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Posts from the ‘sensory awareness’ Category

When The Child Was A Child

Messengers 

In Wings Over Berlin, two angels, invisible to humans, softly, silently offer comfort, sometimes, but not always, lifting the spell of isolation and despair from suffering human souls.

They touch humans lightly, tenderly. Through their empathic presence an opening, where there had been none, would suddenly appear, a way to go forward now lay before them.

from Wings Over Berlin

from Wings Over Berlin

In Hebrew malach means both messenger and angel. In Greek too, aggelos means messenger and angel.

Messengers send messages. A message is a communication through writing, speech, or signals of some sort. A little like the angels in Wings Over Berlin, we Alexander teachers convey messages through touch. A message can be an underlying idea. It can also be an inspiring or sacred communication.

Now I am no angel. I am hopelessly human. I am not always at peace. I sometimes butt heads with people. I am not a spiritual being. I have no wings. I live on the ground. But I think we can and do serve as messengers for one another. Sometimes, unbeknownst to us, we do something, say something or write something that helps someone. Others sometimes unbeknownst to them, do, say, or write something that helps us, that may even change our lives. We may not be angels, but sometimes we perform our angelic function as messengers.    

from Wings Over Berlin

from Wings Over Berlin

In our Alexander community we refer to teaching through “procedures.” How do we “proceed” to impart the principles underlying Alexander’s work? Some of us use the procedures Alexander developed. Some of us also use procedures other teachers have developed, like Walter Carrington’s saddle work, or Raymond Dart’s developmental movements, or Marjorie Barstow’s working in activity. Others of us use procedures we ourselves have developed. To my surprise, I seem to have evolved a procedure, a way to proceed, that enables people to make use of the principles underlying Alexander’s work under trying conditions and when coping with harsh realities. I call it Working Situationally.

When The Child Was A Child

When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it was a child. Everything was full of life, and all life was one. When the child was a child, it had no opinion about anything, no habits. It often sat cross-legged, took off running, had a cowlick in its hair, and didn’t make faces when photographed. – from Wings Over Berlin by Wim Wender and Peter Hendke

It’s not easy growing up. We have all known times when our arms stopped swinging, when the puddle was just a puddle. Times when we’ve felt exhausted, empty, our world shattered. Times when nothing was new under the sun, when we were unable to pick ourselves up from the ground, let alone take off running, when we put on yet another smiling face for yet another silly photo.

“When have you experienced yourself lost, without support, helpless and afraid,” I ask a group of fairly new Alexander teachers? “Can you see where you are, the situation you’re in; can you see what’s going on?”

Michiko, a small, middle aged woman in the back of the room says,“I’m going through a divorce. I have yet another session in court next week where I have to plea for the custody of my children. I am terrified of losing them.”

All eyes in the room lower at once.

“Thank you.” Let’s see if there is a way, through Alexander’s work to help ourselves when we really need it, when we’re feeling threatened, when our life’s hanging in the balance. How can we develop the wherewithal to be how we want to be in these situations, how not only to survive them, but to meet them?”

When The Master Is Home

“Michiko. Look around and see who can help you set up your scenario. Look and see who can help you, and how you can arrange the space.” Everyone springs into action. Seriously playful commotion fills the room. I sit back and watch as the space is transformed into a courtroom.

In the front of the room sits a judge. Michiko’s husband and his lawyer sit to the judge’s left, Michiko and her lawyer to the right. I’ve got a translator behind me, ready to whisper into my ear.

The judge begins. “We are here today to determine who is most deserving of the privilege of caring for your children. As you know I do not approve of divorce. I believe children should grow up with a mother and a father in the same house. But for whatever reasons, both of you seem incapable of doing this. Michiko, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“Judge, I am the parent who has spent the most time with my children. I am the one who cooks for them, who packs their lunches, who takes them and picks them up from school, who helps them with their homework. I am the one who does their laundry and who takes them shopping for sneakers and who gets out of bed at night when they have nightmares. I’m their mom.”

Yamato, Michiko’s husband blurts out, “And I am the breadwinner in this family. I’m the one that pays for the food you cook, who bought the nice car you drive to that top notch private school that I also pay for, not to mention the designer sneakers. I’m the guy that pays for the roof over your very head.” By the end, Yamato’s face is beet red.

It’s working. The scene’s been set up well enough that Michiko’s beginning to cringe from the sound of Yamato’s voice. But I don’t intervene. I want to see where this is going.

“Judge, Michiko says, right now I have 32 private piano students who I see every week. I earn enough money to take care of my own children. My children have already told you they want to live with me, that they don’t want to move to Tokyo, leave their school, and live with their father.”

“And I, the judge says, don’t appreciate your telling me again. I am well aware of what your children want, but they are children and have no idea as to what is, in the long run, best for them. The decision is up to me, not up to them, and not up to you.”

“They have also told you they are terrified of their father,” Michiko adds cowering.

“You liar! You total and complete liar, Yamato yells standing up and throwing his pen across the room, almost hitting Michiko in the face.

Terror. There it is, Michiko’s eyes frozen in fear. As she sits there, glued to her chair, her body looks weak and hopeless.

I quietly enter,  kneel down beside her, place my right hand softly over her shoulders and my left hand over her clenched hands that sit on her lap. “Michiko, let’s just freeze the frame here. Stay exactly as you are in your body and from the bottom up describe to me what you are sensing.” 

Michiko says, “I’m pulling my feet almost off the ground. My knees are touching and I feel like I’m jamming my thighs back into my hip sockets. My stomach is tight. I’m not breathing. The middle of my back is pressing against the back of the chair. My hands hurt. My shoulder blades are hunched up toward my ears, and my head is pressed down between them.” “Michiko, can you see the exact shape your whole body is taking, as if you were looking at a puppet?” “Yes, I can see it,” Michiko says. “Let me ask you, do you want to be like this?” “No, I don’t.” “You are now about a third of the way home.”

“Okay Michiko. If you are the one holding yourself in this position, then you are the one who can let go of holding yourself in this position. Let’s begin by letting your feet come back to the ground. What happens as you do that?” “My legs come down and my knees begin to separate a little.” I place the hand that was over her hands onto her left knee and then over to her right knee suggesting that her knees could release slightly away from her hip joints. I watch more air enter her lungs but say nothing about it. I quietly stand up behind Michiko, place my hands along the sides of her ribs and ask her to let the entire surface of her back spread out against the back of the chair. I feel more air coming into her lungs. I reach around and gently place my index finger onto the top of her sternum and from there gently guide her head back on top of her spine. Her eyelids flutter for a few seconds, followed by two slow blinks. Her eyes appear to settle back into their eye sockets. She’s calm.

“Okay Michiko. Now you are two-thirds of the way home. This next part I can’t help you with. Only you can do it. I want you to find out what would happen it you decided not to fight, not to flee, not to freeze, and not to fidget. Can you make the decision not to fight…not to flee…not to freeze…and not to fidget?” I wait and watch Michiko as she becomes deeply and quietly strong. “Can you sense what happens when you make that decision?”  “Yes I can.” “Good. Now be that decision.” 

I ask Yamato to continue.

Yamato looks at the judge and says. “Judge, my wife is lying to you. She’s a compulsive liar. That is what she does best. My kids don’t hate me.” Yamato turns toward Michiko, glares at her and says, “You wait. You just wait.”

