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Posts from the ‘Judaism’ Category

My Grandfather’s Eyes

 

Isaac Fertman

Once upon a time a rabbi told me that once upon a time, being a rabbi was not a profession. That a rabbi, technically, was not a teacher but rather a student. People in a community would select a person they felt possessed a deep understanding of the torah and the talmud to help them learn how to be good Jews. They supported this rabbi and his family so that this rabbi had time to study on his own, and also to study together with them. Judaism is basically a book club. Jews read this one book, every year, year after year, (and a few others), and delve into its ideas as deeply as possible.

When my trainees graduate from the Alexander Alliance I tell them there is no need to be nervous about being an Alexander teacher. If nervous, I suggest they continue thinking of themselves simply as Alexander students, students who happen to have completed a training program, therefore possessing a deeper understanding of Alexander’s work than most people.

When people pay you, I tell them, they are not paying you to teach them, they are paying you so that you can study Alexander’s work on your own, and with them. Your students pay you to study along with you, to join you in study.

It is not your job to teach them. It is your job to create conducive conditions in which they can study and learn. It is their job to learn. It is your job to learn along with them. It is not your job to entertain them. It is your job to entertain yourself, and their job to entertain themselves. It is everyone’s job to be kind, respectful, and to do one’s best.

My grandfather, Isaac, on my father’s side, told me now long ago, when I was a little boy, that I should be proud of being a Kohen, a member of the priesthood, a far distant descendent of Aaron, brother to Moses. I had no idea what he was talking about but it sounded cool. I also had no idea why, when I looked into his beautiful eyes, I could see him holding back tears. He told me how, because he was a Kohen, his shtetl saved money and paid for him to go to school in a nearby town where he learned Hebrew. At sixteen, alone, he got on a ship and made his way to America.

Now I am the age of my grandfather when he told me I was a Kohen. Here I am, supported by others to study on my own, everyday, to write, to think out loud, to create opportunities where others can study along with me. I don’t think of myself as a professional, as having a career. I just have a life. I am paid to live my life as a student, to do research and to share my findings. Baruch Hashem.

Bruce Fertman

Teaching By Hand/Learning By Heart

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.

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

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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.

Don’t Believe A Word I Say

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Three

Where Do They All Come From

Arrogance leads to loneliness.
Greediness to loss.
 
Give to others and you will not be poor.
Serve the people who serve you.
Work under those who work under you.
Allay your own fears, and those around you will become less afraid.
Open your own heart, and people’s hearts will open.
 
Do this, and people will have what they need.
You will have what you need.
 
There will be nothing left to do.

Alexander Commentary…

One of the principles underlying this passage is that changing ourselves is often the best way to change others. Alexander’s work also embraces this principle. Practicing Alexander’s work means attending to ourselves, doing our own inner work. What’s wonderful about the Alexander Technique is that we are given a way to do this physically. Our bodies become capable of alerting us, just before we are about to run into trouble.

For example, “Arrogance leads to loneliness.” Arrogance is not only an attitude; it’s a physical state of being. Arrogance expresses itself physically. The expression of arrogance can be overt or covert, but in either case it can be felt, discerned. When our kinesthetic sense becomes keen enough, we may notice that we are pushing our necks back and over straightening them, (stiff-necked). We may notice that we are pushing our chest up, and that we’re locking our knees, (and every knee shall bend.) A warning. Beware. Be aware. If we heed that warning, if we truly want what’s best for ourselves and for others, if we’re willing to let our ego give way to what is good in us, if we remember that we are not after being right, or being better than others, but in being at peace, then we can un-grip this arrogant stance, we can let it fall from us, and with it will fall the arrogance as well, and perhaps the loneliness too.  The energy exerted to maintain arrogance, which is considerable, returns to us, to be used in a better way.

John Dewey, one of America’s finest philosophers of education, and a long term student of Alexander’s wrote about how the work enabled him to know when he was engaged in sophistry and when he was being a lover of the truth, literally, a “philo-soph-er.” After years of studying the work he could feel, somatically, through his kinesthetic sense, when he was being a sophist, and he knew he was not after winning the debate, but that he was after discovering the truth, and he didn’t care who discovered it. So in these situations he was able to make the shift back to whom he was when he was at his best.

But as my teacher, Marj Bartow often said, “Don’t believe a word I say.” Lao Tzu’s philosophy is not about believing anything. It’s about carrying out life experiments. Find out for yourself if what he says is true.

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman