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Striking Out In The Wrong Direction

crossroads1

To those who know me and love me, who have helped me over and over again to get to where I am trying to go. Ironically, I am likely to be remembered for my exquisite sense of direction within the body, and for my utter and complete lack of direction within the world around me. At last, I’ve found a kindred spirit, also “spatially dyslexic.” Paul Auster writes:

“Always lost, always striking out in the wrong direction, always going around in circles. You have suffered from a life long inability to orient yourself in space, and even in New York, the easiest of cities to negotiate, the city where you have spent the better part of your adulthood, you often run into trouble. Whenever you take the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan (assuming you have boarded the correct train and are not traveling deeper into Brooklyn), you make a special point to stop for a moment to get your bearings once you have climbed the stairs to the street, and still you will head north instead of south, go east instead of west, and even when you try to outsmart yourself, knowing that your handicap will set you going the wrong way and therefore, to rectify the error, you do the opposite of what you were intending to do, go left instead of right, go right instead of left, and still you find yourself moving in the wrong direction, no matter how many adjustments you have made. Forget tramping alone in the woods. You are hopelessly lost within minutes, and even indoors, whenever you find yourself in an unfamiliar building, you will walk down the wrong corridor or take the wrong elevator, not to speak of smaller enclosed spaces such as restaurants, for whenever you go to the men’s room in a restaurant that has more than one dining area, you will inevitably make a wrong turn on your way back and wind up spending several minutes searching for your table. Most other people, your wife included, with her unerring inner compass, seem able to get around without difficulty. They know where they are, where they have been and where they are going, but you know nothing, you are forever lost in the moment, in the void of each successive moment that engulfs you, with no idea where true north is, since the four cardinal points do not exist for you, have never existed for you. A minor infirmity until now, with no dramatic consequences to speak of, but that doesn’t mean a day won’t come when you accidentally walk off the edge of a cliff.”

Paul Auster from Winter Journal

Eva Ehrenberg

Eva with her Alexander Alliance Quilt.

Eva with her Alexander Alliance Quilt.

For Eva’s family and friends, and for the Alexander Alliance,

As the years go by, it becomes ever clearer that the Alexander Alliance is more than a place where people learn about the Alexander Technique.

In 1982, Martha and I had no idea the Alliance would become a haven of deep support and love for so many people, in so many ways, over so many years. In a community the size of the Alliance something is always happening – relationships beginning, others ending, someone gets a new job, and another is losing theirs, someone’s life seems finally to be coming together, while someone else’s life appears to be falling apart.  A baby’s on the way into the world, and at the same time someone’s life is coming to an end.

But no matter what is happening to us, there will be people close by who will celebrate with us, or comfort us. There will be someone near who we can turn to, talk to, confide in, that will do their best to help us out.

When Eva Ehrenberg came into the school I remember her as a gentle, though frightened person, a person who felt wounded and vulnerable. A lone, scared deer in a dense woods. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, Eva began to change. By the time she graduated, four years later, Eva was lighter, less fearful, less fragile, willing to try new things. She laughed more, worried less. I remember how, when Eva first joined the school, she refused to practice tai chi, due to it’s martial underpinnings. It was against her non-violent philosophy. But on the last days at the school, she changed her mind, and started learning the form and was loving it. She’d become more flexible, more open, in a word, happier.

The journey each person takes through the Alliance is a different one. It’s not always the journey we expect, but it’s the journey life deems we need.

For many of us, even after we graduate, the Alliance remains a real part of our lives. It did for Eva. The Alliance helped carry Eva through until the end of her days. And in so doing, the Alliance became stronger.

Thank you Eva for being a part of us,

Bruce Fertman for The Alexander Alliance Community School

Homeland

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Most people don’t know I’m “half Korean.” They don’t know I spent hours feeding and staring into my Korean babies faces. They grew up feeling they looked like me, and I grew up feeling I looked like them. They became Caucasian, and I became Asian. Years back, I taught annually in Korea at Music Camps for kids. I felt right at home. Everyone looked like my kids, like me. It’s great to be invited back to teach again, this time for the general public. Thank you Sungwan Won for inviting me back to one of my homelands.

Letters To A Young Teacher – All That Goodness

Photo: Tada "Anchan" Akihiro

Photo: Tada “Anchan” Akihiro

Letters To A Young Teacher – Continued…

Here’s a question: When there is an absence of fear, what opens up for you? What presents itself?
Teach from there.

