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Posts from the ‘unified field of attention’ Category

The Evolution of an Ever Changing Curriculum

Photo: B. Fertman

 

Part One

What Alexander’s Notion of Personal Use Mean for us

 at the Alexander Alliance International

 

Currently, our curriculum is two-fold, personal and professional.

First. Without having spent years integrating Alexander’s work into one’s personal life, it is not possible to become a teacher of his work. Personal transformation is the basis upon which a life as an Alexander teacher is founded. Therefore, I will go into some detail as to what this transformational process entails.

Personal Development

Throughout the entire training, we train somatically, that is, we work on attuning ourselves physically, and we explore the relationship this physical attuning has upon our lives personally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. Our physical attuning process is founded upon the insights and principles discerned by Alexander as to how we learn to function in accordance to our “original blueprint”, our inherent cognitive-neuro-muscular/fascial-skeletal design. 

Regardless of our personal life situation, we share a common context in which our lives unfold. Alexander’s work attempts to shift for the better, our psychophysical relationship to the contextual framework in which our lives unfold. This shift in how we relate psychophysically to life’s contextual framework, indirectly but significantly, influences the content of our life, the way in which our lives unfold, and how we experience this unfolding. Our training is devoted to this contextual shift.

Our Common Context

Pedagogically, I divide our life context into nine facets: Structural Support, Ground Force, Spatial Freedom, Organ Capacity, Temporal Existence, Respiratory Restoration, Sensory Receptivity, Motoric Refinement, and Social Harmony/Inner Peace.

One. Structural Support

We share a common structure. We are all Homo Sapiens. At any given moment, we are using our structure in a particular way. At the Alexander Alliance, we learn how to respect and treat our structure according to its inherent design. This frees us into our natural support, allowing us to be at once, light and substantial, soft and strong, relaxed and ready, stable and flexible, peaceful and lively, receptive and generous, awake to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us.

Through Alexander’s work our personal relationship to our physical structure, to being consciously and appreciatively embodied changes, for the better.

Two. Ground Force

All of us are subject to gravity. Gravity derives from “gravis” or “gravitas”, and means heavy, weight, serious. For our purposes, gravity might best be thought of as “the law of mutual attraction” which states that bodies are drawn to each other through gravitational attraction. The strength of their attraction is greater if they are close together, and lesser if they are more distant. This force of attraction exists between any two bodies. Or, we might refer to Newton’s third law of motion, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” When we sit in a chair, our bodies exert a downward force into the chair, while the chair exerts an equally upward force through our bodies.

These forces are not grave, not serious. They are positive, interactive forces, I dare say, joyful. These forces allow objects, both animate and inanimate, to rest. The more we can rest, the more support we can receive. The more support we receive, the more grace and lightness we experience.

Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to gravity changes, for the better.

Three. Spatial Freedom

We all live in space.

There is space within. We all possess a sense of space, or a lack thereof. Sometimes, we feel trapped, or cramped, that we have no room to move or breathe. Sometimes, we feel open and free, that the future is open to us, that the horizon widens forever, that the sky is the limit, that life is deep and vast, like the ocean. Some of us seem to spread out, some squeeze in, some hold back, some thrust forward, some press down, some pull up. How to be spatially unbiased, spatially balanced, spatially omni-directional?

There is space between, between us and our smartphones, our computers, our steering wheels, our soup bowls. There is space between us and those around us, when on a crowded train, when waiting in line at the grocery store, when sitting at the kitchen table.

There is space all around us, above us, below us, before us, behind us, beside us. Unbeknownst to us, we live with blinders on, zooming in on what is in front of us, narrowing our worldview.

Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to space within, between, and around, changes, for the better.

Four. Organ Capacity

We are all organ-isms, creatures. Even though we have a sense of internal space, in reality, the space within our structural framework is fully occupied; the cranial cavity, thoracic cavity, abdominal cavity, and pelvic cavity. Again, unbeknownst to us, we impinge upon our organs, exert pressure against them, prevent them from moving. We ignore them. Sensing our organs, our organ life, reminds us that we are alive, human beings being, rather than only human doings doing.

Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to our organ life changes, for the better.