Michiko’s body remains strong and open, her face calm. She’s breathing.“Quietly Michiko stands up, looks at the judge, and says, “Your honor, I’d like to submit for your judgement the evidence just set before you. Thank you for considering it.”

The judge turns, looks at Yamato, then at Michiko, and says nothing.  He appears to be reconsidering, reevaluating the situation.

“Michiko, I say. That is what it feels like when the master is home.”

Teaching Moments

In the Alexander Alliance, when we want to direct our student’s attention to pedagogy, to why we did what we did, or to why what we did worked or didn’t work, we make a T shape with our two hands, as if we were a referee at a football game. This means we are going to stop and step out of what we are doing and move into commentary.

“Okay class, what was Michiko’s goal?” “Not to lose custody of her kids.” “That’s right. That’s what she told us.”

“You can’t practice “the means whereby” unless you’ve got an end. Our work is about ends and means, about how we are being as we move toward our end, whatever that end may be. The idea is not to compromise the means for the end, not to sacrifice our integrity, no matter what happens. That’s the practice. That’s why I don’t like thinking about Alexander’s work as a technique. I think of it as a practice, because it’s hard, and I fail a lot. And sometimes I don’t. It takes practice.”

So let’s see if we can find the means whereby inside of what just happened. Where does it begin?” 

“You stopped everything.” “That’s true, and what is also true is that in real life you can’t stop a situation like that. You can’t say, “Okay judge. This is getting too intense. Let’s just take a pause here so I can calm down.” Here is an idea I want you to understand. Alexandrian inhibition does not necessarily happen just because you stop an action. It only happens when you succeed in stopping your habitual holding pattern within the action. So when I froze the frame, I only stopped the action. Stopping the action, freezing the frame, pausing, is a teaching device allowing me to slow everything down. So, what happened after I froze the frame?”

“You asked her what she was sensing.” “Right. Michiko shifts from being kinesthetically unconscious, to being kinesthetically conscious, which means she can now begin to sense how she is doing what she is doing. Once Michiko knows what she’s doing to herself, she has the chance of undoing it. As Marj Barstow used to tell us, “You have to know where you are before you can make a change.” So because she knew where she was, and because Michiko has had a good bit of training, she could pretty much come out of this pattern with only a little guidance from me.”

“I was sending her messages, I was fulfilling my angelic duty. Alexander called messages, directions. I think of messages as messages in a bottle that drift to the edge of the shore. You pick up the bottle, reach in and read the message. My first message to Michiko was, you are not alone, and then, Michiko, become aware of yourself, and then, come to your senses, and then, you’re one-third of the way home, and then, do you want to be this way, and so on. Messages were being communicated not only through my words, but though how I was in my own body and being, through the quality of my voice, and of course through touch, through her knees, and ribs, and sternum.  I was sending her messages and she made good use of them.

“And next?” “Well, all along you could actually begin to see Michiko’s primary movement emerging. As soon as her legs began to let go I could see her neck begin to free and her head poise returning, and I could see her whole body opening up and the air filling her lungs. But the most impressive change was her face, how the fear fell away.”

So far we have,

One, the goal, the end.

(the employment of freezing the frame, a pedagogical device and not necessarily part of the means whereby.)

Two, kinesthetic consciousness.

Three/Four/Five, Alexandrian Inhibition/Direction/Primary Movement.

In actual time, it’s virtually impossible to separate these. My words, my voice, and my touch helped Michiko let go, that is, neurologically inhibit. Within that letting go, though she likely did not think the words, ‘neck free, head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen, immediately direction was happening, because I was embodying and passing on, to the best of my ability, those directions through touch to Michiko, and because Michiko has had so much training, those directions were wordlessly operating within her primary movement. 

“And then?” You asked her to make a decision not to fight or flee or freeze or fidget. “Right. This is me preparing Michiko for the critical moment, for that moment when she’s going to want to go back to her old way of reacting to Yamato and to the judge. Michiko’s decision is going to have to be incredibly strong. Walt Whitman says it perfectly in Song Of The Open Road when he writes, Gently, but with undeniable will divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.  You can’t say it better than that. Erika Whittaker, when I asked her what Alexandrian inhibition was  answered me in one word. She said, “Inhibition is decision. It’s sticking to your decision against your habit of life.”

“So I’m watching to make sure Michiko is accessing tremendous inhibitory power within herself, and then I tell her, I send her a message, and that message is?”  To be that decision.  “Yes, because Alexandrian Inhibition is not something we can do. It’s only a way we can be.” 

Six, passing through the critical moment.

And then what happened?

Michiko responded to Yamato and to the judge the way she wanted. “And what do we call that in the Alexander world?” Choice? “That’s a good answer.” Freedom. “Another good answer. I have something else in mind.”

“We could call it Primary Control. For me Alexander’s Primary Control is the Great Protector. Imagine babies and toddlers. They are not well coordinated, but more often than not, they don’t get hurt. They scream, but they don’t hurt their voices. They fall, but rarely bang their heads. There is a force at work within them continually integrating them, keeping them whole as they gradually figure out how to coordinate themselves.”

“But as adults we lose touch with this integrative, protective force within us. When Michiko adhered to the means whereby she was protected. She didn’t disintegrate. She could function. She could say what she wanted to say the way she wanted to say it, without hurting herself, without fighting, without withdrawing, and with less fear. She could think on her feet. She could take care of herself, and to the best of her ability, her children.”

“Will she get custody of her children? Will she achieve her end? We don’t know. But we do know she was her best self in that courtroom. We watched her find her integrity, her dignity. We can’t entirely control how our lives unfold, nor the lives of our children. But with training, we can learn to attend to our integrity. And we can let our children see that. 

When the child was a child, it walked with its arms swinging. It wanted the stream to be a river, the river a torrent, and this puddle to be the sea. When the child was a child, it didn’t know it was a child. Everything was full of life, and all life was one. When the child was a child, it had no opinion about anything, no habits. It often sat cross-legged, took off running, had a cowlick in its hair, and didn’t make faces when photographed.

          

from Wings Over Berlin

from Wings Over Berlin

 

From Within And All Around

F. M. Alexander

F. M. Alexander

Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus. But no one will see it that way. They will see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. It is nothing of the kind. It is that a pupil decides what he will or will not consent to do. They may teach you anatomy and physiology till they are black in the face—you will still have this to face: sticking to a decision against your habit of life.

 F.M. Alexander from Articles and Lectures (white edition), Mouriz 2011, p. 197.

The post office was crowded. Every line seemed equally endless. I chose one, and of course it soon became apparent this line was at a standstill. The teller had just disappeared into the back room, not to return for fifteen minutes.

Standing in lines made me almost claustrophobic. We were required to stand in lines every morning at Pennypacker Elementary School. Standing in neat rows out in the cement yard, we’d wait for the loud buzzer to sound before marching into school. On a particular day, while standing in line, a bee began buzzing around my mouth. Hysterically, I jumped out of line and began dodging, and ducking, and swinging at the bee. A teacher came over, demanded I get back into line, and the moment I did the bee stung me on my bottom lip.

In the meantime, I had just injured myself. We were rehearsing for an upcoming performance until well after midnight. Having hardly slept the night before, I was beat. Coming down from a barrel turn, I landed on the outside of my foot, my ankle twisting under me. A physical trainer did his best to tape it, but after another sleepless night, it was still swollen and throbbing. Standing was difficult. A poor, old kindly man was standing in front of me. His clothes were worn and soiled. There was a strong smell of urine in the air that was impossible to avoid. 