Right now I think curiosity arises when there is an absence of fear. But the curiosity is from the absence of fear, not the path that works with fear when it’s present.

I see what you mean. When you are not afraid, you are in touch with your curiosity. No problem. But what you are wondering about here, (what you are curious about because you are not afraid), is what path do you take when you are afraid. How do you cope with your fear when you are afraid?

Fear, trepidation, anxiety are emotions I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, particularly in regards to the technique, and teaching the technique. How do I work with those emotions when I am teaching, and experiencing them? What do I do in the moment? Those aren’t necessarily questions I expect anyone to be able to definitively answer, but they’re questions I’ve been posing to myself.

Finding a good question to pose is key, and you’ve found one.

When I’m working with a student I’m able to continue despite my fear, but it becomes more overwhelming when I’m putting my hands on a teacher.

Ah, yes. Why is this? Why do so many of us get scared when working with a teacher? Alexander had a hunch. That we want to be right, recognized as good, praised, liked, approved of. That we don’t want to be seen or judged as wrong, untalented, stupid, slow, bad. That we don’t want to be unvalued, unappreciated, rejected. We all want to please our teacher, (or our mom, or dad, or any authority figure), and we’re afraid we won’t.

Of course, if the teacher tends to be overly severe, destructively critical, unkind, unskilled at giving constructive feedback, our task becomes that much more challenging. But not impossible. And if we are also overly severe, destructively critical, unkind, and unskilled at giving constructive feedback to ourselves, or to the teacher, then our task becomes that much more challenging. And this is how so many of us are toward ourselves and others in situations like these.

So what to do when, there you are, afraid, and working with a teacher. There’s a lot of ways into a solution. But let’s see if we can keep it simple.

You know that quote from Rumi, Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. How can we get ourselves into that field? Because inside of that field lies less fear. Erika Whittaker, the person who studied Alexander’s work longer than any human being, even Alexander, told me once that Alexandrian inhibition was decision. I did not get this for quite awhile, and then I did. You make a decision like, “Next week when I work with my teacher my decision, my hearts desire, is to live inside this field of no rightdoing or wrongdoing. You can’t make the decision lightly. You’ve got to sit with it, inside of it, maybe for days. This decision has to sink down to the bottom of your soul. Then, as Alexander said, you do your best to stick to that decision against your habit of life. When you are living inside that decision, even for a minute, inside of that minute, you are free, free from your fearful life habit. That’s a huge accomplishment, reason for a party, I tell my students. If you’re with your teacher, and you fall back into your pattern, no problem. It’s another moment of opportunity. (Alexander referred to this as “the critical moment”, but I prefer calling it “a moment of opportunity.) You might, in that moment, even let your teacher know what you are working on. Why not? (One of my favorite questions.)

Marj Barstow had another approach. Marj’s magic sentence, when we noticed some interference, be it mental or physical, was “What would happen if….. then fill in the blank….if I let my neck be free…or if I un-gripped my neck…or if, just for a moment, I let that stressful thought fall…or if I gently shifted into the field beyond right and wrong….or if I allowed myself not to have to be good at anything…or if I simply became curious…and then went with that, and found out what it would be like?

Elisabeth Walker was a master at putting a student at ease when they were working with her. It was because she was always playing. She told me she disliked the term Alexander Technique, too technical, too serious. She didn’t like the term Alexander Work, too hard, too heavy. She’d say, “Let’s play, let’s do some Alexander Play.” That was her field beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing. You couldn’t make a mistake when working with Elisabeth. Curiosity is another way into that field, and a good one for you. I wonder what would happen if…It’s a good one for me too.

When I got nervous working with Elisabeth she’d say to me, “Bruce, have no doubt!” (in my potential). And knowing you, having worked with you, I say to you, “Have no doubt!” You are talented, skillful, intelligent, and you love the work. It’s the love for the work that will carry you through. You can trust that. I trust it. I have no doubt that, with practice, you will, we will, become ever better teachers. You are already able to help people, and you will be able to do so more deeply over time.

I fall into my habits of harsh doubt and self criticism. My mental habits are much more difficult to change than my physical ones, though I can see how they affect one another. But the mental habits are wily, like whispers that I don’t even know I’m hearing. I’ve had less experience working with them directly, as I had my physical tension. It might be an interesting experiment to purposefully place myself in situations where I know my mental habits will be challenged and triggered, so that I can become curious about how to inhibit/redirect them. That’s a difficult task to set for myself. I’d rather find I’ve inadvertently tightened my neck than begun to believe the whispers. I find a tight neck easier to deal with. But what a possibly fruitful journey that could be.