Five. Temporal Existence

We all live in time. A second is a second, a minute a minute, an hour an hour, a day a day, a year a year, a decade a decade, and yet our subjective sense of time varies. An hour can fly by in a second, an hour can feel like an eternity, for better or worse. We can find ourselves waiting, a temporal event, for an urgent phone call, for a needed document to download, for the train that is late to arrive. Then again, there is long-term waiting, for the kids to leave home, for the perfect person to come into our lives, or for when we will be earning much more money, or for when we finally retire and get to travel. Or we find ourselves rushing about, worried about being late, meeting deadlines, getting everything done that we have to do. Time pressure. Clock time.

Then, there is biological time. Pacing. Tempo. Right timing. Eating, walking, speaking. Time to think. Time to feel. Time to breathe. Time to let the beauty of the world sink in, into our bones, into our hearts. Biologically, we by nature, mature, age, die. Our lives are temporally finite. We only have so much time, so many breaths. “Number your days”, King David suggests to us in Psalm 90. Don’t waste them. Don’t miss them. Experience them. Enjoy them. Be grateful for them. Live them. Make the most of them. as he did so well. What does it mean to age gracefully? How can we best adapt to our aging bodies? What do we want to pass on, to give away?

Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to time changes, for the better.

Six. Respiratory Restoration

Unknowingly, we often interfere with breathing, without understanding how or why, or even when, we do it. It helps to become aware of the particular ways in which we interfere with breathing. This, it turns out, is not so easy. As soon as we begin to set about studying our breath, this very act of studying it begins to change it. Immediately, we want to breathe right, or well, or fully. Instantly, we superimpose our attempt to breath better, whatever our idea of that is, on top of our habitual way of breathing.

Seeing that breathing defies being studied directly, our only recourse, if we want a way into the mystery of breath, is to study it indirectly. This means looking at the conditions that surround breathing. Breathing responds to pressure of any and all kinds. External pressure, for example, altitude, pollution, over stimulation, under stimulation, danger, as well as safety, comfort, love, a cat resting in your lap.

Breathing responds to internal pressures as well, like exertion, hunger, fatigue, strain, disease, self-imposed standards, time restraints. Breathing responds to the entire gamut of thoughts, sensations, emotions – be they painful or pleasurable.

Breath is not an action; it’s a response. When we decide to run up a hill, we don’t stand there and breathe until we have enough air to make it up the hill. We start running. The air of the world, and our bodies reflexes, without our having to ask, help us to accomplish what we have decided to do. Just like that. Such support. Such kindness. Such faithfulness. And how often do we stop, and say thank you?

Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to breathing changes, for the better.

Seven. Sensory Receptivity

We all are endowed with senses, though some of us do not have all of them. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We also have less known, less educated senses that tell us about ourselves, our kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses.

There’s a very simple way of speaking about what happens to our senses. As our motoric activity increases, often our sensory receptivity decreases. The result is that our actions are not as informed as they could be, which often makes our actions less accurate, more effortful, and less effective. To add to this, a diminishment of sensory receptivity prevents us from experiencing how we are doing, what we are doing, as we are doing it, reducing our ability to delight in and appreciate life as we are living it. We don’t want to live an unlived life.

It is as if, within us, there is a doer and a receiver. There is the you who washes your hair, and the you who senses and enjoys your hair being washed, or the you who does not sense it being washed. There is the you who is feeding you a spoonful of soup, perhaps potato leak soup, or miso soup, or lentil soup, or split pea soup, or French onion soup. And then, there is the you who is aware of receiving this soup, tasting it, savoring it, feeling thankful for it, or the you who is unaware of receiving the soup and who is not tasting it. Reawakening the receiver within us, the one who is not putting out, not on output, but the one receiving, on input, keeps us from becoming depleted, allows us to be replenished.

Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to our sensory world changes, for the better.

Eight. Motoric Refinement

We all move. The question is how well, how enjoyably, how appreciatively? The more sensitive, accurate, and reliable our senses become, particularly our intra-senses, our kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses, the more refined our actions become, the more precise, the more efficient, the more effective, the more effortless, the more fluid, and the more beautiful. Everyday movement, everyday actions become interesting and pleasurable; walking up and down steps, riding a bike, folding laundry, cleaning the house, cooking a meal.

Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to moving through our life changes, for the better.

Nine. Social Harmony/Inner Peace

We are all social animals. Existence is co-existence. Even if we choose to live our lives as a hermit far away in a cave, in isolation, it is a social choice we make, a relationship we have with society. Most conflict that we experience happens in relation to other people. Being in social conflict is a physiological event. Fear and anger are physiological events. Everything is a physiological event. Likewise, being in social harmony is a physiological event. Love, kindness, empathy, joy are also physiological events. How we are physiologically, when in the presence of others, can dramatically influence, for better or worse, how we feel about others, and how they feel about us. Peace is a physiological event.

In a very real way, we also have a social relationship with ourselves. Are we our own best friend, and/or our own worst enemy? Do we respect and care well for ourselves, or do we disrespect ourselves and abuse ourselves? Inner peace is also a physiological event.

Through Alexander’s work our personal, physiological relationship to others and to ourselves changes, for the better.

 

For the Love of Pedagogy

Robyn Avalon and Bruce Fertman

 

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”  – Anonymous

Robyn Avalon and I, being the co-directors of the Alexander Alliance International, and collectively having taught for over a century, are joyfully obsessed with pedagogy, to the point where I think we would proudly pronounce ourselves as pedagogical nerds. We love continually experimenting, figuring out, and endlessly fine tuning how we can help people move toward an embodied understanding of what we now know, while giving them the tools to help others to do the same.  We are hoping some of them become nerdy pedagogues like us. We are true blue educators. We don’t so much train people to become teachers, like people train horses or dogs, as impressive as that skill is. Conditioning and education may overlap, but are not the same. We educe, that is, we draw out the bodily, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual clarity within our students. We inspire them to study together, and most importantly, to study on their own. Out of our love and enthusiasm for the work, we generate love and enthusiasm in our students. It’s contagious. As the years go by, our students train themselves.

Both Robyn and I were trained dancers, Robyn, a former professional tap dancer, and I, a professional modern dancer. We spent lots of time in well structured classes that created beautifully kinetic and kinesthetic educational experiences.

This was invaluable for both of us, as the Alexandrian pedagogues we were to become. I also learned a great deal about beautiful kinetically and kinesthetically structured classes through taking countless classes in Ballet, Tai Chi, Aikido, Chanoyu, Tango, and Kyudo. There are a lot of masterful teachers out there to be found. Robyn too studied modalities, too numerous to mention, within the healing professions.

Take the basic structure of a ballet class. You come early and warm up. My ballet teacher, Stella Applebaum, would lock the door at 8am sharp. Warming up was not a social event. The ballet studio was what I would call a sacred learning space.

Classes began at the barre, with plies, of course, our morning prayers. An organically logical barre sequence unfolded until we were pliant and centered, much like how a potter prepares their clay, by wedging it, putting it on the wheel, and bringing it up and down, until it is in a perfect condition to be thrown. In dance, the dancer is both the clay and the potter, both the dancer and the dance, whirling into existence a piece of non-material, ephemeral art, not for the keeping.

Then, class moved into the center of the space, where we now integrated many of the movements practiced at the barre, using them in combinations, much like how writers integrate their vocabulary into sentences, phrases, and paragraphs.

Then, an adagio sequence followed. Slower is not easier; it is harder, just like all my musician friends tell me when it comes to playing instruments. Balance, line, precision, strength, fluidity is all challenged.

Next, allegro. The body is now finely tuned, strong, centered. Time to work on small, rapid movement, and big movement, movement that gets us high into the air. And finally, these rapid, large, powerful, airborne movements are practiced moving boldly through space.

Finally, there was reverence; bowing, circling back to prayers of gratitude for ballet, for the accompanist, for our teacher. I’ve been in classes where after the group reverence we would get in line and approach our teacher individually, bow, and listen to particular criticism or praise, in preparation for the next class. Usually we’d leave class feeling great physically and emotionally, much better than when we walked in, energized, exhilarated and in love with dance.