I escaped into my thoughts. Images of a recent fight I got into with my girlfriend surfaced. It was over money. We were living together. The rent was due and we were short about $100. She wanted me to ask my parents for the money. I didn’t want to do that. We ended up  yelling at each other and I heard myself sounding just like my father. I hated that about myself, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to get control over it. I felt like a dog who, when the mailman walked by, had to bark, and basically had to go crazy. Certain situations pushed my buttons, and immediately there I was, barking and going crazy.

About 40 minutes later, I found myself next in line. I had just had an Alexander lesson earlier that week with Catherine Wielopolska, a trainee in Alexander’s first teacher training class back in the early 30’s. “Kitty” was telling me how Alexander’s work was not about physical culture, not about how to get up and down from a chair, but that it was about how we reacted to stimuli from within ourselves and from all around us.  Kitty had begun working with me on speaking. Speaking was a nightmare for me as a child. At six I began stuttering, which meant also dealing with the humiliation and shame that accompanied it. It was clear to me now that this was the source of the fierce habit I still had of jamming the back of my skull down into my neck, which ended up compressing my entire spine right down into my lower back, which all too often was a source of pain.

Consequently, when the time came to ask the teller for a book of twenty stamps I was determined not to go into my old speech pattern of thrusting my head forward. As the teller gave his customer his change and receipt, I stood there doing my best to free myself the way I had been learning to do from my teacher. But just as I stepped forward and opened my mouth to ask for a book of stamps, my head thrusted forward on its own. I no longer stuttered but that old stuttering pattern was still there, seemingly hard wired into my nervous system.

I asked for a particular series of stamps that honored great Black American heroes. The teller told me they were out of them. All that was left he said were the usual stamps with the American flag on them. I said okay. He looked in his drawer and then said he didn’t have anymore books of stamps, only rolls of a hundred stamps. I didn’t have enough money on me to buy a hundred stamps. I heard myself sigh and felt my head press itself even further into my spine. I was tired and frustrated. It seemed I was at the complete mercy of stimuli bombarding me both from within and without. More training, I thought to myself as a hobbled away empty handed.  More training.

I was twenty-three years old. The trying twenties. Little did I know I was embarking on a life devoted to self examination and self reflection. Meanwhile, I had to get some control of myself, and of my life. 

I set about categorizing stimuli in hope of making the whole enterprise more manageable.  We all lived in time and in space. We all had to move. We were always in contact with the world through our senses, whether we knew it or not.  And, whether we were with people or not, we were always with them. If they were not physically around us, they were in our minds or hearts. They were always in our past, and in our futures.

Time. Waiting. Hurrying. Deadlines.

Space. My fears of spatial confinement. My fear of heights. My inability to organize my things, my desk, my clothes. My utter lack of orienteering. 

Movement. My limitations as a dancer and martial artist. My being injury prone..

Senses. Mental preoccupation with my unresolved past, or my fantasies of some utopian future often took me out of my body and out of the real world. How to come back to my senses. 

People. Well, if it were any consolation, people seemed to be an issue for everybody. It was people above all, communicating with people, or rather mis-communicating with people that seemed to be the major source of pain in the world. Communication between husband and wives, parents and children, between siblings, bosses and employees, even between countries.

And then there was the world within, the amorphous world of thoughts, emotions, drives, and sensations.

Thoughts. Comparing myself to other people, being better than them, or worse than them. Thinking too much about myself, about my body, or about how great I was at this or that, or how terrible I was at this or that. 

Emotions. Little control over anger, frustration, or fear.

Drives and Sensations. Physical drives ruled the day; a visceral appetite, culinary and sexual, and an insatiable appetite for new experience. I couldn’t seem to get enough. As for physical pain. My father was a man who, when he woke up in the morning and did not feel absolutely perfect, concluded that something was seriously the matter. I inherited this gene.

I know. I’m beginning to sound like Woody Allen.

Years have passed, 42 to be exact, and after a lifetime of disciplined, and increasingly pleasurable study, I am happy to say I’ve made some progress. Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus, I hear Alexander saying.

Time. Rarely do I rush. I have learned to give more time to things and to people. But then again, I am no longer raising children. When I need to be somewhere and I am running late, I have learned to ask myself if I am late, and if the answer is no, then I stop rushing. And if the answer is yes, then I decide to move lightly and swiftly and enjoy myself.

I rarely wait. When I find myself waiting I simply stop waiting and the world, through all of my senses, returns and entertains me. I still find myself waiting when I want to say the next thing on my mind and my translator is still translating, but less so.  And I still, at times, interrupt people, but less so. I still wait when my computer is not moving as fast as I think it should. But I feel a little less exasperated. 

And yes, sometimes I will awaken from an afternoon nap anxious about dying. It doesn’t last long. Once I get up and start moving, I am fine. Most of the time I feel like I have all the time in the world.

Space. I am no longer afraid of heights. I have not been for years. In Osaka, where I live half the year, I love feeling myself part of the river of people streaming in and out of trains morning and night. I get comfort feeling myself huddled together with others. I don’t mind the middle seat on planes. I like sitting next to people. I have no problem standing in lines. I enjoy not waiting.

Movement. I’ve learned to move well, comfortably and enjoyably. I used to think that movement was the end all and be all. Now, ironically, I move well and I care very little about the way I move. Or about how others move. I care about how I am, and how others are. I’ve fallen in love with stillness. I love sitting quietly and doing nothing.

Senses. This perhaps above all is what I have found through my years of study, the sensory world. The world of lightness and darkness, of sound and silence, of coolness and warmth. Literally, I have come to my senses.

My appetites no longer have the hold on me they once did. My sexual self seems to have fallen in love with the world at large, the wind against my face, the warmth of the sun on my shoulders, the scent of pine in the high country, the sand under my feet, the taste of the ocean in my mouth.

Thoughts. My thoughts no longer harass me. I’m at peace with my past. Most of my future is behind me. I’ve made it this far. I trust I will figure the rest out as I go along. At some point, thanks in large part to Byron Katie, I learned that I am not my thoughts. I’ve learned not to believe everything I think. I know how to question thoughts, how to diffuse them and let them fall. Thank God for teachers.

Physical pain remains a challenge. And I still bark like a dog when the mailman goes by. Something tells me I’m not going to work everything out this time around. But then again, who knows?

During the last few years of my father’s life not once did I see him get angry. Not once. My Dad had evolved into a peaceful man.

In the last weeks of his life, while in the intensive care unit, he began looking like Gandhi. He’d sit in the chair next to his hospital bed, wrapped in a white blanket, his shining bald head and his round wire rimmed glasses looking out from above, smiling, never complaining of pain or discomfort, though his pain and discomfort were considerable.

More training, I say to my self, happily. 

Inside The Majesty

 

image45

Photo: B. Fertman Monument Valley – The Three Sisters

“Okay.  What’s a Movement Meditation? What do you think, I ask my class?”

It’s when you’re doing some kind of movement and you drop into the zone, like when shooting hoops, or doing Aikido, or running, or rock climbing.

I don’t think it has to be anything really fancy. Maybe I could be immersed in what I’m doing when I’m folding my laundry, or raking the leaves in my back yard.

