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Posts from the ‘Modesty’ Category

House And Home

handwriting

Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet

Letters To A Young Teacher

Bruce, you write, “Aren’t there more direct, fun, practical, and effective ways to work with how we react to stimuli from within and without besides endlessly getting people in and out of a chair?” My AT teacher at school would probably say: “Chair work will indirectly affect their use in everyday life – let them make the transfer.” So how does that tie in with your take on teaching “activity work”, which to my mind is not indirect, but direct? 

Thank you for your good question. My understanding is that when Alexander spoke of working indirectly he meant that when a person comes to you with a specific problem, let’s say, a frozen shoulder, working directly would be choosing to work immediately to regain range and comfort in the shoulder, through working on the shoulder. A reasonable idea. The approach in Alexander Work, if we are sticking to the principle of working indirectly, is to attend to a person’s overall integration and coordination, and in turn that may, (and may not), resolve the shoulder issue.

It’s a bit like family therapy. Let’s say the whole body is the family, and the hurting child is the frozen shoulder. The parents are fighting, a lot. The kid begins developing asthmatic symptoms. The problem may not lie within the child, but within the family dynamics as a whole. By the parent’s shifting their way of functioning, their child may begin to function differently as well. That, as I understand Mr. Alexander, is what he meant by working indirectly. Indirectly, that is, getting to the part through the whole.

Once you begin to get this idea of working indirectly, you begin to see that Alexander stumbled upon a very big idea, one that, now, everyone understands. If bees are beginning to disappear, or tree frogs, and you start looking for the cause inside the bee world, or the tree frog world instead of backing up and looking at the entire world they inhabit, their larger body, of which bees and tree frogs are an integral part, you won’t see the whole problem, or find the solution.

Alexander discerned an ecology within people, an inner ecology – the study of our inner house and home, in relation to our larger house and home.  (You could say we are the overlap through which our inner and outer environments become one.) Alexander, seen in this light, was a holistic and ecological thinker and practitioner.

As for working through Alexander’s “conventional” procedures, that is, the procedures that have  become the norm within today’s Alexander world, I am not an expert. Yes, I have worked with lots of teachers, including most of the first generation teachers who employed these procedures and, to the best of my limited ability, I have taught through these procedures as well. But I have spent more time learning about Alexander’s work through his less conventional procedures – walking, going up and down steps (lunge work is beautifully woven within this action),  the performing arts, speaking, and everyday activities. These were the procedures that my mentor, Marj Barstow, enjoyed and explored. Consequently, these are the procedures I have taught through most successfully.

Over the years I began to sense that working through Marj’s procedures were, in a way, working too directly, too specifically, but for a very different reason than your teacher might think. I started to see that any activity happened within a larger context, and that I had to zoom both further in, and further out if I was to work holistically or ecologically. That’s why I no longer refer to what I do as “working in activity.” I call it “working situationally.”

For example, a young man is late. He jumps up from his desk, swings on his coat, hops in his car, squeals out his driveway, double parks, runs up three flights of stairs, knocks on his girlfriends apartment door, and waits, standing there, reliving that phone call, the fight they had that morning, feeling like a total jerk, wondering if she will open the door or not, whether she will ever speak to him again, whether she will call off their engagement, and what his parents will say.

Okay. You could work with this poor, distraught young man by taking him in and out of a chair, a la Alexander, or work with him driving his car, walking up steps, and knocking on a door, a la Marj Barstow. Still, are you really going to get to the precise inner and outer stimuli that cause this man to fall apart, to lose his psycho-physical composure, his integrity?

If I am going to work with this man in his entirety, in relation to his inner and outer home, then I may need to address such factors as his relationship to time, how he listens to his girlfriend when she is feeling insecure and starts criticizing him, how he reacts when he starts believing thoughts like his being a total jerk, or what happens to him when he starts caring too much about what other people think about him. But I am going to figure out a way to do this somatically and personally, not psychologically or clinically. I’m going to “stick to principle” and work as the Alexander teacher that I am.