Figuring out how, as an Alexander teacher, to structure an individual lesson, a 3-hour class, an 8-hour teaching day, a 9-day, 50-hour retreat, and 100-hour professional development program, a 200-hour post graduate training program, and a 4-year training program, is Robyn’s and my idea of a good time. How do we get our students, in the end, be it after a class, or after a 4-year training program to feel great physically and emotionally, much better than when they first walked in, leaving them feeling energized and exhilarated and in love with Alexander’s work?

It’s important to know of the pitfalls to structuring a good Alexander experience. One can do too much of something, or too little, or leave important things out entirely. One can make things too hard, or too easy, cover too much material, or too little, go too fast, or too slow, etc. What follows are some of the elements I consider important to track as an Alexander teacher when structuring and offering an Alexander experience.

Language

It is fatal to talk too much in a class. At the same time, if you don’t explain what you are doing and why you are doing it, your students walk away mystified as to what is going on, and this too is fatal.

I attempt never to use jargon. I search for simple words, common words, everyday language and expressions, understandable images and metaphors. Simplicity, clarity, succinctness, only speaking about what is pertinent to the subject at hand. Avoiding tangents. (Challenging for me.)  Rarely do they help. Stay on point.

Get your students to write about their experiences. Encourage them to read and search for Alexander’s principles within Alexander’s books, in books written about Alexander’s work, in books written about related somatic fields of study, within science, psychology, theology, literature and poetry.

Invite them to ask questions. Encourage them to express themselves in their own words, so that you can get to know who they are, how they think, how they perceive the work and the world. Include some time for students to talk inside of a large group, in small groups, and in pairs. Alexander teachers must be articulate, not just physically, but linguistically, not just physically fluid, but linguistically fluent.

Well timed humor is also partly a linguistic skill and priceless when it comes to teaching.

Silence

Sound arises out of silence and returns to silence. Alexander work is more about nothing than something. It’s more about what is going on in the background than the foreground. “All I want is to show you a little bit of nothing. You are all doing something, and that something is your habit,” I can hear Marj Barstow saying to us. If the silence within us and around us is deep and beautiful then, when we do speak, we will be heard. Silence before a sentence, and after a sentence. Using commas and periods when we speak. Not rattling on and on.

Allow for times when the whole room is working in silence, or when everyone is alertly resting together in silence. Ideas, sensations, new experiences often settle in at such times. Making time for reflection, contemplation, meditation.

Observation

Years ago, I was too full of myself as a teacher. I liked to talk, to expound, to embellish. I liked demonstrating, showing off a bit. When it was time for my students to do something, I often did it with them, and talked them through it, which meant I was not really seeing my students. But no matter. I would say things like, “Good, very good. That is coming along.” But honestly, I was not watching anywhere nearly close enough.

Fortunately, that changed. At some point, I decided to speak less. Now I demonstrate, making sure everyone is  watching only me, not doing anything with me. Then I sit down, (that is important), and sit back, close my mouth, relax my tongue, and do absolutely nothing but watch my students, each and every one of them. Then, I say the one thing they need to hear next, stay on point, answer a question succinctly if asked. I demonstrate once again, having everyone watch, in silence. I sit back down, lean back, and watch again. And so on.

Observation. Teaching people how to see. Find out what they see. Listen to them. Find out what they are not seeing. Teach them how to see what a moment ago they could not see. I remember Marjorie often saying, “Did you see that?” In the beginning, I didn’t. After some years, I did. It’s important for students to see themselves, for students to watch a teacher, for the teacher to watch the students, for the students to watch one another, and for teachers to watch other teachers. Teachers watching fellow teachers is an important element in Robyn’s and my pedagogy. At least once a year, all the directors of Alexander Alliance trainings will be in the same room together with all the students in the school, and we will watch each other lead the group. In this way, we see and appreciate how each of us is skilled in particular ways. We also see each other’s blind spots and can fill them in for one another. We become stimulated and inspired by watching each other. New ideas bubble up when we are team teaching. We are like a jazz ensemble who have been improving together for decades. We also encourage our students to team teach.

