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Posts tagged ‘aging’

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.

Beyond Hope – for Alexander Teachers Young and Old

Photo taken by Elisabeth Walker – Botanical Garden, Kyoto, Japan

Beyond Hope

– For Alexander Teachers, Young and Old

As it turns out, I am now older than most people in the world. You know this when once again you do not have to pay as much as normal people to get into a movie theater.

I am now also older than most of the people in our little Alexander world. I was a young whippersnapper and then one morning I woke up, and I was a young senior citizen.

When I was a young whippersnapper, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (http://rzlp.org/), told me there was one way, only one way, to be saved. He said save yourself the way you save stuff in your computer, and then give away what you like and what you think might be helpful, and enjoy doing it.

So when I share my old writings of Alexander’s work, or tell of my experiences as an Alexander teacher, I am writing for all those young, less experienced, wonderful Alexander teachers out there.

I am writing for you when I share my new writings too, like this one. I am over the hill, but that is a good thing. You see, I made it to the top of the hill, and now I am over that! Now I’m coasting. I’m picking up speed. My foot is off the brake. The moon-roof is open, the windows are down and booming out of the speakers B.B. King still sounds as good as ever.

As for my fellow Alexander senior citizens, I won’t be offended if you pass me by. I’ll just wave whether you smile or curse me out. Anyway, I’ve got to watch where I’m going. I’m not the best driver. My kids say they’re giving me five more years, at which time they’re revoking my license and getting me a designated driver.

Right. I was telling you about Reb Zalman. Rebbe Zalman mostly taught through telling stories, stories within stories within stories. That man taught me more about teaching, without teaching.

We were all there waiting like little kids. We were enrolled in a graduate level class in Early Hasidic Masters at Temple University in Philadelphia. Zalman, about five minutes late, walks into the room, crosses the room without looking at us and stands by the window gazing out and taking in the day. He stands there for a minute or so, turned away from us, as we watch him without blinking. He starts quietly singing a Niggun, a simple, wordless melody that repeats itself indefinitely. After about a minute of listening to Zalman’s soft, resonate voice, we shyly join in. Zalman keeps it going until we are no longer self- conscious about singing. My eyes are closed, my head slightly tilted back like Stevie Wonder, and inside I’m spinning around like a Whirling Dervish. Gradually, Zalman’s voice fades out. Our voices, no, our beings, are exactly in sync with Zalman and with each other. We’re sitting in a silence that’s palpable. My eyes open and there is Reb Zalman grinning, sitting on top of the desk that he is supposed to be sitting behind. He sways a few times from side to side, strokes his long salt and pepper beard then, looking at us, no, into us, out of his big eyes, he excitedly says, “That reminds me of a story.” The class has begun.

Now telling stories and gossiping are two different things. When you gossip you hurt three people. You hurt the person you are gossiping about. You hurt the person who has to listen to you gossiping. And you hurt yourself, more than you know.

Good storytelling hurts no one.  It’s an indirect way of teaching.  You’re not giving advice, not telling a person what they should or shouldn’t do. You’re not moralizing. You’re creating another world and a person is slipping into that world. They’re traveling through a world unknown to them, and they are going to come out of that world getting what they were supposed to get. And it doesn’t have anything to do with you.

One summer my family was driving up to Vermont to teach on Jan Baty’s freewheeling Alexander summer retreat. Martha Hansen was reading Hemingway’s, The Old Man and The Sea out loud. We were all in another world, literally. Noah was ten and dreaming about fishing. Eva was 12 and beginning to understand how symbolism worked. I was shaking in my boots realizing I was that old man who caught a fish that was clearly more than I could handle. And Martha, she was doing what she loved doing since she was 5 years old, reading a great story out loud. Then we realized we missed our turn, were in the middle of nowhere and our gas gauge was way, way, way below empty, but that is another story.

Stories are so exciting to me that I can no longer read books about self-improvement. I’m beyond hope. It’s not that there isn’t room for improvement mind you. It’s just that the concept doesn’t make sense to me anymore.

That’s why I read novels. I get lost in other worlds, in other people, in how other people see. And it’s through getting lost, that I find myself.  There I am losing myself in someone else. Losing my self. As an old guy, this is my idea of a good time. I just finished ready Murakami’s 1Q84. It’s a 1000 pages long, and it was too short. I feel terrible,  like I just lost a couple really good friends.

There are some good things about getting older. If you’re lucky you start not caring about what other people think of you. You don’t care if everybody likes you, or your work. You don’t take offence easily, and you’re too tired to defend yourself or try to prove anything to anyone. You’ve been there, done that.  You’re not sure if being accepted or rejected is a compliment or an insult. It’s not personal anyway. You sing your song for all it’s worth and you stop caring about your voice – like Leonard Cohen or Dylan, you sing your truth.

Or like Walt Whitman.

I am larger, better than I thought,

I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,

I can repeat over to men and women,

You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,

I will recruit for myself and you as I go,

I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,

I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,

Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,

Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

Blessing others, and receiving blessings when they come my way, and they do, more and more because now I notice them.

That’s it.  All the rest is commentary.