This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.
MURASAKI SHIKIBU (974-1031)
This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.
MURASAKI SHIKIBU (974-1031)
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.)
Health insurance in Japan actually does a conscientious job of insuring its people’s health. Being a person who now has health insurance in Japan, I decided to go to doctors and actually find out how I am, something I have avoided doing in the United States as my deductible does not cover the first $5000 of my medical expenditures. Yet still the cost of my health insurance in America is double of what I pay for health insurance in Japan. Last week I had a comprehensive physical unlike any I have ever experienced in America. Discovering that, at 61, I am in exceptionally good health, but also finding out what I should keep my eye on, gave me great peace of mind. Strangely, rather than feel happy I felt even sadder than I had been for all of us in America who pay so much for our health care and receive so little health care. And there are the millions of us who cannot afford health care. It’s not easy having a peaceful mind when in the back of that mind we’re worrying about what happens if we or our loved ones get severely sick or injured.
Having been a gymnast, modern dancer, and martial artist, and having survived a couple of car accidents, my body has had a lot of practice at mending injuries and keeping me all of a piece. I’m grateful. I do have a knee that is not like it used to be, and now one hip that is asking for some help. My father had 4 hip replacements over 35 years, and like the rest of us he only had two hips! But now nothing prevents me from going for an MRI which I will do this afternoon. When I had a cold I went to a cold clinic where there were 50 people waiting to be seen, but in one hour I walked out having been thoroughly diagnosed, cared for, and given a prescription for medicine. I walked 50 yards to the pharmacy and in 2 minutes I had my medicine. In one day I felt better. A week earlier, I went to the dentist, which was also covered by my insurance.
If everyone in America could experience what it feels like to receive good health care I have no doubt that we’d have good, comprehensive health care in America. Most Americans don’t know what they are missing. What overwhelmed me was suddenly realizing that I was being treated with respect, that my dignity was being honored, that I was a person of value. I felt a little guilty receiving this kind of care when countless others are not. Knowing more about how I am naturally makes me want to actively take care of myself.
So three times a week I go to a gym, which is a 3 minute walk from my apartment. It costs me $60 a month. I have been swimming, stretching, and using weights, which are helping a lot. The gym is sparkling. You could literally eat off the floor. Really. All the equipment seems brand new. Everything works perfectly. There are daily classes, all free, in Pilates, Tai Chi, Spinning, Dance, Yoga, Swimming, and more. The instructors are very good. And I have super high standards when it comes to movement teachers. These teachers are good. A facility like this in America would be reserved for the wealthy. Here it is available to almost everyone.
Bathing is an art in Japan. Into the steam room, then onto a low stool that sits in front of a mirror, a bucket for water near by and a hand held shower nozzle. Perfect water pressure. Nothing is broken. Everyone takes their time and cleans every pore, shaves, brushes their teeth, only turning on the water when they need it. Your body is warm from having been in the steam room so there’s no need to stay under continuous running water. After this almost ritualistic cleaning, you soak in a communal O furo, a hot tub, really hot. When a family baths at home, the O furo is filled and covered as not to lose heat. One by one, each person takes their time getting cleaner than clean then soaks in the tub. The tub is not as long as an American tub, but it’s higher. In America we lie down in a tub. In Japan we sit in a furo. With less surface water exposed to the cool air, the water stays warmer longer. Once out, the furo is covered, ready for the next person.
In general people in Japan use about a fifth of the energy we use. Yoshiko, my wife, thinks our utilities bills are high. Outside I’m looking concerned. Inside I’m smiling. They don’t, or I should say we don’t heat our homes centrally. We only heat where we are at the moment. This might mean sitting on an electrically heated two foot by two foot piece of carpet. Or it may mean working at a small, low desk, a kotatsu, which is designed such that under the table top surface is a large quilted blanket, and under the blanket is a small heater built into the table. You put your legs under the table and cover your lower body with the blanket, perhaps along with three other people, with their legs under the table, while everyone eats dinner together. Warm, cozy, and fun. Who needs to have all that heat floating up to the ceilings, which also are low, inside of rooms that are small. In Japan we don’t use hot water to clean clothes, nor clothes dryers, nor dishwashers. We use cold water to wash dishes, and we don’t run the water when we soap up the dishes. When I say we I mean 99.9% of Japanese people. It’s taught in school from the get go. Refrigerators are tiny. No huge ovens. No pilot lights for hot water heaters, or stoves. All localized heat. Because of the Fukushima disaster Japanese people decided to use even less energy than they had been using. All but two of their fifty-four nuclear reactors remain shut down, at least for now. A lot of people would like to keep it that way, though given the politics here that is likely not to happen. That is another story. The point is that even in the summer when it is 105 degrees, day in and day out, in super high humidity in steaming cities, no one is using their air conditioners, even old people for whom it is dangerous not to do so. The contrast between Japanese and American culture is enlightening, and challenging.