Not our postural habits, nor our movements habits per se, (though they are part of the picture), but our habits of life, these are the habits we are attempting to unearth, and bring into the light of day, to be seen, felt, and known, accepted, and resolved. This is, for me, profoundly humbling work, both personally and as a teacher. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making any progress at all. I wonder if I will ever really be able to live and teach Alexander’s work. Forty years later, I begin to understand Marj when she would say, “I really don’t know how to teach this work.”

I really don’t.

Not knowing has for me become a good thing. It keeps me questioning, as you are questioning. It keeps me experimenting. It keeps the work fresh and alive in my soul, as it is in yours.

Let’s keep going.

Yours,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Way Of All

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

 

It is not that we should abandon, neglect or deny our inner self, but we should learn to work precisely in it, with it, and from it, in such a way that interiority turns into effective action, and effective action leads back to interiority, and we become used to acting without compulsion.

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.

Meister Eckhart/from Selected Writings/Oliver Davies

 

The Great Undoing

 

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Unafraid, unashamed, unaffected.

Unassuming, unarmed, unanalyzable.

Unbound, unblocked, unbraced.

Unburdened, unbridled, unbiased.

Unchained, unclogged, uncorked.

Unclassified, unconventional, unconditional.

Uncovered, unclenched,

Uncertain.

Undisguised, undistinguished, undone.

Unguarded, unhurried, unhinged.

Unmasked, unraveled, unreal.

Unpretentious.

Unselfish, unsophisticated, unspoiled.

Untied, untangled.

Unveiled.

Unwritten.

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

The World In A Dewdrop

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

It’s uncanny. You start working with a person doing some simple activity, like eating an apple. You slow it all down. You give someone a chance to sense how they’re doing what they’re doing as they’re doing it. “Well, what do you notice,” you ask. They say, “I’m biting off more than I can chew.” The bell goes off. There’s nothing you have to say. There it is, his whole life in one action. He gets it.

A person walks to the door, opens it, and leaves the room. Simple enough. I invite her to return. “Well, what did you notice,” I say. She says, I don’t know. I saw the door handle, felt the door open, felt myself leaving. My eyes were cast down. Something sad about the whole thing.”

“Very good”, I say. “You’re waking up.” This time see the whole room you’re in before you leave, and everything and everyone in it. Say to yourself, thank you and mean it. Walk to the door, open it, and as you are crossing the threshold, linger there between two worlds. Sense how leaving is entering. Let your eyes take in the space you’re about to enter. Just this time, don’t look down and see what happens.”

As I make this suggestion to my student, the bell goes off, for me. Yes, every lesson is for me. Every life is my life. Everyone in everyone. The whole world in every dewdrop.

Sometimes movement is just movement, and sometimes movement is metaphor. Sometimes movement means something, something important. Something about our lives and how we live them.

This passage from Where This Path Begins is one example of how I have attempted to convey Lao Tzu’s insights through the workings of the body. The goal? Always, always to get to the heart, to the heart of the matter.

Twenty-Four

You’re Too Much

Arms are limbs for your hands.
Arms fold and unfold.  They raise and lower.
They don’t like to be stiffened or over-straightened.
If something is beyond your reach, get closer, or do without it.
Why strain?

Clutching, grabbing, gripping, grasping.
Why hold on to things so tightly?

Legs are limbs for your feet.
Over-stride and your heels will strike against the ground.
Your back will tire. Your feet will ache.
Why get ahead of yourself?

Puff up your chest, and your lower back will tighten.
Your shoulder blades will narrow.
Your nose will stick up in the air.
Look down on others, and they will not look up to you.

Talk too much and you will lose your voice.
Why over explain?

Too much is too much.

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

Only Two Kinds Of People

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Passage Fifty-Three

From Where This Path Begins

There are two kinds of people.
Foxes and Hedgehogs.

Foxes dig lots of shallow holes, spreading out all over the place.
Their coats are silky, shiny, and colorful. They’re debonair.
They’re sly. They’re quick. They’re here, there, and everywhere.