Good examples. How about Kinesthetic Contemplation? What’s that?”

It could be when we are having a new sensation within us, a moving sensation, and we want to understand it, we want to know where it’s coming from, how it’s changing us, and what it means. So that makes it a form of contemplation.

Sounds good to me. How about a Senso-Spiritual Practice? We’re getting weirder and weirder.”

I think this one is simple. It’s like you’re taking a walk and you see a sunflower and you stop and look at it for a while. You see this incredible geometric pattern and you smell its perfume and feel how powdery soft it is and you get this feeling of it being totally miraculous, this simple sunflower. It almost makes me cry just thinking about it.

I love that example. Can someone give me another example?”

When I play Bach sonatas, which I do almost every morning, even though Bach wasn’t very religious, I hear something that feels sacred to me, like a river running into the sea. It’s hard to explain, but as the years go by, and the more I practice, the stronger this feeling gets. And this feeling opens me up. I think it actually makes me more loving.

Wow. That almost makes me cry just thinking about it. Anything else?”

Something happens to me when I get up early and go bird watching with my birder friends. The air is cool and fresh, and here we are, looking for these little birds, and some of them are so beautiful, like an indigo bunting, or a western tanager. And most of the time I’m so busy I just pass this beautiful world by. But when I’m bird watching my senses get finely tuned, my hearing, my seeing. Even my movements change. I can be still and silent for a very long time. And for some reason, at a certain moment, something comes over me and I feel grateful to be alive on the earth. I go home and my wife and kids are just getting up and I feel great. I’m in a great mood.

You see, maybe this one is not weird at all. Maybe the sensory world and the spiritual world go hand in hand, and maybe it’s so obvious we just miss it. Maybe this notion that the senses are physical and the spiritual is mental isn’t quite right. We go looking for our spirituality, God knows where, and there it is surrounding us all the time.  Maybe by better attending to our senses, we can more easily find entrance into the spiritual world. Sometimes I get sad thinking how little most cultures spend on the arts because art is a great way into senso-spiritual life, and nature is too.”

“Once, many years ago now, I was invited to Omega Institute in Upstate New York to teach a 5-day workshop. All the teachers who were giving workshops met the day before to get to know one another a little. A woman with the bluest, wisest eyes, a deep ecologist by the name of Joanna Macy was there. And a man, a tracker, by the name John Stokes was there with a few of his apprentices.”

“There was this burly guy with a thick beard, large forearms, and calloused palms who was as soft as a big teddy bear. He came up to me and asked me what I was teaching and I said something about sensory awareness.” He said, “That’s very much what I teach too, except I’m not the one who’s really teaching my students about their senses. The woods do that for me. How do you teach your students about their senses without the woods?”

Okay. Here’s the one no one can answer. What’s a Post-Proprioceptive Prayer?

Silence descends upon the room.

“You’re close. Can you say a little more?”

Well, proprioception has something to do with the position we are in, with knowing exactly where we are. So post-proprioceptive prayer…hmm…I don’t know.

Let’s begin at the beginning. This may take a while. I’ve got to go step by step. But it will be worth it, so hang in there with me.”

Pre-proprioception and Proprioception

When we are born, so I am told, as I have no conscious memory of this, we cannot identify what is our body and what is not. We don’t have an identity. We are not an “I”. We are a little bundle of sensation with no awareness that we are a bundle. Maybe Descartes was right when he said, “I think therefore I am.” Maybe there is no “I am” before we begin thinking. As a newborn we are alive but we don’t know we are alive. It’s a mystery to me how we transition from pre-proprioception to proprioception. Here are my musings on the subject.”

“Proprioception tells us our position or shape, for example it tells us if our elbow is flexed or straight. Proprioception tells us about location, where one part of our body is in relation to another part, and in relation to the body as a whole.  Your right arm may be flexed and you sense its shape, but is it over your head or by your side? Proprioception tells us about orientation. Where is our body in space? Are we lying down or are we standing up? And some might say that proprioception tells us if we are moving or not. I tend to associate movement with the kinesthetic sense. But in living it is almost impossible to separate touch, proprioception, and kinesthesia.”

“Close your eyes and slowly touch your nose with your index finger. Sense how you can kinesthetically feel that your finger is moving, but that your nose is not moving. The only way you are going to have any idea where your nose is, is through your proprioceptive sense.”

“So we enter this world and we have no clue about the shape of our body, or of any part of our body. And we’ve no clue where one part of our body is in relation to another part. And we have not the faintest idea where we are in relation to the environment, because we can’t tell the difference, we can’t differentiate. And as far as whether we are moving or still, well how could we possibly know what is moving, our mother or us, the bed or us. We are pre-proprioceptive.”

“But we come out into the world with a great sense of touch. We’re transitioning from relating to a fluid environment to a solid environment. We feel this. We start rolling against a hard surface. We’re experiencing gravity when we try to lift our formidably large heads. But we’re strangers in a strange land. If we’re lucky, we have people around who love us and love touching us a lot. We’re feeling a little squeeze on our calf, or a kiss on the cheek. Suddenly we are being squeezed around the ribs and lifted high above someone’s smiling face. People are putting us in silly looking clothes and increasingly, through almost constant sensorial research we are, literally, figuring out where we are.”

Extended Proprioception

Extended proprioception grows out of proprioception. The potential for extending proprioception is built into us, but we also have to work at it. Babies work at it. Children work at it. And adults work at it.”

“We extend proprioception when we can get an object to do what we want. It’s as if we extend our nervous system into the object, much as amputees with sensorialized prostheses are now able to do.  You can watch a baby learn to manipulate a baby bottle, pick up a pea, eventually write with a pencil, button a shirt, tie a shoe, ride a bike, fly a kite, and eventually drive a car. Oh no! You can see how persistently babies and kids work on extending proprioception.”

“Extending proprioception can get pretty sophisticated, playing a musical instrument, fencing, fly fishing, kayaking, knitting.” 

“Not only can we extend our proprioception into objects, which is exciting enough, we can extend our proprioception into creatures as well. When my daughter was hardly a year old I’d take her to see horses at a nearby stable and she’d go wild. In the worst way she wanted to touch those horses and sit on those horses. I’m convinced there’s a horsemanship gene. Watch a great equestrian and you will see extended proprioception, two creatures moving as one. Or watch  great Aikidoists, or great tango dancers.”

“This brings us to the relationship between extending proprioception and intimacy. It’s no mistake that dancing and courtship go hand in hand. Whether it is swing, or tango, or contact improvisation most humans love physical intimacy. It doesn’t matter whether this physical intimacy is sexual or nonsexual. Physical intimacy brings people literally and figuratively in touch with one another.”

“Paradoxically, proprioception helps us to differentiate ourselves from what is not us and, at the same time, it has the potential, when extended, to unite us with others and with the things of this world. It has the capacity to distinguish and to unify.”

“Marjorie Barstow, my mentor, once told me to watch my hands all through the day and see if I ever distorted them.” “Bruce, if you catch your hands looking ugly or distorted, if they wouldn’t look beautiful in a photograph, then stop right away, and you will see that you are distorting your whole body. Wait until you know exactly where you are, the relationship of the parts of your body, one to the other, as well as the shape of your body as a whole, and then release the distortion throughout your entire body and work out a way of using your whole body and your hands without distortion. Because when we are distorted, we cannot relate well to anything.”