Then there is simply walking down the street and seeing no overweight people. Maybe one person in every 100 is overweight, and those people are usually under 25 and eating mostly at McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The streets are buzzing with people walking in every direction while bicycles weave smoothly and effortlessly in and out. It’s a dance. Who needs a car when you have bikes and trains everywhere? Bikes are cheap. Mine cost $50 and I love my bike. I don’t think I’ve waited more than 7 minutes for a train and that’s after I just missed one. Usually there’s no wait. The trains are quiet and clean. No graffiti. No smell of urine here and there. Yes, sometimes the trains are beyond crowded but people have the courtesy to wear white sanitary masks that cover their mouth and nose if they have a cold. That’s thoughtful. People are taught to be aware of other people, and they are.
The trains and the streets are safe at any hour for anyone, kids included. In 2006 there were a grand total of 2 homicides. There are no guns around here. Little kids walk to school by themselves. If you leave your umbrella next to the ticket counter you can be sure it will have been given to the office. When you go to get it, they person will literally run to get it for you, knowing right where it is.
If you get off the train, let’s say at Osaka Station, and decide to buy some Japanese sweets at a department store, the moment you approach the counter, which has five people in uniform standing side by side, one of them will ask you if they can help you. Once you have bought your sweets they will ask you if you would like them wrapped as a gift. If you say yes you will witness hands that work differently than ours. Quickly and precisely. As you are leaving and ask them where the bathroom might be, they will likely take you there, and then bow and thank you. Can you imagine someone at Walmart or Staples bowing to you and thanking you for buying something at their store?
Ironically, living in Japan I feel how much I love America. I just know we could be better than we are. Living in Japan makes me care more about Americans. About everybody. And I realize how lucky I’ve been to be able to live in two cultures, for real.
For one, I’m not going to wait around for American culture to change. What I can do is adopt what I like about Japanese culture and live my life in a way that feels good and right for me. I can model what I care about.
In America I can practice being more aware of the needs of other people. I can use energy more modestly. I can eat less meat and cheese, more fish and vegetables. I can serve people. Thank people. Apologize when it feels right. I can be on time.
In America I will need to make an extra effort to take care of my own health.
And I will walk down the street unafraid. In a country that has grown so fearful, it will be my practice not to perpetuate fear, but to exude trust, and kindness.
The past feels determined because it has already happened. When we’re old life feels as if it unfolded according to plan. When we’re young life feels like an open road.
Can we change the past? Once I looked upon my past as a success. Then I saw it as a failure. Now I see it as neither. Perspective shifts. New memories surface. Old memories recede. The past is like an old book on a shelf that magically rewrites itself when we are not looking.
Free will. Determinism. Chance. Were there chance encounters in my life? Did that car accident happen by chance?
The night before the accident I chose to stay up a bit later than usual and, against my better judgment, drank a second beer. It was winter, and dark, and it was snowing. Factors beyond my control. I was driving up a hill. A car was coming in the opposite direction. I couldn’t see. My body was lilting to the left, which it does when I am tired. Unconsciously I was turning my steering wheel slightly to the left. Do we have less free will when governed by actions that have become unconscious? Do we have more free will the more we are conscious, alert, and acting non-habitually?
Impact. A head on collision. What if the driver of the car had not been thinking about his teenage daughter coming home last night at 3 a.m. smelling of alcohol? How much had she had to drink? Was she getting into drugs like some of her friends at school? What was going on sexually for her? Was she being safe? What if this man was just thinking about his driving? Do we have less free will when we are disturbed, distracted, and more free will when we are experiencing what we are doing?
Perhaps choice, chance, and determinism are like three strands of one braid. We have no direct control over the moving strands of chance and determinism, but we do have some say over the course our one strand of free will takes. And this might influence the overall pattern of the braid. Maybe our destinies are not completely determined. Maybe we are not just dust in the wind.
Some braiders of life may be more skilled than other braiders. How about the relationship between skill and free will? Imagine a great musician. Why are they so good? Genetics? Practice? Both? And what are the odds a child will find a good teacher if she grows up in a poor family who has no extra money to pay for piano lessons, or if she has parents who are well off and sending her to a very fine Quaker school, and who studies piano privately three afternoons a week with Martha Argerich?
Is talent determined genetically, the family we are born into a matter of chance, and the decision to practice what we love a choice?
