Last week, in Seoul, Korea, my workshop theme was, The Physiology Of The Human Spirit.
Leonardo daVinci set out to discover the seat of the soul. No small task. He explored an area of the body known, in his time, as the sensus communis. Here, he plots the site of the sensus communis at the intersection of upright and diagonal lines seen within the tilted plane, at a point that marks the proportional centre of the skull.
DaVinci’s Sensus Communis
Leonardo saw the sensus communis as a point of convergence, a center from which all voluntary action was controlled – everything from running, to walking, to lifting an arm, to singing a song, to the smallest details of expression like smiling, or raising an eyebrow. For daVinci, the sensus communis was the locus of the human soul. Leonardo writes, “The soul seems to reside, to be seated in that part where all the senses meet, called the sensus communis, and is not all-pervading throughout the body, as many have thought. Rather it is entirely in one part.”
The work, developed by F.M. Alexander seems, almost mysteriously, connected to Leonardo’s insights. But Alexander went a step further. He evolved a way, through touch, of helping others to experience this center in themselves.
Here, in these images, you can see people coming into contact with their sensus communis, you can see them residing in a place where the soul sits, in peace.
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.
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?
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.
Long ago now, after teaching a workshop in Zurich, someone asked me what Alexandrian Inhibition was for me. I told her. Then, gently, a wise person, and Alexander teacher, Doris Dietchy, suggested to me that it was important to remain open to one’s experience of Alexandrian Inhibition changing over one’s lifetime. At that time, I was cocky enough to feel that I had the definitive definition down. Of course, Doris proved right, and I was, thankfully, wrong.
Almost everyone gets the initial idea that Alexandrian Inhibition is about pausing, taking a pause, a moment to get your internal directions going, to get yourself free and together. It’s a beginning. And it’s a trap. Beginners get into the habit of stopping their activity, and thinking a litany of words to themselves with little actual change, which means little Alexandrian Inhibition happening. And so it was with me too.
Then some students begin to realize that Alexandrian Inhibition is not the stopping of an action; it is the stopping of one’s habitual way of doing that action within the action. This changes everything. The student realizes that pausing the action is sometimes a pedagogical device, sometimes needed, to facilitate a constructive dis-integration of one’s habitual way of being, allowing for a re-integration of a deeper way of being. But, in itself, stopping an action carries with it no guarantee that a deep neurological shift in one’s body and being will occur.
As Marj Barstow once told me, as we were driving to yet another introductory workshop, “Bruce, it’s like this. Here we are driving down the road. You’re getting ready to bare left, because you believe that is the right way to get to where you are going. Then suddenly, while you are driving, you realize it is not the right way to go. So very delicately you lightly turn your steering wheel, power steering, and there you are, headed off in a direction that is going to save you some gas and get you to where you want to go. It’s that simple. You can’t be going in two directions at once. You have to not go in the direction you believed was right before you can go in the direction you may now suspect is more on track. That’s just common sense. Now, if you take that wrong turn and you get yourself really lost, you may have to pull off to the side of the road, stop driving, turn off your car, sit there, take out your map, and figure out where you are. Because how could you ever get to where you want to go if you do not have the faintest idea where you are going? You can’t. Chances are you’ll end up going around in circles. That’s what we do. If you don’t have your map, a reliable map, then you are going to have to rely on someone who knows the territory better than you do, and get a little help. Now, that is a simple example, but that is how it works.”
Marj was full of practical wisdom. And while this understanding of Alexandrian Inhibition still makes a lot of sense, and remains operable for me, I begin to have a deeper experience of Alexandrian Inhibition. Alexander said it something like this, as told to me by Buzz Gummere, one of my mentors for 30 years who studied with Dewey, F.M., A.R., Marj, and who was one humbly brilliant guy. He told me that one day Alexander told him that when in a fix, there are exciters and inhibitors firing away. And when push comes to shove, the exciters always win out, and we get into a lot of hot water. Even wars. And that is the crux of the problem right there. The exciters are winning out, and the inhibitors are losing. And when the inhibitors lose, we lose. Everyone loses. That’s how it is.” Living through a couple world wars, as Alexander did, can knock some sense into your head.
I read a lot, mostly novels. I’m beyond self-help. Hopeless. So I like a good story. I like the benefit of how others view the world. Here’s how Dostoevsky understood ‘Alexandrian Inhibition’ near the end of his life, as expressed in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.
I suddenly felt like it made no difference to mewhether the world existed or whether nothing existed anywhere at all…At first I couldn’t help feeling that at any rate in the past many things had existed; but later on I came to the conclusion that there had not been anything even in the past, but that for some reason it had merely seemed to have been. Little by little I became convinced that there would be nothing in the future either. It was then that I suddenly ceased to be angry with people…And, well, it was only after that that I learnt the truth.
Marj used to say to us fairly often,”All I’m trying to show you is a little bit of nothing.” Well, Dostoevsky is having an experience here of a vast amount of nothing. But it is not a negative nothing. It’s a positive nothing. So what could there be to get angry about? Now this is a man whose inhibitors have won. And so has he.
Here’s how I experience it. What we call “now” is simultaneously here and gone. That means any given moment simultaneously exists and does not exist. It’s arriving and leaving at exactly the same instant. These days I experience myself as simultaneously here and gone, as existing and not existing, as awake and dreaming, as living and dying. As our Zen Buddhist friends might say, form is emptiness, because to them form is emptiness and emptiness is form, simultaneously! This simultaneous experience of being substantial and insubstantial, this balance of being something and being nothing grants me composure, peace; I dare say, freedom.
But the instant I begin to favor, to try to hold on to the moment, to the here, to the now, to existence, to living, to form, I am unfree, bound, burdened, heavy, and prone to suffering. Life is leaving. And leave it must. And leaving without holding on, without regret, gratefully, fills me with a poignant love for life.
That’s what Alexandrian Inhibition is for this older man, now. Who knows what it will be for me tomorrow.