Yes, like whispers I don’t even know I am hearing. It will be an interesting experiment, and it will be a fruitful journey. Ultimately, the only habits that do us in are stressful mental ones, our distorted thoughts and beliefs. Alexander said his work was about how we react to stimuli from within and without. It’s rarely something out there that pulls us down. Your teacher is not scaring you. Your thoughts are scaring you. In the end, it’s the thought that needs to be questioned, and allowed to fall away, making space for a thought or an attitude that’s more constructive.  Use what you know about releasing and redirecting a stressful muscular pattern. You know how to do that – give yourself time to identify the distorted thought or belief, see it for what it is, accept it, question it, get to know it, then, without effort let it fall, and redirect all that goodness.

Open your time frame. You’ve got your whole life to hone your craft. And remember, it is not your teachers who certify you; it’s your students.

Yours,

Bruce

 

Letters To A Young Teacher – Humility

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I was wondering if you have any insight on the difference between ego and confidence.

Confidence is the absence of fear. Nothing else. Being cocksure, or hubristic, rises from ego. It’s put on, assumed.

In my experience the Alexander Technique challenges my ego, and to learn it well I need to let go of some of my ego.

As I see it, we’ve got a “tension body” and a “real body.” The tension body is our ego body. We identify with our tension body. We become it, and it becomes us. Jung referred to it as our suit, a suit that wears us. So when this suit becomes looser, when we begin to identify with who we really are, underneath the suit, we are not who we felt ourselves to be. So yes, the work challenges our ego, and this begins to raise doubts in us, but constructive doubts. We are not so sure who we are. This is good. We don’t want to confine ourselves, definitively define ourselves. We want to be able to change and mature.

But when my ego is challenged, I often lose my confidence as well.

You are not losing your confidence. Your ego is losing its confidence. Constructive doubt may be arising.  The I don’t know mind. Humility.

Is it possible to teach from a place of less ego, but retain confidence?

If confidence is the absence of fear, then yes.  (Remember, as Marjorie Barstow said, “There’s nothing to get or to have, there is only something to lose.)

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

Rather than worrying about confidence, continue to work on loosening the garment of identity. More and more will you begin to sense your own nakedness. There you will stand, unadorned, disclosed. Humility. That is from where great teaching comes.

Hope this helps. And I hope you are well.

Yours,

Bruce

 

 

Prayer

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

It’s happening. With my daughter in Korea, then in Japan, visiting temples and shrines, lighting incense, ringing gongs and bells, bringing our palms together, bowing in unison, saying thanks, making wishes. Finally, my mind sees only the people I love: my wife, my children, my friends, my students, and there I am, wanting nothing, but for them to be well, and safe. Rivers of people flooding into my heart: people asleep on trains, sitting in restaurants, standing behind counters, running in parks, lying in hospitals. I’m praying for them all. For how long, I don’t know. “Come on Dad!”  I look up at the golden 35 foot Buddha before me. He nods his head slowly, and smiles.

Daughter’s waiting. Time to go.

Fluid Life

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Twenty-One

Drenched To The Bone

Sponge-like.
The more it receives,
The softer and larger it becomes.
Soaking, Seeping, Saturating.
Permeable. Permeating.
Gray, Dark, Dim.
Vital.
Shapeless, Formless.
All-Pervading.
How do we know this?
We don’t know how we know this.
We just do.

 

Commentary

Lao Tzu seems at once philosopher, pragmatist, mystic, naturalist, political advisor, coach, and the grandfather we always wanted.

Here, within this passage, speaks Lao Tzu, the mystic. He wants to give us a glimpse into the primordial, into the formless, fertile, cosmic culture out of which all life grows and thrives.

This passage may strike some as obscure, but for me it is accurate and real. When teaching well, this is what I touch. My hands contact a person, but then without my exactly knowing how, my hands drop in and there’s something dark, dim, and vital, something fluid, something moving, something without form or structure. My hands are touching and responding to the stuff of life, to life itself, fluid life.

When my hands sink, drop, fall, melt into this fluid medium, instantly my student and I feel it. It is as if before, without knowing it, we were only half alive, and then suddenly, as if someone flicked on a switch, we are wide-awake.

As an educator, I do my best to demystify the work we do. I like to speak simply and practically. I avoid jargon and intellectualism. I ask questions, tell stories, evoke images. But some things remain a mystery to me, and there is nothing to be done about it.