“Marj was talking about proprioception and extending proprioception. Marj’s ability to extend proprioception was extraordinarily refined. She knew precisely where she was so when, as an Alexander teacher, she touched me it was as if I became part of her exquisite nervous system, and without any effort I became, like her, beautifully integrated. Her touch was intimate in that her hands did not feel separate from my body. They felt like they were under my skin, not on my skin. Her hands were a part of me. Yet her touch was non-sexual in nature. It was as if Marj was overlapping into me, like one circle intersecting another.  We were two people with one nervous system.”

“How are you doing? Are you following me? Do you need a break? I don’t usually talk this much, but this is a bit complex. Shall I go on?”

I get nods of approval, so I continue.

Prayer

Now we have some understanding of pre-proprioception, proprioception, and extended proprioception. Before we can understand post proprioception, and what a post-proprioceptive prayer is, let’s think about what it means to pray, and what is a prayer. Again these are just my musings on the subject.”

“When I was four years old I slept in a little room with a little window near the foot of my bed. My mom would come into my room and we’d pray. Quietly she’d say, and I would say with her, Now I lay me down to sleep I pray to God my soul to keep, and if I should die before I wake, If I should die! What is she talking about? I pray to God my soul to take.” And then finally, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. Bedbugs! What bedbugs! “After she would leave, I was wide awake. To calm down I would do my own praying. I would sit at the foot of my bed, on my knees, in seiza, and look up out my window at the few stars I could see. Only one star was red so I decided to pray to that star. A couple years later, I found out that my red star was a red light sitting on top of a radio tower. That was disappointing.”

“I would pray for things I wanted. I remember praying for a puppy dog, and when I finally got my soft, playful puppy, which I adored, I was soon infested with worms and before I knew it my puppy was gone. After that praying lost some of its appeal.”

“It wasn’t until I was considerably older, around thirty, that I actually began to pray for other people. I no longer believed in a God who could grant wishes, but I found myself wanting to be with people, in my heart and mind, that I cared about who were in need, as if I were keeping them company.”

“Many years later, after a particularly long, dark period in my life, I shifted into a different kind of praying. I completely stopped wishing or hoping for anything, for me or for anyone else. I was beginning to accept and appreciate exactly how things were.”

“If I was suffering, or someone else, rather than making a request I would ask a question. “If God is good, then what is good about what is happening now?” And then I’d become deeply quiet, do nothing, and wait without waiting for anything. Sometimes the answer would arise almost immediately and at other times not for weeks.”

“The more I began to experience everything as good, the more I found myself feeling grateful, often for little things I had up to now taken for granted, like being able to walk, or see, or having work that mattered to me, or that my kids were healthy. Just being alive rather than not, statistically speaking, seemed totally miraculous, and I found myself silently saying thank you almost all day long. And this thankfulness became a new, more mature form of prayer for me. It seemed I was almost in a perpetual state of prayer.”

“But there was one more shift yet to happen.”

“It’s a lot like when you first fall crazy in love with someone. You find yourself intoxicated, under a spell. Everything seems perfect because you are filled with this feeling of being in love with someone. Instead of writing thank-you letters all day long, I began writing love letters all day long!”

Post Proprioception

Step by step. We are almost there. Now we know what is pre-proprioception, proprioception, and extended proprioception. We know what mature prayer is, gratitude and love. Once we know what post-proprioception is, we can put it all together and you’ll know what I mean by a post-proprioceptive prayer.”

When we extend our proprioception exceptionally well we find ourselves in a harmonious relationship with an object, tool, instrument, device, or with nature, an animal or a person. There are however brief moments, when a merging happens, when we no longer feel as if we are in a relationship. We, as a separate I, are no longer there. It’s a post-proprioceptive moment. It’s as if we have reverted to a pre-proprioceptive condition, but it’s not pre-proprioceptive because we’re conscious of it. Often these moments verge on the ecstatic.”

“Ecstatic, in Greek, ekstasis, means a dis-placement, a removal from a proper place. Proper, as in proprio, as in property, means that which is you. So a post-proprioceptive moment is a felt dis-placement or absence of that which is you. In colloquial terms, it’s a moment when we are ‘blown away.’”

In Judaism we have a prayer you are supposed to say every night before going to sleep, and if you are lucky enough, at the moment you are leaving this world. It’s called the Shema. The Shema  means, as a Rabbi once told me, Listen, you person who wrestles with God, I will give you a hint. God is one, not two.”

“There was a woman with whom I was deeply in love. Sometimes I’d see her and spontaneously a poem would arise in me, fully formed. All that was left was to quickly write it down and give it to her. Here’s an example of a post-proprioceptive poem or prayer, written now long ago. Note the element of mergence, a felt dis-placement, of an absence self, and of gratitude.”

Have you ever been walking in the woods

Hearing no sound of a stream, and then suddenly you hear it?

Have you ever been walking for so long in the sound of the stream

That you cannot imagine how a sound could enter and fill you so completely,

Leaving no space for words

Or even for the thought of a stream sounding

Until the sound, streaming in your veins,

Sends the trees and rocks rolling into white clouds upon a hill

That meets your back in soft green grass, where you land,

Safely, staring up at the sky, so blue, wondering,

Not who you are, but that you are?

Post-Proprioceptive Prayer

Some people believe that this ability to enter into a post-proprioceptive condition is the basis for all religious sentiment.”

“Roman Rolland, a French dramatist, novelist, art historian and mystic was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915. He coined the term ‘oceanic feeling.’ It meant this felt experience of oneness or limitlessness. Freud’s opinion was that this oceanic feeling, felt by some people and not by others, was ‘merely’ a carry over of a primitive pre-egocentric feeling, what I would call a pre-proprioceptive condition. Rolland and other mystics would beg to differ. For the mystics this experience of oneness and limitlessness was not ‘merely’ primitive, not only primal but sacred.”

“Perhaps there is some connection between the unity a fetus experiences within its mother, the oneness experienced through sexual unity, and the oneness experienced through spiritual unity. God is one, not two.

“Here’s a Rumi poem that captures all three experiences of post-proprioception. How did he do that!”

The Freshness

When it’s cold and raining,

you are more beautiful.

And the snow brings me

even closer to your lips.

The inner secret, that which was never born,

you are that freshness, and I am with you now.

I can’t explain the goings,

or the comings. You enter suddenly,

and I am nowhere again.

Inside the majesty.

Translated by Coleman Barks

There you go, a post-proprioceptive prayer of the highest order.”

“Another one of my favorite mystics, Meister Eckhart, encourages us to practice shifting out of a proprioceptive condition into a post-proprioceptive condition. For him this is a spiritual practice.” Meister Eckhart writes,

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.

“Start with yourself. First we have to know where we are. First our proprioception must awaken and become accurate. That doesn’t happen all by itself. It takes study and practice.”

And take leave of yourself. What does this mean? What happens to us along the way is that we become ‘proprioceptively established.’ We have drawn an outline around where we are, and that outline becomes thicker and thicker and darker and darker, until it becomes like an exoskeleton separating ourselves from all that surrounds us. When this happens we can never change ‘where we are.’  We’ve locked ourselves in and lost the key. We can’t get out and nothing can get in. We are in a proprioceptive prison of the self.”

“Can we learn, gradually, to make our outline less thick, less dark? Can we learn to erase it? I think we can. You see, it’s as if  we are living our lives constantly inside of parentheses*. What would happen if we could delete our parentheses?  Let’s look.”