Hedgehogs are a bit pudgy.
They’re not real handsome or pretty. They’re drab.
They’re either still, like a rock, or busy digging away, usually the latter.
They start digging one hole,
And once they start you can’t get them sidetracked.

They just keep digging one big hole.
The hole gets wider and deeper. And deeper. And deeper.
It seems like they’re working their way down to the center of the earth.
It’s safe in that deep hole.

Some uninvited guests enter and start poking around.
The further in they go, the quieter it gets.
Unnerved, they turnaround and leave.

The hedgehogs keep digging.
Other creatures talk down about them,
Saying how they are just running away from the world.

Very few creatures understand hedgehogs.
They’re not digging away from anything.
They’re digging toward something.
The closer they get, the better they feel.

They never reach the end, which they find mysterious.
One day they wake up and understand the truth.
There is no end. There is only the way.
That’s fine with them.

There are a few foxes, usually older foxes, who realize
They’ve been running around getting nowhere.
Just how some foxes turn into hedgehogs; no one knows.
Legends abound.
It hurts. It’s harrowing. It’s humbling.

It is however, widely known, that the few foxes
Who do turn into hedgehogs, become some of the finest hedgehogs
Hedgehogs have ever had the privilege to meet.

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

Just Between Us

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

It’s crowded. The waitress finds us a corner table. I watch Erika quickly size up the situation. She sees there’s not a lot of room around the table and proceeds straight away to slide through a rather small space into one of the chairs, no small feat given Erika is in her mid-eighties.  I squeeze, not quite as gracefully, into the chair next to Erika. Some pretty big, jovial people live in Australia, and a few of them happen to be sitting at the tables next to us. Still, we’re happy to have gotten what appears to be the last table.

Christine’s looking around too, but it seems she’s looking for where there is the most space. Sure enough she sits down in the one chair that is not butting up either against the wall nor next to a chair occupied by one of our large, husky fellows. Barbara takes the remaining chair.

Christine still feels as if she hasn’t enough space. She moves her chair back, further away from the table and proceeds to sit on the very edge of the chair, legs apart, perfectly upright, as if she’s about to begin meditating. Christine’s an Alexander Technique teacher, and a very skilled one at that. In fact, all of us teach Alexander’s work, Erika having begun studying with Alexander when she was eight years old.

In contrast to Christine, I notice that Erika’s chair is drawn up almost as close to the table as possible. She’s comfortably leaning back into the chair. Rather than taking the most space, Erika created the most space around her as possible.

Four tall glasses of water balance precariously upon a tray which a shy, young boy is carrying over  to our table. He’s not sure how to get around Christine’s chair. He decides to cut left around the table, doesn’t see the leg of Christine’s chair sticking out, trips, miraculously managing to prevent the shaky glasses full of water from toppling. He feels terrible about it. I get this feeling it’s his first day on the job. He apologizes profusely. Erika praises him on his stunning recovery, coaxing a slight smile from his sweet face.

Christine pauses for a split second, perturbed that this boy had interrupted her account of an Alexander lesson she had recently given.

My eye catches Erika’s eye. She smiles at me.  Silently, I thank Erika for her exemplary way of teaching without teaching.  She heard it, I’m sure.

Commentary.

In the Alexander Work we sometimes speak of the relationship between parts of the body, the relation of the head to the neck, or the relation between the ribs and the arm structure, or the relation between the hips joints and the sacrum.

As Alexander teachers we rarely ask a person to notice a part of their body in isolation. We teach our students how to perceive themselves “relationally.” We’re after a harmonious orchestration of parts into a symphonic whole. This “unified sound” is the product of a myriad of instruments all attuned one to the other.

What if our work extended beyond our “little body”, into the world, into our “big body.” What would happen if we perceived our body/self as just one little part of a larger body/self? What would the operational principles be for integrating into the larger body/self? How do we help make our big body/self comfortable, peaceful, and lively? How can we distribute support and freedom equally throughout the entire body/self, so that no one part is given less attention than any other?

It might be worthwhile to extend Alexander’s concept of “use” beyond our individual selves. What if we were attending to our collective use, our immediate social body, as was Erika during our dinner together? Isn’t the waiter as important as anyone else? Wasn’t he part of who we were that evening?