Non-Observation

There’s a time for not observing your students, a time for not looking over their shoulders, as we say. We want our students to become conscious of themselves without becoming self-conscious. In Marj Barstow’s summer retreats, which were large, Marj would sometimes break the participants into smaller groups, assigning each group to one of her apprentices. Then, Marj would casually make the rounds, poking her head in for a minute and then be on her way. Mostly, we were on our own. That was important learning time. It’s like raising kids. Sometimes you have to trust them and let them do things and figure out things on their own. Let them make their own mistakes, let them learn through their own successes and failures. After all, we want them to become self-reliant.

Cheng Man-Ching, my Tai Chi teachers’ teacher, used to tell her, (Maggie Newman), “When you come to my class, no matter how much you know, no matter how long you have studied, come to class like a beginner. And no matter how little a student may know, no matter how briefly they have studied, tell them that when they practice on their own, to practice as if they were a master.”

And, though much of the Alexander world disagrees with me, (That’s okay. I don’t take it personally.), I believe there is a time for us to lower our eyelids, quietly, softly, and drop inwards, which for me is like being part of the night sky, resting within my own inner planetarium. There’s a time to turn out the lights, to learn to see in the dark, to see what cannot be seen, only known. In-sight.

Movement

A class needs to keep moving. It can’t run out of gas. It can be beautiful to slow a class down, to even allow it to come to a stop, but the motor must still be running, the car must still in gear, never in park, alway humming, ready to move.

Too much sitting. Too much standing. Too much lying down. Too much watching. Too much talking. Too much listening. Too much of the same movement, over and over again, too much time in the same gear, going at the same speed, down the same road. Too much is too much.

Movement is how we stir the soup. How we keep a class fluid and flowing, so that stasis does not set in.

Not just mobility of body, but mobility of mind, of which Alexander spoke. Not only the students’ body, but the students’ mind and imagination must remain engaged. The heart also needs to be opened and moved. Tapping into the student’s inner child, into their sense of play, helps a great deal.

Posture is the antithesis of movement. It is frozen movement, movement under a spell.  How to give an Alexander experience that is truly a moving experience and not a postural experience. No small task. It has taken me a lifetime to figure this one out. I have made profound progress, but honestly, I am still not quite there.

Tragedy is when in the pursuit of something, we arrive at its opposite. Oedipus wants not to kill his father and marry his mother. Traveling toward Thebes, he encounters Laius, his father, who provokes Oedipus. Oedipus kills him. Continuing on his way, Oedipus finds Thebes plagued by a Sphinx, who has put a riddle to all passersby, destroying everyone unable to answer correctly. Oedipus alone solves the riddle. The Sphinx kills herself. As a reward, Oedipus receives the throne of Thebes and the hand of the widowed queen, his mother, Jocasta.

We want to free ourselves and our students into their inherent, naturally and fluidly organized coordination and support, and sometimes we end up with just the opposite, feeling bound, unnatural, artificial, and stiff. Just what we don’t want.

It’s not easy being an Alexander teacher. Marj used to say to us, “This work is too simple for you.”  She said simple. She didn’t say easy. True simplicity is more difficult than sophisticated complexity.

Stillness

And, there is a time to stop stirring the soup.

“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?  Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?”

Lao Tzu/Stephen Mitchell

 

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

The inner freedom from the practical desire,

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner

And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded

By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,

Erhebung without motion, concentration

Without elimination, both a new world

And the old made explicit…”

(Erhebung: rising, uplift, ennoblement, elevation.)

T.S. Eliot: Burnt Norton, Four Quartets

Touch

Within our Alexander community at large, we have teachers who don’t use their hands when they teach. We have teachers who are physically in touch with their students through an entire lesson.

We have teachers that rarely talk, rarely explain, who choose to work in silence and let their hands do the talking.

We have teachers who rely a great deal on observation and language. Teachers who rely a great deal on movement. Teachers who work with people mostly in stillness, for example when giving a table lesson. We have teachers who teach through classical procedures, and others who work through what I would call modern or post-modern procedures. We have teachers who teach through writing about the technique, through just sharing their ideas. We have teachers who incorporate technology into their teaching, videoing and online teaching, and we have teachers who don’t. We have teachers who use mirrors and teachers who never use them. I had a ballet teacher who, four days a week, drew the curtains over the long wall of mirrors, allowing us to use them only on Fridays. He said there were no mirrors on the stage.