I go up to the whiteboard, pull the top off of a blue magic marker, and begin writing.

This is me.

(bruce fertman)

Without the parentheses, this is me:

bruce fertman

Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, take leave of yourself. 

We have mistakenly come to identify ourselves with the parentheses that contain us. Take note. Meister Eckhart does not tell us where to go. He simply says, Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, take leave of yourself. He doesn’t say, take leave of yourself and then go here. He doesn’t say, take leave of yourself and then do this or don’t do that. Our only job is to, one, examine ourselves, know where we are, and two, take leave of where we are. He’s having us practice a shifting from a proprioceptive sense of self to a post-proprioceptive way of being with the world.”

This is the best way of all, he says. Meister Eckhart is saying there is nothing better. This is as good as it gets. That has been my experience too.”

“A dramatic image for taking leave, for transitioning from proprioceptive life to post-proprioceptive life is that of a cicada metamorphosing out of its shell. One really gets the feel of a creature taking leave of itself.

image46

“Now we can’t always experience so dramatic a metamorphosis. Some of us may never experience such a dramatic transformation. To do so usually requires hitting bottom, surviving a dark night, enduring a long bardo, traversing the seven terraces of purgatory.”

“But transformation can be gradual as well. We can, little by little, emerge from ourselves. As Walt Whitman writes in Song Of The Open Road, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.”

When I work with you that’s what I am doing. I’m gently using my hands to help you divest yourself of the holds that hold you. I’m helping you to erase your outline, delete your parentheses and when this happens I hear some of you sometimes say, I don’t feel like myself.  This is not me.”

“That’s why when I work with you I will sometimes change one side of you and not the other. In other words, I’ll help you remove one parenthesis and not the other. I’ll ask you to draw an imaginary line down through your center, dividing right and left, and I’ll ask you Who are you on this side, and who are you on that side?”

I write on the board.

(Who are you on this side? And who are you on that side?

“Let me work with some of you now, just on one side, and let’s see what happens.” Everyone stands up, and I get to work.

I feel older on this side and younger on the other side.

This person on the left feels scared and that person on the right feels confident. 

This person is a fighter, and this person is a listener. 

I feel like I’m trying to be invisible on this side, and on this side I want people to see me.

This is what I mean when I speak of becoming less proprioceptively established. You are beginning to question the establishment, the ‘static quo.’  You are unfixed, in motion now, spreading into a free and unknown future, a future not wholly determined by the past.”

“Would you like me to give you some post-proprioceptive prayers to take home with you?” “Yes,” they say. I hand each of them a sheet of paper with seven post-proprioceptive prayers. “Some of these may be accessible to you and some may not. Play with them for a few weeks and see what happens.”

They begin reading.

One. 

Take a walk everyday and delete your parentheses as you take in what is all around you. That’s simple.

Two. 

Lie down on the floor, splayed out. Imagine that a friend of yours has a piece of black charcoal. Beginning at the top of your head they start to draw a black outline on the floor working down one side, tracing around your head, down your neck, along the outside of your arm all the way down to your hand, in and out of each finger, up the inside of the arm, way up into the arm pit, down the torso, down the leg, around the heel, up the inside of the leg, across the pelvic floor, and just keep going until you make your way back to where you began. Sense how that feels then repeat it two or three times, each time making a thicker and darker outline. Sense how that feels.

Then imagine you are very large, like a large land mass, and all around you in every direction is  land that just goes on forever.  Hundreds of years go by and gradually the sun bleaches away the dark outline, the winds blow away the outline, the rains wash the outline away until it’s completely gone and there’s nothing separating you from all that is around you every direction.

Three. 

When you are in a train, or a car, or a plane, whenever you happen to find yourself sitting next to a stranger, delete your parentheses. Sense how that feels. Then imagine a large hula hoop a place both yourself and the person next to you inside of the hula hoop and just rest inside the hoop together.

If you are brave enough, sit down next to a person who you feel some aversion toward, a seriously obese person, a mentally or physically challenged person, (that’s all of us), someone who looks homeless and unkempt and sit next to them. Delete your parentheses. Sit inside your imaginary hula hoop with them.

Four. 

You can do the following lying down, or sitting, or standing or walking, which basically is all humans do. Imagine, and when I say imagine I don’t mean seeing a picture on the movie screen inside your head, I mean kinesthetically imagine the movement within your body, and proprioceptively imagine your shape changing.  Imagine your whole body is bread dough rising, rising omni-directionally, getting lighter and more spacious within itself.

Five. 

This one is good when sitting but feel free to experiment. Imagine your whole body is a sponge. Imagine it’s soaking up warm water from a deep puddle below and the more it soaks up the softer and wider and deeper it becomes. There is so much water to soak up so the water seeps and soaks its way higher and higher as the sponge swells getting wider and wider, fatter and fatter, fuller and fuller, until the entire sponge can accept no more water. It’s important to take all these images right up to the very top of your head and beyond.

Six. 

Imagine from high above you sand pouring finely down through a kind of funnel, pouring finely down through your “whales spout,” where the soft spot, the posterior fontanelle, is on an infant. Gradually the sand begins to make a little pile on the ground. As the sand continues, which it does for a long time, the little pile gets bigger and bigger. The sides of the pile make a perfect angle of repose. The sand continues to pour down until the point of the pile is about a foot above your head.

Seven. 

Go for a walk. First sense that the environment is all around you and that you are inside the environment. Walk that way for a while. At a certain moment play with reversing it. Imagine that the entire environment all you can see and hear and smell is within you and you are all around it. Everything is in you. See what happens.

“Okay. We are finished for the day. Let me leave you with one last image.”

I get my laptop and bring up a photo I took some 20 years ago of a church built around 1744, the Santa Rosa de Lima, a mile south of Abiquiu, New Mexico.

“Imagine you are the window frame,” I say to my students who all look decidedly softer and more open than they did when they entered the room this morning. 

“Who would you be without your frame?”

                               

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

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.

On Becoming A Person

Carl Rodgers

Carl Rodgers

There’s an advantage in not understanding a word people say. My students for the weekend, all Japanese psychologists, after a good amount of preparation the day before, were getting ready to show me what it’s like for them when they work with their patients. The therapists who would be in the role of the patients had learned a lot about who they were and how they were to behave. One of the therapists works in jails with prisoners. Another goes to homes where depressed teenagers will not come out of their rooms. Another assists in a community center for poor, mentally vulnerable people who can’t find a place in the world. Another for victims devastated by domestic violence and sexual abuse.

I’m not going to know a word you are saying, I tell them. I don’t want to know. I can be of more help to you if I don’t. My job is to track what’s going on somatically, in a silent realm between body and being.

And so it begins….

The Boxer

Yoshie is sitting across from a patient who’s angry, and taking it out on her. I’m standing far away, as I often do, off to the side, in my students blind spot. At some point Yoshie’s torso collapses on the right side, the bottom of her ribs dropping down closer to the top of her pelvis. Her head has shifted over to the right too. She looks concerned. After about thirty seconds, Yoshie shifts her ribs diagonally up and over to the left, this time lifting them up away from the pelvis. She’s over straightening and pulling her neck back, and lowering her chin, appearing wary, perhaps skeptical.

