened. We could do it. It was as if we were riding Marj’s wave. We were grokking her.

About a year before Marj died I had a dream. Marj was dying. She was in her bedroom, in her house in Lincoln Nebraska, a room I had never seen. “Bruce come sit next to me.” I did. Then slowly Marj pulled the corner of her bedcover down and asked me to lie down next to her. I was shocked, but I did as she asked and gently slid by her side and covered both of us. Then Marj said, “It’s okay Bruce. Now I am going to breathe you for a while, and she placed her mouth on my mouth and began to breathe into me. I could feel her warm breath entering and filling my lungs. I could feel my breath entering into her lungs. In total darkness, we breathed together for hours.  And then I woke up. I got out of bed, picked up the phone, and called Marj. “Marj, are you okay? I had a dream about you and got nervous.” “Bruce, don’t worry about me. I am fine.” “Okay Marj. Sorry if I bothered you.” “No, you didn’t bother me. Thanks for calling.” “No, thank you Marj.”

I’m still thanking her.

Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

What was he to me, a rabbi, a teacher, a spiritual father? Marj gave me my craft, my art, my vocation. Rebbe Zalman taught me how to teach, how to sit quietly with people, as if they were in my living room. He showed me that it was fine to be silent, that it was okay to take the time I needed to think, and to wait until I had something worth saying. He taught me how to tell a story. He taught me to be unafraid to look into people’s eyes. He taught me how to think metaphorically. He taught me how to listen to my still, inner voice, and follow it. He taught me how to listen to the inner voices of others. He taught me how to bless people, and how to be blessed by them. He taught me that I could never know one religion unless I knew two, and actively encouraged my interest in Zen Buddhism, in the Christian Mystics, and the Sufi Poets, and in the teachings of Lao Tzu.

Rebbe Zalman

Rebbe Zalman

One day Rebbe Zalman entered a classroom at Temple University where I was taking a graduate course on Martin Buber and the Early Hasidic Masters. Rebbe Zalman enters the room, walks across the room to the other side, stands in front of a large window and looks out at the day. After a minute or two he turns around, walks to his desk, sits on the top of his desk, crosses his legs, closes his eyes, tilts his face up toward the ceiling like a blind man, and begins gently rocking from side to side, bending like grass in the wind. He begins singing a niggun, a soft melody that repeats itself and has no ending. At some point we begin singing with him, singing and singing without end, until we feel as if we are altogether in one boat, floating upon an endless melody, down a endless stream. Rebbe Zalman’s voice fades out, and ours with his, until we’re sitting in a palpable silence. Eyes closed, his rocking slowly getting smaller and smaller. And there in the stillness, in the silence, we’d hear, “That reminds me of a story.”

And Rebbe Zalman would begin to tell us a story, and within the story there would be another story, and within that story another story, until we were transported, like children, into another world. And when we’d least expect it, at a particular point, the story would end. No commentary. No discussion. Class was over. We’d leave knowing those stories were about us, about our very lives. Rebbe Zalman didn’t have to give us any homework. He knew those stories would be working within us until next week. Marj Barstow and Rebbe Zalman were transformative educators, par excellence. They knew how to educe, how to lead us in, and then how to lead us out, out of ourselves, into places unknown to us.

A Modern Day Bodhisattva

Many years later I met a woman, another modern day bodhisattva, another person who inspires, who teaches through example, who knows how to bring out the best in people. I spent hours, years, watching her work, watching her lead one person after another out of their confusion; I spent years grokking her, absorbing her through my pores, into who I am now.

11th century Guanyin statue, from northern China

11th century Guanyin statue, from northern China

Again, I see there are no accidents. We meet exactly the teachers we need, exactly at the time we need them, so that we may become exactly the people we were meant to become.

Aaah, but that is another story.

Letters To A Young Teacher – A Heavenly Host

Rilke's Letter To A Young Poet

Rilke’s Letter To A Young Poet

When you first started teaching, did you trust that your hands were directing in the way that they should or could? I am finding myself wondering if my hands are giving the student the experience that I have when my teacher’s hands are on me. I then of course go back to myself, my back and empty hands. But the thought/doubt is there. I’d love your thoughts on trust and the development of our listening hands.

Did I trust that my hands were directing in the way they they should or could? The short answer? No. I knew my hands were not very good. I knew my use was not all that great either. (It still is not great.) I knew I was not giving my students the experience that I was receiving from my teacher, Marjorie Barstow. But as Marj once said to me,  ‘Comparisons are odious.’ And in this case unfair. If you know more than someone else about AT and you have some skill, then you will be able to help them to the degree that you can at this time. You will likely get through, to varying degrees, with some students, and not at all with others, which can be disheartening. When this would happen to me while teaching a group, with other students watching, I would say something like, ‘That’s enough for now, good job. Let’s take a break, watch others, and come back to it again.’  There’s no point forcing things.

It’s humbling when students don’t respond, but it’s good feedback.  It tells you that you need another 40 years of practice. One student is practice for the next. Fake it until you make it. It’s odd, but it helps me not to think about myself so much as an accomplished teacher. (How other people see me is their own business, not mine.)  I choose to see myself as a student who is doing what he loves, studying and practicing. People pay me for the opportunity to study and practice with me,  because of my possessing more experience than they do. Within Jewish communities in Eastern Europe before World War II, being a rabbi was not a profession. A rabbi was someone that the community collectively recognized as a wise and exceptionally learned man, and supported him so that he had time to study and to contemplate, a kind of scholar-in-residence. That’s how I think of myself. I’m a ‘somasopher’, a person with embodied wisdom. People pay for me to meditate on Alexander’s work, which I do a lot.. People pay me to write, (Yes, I know this is a fantasy, but it’s how I choose to frame it), and people pay me to study in the same room with me. No matter the room, no matter the number of people, in my mind, I transform where I am into my livingroom and I welcome people into my home. Because I am at home in the work and with people. That takes the pressure off. I don’t have to be The Teacher who knows everything, or is great at everything, or can solve everything. Why not write your own secret job description, your own personal mission statement?

It’s about relaxing into your practice. It’s about getting thousands of people under your hands, a heavenly host of people with a heavenly host of different life patterns. And having fun. Ask your students what they are experiencing, and not only physically. Ask them to be totally honest, to not worry about pleasing you. Trust their feedback, and then shift how you are working accordingly.

We’re growing into ourselves as Alexander teachers. It’s an organic process. It takes its own sweet time.

As for coming back to yourself, and to your back, and to your empty hands, and to your listening hands. I don’t really know what all that is for you in reality. I would have to see you, and see and experience what your hands are doing and what they are not doing. But I will say that I don’t come back to myself, I include myself. In Judaism there’s a famous prayer called the Shema, and basically it says that God is One. I take this to mean, not two. Our job is to unify, to make things one.

My hands are not only empty, they are full, they don’t only listen, they speak, they communicate, they invite, they welcome, they offer, they lead, they follow, they receive, they give, they promote, they nurture, they love, they read, they explore, they suggest, they comfort, they challenge, they encourage, they praise, they give permission.

So in the beginning it is not about trusting your hands. It’s about using them a lot and getting good at using them, the way anyone with a manual skill gets good at what they do, if they work at it. Then over time, based on experience, you come to trust your hands. Now, my hands know far more than I do. More than I can say.

Have no doubt. Relax into your practice. Enjoy your students.