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Posts from the ‘lao tzu’ Category

Direction Unknown

Photo: B. Fertman, Coyote, New Mexico

Photo: B. Fertman, Coyote, New Mexico

from Letters To A Young Student…

How do I know when I am moving in the right direction?

It’s simple questions, like this one, that lead us in the right direction. This is what I mean by a heartfelt question. Questions asked from the heart don’t have intellectual answers. Ultimately a question like yours is about how to live one’s life. Living a life is not intellectual, not even for an intellectual!

So I will reflect on this question, not only for you, but for myself as well.

You are asking this question in the context of the work of F.M. Alexander, so let’s begin with a famous quip of  Alexander’s. “There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a think as a right direction.”

Let’s first zoom out and get the big picture and then work our way into the center. Alexander implies here that what you want is not a posture, not a place, nothing fixed. So if we feel held, placed, or fixed in any way then we are off. He seems to be saying that it’s about “the way” rather than “the form.” Taoism immediately comes to mind as it did for Aldous Huxley who referred to Alexander as the first Western Taoist. Lao Tzu’s references to “wu-wei”, translated non-doing, effortless effort, or harmonious activity, his reverence for water, the watercourse, his love of the valley rather than the mountain, of space over substance, his praise of softness over hardness, his desire for less rather than for more.

Ironically the best book on Alexander’s work may have been written 2400 years before Alexander was born, and may still be the best guide for pointing us in the “right direction.”  That’s why I’ve spent the last eight years studying and writing my own interpretation of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching, because my experience tells me this text is the predecessor to Alexander’s work.

I would however go a step further. I would say not only is there no right position, I would say there is also no right direction, no one right direction. Being on “a way” is important. In Japan, where I live half the year, people study such disciplines as Kyudo, the way of the bow, Aikido, the way of harmonizing energy, Sado, the way of tea, Shodo, the way of calligraphy, etc.

But being on a way, doesn’t mean we don’t lose our way because we do. Sometimes we have doubts about the path we are on, whether we are getting anywhere, whether it is the right path for us, whether or not we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way, whether we are ever going to get where we are going.

Perhaps a certain amount of doubt goes with the territory. Alexander asked us not to try to be right, not to try to feel that we are right. Not even to care whether we were right. In fact he’d sometimes begin lessons saying, “Let’s hope something goes wrong.”

When we don’t know for certain where we are, we sometimes begin to see where we are, to experience where we are. We open to what is around us.

Yet still, something in us wants some confirmation that we are moving in a good direction. There must be signs, and if there are, what are they?

Alexander gives us a hint when he says,

“When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing that we are doing is exactly what is being done in nature, where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.”

What does Alexander mean by “right conditions?” I’m not sure, but maybe it’s similar to Aldo Leopolds’s definition of right. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Perhaps Alexander is telling us that the way we know we are right, is when we are conducting ourselves in accordance with nature, that is, when we are tending toward the preservation of our integrity, stability, and (inner) beauty. And we are out of balance when we are not.

Let’s zoom into the biotic community within us and return to the question of knowing when we are moving in the right direction.

If we are a fractal of our larger ecosystem, then we too would be moving in a right direction when we are tending toward integration, stability, and beauty. I would add the complimentary opposites to these indicators: integration and differentiation, stability and mobility, and beauty and functionality. Complimentary opposites work with one another. Opposing opposites work against one another. My experience tells me that when we are experiencing an integration of complimentary opposites within us, we are moving in the right direction.

When we are feeling unified and articulate.

When we are feeling stable and mobile.

When we are feeling functional and beautiful.

When we are feeling light and substantial.

When we are feeling still as a mountain and moving as a river.

When we are feeling rest and support.

When we are feeling gathered and expansive.

When we are feeling within and without.

When we are feeling open and focused.

When we are feeling connected and independent.

When we are feeling committed and free.

When we are feeling spontaneous and deliberate.

When we are feeling soft and powerful.

When we are feeling relaxed and ready.

When we are feeling near and far.