Our souls dwell where our inner world and the outer world meet.  Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap.  The soul is found, not within, but between. 

Novalis

On The Grounds Of Modesty

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Bruce,

Today I have a question for you. It’s about the center of the body. People often say the center of body is near the navel. But when I think about the navel as my center I tend to bend at the waist and this doesn’t feel right. When I relocate the center of my body nearer to my hip joints, this seems to work. But actually, I ‘m not sure. What do you think?

Different ideas work for different people. You have to play with it, as you are doing. I have thought about this one for about 40 years. Here are just three possibilities.

In Aikido there is the idea of one point. You meditate on your one point getting smaller and smaller as you are becoming larger and larger. But it is not at the navel. To find your one point, walk the tips of your fingers straight down below the navel until you come to a place that is very firm, just above the beginning of the pubic synthesis. Then press in slightly but firmly, on about a 70% angle, scooping upward toward the back, just where the lumbar spine begins to curve into the thoracic spine. This is easier to show on a skeleton. You just have to poke around until you find what works for you. If I direct through that point just so, then I sense my body becoming strongly organized. But be careful not to start sucking in your abdominal muscles. One point is deeper in than that, behind the stomach muscles. If you tap into this you will find that your body has a tendency to organize itself over the hip joints, which will likely create a sensation of being ever so slightly inclined forward. But it is not a bend from the waist. It’s being poised over your hip joints in such a way that they feel oiled, so you are ready to move in any direction. When the body is in a condition of readiness, like an Olympic diver preparing for a dive, you won’t see a person who is standing at an exact 90% angle in relation to the floor. Their whole body will incline slightly forward from the ankle and a tiny bit from the hip joint.  When you are sitting, and you tap into one point, it will orient you slightly toward the front of your sits bones.

Now if we travel from Japan into China, the Hara becomes the T’antien, which most often is translated as belly. So rather than being a point it becomes a whole area, a large container. In English the word belly usually implies bigness, fullness, relaxation and sometimes humor. My tai chi teacher used to talk about the belly as a large basin, a very big bowl, like  people, in the old days, would use to wash up before there were sinks and running water. My teacher would ask us to move as if that basin were completely full of water. She wanted us to sense the weight of the water, while at the same time, moving so that we didn’t tip the bowl causing the water to spill out of the bowl to the front or to the back or to the sides. This is particularly important when doing tai chi, as it is critical to cultivate a strong sense of horizontality while moving.

For some people this larger sense of center works better.

Now we get to my favorite version.

Nietzsche wrote, The center is everywhere. This frees me. I no longer have to look for “my center” or locate it somewhere inside my body. Actually, I don’t have to try to locate it anywhere.  Drop the very notion of a center and sense what happens. Look around and sense that the center is everywhere. When this works, it really works.

Stephen Hawking, the great astrophysicist, has the same idea, but here he is contemplating our macro-cosmos.

“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.”

As usual, great question. I hope this gives you a few possibilities with which to play. If you discover something let me know.

Ohanami

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow

if you thought of it as like the mountain cherry blossoms

which bloom and fade in a day.

MURASAKI SHIKIBU (974-1031)

 

One’s Nakedness

DSCN3205

The suit makes the man. And what if the suit becomes too tight? What if the suit begins to wear us; begins to shape us in its own image?

Postural habits are like suits. We become our habits when we identify with them. A habit: a long, loose garment worn by a member of a religious order. Postural habits are made of tension. Tension is frozen movement, frozen feelings, frozen vitality, energy at odds against itself.

If our postural habits, our habitual tensions, could be felt for what they are, superficial, artificial, not us, if we could sense ourselves without them, even for a moment, what would happen?

James Baldwin writes, “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.”

Through which one’s nakedness can always be felt. Sensing my nakedness, how could I ever fall prey to self-importance? How could I ever lie to someone? How could I ever belittle anyone?

A human being, being human.

 

(photo of a photo by Robert Hupka.)