Personally, I have come to see this variety of teaching pedagogy within our profession as all good. When I was younger, and more foolish, and arrogant, I was convinced that certain ways of working were right and others wrong, some ways superior and other ways inferior. But now, I see it all as worthy research. After you have been around for a century of teaching, as Robyn and I have, you have seen people do all of the above well, and finally the heart and the mind open up to their being many doors into the holy city.

Our way, our research at the Alexander Alliance, (we consider ourselves, not a conservatory, but a research school), is to see what happens if we work for an integration, a beautiful and effective braiding of language and silence, movement and stillness, observation and non-observation, and tactual and non-tactual teaching. What happens if we work with the entire spectrum, the whole palette?

I see these ways of teaching as different channels through which we can receive and impart information, information absolutely unique to each channel.

What I will say here about touch, is that I am so grateful that Alexander began using his hands to teach, and that Marj too was masterful with her hands. She loved using her hands and did so morning till night for the many years that I studied with her. Yet, ironically, perhaps because she did not spend a lot of time teaching us how to use our hands, and because we spent so much of our study time watching her work, and describing what we saw, we got very good at seeing the work and speaking about the work.

But I was enthralled with Marj’s touch, with what she could bring about through her hands. I vowed to myself to have hands like hers, and to pass on this part of her work. And now, some 43 years later, I can say, this vow, I kept.

We live in a western world that for thousands of years has separated and ranked, from top to bottom, the spirit, mind, heart, and body, in that order. Working with one’s hands, manual work, is somehow beneath mental work. Part of what Alexander began to do was to reintegrate these aspects of ourselves into a non-hierarchical working whole. How apt that he began to touch people, that he developed and elevated touch, a touch that promoted healthy development, a touch full of knowledge and nurturance.

Non-Tactual Teaching

What Robyn and I often do first, is to see how much a person can do on their own. We observe. We then might make verbal suggestions, and then watch some more. Once we are clear on how their “kinesthetic compass” is off, once we can discern how they are kinesthetically a bit flat or sharp, we can help fine tune them, tactually, only as much as is needed. Then, it’s back to watching and seeing how they are doing on their own.

So, there is this weaving back and forth between working tactually and non-tactually. After all, we want people to be able to bring about all of these positive changes, without our help. They must learn how to work from the inside out, how to use their own minds to change their own bodies, they need to find their “inner hands”, their hands that guide them from within.

Sensory Integration

Part of our job, as I understand it, is sensory integration. For me, this means integrating our intra-senses, the senses that grant us awareness and information about ourselves, kinesthesia and proprioception primarily, and our inter-senses, that grant us awareness and information about our world, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. As intra-senses integrate with inter-senses, we become increasingly able to be simultaneously aware of ourselves in relation to our environment, that is, we learn to appreciate how we are being within ourselves and within the world as we are living our lives. Hildegard von Bingen said it like this. “Within, but not enclosed, Without, but not excluded.”

Tracking this integration of the senses throughout the course of a class, or through the course of a training, is important. We want our students leaving class with an expanded and unified field of attention. We want them not only more aware of themselves and the world; we want them to feel that they are within the world, and that the world is within them. This is what I mean by a unified field of attention. Ramana Maharshi’s deep understanding of this unified field is apparent when he was asked, “How should we treat others.” He replied, “What others.”

My experiences of sensory integration happened most often, and most dramatically, after a three-hour Chanoyu, or Japanese Tea Ceremony class. A tea class is centered around the making and serving of tea. So, scent and taste are part of the experience, the taste of Japanese sweets and matcha tea, and the scent of very faint incense evoking the freshness of pines and the feel of the forest. Movements are very specific; how one walks, bows, how one cleans, carries and uses objects. Great attention is given to moving easily, fluidly and clearly. There is much to see; kimonos, tea bowls, flowers, a hanging scroll, the play of light and shadow, steam rising out from the top of the iron kettle. And, much to hear, feet sliding along tatami mats, doors gliding within their wooden grooves, the whisking of vibrant, green matcha, the sound of hot water boiling reproducing the precise sound of the wind through the pines. Chanoyu is a pre-technological, multi-sensorial experience practiced and enjoyed by millions of people.