And what of love? Are marriages made in heaven or are they made here on earth? If marriages are made in heaven then what about divorces? Are they made in heaven too or are they made here on earth? Could I have saved my marriage? Or was divorce inevitable? Or were we just unlucky? Hmm…
Not so simple.
Some things we can do and some things we can’t. I think we can do our best to remain open, free from prejudice, free from dogma, free from grudges. It’s our job to attend to our openness. So when something comes along, good or bad, we are ready to respond, ready to receive, ready to give.
Freely choosing that which is required of us.
Still is not the same as immobile. Stillness is alive. For painters, objects are alive with texture, color, light, shape, dimension, weight, time. And they are always in relation to other objects and to gravity. They always exist in space. Objects sit. They rest.
Not only seeing, but feeling how objects exist in the world can help us. Objects know how to rest fully on the ground. They are not restless. They know how not to effort. They’re not afraid to make contact, to give and receive weight. They don’t try to change themselves, or to be different than they are. They take a kind of pride in their inherent structures, as if saying to us, “I am what I am.”
We could learn a lot about presence and peace from them.
In Gregory Golbert, Ashes and Snow, we get to see, to feel, what the possession of these qualities look like within humans and animals. We get to see that for which we long. We get to see what our modern Western way of life has abandoned, no, has never known. We get to see the unknowable.
And we recognize the unknowable, because we are seeing what exists deep within us.
The question arises, are we courageous enough to become this still, this quiet, this alive?
And if we were courageous enough, and if we did become this still, this restful, what would happen to us?
Can we know the unknowable?
Watch and see.
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 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.
Alexander Alliance International – Japan Retreat
Youfukugi Buddhist Temple, Yase Hieizanguchi
Autumn, November 23-25, 2012
Midori Shinkai, her graduates, and trainees are impressive. Well coordinated each and every one. Every one helps every one. Every one has a good time, learns seemingly without effort, though every one knows they work hard at what they love.
Every one is skillful with their hands. They’re fluid yet organized. They’re upright though not rigid. They’re light and substantial. They can sense with their hands, see with their eyes, feel with their hearts.
After a day of study every one relaxes together enjoying one another’s company. Up until 3am laughing and telling stories, eating everything from chocolate covered almonds, to surumeika, (yes, dried squid), to Ritz crackers, to umeshu, (plums marinated in wine for three years), well you get the idea – an international school in Japan. Sure some wine, or beer, or sake too, but not too much because…
8:30am is breakfast and at 9 morning movements begin. And there every one is, ready to go as if they had slept for 8 hours.
Alexander Alliance International Japan, Midori Shinkai, director, her graduates and trainees…as impressive and colorful as autumn leaves.
“So who was it? Who discovered zero?”
“An Indian mathematician; we don’t know his name. The ancient Greeks thought there was no need to count something that was nothing. And since it was nothing, they held that it was impossible to express it as a figure. So someone had to overcome this reasonable assumption, someone had to figure out how to express nothing as a number. This unknown man from India made nonexistence exist. Extraordinary, don’t you think?”
from The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa
photo: B. Fertman
What do these Alexander teachers have in common?
-Martha Hansen Fertman
– John Nichols
– Marjorie Barstow
– Eileen Crow
– Lena Frederick
– Celia Jurdant Davis
– Bryan Mckenna
– Elisabeth Walker
– David Gorman
– Bill Conable
– Tommy Thompson
– Nica Gimeno
– Marie Francoise Le Foll
– Doris Dietchy
– Anne Waxman
– Midori Shinkai
– Sally Swift
– Jeremy Chance
– Gilles Estran
– Judy Stern
– Barbara Conable
– Michael Gelb
– Glenna Batson
– Beret Arcaya
– Carol Boggs
– David Mills
– Frank Ottiwell
– Meade Andrews
– Pete Trimmer
– Michael Frederick
– Rosa Louisa Rossi
– Frank Sheldon
– Michael Mazur
– Lyn Charlsen
– Susan Sinclair
– Cynthia Mauney
– Jan Baty
-Rob and Zoana Gepner-Muller
– And no doubt a few others I cannot remember at the moment.
Answer: Each one of these 70 teachers was welcomed, and is welcomed, and taught either as a guest teacher, a former faculty member, or now teaches at The Alexander Alliance in America, Germany, Japan, or Korea, or served on the faculty at the Sweet Briar Summer Course in the Alexander Technique, which was required for Alexander Alliance trainees in America as part of their training.
Another Answer: I, and so many Alliance trainees, got to learn from all of them. How lucky to have studied with such an array of fine teachers.