When we are feeling time and the timeless.

When we are feeling gravity and grace.

When we are feeling self and others.

When we are feeling self and no self.

When we are doing less and receiving more.

If we decide to use the word direction in the strict Alexander sense of the word, and then ask how do we know when we are moving in the right direction, the answer may be hiding in The Use of the Self, one of Alexander’s books I read some 40 years ago. Somewhere, I believe in a footnote, Alexander mentions that a direction is a message we send to a part of the body. If the message is correct, if it is a right direction or order, it will conduct the energy within that part of the body in a way that will result in a general improvement of one’s overall integration.

The metaphor I use to get a picture of this is that of a lock and key. A joint in your body would be a lock, the key, its direction. It’s necessary to examine the lock to find out its structure. Then you can make a key to fit the lock. When the key fits the lock, the lock opens. This opens a door which allows you to enter into your house, your body, where you reside, your abode, your dwelling place, your refuge, your sanctuary.

Eventually, through study, whether that is on your own, or with the help of a teacher or teachers, you come to discover and learn about many of the doors and their locks, and you construct ever more precise keys to these doors which lead you through the gates into the holy city.

You learn, in Alexander’s enigmatic term, how to free into your primary control, or your true and primary movement, or as I sometimes refer to it as, your primary pattern, which is a fluid, moving, organizing pattern.

You learn how to enter into this fluid organization, into this knowing river within us, and it is the river who knows where to go, knows what a right direction is. Our job is to surrender to the river, to let the river take us to a place known to it, forever unknown to us.

Epiphany

Photo: B. Fertman

Epiphany

It’s not what I expected, feels nothing like I thought it would, this release from the need to be anyone, from the need to be of biographical worth, noteworthy. No more life lived as an imaginary filmmaker, producer, director, scriptwriter, cameraman, editor, and leading man, a film, mind made, not for me but for others to see, to admire, to adore, and to endorse.

Now that I have abandoned my magnum opus, some fifty years in the making, what remains? What remains having left the studio, the black box behind? What welcomes and waits for me in the cool, fresh blue light of evening?

What shall I do now that my purpose in life has vanished like some mirage wavering before me, there, so real, then gone?

There must be some hidden purpose to my life, mustn’t there? There must be some imperative, some vision to fulfill, some mission to accomplish. How will I know what to do, which way to go? Can I live a life without a center, without a hub?

A yes arises from exactly where I don’t know. What I do need to know is where I am now, and the ability to see just far enough before me to know there is ground under my feet and space through which to move. If I attend and trust that should do it.

Could I be here for the sake of simple enjoyment? Could my job be to be jobless, to be available, a volunteer ready to go where I can best serve? What about money you ask? How will I survive? It seems I have managed, given I am still alive.

Time is not passing, I am. Can I accept this, embrace this?

Do I really need saving? I mean saving myself like an old, obsolete resume stored inside a little image of an icon of a folder within a folder?

Do I really need those photo albums sitting in a room, in a closet, on a shelf, stored in some dusty box no one has opened for years?

Why keep an accounting of my life? Why keep a record? Why keep track?

Why carve some graven image of myself, no matter how striking the resemblance?

Why continue to produce a film about a life that, when lived, is so much more moving and miraculous than a film could ever be?

Why?

Why does now feel like the only thing eternal?

Why do friends, and strangers too, who are no longer strangers, look like stars in the night?

Why does everything I hear sound like music?

I don’t know, and I don’t need to know.

For Yourself

When one writes a book, best to write it for yourself. If another person likes it, that’s great, but not necessary.

To be honest, I like my book. It’s already a success, a best seller, a classic. It’s my map, my guide. I read it when I need to read it. It helps me. It brings me back to myself, to others, to the world.

It is as if I extracted, with the help of Lao Tzu, every ounce of wisdom this one little soul possesses. I’ve got it down on paper.

It sounds dramatic, but it’s true: this book saved my life, because at one time I had seriously contemplated ending it. It’s true I wept over almost every one of the eighty-one passages in this book. Yes, they were tears of sorrow, but they were also tears of relief, and tears of gratitude.