As I left that magic tea space and entered back into the world from which I had come, I found the world totally altered as if someone had cleaned it, put it into high resolution, and into finer focus. Also, it was as if the stereo system had been radically upgraded. I could hear omni-directionally and more distinctly. I could hear the different sounds that the wind made through different trees. I could feel the ground rising up under my feet. I could feel the beating of my heart. A harmony of the senses, another element to track in the creation of a good Alexander experience.

Indeed, there is much to track in order to teach a well-balanced Alexander class: the balance between language and silence, observation and non-observation, movement and stillness, tactual and non-tactual teaching, and intra and inter-senses. Still, there is one more element that I think important and would like to mention.

Systems of Support

One of my secrets for avoiding the tragedy of Alexandrian artifice, of postural stiffness, starchiness, crustiness, is to balance what I call, “tensegrity support”, the hallmark support system found within Alexander’s work, with other forms of support, namely, ground, spatial, and organ support. When this balancing of support systems appears, Alexandrian artifice disappears. We’re being supported from the inside out, and from the ground below, and from the world around us, so there is no need for a postural exoskeleton. It falls away. We molt.

I find, if and when I bring into an Alexander experience a balance of these support systems, my students leave the lesson or the class, or the program, or the school un-postured, with an embodied understanding of inherent organizational forces that are “in process and not super-imposed”, to use Alexander’s words.

To be able to do this, of course, you have to know what these systems are, and be able to access them in yourself, and know how to access them in others. That is a subject for another time, and best learned via a teacher well versed in all of them.

Glenna Batson, who graduated from our school, and who taught for our school for many years, once told me that, for her, composing a class was like writing a poem. She felt that the writing of the last line was often so difficult, and so wonderful when you found it.

Bread in the Pockets of the Hungry

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

Mary Oliver

And so should an Alexander experience be, like a poem, not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Undivided Attention

Prell Concentrate

I can’t remember. Was it me who coined the phrase, or F.M. Alexander, or Frank Pierce Jones? It seems many Alexander teachers use the phrase now, teachers who I have not trained. Did the phrase migrate through the Alexander world, or did it emerge from the contemporary collective unconscious of the Alexander community?

No matter. What I do remember is that one day the phrase presented itself to me.

It began when I began understanding the difference between what Alexander meant by concentration and attention. When I was a kid my mom brought home a new kind of shampoo called Prell Concentrate. Someone had figured out how to put a lot of shampoo in a little plastic container, thus spending less money to package their product. Prell Concentrate was so concentrated that you now only needed to use a tiny bit to work up a good lather. “That’s it, I thought. That’s what we do. That’s why Alexander discourages concentrating. When we concentrate it’s as if we’re squeezing ourselves into a smaller container.”  This strategy might be saving Prell a lot of money, but for us it was creating a lot of tension.

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Krishnamurti

Lots of us were reading Krishnamurti in the early 70’s, when I first began studying Alexander’s work. It’s worth quoting Krishnamurti here at length on the subject.

Ojai, California

May 6, 1982

What do we mean by attention? What is the difference between awareness, concentration, and attention? Could we go into that together? To be aware; as one is sitting under these beautiful trees on a lovely morning, nice and cool, not too hot, one is aware of that woodpecker pecking away, one is aware of the green lawn, the beautiful trees and sunlight, the spotted light; and if you are looking from that direction, you are aware of those mountains. How does one look at them? …Do you observe it, aware of it without any choice, without any desire? …How does one react to all that? What is the feeling behind that awareness? …Is it related to our life; is it part of our life; …That’s part of awareness, the awareness of the external and the awareness of one’s own reactions to the external, and to be aware of the movement of this…

…And can one be aware without any choice at all, just to be aware of the extraordinary sense of the blue sky, the blue sky through the leaves, and just move with it all? And is one aware of one’s reactions, and when one is aware of one’s reactions is there a preference; one more desirable than the other, one more urgent than the other…and so from the outer move to the inner – you understand what I am saying – so that there is no division between the outer and the inner; it’s like a tide going out and coming in. That’s an awareness of this world outside of us and an awareness of the world deep inside of us…