During a workshop, an occupational therapist asked me what I thought about when I touched someone. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to give an honest answer. Did I think? What was I doing? Finally, I said to her. I don’t have a thought in my head. Not thinking is profoundly restful for me, a quiet joy. I’m just water touching water.

During an Alexander Event at our school, Elisabeth Walker, (a first generation Alexander Technique teacher who at that time was 88 years old), was napping after a good morning of teaching. I gently knocked on the door to wake her up for some tea before her afternoon class. She looked tired. “Elisabeth, can I get you a cup of tea?” “No Bruce, I don’t need a cup of tea. I need a student.”

When Elisabeth taught, she touched the stuff of life. She rarely used the term primary control, or primary movement. Sometimes I used the term primary pattern. Elisabeth liked that but once she said to me, Bruce, all we’re really touching is vitality.

That’s why it’s such a blessing to be an Alexander teacher. We get to hold the waters of life in the palms of our hands.

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

Up On The Roof

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Here’s a letter, an inquiry, from an Alexander Technique teacher, and professor of Architecture at Berkeley. Attempting to answer such good questions, as this one below, will help elicit and organize this old “body of knowledge.” Help me by asking me your questions. I’d be grateful.

Up On The Roof

Bruce, How do you deal with tension in the tongue, both its wide base in the front of the throat and its anxious tip, pushing against the roof of the mouth? Will is not enough. That is, saying no is not enough, in my experience. What is yours?

I prefer to say yes to something, and recently through work with Body-Mind Centering I’m saying yes to the thalamus and parathyroids. Then the tongue can relax with support from the glands below. I’m deeply curious about others experience and especially yours since you convey meaning and experience so poetically.

With thanks for your open sharing idea,

Galen Cranz

Galen,

Thanks for your good question, and for sharing your findings. I will play with what is working for you.

Rest and support are simultaneous forces. Something cannot rest if it does not have support. And something cannot receive support unless it gives itself to that which wants to support it. Just look at any object in a room and you can see this truth. Those who learn to see things, kinesthetically, will feel this truth.

Yes, sometimes a yes is easier than a no. Yes. Erika Whittaker’s way of saying that was, “Inhibition is decision.” (I am so grateful I got to know her and to study with her). Marj once described inhibition to me when we were driving to Rutgers University on I-95 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, heading off in a direction that is going to save you some gas and get you to where you want to go. You can’t be going in two directions at once. Now, that is a simple example, but that’s how it works.”

So, Galen, your decision to say yes, if brought about sensitively, without excessive force, is what we, in Lincoln Nebraska, used to refer to as “active inhibition.” It’s a one step process. The no is on the underside of the yes. If I’m teaching Tai Chi and a person is dragging their foot on the ground as they step forward, I could say, “Stop dragging your foot.” But I might also say, “Release your knee further forward as you step out and see what happens.”

For years now I have taught people how to free their necks from the inside out. The tongue is critical. Yet I don’t think it is possible for your tongue to be free of tension all the time. We humans get scared in myriad ways, large and small, through the course of a day, and when we do we often unconsciously press our tongue against the roof of our mouth. And of course that is just one action within a larger fear response. So the fact that our tongue returns to the roof of our mouth over and over again does not mean we are doing something wrong. Actually this is good, much better then having that tongue stuck to the roof of the mouth all day long. Our tension patterns are good. And I am not just saying that to be kind. Their job is to help us learn how to become freer. They allow us to work out, to train.

Of course, when we are in tune, we can just free into our true and primary movement and, in the process of the whole body and being integrating, the tongue falls into place.

But experience tells me that sometimes we need to spend a bit of time sensitizing parts of our bodies, like the tongue. Then we can integrate that new sensitivity, in this case of the tongue, into our notion of the neck, or into our notion of whole body. We need clear differentiation, articulation of the parts, in order to arrive at an integrated whole. It is like an ecosystem. If we lose certain species, we jeopardize the whole.

In regard to the tongue, what I do for myself, and what I teach my students, is to become sensitive to the directional and spatial relationship between one’s tongue and one’s soft palette. Becoming aware of one’s jaw in relation to the skull also is important, as well as awareness of one’s lips.

Here are some simple, (actually not so simple), images I use that many people find freeing.

1.  Imagine the tongue like the inside tube of a bicycle tire. The tube gets a tiny hole in it and slowly the air leaks out of the tube. This will reduce the tone in a hypertonic tongue.