This dropping down to the right, then shifting and pulling up to the left repeats itself several times. Suddenly I see it, a boxer dodging punches, ducking down to the right, pulling back to the left. Yoshie’s doing her best to avoid being hit.

Still in Yoshie’s blind spot I silently walk over, quickly but gently placing one hand over her hands and the other on top of her head as I quietly tell Yoshie to stay there for a minute. (If I don’t place my hands there before I ask a person to stop, invariably they immediately try to correct themselves.) Yoshie’s now frozen, sculpture like, ducking down to the right. Yoshie, this is where you spend a couple hours every day. Now where do you go when your body gets tired of being here? Without any hesitation she pulls up and over to the left. And here is where you spend another couple hours a day. She slowly nods her head. She’s getting it. Yoshie, why do you think you do that? I’ve no idea she says, but I can feel that I do this a lot.

Would you like to know what it looks like to me? Hai, she says. It looks like you’re a boxer dodging punches. I show her her movements with my arms up like a boxer. Then I show her the same movements again with my arms down. Yoshie covers her mouth with her hand, as most Japanese women do, and lets out a big laugh of recognition. She looks, at once, ashamed,  amused and relieved. Okay Yoshie-san, would you like to try something different? Hai, she says. Let’s sit smack in front of this patient. I get her hips back in the chair, get the chair to give her some back support, and bring her into her full stature. She looks about twice the size. Now, see what happens if you decide to look easily but squarely into your patients eyes, and no matter what your patient throws at you, you will remain in front of her, resting inside of this soft, powerful, fullness. Have you decided? Have you made a commitment to yourself? I wait until I can see she has. Looking at the patient I say, okay, let her have it. Everyone is waiting for the patient to explode. Nothing. We continue to wait. Nothing. What’s the matter I ask the patient? I can’t yell at her. She’s right in front of me and I can’t yell at her. She’s a person. I just can’t do it.

The Bead Maker

Kyoko’s working at a community center for poor, mentally troubled people. She walks over to a table where a couple patients are making necklaces. The patient on the right, frustrated, slightly hysterical, asks Kyoko to help her string a tiny bead. Keiko bends way over, rounding her back like a question mark, pulls the string and the bead very close to her eyes, looks over the tops of her glasses, her head just inches away from the patients head, and begins stringing the bead. Kyoko’s totally into what she’s doing, so she doesn’t notice me next to her. Softly, I place one hand on the top of her head, the other on her upper back and quietly ask her to just be there for a moment. This is what you do, I say without judgment. Just sense it and take it in. How about we go about this another way? What do you think?  I get a nod, Hai. Consent.

Pull up a chair. Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. She rounds over in the chair much the same way as she does when she is standing up. At the same moment, both patients start asking her for help. I can see her panicking and feeling like she’s got to work quickly. Keiko, you’re doing well. Let’s take a little break. Follow my hands. I give a slight impulse around her neck and her spine uncurls. With my hands, I invite her shoulders to open apart, and I ask her just to look at her patients from where she is now. I’m so far away, she says. Well, yes and no, I say. You are sitting at the table with them. You’re on the same level with them. They’re right here. Let’s continue. They both start to talk. Keiko turns to the patient on her left and calmly listens, and looks at the problem. I’m not rushing, Keiko says. When there’s space, there’s time. It just works that way, I say. Let’s continue. The patient on the right is supposed to continually interrupt, but instead she’s just sitting there waiting.  I know I am suppose to give her a hard time, but I can’t do it. I just don’t want to do it.

The Prisoner

Ridiculing Makoto, making snide remarks, the prisoner sits there feeling superior. Makoto looks hurt, weak, helpless. It looks to me like they’re both behind bars, both imprisoned, both locked in their own worlds.

My eyes immediately go to Makoto’s legs, so lifeless. They look like the legs of someone who cannot walk, who hasn’t walked for years. Toes turned inward, knees fallen together, stomach compressed, chest hollowed out, shoulders curled and drooping forward. Her body almost looks like it’s sunken in a wheelchair, but there is no wheelchair. Above her caved in body is a beautiful face. Makoto’s mouth and full lips stand out, literally, pushed gently forward in space, while her eyes seem to recede back. There’s something almost overwhelmingly kind and tender about her. This large, beautiful, expressive face, and below a body deflated, without support, without structure.

It takes about fifteen minutes. Slowly, from the bottom up, I build her structure, as if I’m building a wall. Makoto, this is your left foot. We want it to live on the left side of your body, away from the midline. This is your right foot. It lives on the right side of your body, in another hemisphere. This is East pointing to the left, and this is West pointing to the right. And so it is with your ankles and your lower legs and your knees, living on different sides of the planet, with an immense ocean between them. (In reality her legs are now apart but not far apart, nothing that would draw attention. But for her it feels enormous.) My hands are touching each part of her body as I mention them, as if I am introducing her to her body for the first time. From under your feet up to your knees constitute 25% of your height. These are your knees. They’re the largest joints in your body. They’re huge. These are your thighs, from your knees to your hip joints. They’re big, made up of the most powerful muscles in the body, constituting another 25% of your height. They too live in separate hemispheres with the Pacific Ocean between them. This is your pelvis, sitting bones, hip joints, sacrum, iliac crests. This is your spine, lower back, middle back, upper back, neck, head, the remaining 50% of your height. This is your arm structure, clavicle, scapula, shoulder joints, humerus, ulna, radius, wrists, palms, fingers. Makoto, your outstretched arm structure, from finger tip to finger tip, your wing span, is as wide as you are tall. This is your body. This is the size of your body.

I touch her lips, ever so lightly, with the tip of my index finger. This is your mouth, your lips, and you have them protruding a little in front of your face. I place my other index finger on the corner of her eye. And here are your eyes. Can you feel how they are falling back in relation to your mouth that’s sliding forward? I can see her exact moment of recognition. Such a beautiful moment. The mind connecting to the body. Hai, I feel it. Great. Now this is likely to feel very strange but give it a go. Follow my hands. I guide Makoto’s head, as it seems to rotate around like a ferris wheel. Effortlessly, the mouth circles slightly down and under while the eyes rise up and over the top. I feel like a king on a throne, Makoto says. Not a bad thing, I say. You don’t look like that. You just look like a strong, kind person. Okay, Makoto, I want you to say something to this man, but I don’t want the words to come out of your mouth, I want them to come out of your eyes. Make a decision, and let that decision spread through your whole body, to leave your mouth, without effort, exactly where it is. As soon as Makoto even thinks about saying something I can see her mouth begin to protrude forward. It takes several tries, each time asking her to decide deeply. Let that decision spread through your body as if it were streaming through every vein in your body. I glance at the prisoner and notice that his body no longer looks rebellious. There’s no smirk on his face. Makoto is silent for a while. I can see it. She’s sticking with her decision against a fierce life habit. Then she says something. I don’t know what. But what I do know is that she spoke from a place of compassionate authority. And I do know that, at that moment, the bars were gone, both the therapist and the patients bodies were unlocked. They were free.

And so it went for the remainder of the workshop. After the workshop some of us go out for dinner.  Masako, the organizer of the workshop, tells me that psychotherapy in Japan is primarily founded on the work of Carl Rodgers. Listening and empathy. I smile remembering when I was 25 years old reading, On Becoming A Person, and feeling like Carl Rodgers was my Dad. On every page I could hear his voice talking to me from some deep place of love and kindness. I remember wanting to be like him. And maybe, 40 years later, I have become a little like him, sitting there, seeing the beauty in both therapist and patient, helping them to listen and empathize with their whole bodies, watching them, together, becoming who they really are.