What is concentration? To concentrate upon a page, upon a picture; to concentrate all one’s energy on a particular point: in that concentration is there not the effort to concentrate? …You are trying to read a particular page and out of the window you see a marvelous light on a flower and your thought wanders off to that, but you try then to pull that thought back, and concentrate on something. So there is this constant struggle to focus one’s energy, visual, and so on, so there is a resistance, a struggle, and all the time trying to focus on a particular point…

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Frank Pierce Jones

Frank Pierce Jones was a classics professor at Brown University who trained with F.M. Alexander, A.R. Alexander, and Marjorie Barstow. He had a way with words.

For Jones concentration was like using a spot light to light up a black stage. One small area was intensely lit while the rest of the stage remained black. Using a diffuse light was kin to attention, the whole stage being lit.

For Jones attention was “the simultaneous awareness of oneself-in-relation-to-ones-environment.” A good phrase, but not yet, the phrase.

In Judaism there is a central prayer called the Shema. It’s so important Jews are supposed to recite it every night before they go to sleep and if possible it should be upon their lips as they are dying. It basically means, Listen, God is One. I once asked my rabbi what it meant. He said, God is one, not two.

Jones idea of a simultaneous awareness of oneself-in-relation-to-ones-environment remained subtly dualistic. I wasn’t there yet.

The Field

In New Mexico it is said you live in the sky. You look around you and 95% of what you see is the sky. One day I was sitting in my little adobe casita in New Mexico and the question came to me, “Am I inside or outside?” I am in my house, but my house is outside in the world.” If I am inside my house, but my house is outside in the world, then am I not also outside in the world?” Suddenly my body and my mind expanded in all directions. It was like a satori. My container was gone. There was no separation between me and my environment. There was no longer an inside and an outside. There was only outside, and I was in it!  God is one, not two.

And there I said the words, the phrase, for the first time.

A unified field…a unified field of attention. That is what I was. My way of being in the world shifted that day, and with it my way of teaching Alexander’s work.

I loved the word field…a field, a pasture, a field of study, field notes, a force field, a field of vision.

It was like zooming in or zooming out, a metaphor for expressing this concept I was later to learn from Robyn Avalon, director of the Alexander Alliance in America. Zooming in was concentrating, and zooming out was expanding your field of attention. Unifying your field of attention was going one step further. It was you no longer behind the camera, because there was no longer a camera, and there was no longer a you in the center of anything. There was just a field, a field of attention.

Seurat

A Seurat exhibition was at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. There it was, the field. Nothing but points, all the same size, all of the same value, nothing more important or less important than anything else, no especially anything, or just especially everything…a homogenous field of tone and attention.

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Gazing into a drawing of Seurat’s mother I began thinking about the Heart Sutra. The words were suddenly making sense. Finally I was physically sensing the truth behind the sutra.

Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.

That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.

Embroidery

Undivided Attention

Pixels. You take a digital photo; a person in the foreground, hills and sky in the background. All pixels, all the same size. Pixels making up the person, the hills, the sky. All equal, all the same. You zoom in and in and in only to find space. More and more space.

What if we were like this? What if we were less solid than we felt ourselves to be? What if the whole universe was like this? Stephen Hawkins writes:

“Now at first sight, all this evidence that the universe looks the same whichever direction we look in might seem to suggest there is something special about our place in the universe.  In particular, it might seem that if we observe all other galaxies to be moving away from us, then we must be at the center of the universe.  There is, however, an alternate explanation: the universe might look the same in every direction as seen from any other galaxy too.  We have no scientific evidence for, or against, this assumption.  We believe it on the grounds of modesty:  it would be most remarkable if the universe looked the same in every direction around us, but not around other points in the universe!  The situation is rather like a balloon with a number of spots painted on it being steadily blown up.  As the balloon expands, the distance between any two spots increases, but there is no spot that can be said to be the center of the expansion.”

It’s a very large field indeed, a unified field, a field with neither center nor circumference, neither inside nor outside. One unified field. How miraculous that, for however briefly, we get to give it our undivided attention, that we get to attend.