Gratitude for the chance, and the endurance, that came from I know not where, (my children? my parents?), to turn my life around for the better. Not that my life was terrible, and not that I had created some grave crime. No, if I am guilty, I am guilty of being completely and utterly human, of daring and not knowing, guilty of built-in-selfishness longing for release.

I almost called this book, Where This Path Ends, but thanks to a dear friend, Celia Jurdant-Davis, I didn’t.  Celia wrote, “How about Where This Path Begins?

Thank God for my friends, for people who sometimes know me better than I know myself. How often I have things precisely turned around one hundred and eighty degrees! That’s good. Just one flip and there’s the truth, smiling.

My book is about, at 61, where my path begins, from here, always from here.

Where is my book? Like so many books, it’s sitting inside of some laptop, unpublished, unknown, but not forsaken.

It’s as if I’m having labor pains. I have to breathe. I have to push. I have not to give up, no matter how difficult this feels. I have to birth this book.

I’ll send you an announcement, when the baby is born.

Until then,

Bruce

Deeper Than Rest

 

From Conflict to Confluence

Every action has within it something you do and something you don’t. If you try to bend and straighten your arm at the same time, you will find yourself unable to move that arm. You won’t be able to bend it or straighten it. What you’ll be doing is using half your effort to bend your arm and the other half of your effort to keep your arm from bending.

Sort of like the American Congress.  Nothing moves.

When you flex your arm, whether you know it or not, your nervous system has “chosen” not to straighten it. Not bad. It sounds like a strange thing to “consciously” choose not to straighten your arm at all, but when you do, your arm is totally free to flex, without the slightest resistance.

When all the muscles are firing away, indiscriminately, in every which direction, in opposing directions, you get over efforting, sometimes to the point of paralysis. You get chaos. You get conflict. You get a body fighting against itself, and therefore losing. Fight against yourself and you will always lose. Any semblance of grace will be gone.

Lao Tzu, the famous Chinese philosopher/pragmatist/mystic had a word for grace. He called it “wu-wei”, often translated as non-doing, effortless effort, or harmonious activity.

Grace happens when everything that is not needed in an action is not engaged, and everything that is needed is. This requires a person with a discriminatory nervous system, a nervous system that knows when to say yes, and when to say no, and not only when, but how, and how much, and where. We have, within us, a potentially brilliant binary system, capable of virtually infinite nuance.

Knowing what not to engage, knowing what to leave be, knowing how, what, where, and when to cease firing, and being able to do so at will, is part of the skill Alexander referred to as inhibition. My guess is that Alexander chose the word inhibition because he wished to place his work within a scientific context, but it turned out that a contemporary of his, Freud, already had domain over that name. How unfortunate for Mr. Alexander, and for all of us who follow in his footsteps! How many people when they hear the word, inhibition, think of an inhibitory postsynaptic potential (IPSP), a kind of synaptic potential that makes a postsynaptic neuron less likely to generate an action potential, the opposite being an inhibitory postsynaptic potential, an excitatory postsynaptic potential (EPSP), which is a synaptic potential that makes a postsynaptic neuron more likely to generate an action potential?

Not many.

Yet, despite the confusion over this word, what Alexander was directing us toward was, I believe, nothing less than grace, both physical, and I dare say, spiritual.

You might look at physical and spiritual grace as two circles. Sometimes, for we kinesthetic types, these two circles overlap. We’re like raindrops touching down upon the surface of a pond. Have you ever seen two ever widening rings as they overlap, each moving toward the other, each becoming the other until, for an instant, they are one?

Below that fluid oneness, still and moving, a peace, deeper than rest.

Peace is not just the absence of war. Peace is what happens when war is absent. It’s the re-forming of swords into plowshares. It’s the conversion of conflict into confluence. 

Energy is freed, now able to be redirected toward nurturance, education, experimentation, service, art, and recreation.

In one word, I’d say that is what Alexander’s work is about.

Revitalization.