2. As the tongue is resting somewhere on the floor of the mouth, usually behind the lower teeth, imagine a warm mist circling and rising from the back of the mouth, from the Palatoglossal arch and the Uvula, up toward the opening of the auditory tube in the nasopharynx, which will enliven a sense of the back of the skull. Then imagine that mist hovering behind and above the soft palette, like a eagle looking down at a little mouse resting on the floor of the mouth far, far below.

3. While imagining all of this, (this is Ideokinesis work, in the tradition of Mabel Todd), imagine that the entire contents behind the lower teeth, inside of the jaw, has disappeared, leaving you with a jaw that looks the jaw on a skeleton, no muscles, just bone.

This is a rather elaborate collection of kinesthetic, (not visual), images but they really work for me. They create a spacious, inner landscape inside of the mouth cavity, (as in cave).  Imaginatively transforming the body into landscape is fun, informative, and freeing. One reason I like these images is that they engage my primary movement, so I experience the change of my tongue in relation to my whole body and being.

Kinesthetic images work for me, and for my students. This is irrefutable. Personally I think Mabel Todd’s pioneering work was brilliant. I will save my thoughts on kinesthetic imagery and the Alexander Technique for another time.

Let’s think about the tongue from a spiritual point of view. Why not?

In Judaism the tongue is considered to be an instrument so dangerous as to need to be behind two walls of teeth.

Here’s a Chasidic tale that in no uncertain terms warns us of just how dangerous a tongue can be.

A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done. He began to feel remorse, went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness. He said he would do anything to make amends. “Take a feather pillow, the Rabbi said, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and so he did it. When he returned and told the rabbi he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect those feathers.”

Thankfully, the tongue is just as capable of blessing people, expressing gratitude, and singing.

One last thought about the tongue. Most of the time we think in words. I don’t know this for a fact but my guess is that when we are thinking in words our tongues are working, not resting.

How about when we are listening to someone speak? What would happen if, when we were listening to someone, we decided to let our tongue rest for the entire time, until that person was completely finished speaking? Might that improve us as listeners? Might that improve our relationships?

How about when our minds are spinning a mile a minute, digging us ever deeper into the mud? What would happen up there in the brain if we could completely rest our tongues?

Maybe we need to learn how to untie our tongues, how to let them rest, so we can use them well and responsibly when we need to, and to stop using them when there is nothing worth saying. Maybe we have to come down from being up on the roof, to just come down, down to the ground.

Confessions of a MonoTasker

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

I confess. I don’t enjoy doing more than one thing at a time. I don’t enjoy waiting on hold  for a real person to pick up while I am chatting on Facebook and listening to iTunes. That’s over the top for me. I can do it, but why?

When we are multi-tasking sometimes we are mono-sensing. When straining to read some small print on some chat window at the bottom of the screen that popped up just as I was getting ready to sign off on Facebook, my hearing, touching, and kinesthesia plummeted without my knowing it. When the person finally picks up on the other end of the line after 20 minutes, having forgotten all about them, I hussel through my open windows looking for the very little icon I have to click, not feeling much of anything other than a general sense of panic and that all too familiar tightness in my neck that goes with it. I can’t hear her because iTunes is still playing and a song just came on that reminds me of a really hard time in my life that I’d rather forget. I quickly locate the speaker-off button, push it, and that God awful song in gone as well as the woman’s voice I waited 20 minutes for, the women I need to speak with because yesterday my car insurance expired. I quickly push the speaker-on button and that song returns accompanied by a strange gulping sound meaning someone has just hung up on the other end,  like they did on that day I’m trying to forget.

That’s why I like doing one simple thing at a time, like washing dishes.  In fact, even doing one thing at a time for me is a lot. Because I am a multi-senser, often happily lost in a world of multi-sensorial experience. I’m washing a bowl. I’m enjoying its shape, visually and tactually. I’m listening to the water, feeling its coolness. (We’re all saving energy here in Japan). The sinks are lower here so I am finding a wider stance and a little more flexion in my leg joints. I feel like an athlete ready to wash a mound of dishes, the more the merrier. We’ve got an assembly line going. I’m washing. Yoshiko’s rinsing, and Masako’s drying. It’s great being with them. Warms my heart.

Maybe sometimes we’re doing more but living less. I don’t know. Maybe so. It’s worth considering.

Peace Unto You

After all the shallow politics and negativity, this short video, which is going viral at the speed of light, makes you suddenly feel how off track we really are. how simple the solution could really be. this moved me deeply. please pass this on to everyone you know.