The Culmination Of Character

the culmination of character

According to Aristotle, the psyche, (meaning soul, breath, animating spirit, mind), is the form of the body, in that it forms the body, is the origin of its movements, and is the body’s final aim and purpose. The psyche sculpts the body, yet is itself without body, and therefore cannot be located in, or reduced to, a particular organ, or cell, or gene.

James Hillman, in The Force Of Character, compares the body and the soul to a sock.

Take, for instance, your favorite pair of wool socks. You get a hole in a heel and darn it. Then you get a hole in the big toe – and you darn that too. Soon the darned holes are more of the sock than the original wool. Eventually, the whole darned sock is made of different wool. Yet, it’s the same sock.

A human body is like that sock, sloughing off its cells, changing its fluids, fermenting utterly fresh cultures of bacteria as others pass away. Your material stuff through time becomes altogether different, yet you remain the same you. There seems to be an innate image that does not forget your basic paradigm and that keeps you in character, true to yourself.

If what outlasts the wool is the form, then a preoccupation with physical decay – with where the sock is wearing thin – misses a crucial point. Sure, the sock is showing holes, and stitching up its weak places keeps it functional. But our minds might more profitably be thinking about the mystery of this formal principle that endures through material substitutions.

There comes a time when we look into the mirror and wonder who that old person is staring back at us. It’s as if our bodies no longer reflect who we are. They don’t express who we feel ourselves to be, internally. There’s a distinct and disturbing mismatch. There’s a sense of being estranged from our own bodies. Then it hits us and the question arises, Yes, I need this body, but am I this body?

Ultimately, the body is not about the body. The physical is not exclusively about itself, not for humans. The soul is the body’s final aim and purpose. There lies within us a metaphysical dimension that seems not to wither with time. To the contrary, the soul seems to mature, to evolve, to become ever more vital. And thus, the mismatch. Outside we are becoming stiff, inside more flexible, outside, weaker, inside, stronger, outside, ragged, inside, refined.

As we become older the body can do less, but can empathize more, and not just with people. The senses become mediums of communion. Boundaries blur. It’s as if we become a host for the world around us. We open our sensory doors and welcome the world in; we let everyone and everything fill us. The emptier we become, of ourselves, the more completely the world can enter and fill us, sometimes to the point of total identification with the world at large. No longer identified with ourselves, we’re overcome with a joyful neutrality. We’re free.

Shortly before he died, Carl Jung wrote, I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am distressed, depressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once, and cannot add up the sum. I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgment about myself and my life. There is nothing I am quite sure about…

When Lao-tzu says: ‘All are clear, I alone am clouded,’ he expresses how I now feel. Yet there is so much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, essences of people. The more uncertain I have grown about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things. In fact it seems to me as if that alienation which so long separated me from the world has become transferred into my own inner world, and has revealed to me an unexpected unfamiliarity with myself.”

When my dog Amy was old, so old that she could not walk, was incontinent, could not hear, or see, I still cared for her because when I held her in my arms and carried her out into the yard and lay her down on the green grass where she could feel the breeze blow through her fur, I knew her body was doing what it was intended to do, to bring joy to her soul.

Yes, the day came to put Amy down. She died in my arms, and the moment she did, she was gone. Her body had done its job, and done it well. Anyone who has held someone and felt the moment of their dying knows that a person is not their body. In that moment, immediately, the body becomes unreal, like a wax figure of someone who once was and will never be again.

So let us remember, especially as our bodies begin to falter, why we have them, why they outlast their beauty and their skillfulness. Bodies last beyond their usefulness to give us as much time as possible to reach their final aim and purpose; the maturation of soul, the culmination of character.

Meditations On The Sensory World

DaVinci's Sensus Communis

DaVinci’s Sensus Communis

There are three senses most of us know little about.  They’re rarely acknowledged or consciously cultivated. They’re vital to us and we could not live without them. They’re senses that tell us more about ourselves than about the world. We learn hardly anything about them in school, not even their names. Perhaps we don’t know much about them because, long ago, many religions began to belittle the body, sometimes to the point of perceiving the body as vile, even demonic. The spirit and the body were divorced.  The spirit was higher and holy, the body lower and lowly. The spirit was etherial and eternal, the body material and transitory. That which was material was of less worth, soulless, and those who took care of and nurtured the material world also were of less worth, and therefore subject to exploitation.

Perhaps we don’t know much about these three senses because our modern world is greatly influenced by the scientific model, which often concerns itself, brilliantly so, with the observation, predictability, and control of external nature. As for arriving at objective knowledge of subjective experience, science finds itself on shakier ground.  To add to the confusion, secular society has virtually deified what I refer to as “the cosmetic body”, encouraging a preoccupation with how we look. This draws attention away from appreciating how our bodies work. The cosmetic body distracts us from noticing and feeling what our real bodies do for us, how devoted they are to us, how they continually serve us, how they do everything within their power to keep us alive.

Our institutions of learning lack the knowledge and the sophistication needed to educate our children about how their bodies work, how to take care of them, how to use them, how to respect them, and how to love them. Fortunately, as adults, we can choose to round out our education.

The three senses I have spent a lifetime studying, the intrapersonal senses, are the kinesthetic sense, proprioception, and the tactile sense. These senses tell us about where we are, and how it feels to us to be doing what we are doing, as we are doing it. Neurologists and physical, speech, and occupational therapists know a good bit about these senses, because when these senses are impaired, like when a person has a major stroke, or a severe spinal injury, everyone knows life is going to get seriously challenging. People get acutely disoriented, often depressed. They can’t do a lot of things they took for granted, like knowing where their limbs are, or being able to lift an arm, or hold a fork, or speak, or balance.  Neurologists and therapists will then work, as best they can, to restore these senses. God bless them for what they do, day in and day out.

We are taught that touch is one of the five senses that tell us about the world. This is true. But it has a dual function. Touch tells us both about the world and about ourselves, because all touch is mutual, 100% of the time. The fact that we perceive ourselves as touching things in the world, without sensing that whatever we are touching is touching us back, (giving us information about ourselves), is due to how we are educated, to the almost exclusive value we place on the external world to the neglect of  intrapersonal life. Touch is our unifying sense, the sense of togetherness, of closeness, of intimacy, of connection, of kinship with the world, of union and communion.

So, what would happen if we took people with adequate tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive senses, and trained these senses to function at exceptionally high levels, at extraordinarily high levels? What if these senses became, accurate, reliable, open, refined, awakened? How would we experience the world? What would it feel like to be alive?

What if we then trained people to be able to simultaneously use those senses that tell them about themselves; kinesthesia, proprioception, and touch, with those senses that tell them about the world: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch? What if all the “inlets” were open?

…for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this Age.

William Blake

What if we could create sensory consonance within ourselves? What if we could become synesthetes? What if we did discover what DaVinci longed to discover, the Senses Communis, the union of the senses, the seat of the soul?

If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to us as it is… infinite.

William Blake

As Alexander teachers, let us not aim too low. As important as bodies are, as debilitating as bad backs can be, let us remember the breadth, the width of Alexander’s work. Let’s take this task upon ourselves, and educate ourselves accordingly.