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Posts tagged ‘Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’

My Grandfather’s Eyes

 

Isaac Fertman

Once upon a time a rabbi told me that once upon a time, being a rabbi was not a profession. That a rabbi, technically, was not a teacher but rather a student. People in a community would select a person they felt possessed a deep understanding of the torah and the talmud to help them learn how to be good Jews. They supported this rabbi and his family so that this rabbi had time to study on his own, and also to study together with them. Judaism is basically a book club. Jews read this one book, every year, year after year, (and a few others), and delve into its ideas as deeply as possible.

When my trainees graduate from the Alexander Alliance I tell them there is no need to be nervous about being an Alexander teacher. If nervous, I suggest they continue thinking of themselves simply as Alexander students, students who happen to have completed a training program, therefore possessing a deeper understanding of Alexander’s work than most people.

When people pay you, I tell them, they are not paying you to teach them, they are paying you so that you can study Alexander’s work on your own, and with them. Your students pay you to study along with you, to join you in study.

It is not your job to teach them. It is your job to create conducive conditions in which they can study and learn. It is their job to learn. It is your job to learn along with them. It is not your job to entertain them. It is your job to entertain yourself, and their job to entertain themselves. It is everyone’s job to be kind, respectful, and to do one’s best.

My grandfather, Isaac, on my father’s side, told me now long ago, when I was a little boy, that I should be proud of being a Kohen, a member of the priesthood, a far distant descendent of Aaron, brother to Moses. I had no idea what he was talking about but it sounded cool. I also had no idea why, when I looked into his beautiful eyes, I could see him holding back tears. He told me how, because he was a Kohen, his shtetl saved money and paid for him to go to school in a nearby town where he learned Hebrew. At sixteen, alone, he got on a ship and made his way to America.

Now I am the age of my grandfather when he told me I was a Kohen. Here I am, supported by others to study on my own, everyday, to write, to think out loud, to create opportunities where others can study along with me. I don’t think of myself as a professional, as having a career. I just have a life. I am paid to live my life as a student, to do research and to share my findings. Baruch Hashem.

Bruce Fertman

Teaching By Hand/Learning By Heart

Available Now – Bruce’s Book!

Another book on the Alexander Technique? Not really. Yes, secondarily it is a book about Alexander’s work as interpreted and expressed through me. In Part One I do lead people into Alexander’s work via different doors. We enter Alexander’s world through sport, ecology, anatomy, sensory life, social biology, theology, psychology, metaphysics, mysticism, and art.

But primarily Teaching By Hand/Learning By Heart is a book about people, about liking people, listening to people, seeing people, nurturing people, talking to people and touching people. It’s about teaching without teaching. It’s about how create conducive conditions for learning from the inside out.

Elie Wiesel writes, ‘We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.’

Here I share with you universes and within them secrets, treasures, anguish, and triumphs.

In this book you will find a few of the most popular posts on this blog which, due to publishing rights and regulations, are no longer available on this blog.

For some of you this book will serve as an introduction to Alexander’s work. May it lead you to teachers who will accompany you along your way.

For those of you who have found your teachers, this book may motivate you to take the work ever more to heart, to delve into the depth and breadth of the work.

And for those of you who are Alexander trainees and fellow teachers, may this book embolden you to take the work beyond the body into the realm of being, and beyond movement into the world of meaning.

 

May this book remind you of all that is worth loving inside the work of F. M. Alexander.

I hope you will read this book and then, please, write to me and tell me what it was like to read it, what if anything you learned or understood, how in any way, if in any way it shed light on your understanding of Alexander’s work, on being an Alexander teacher, or most importantly on what it means to be a human being living a life.

A very limited number of hardback editions are available.

For the next two weeks you can buy Teaching By Hand/Learning By Heart at a discounted price at:

www.mouritz.co.uk

or you can get it from

amazon.co.uk

Thanks,

Bruce Fertman

 

 

Genesis Revisited

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

 There was once a little girl and she was terribly bored. There was nothing to do, and not only was there nothing to do, there was absolutely nothing at all.

On The First Day

Since there was absolutely nothing the little girl decided, quite confidently, that the first thing she needed was space. “Nothing is nothing, she thought, but space is definitely something. It’s open and it can be filled.” She was surprised how easy it was to create space. Just like that.

The little girl liked space. It made her feel free. For quite a long while that was enough for her. Until she felt the need for something else, something a little more substantial, though she didn’t want to lose the sense of space she loved so much.

On The Second Day

She created moisture. She was proud of herself for coming up with such a good solution. Her creation still felt infinitely spacious and yet now, it also felt full. She closed her eyes sensing the coolness of the moisture upon her skin, and as she did she saw darkness, a darkness as vast and as beautiful as the space she had created. The little girl rested within this moist coolness and safe darkness for a long time. She enjoyed being creative.

On The Third Day

Feeling mischievous, she awoke with a sparkle in her eyes. She wanted an adventure. She decided, in one fell swoop, to create every thing in the world that ever would be. She hadn’t realized that she had inadvertently created time, and she had no idea of just how many things that would be, but then again she had made a tremendous amount of space. To make sure she had indeed created all the stuff of the world, she made light to shine upon everything she created. It was turning out to be an exceptionally busy but good day.

Suddenly there was utter chaos, and it was exhilarating. She hadn’t as yet names for anything, and she hadn’t the foggiest idea of what all these things were for, but she loved watching them floating in her space. Some things were moving slowly and some things were whizzing by dangerously fast, so fast that sometimes things would collide into one another, creating loud sounds. She had never heard sounds before.

All this commotion was intoxicating. It was awesome. But after a while the little girl began to get dizzy. Nothing ever stayed in the same place! Something would appear that she loved and then, in a flash, it would be gone. Never to be seen again. Or worse, something would smash into what she loved and it would shatter into a thousand pieces.

On The Fourth Day

Her dizzy spells continued. She didn’t want to get rid of everything. She didn’t even know for sure whether she could de-create something. Then she came up with what she thought was a great idea. She decided to create gravity and ground, and the moment she did, everything, literally, fell into place.

She couldn’t believe how good this felt. It was as magnificent as her first experience of space. Everything was sitting comfortably. Everything was at rest. Everything was settled and seemed entirely happy exactly where it was, and exactly being what it was. There was some logic to where everything was but the little girl did not yet know what it meant for something to be logical.

After a while she realized that even with all the stuff that was now in her world there still seemed to be an equally infinite amount of space. This seemed mysterious to her. And there was still plenty of moisture. In fact, by creating gravity and the ground, some of the moisture had become more substantial and concentrated and had fallen, making oceans and rivers and waterfalls, which for some unknown reason made her feel quiet inside and happy.

Everything looked beautiful to her. All at once she realized that, since she started creating, she hadn’t been bored for a second! It was as if she had discovered the secret to happiness. Creativity. She was content for a very, very long time, for eons.

On The Fifth Day

The little girl was so utterly content, that is until she realized she had not had a really creative idea in a long time. And then she did. Out of the blue, (why the sky was blue she did not know), another idea popped into her head. She wondered where on earth these ideas came from. She thought, “What if I could create creatures who had entirely different ways of perceiving and experiencing this beautiful world I have made?” So she created creatures that could see her world from above, and creatures that could see under the water, and creatures that lived within the ground itself, and creatures that lived in the trees. She created creatures that lived where it was hot and creatures that lived where it was cold, creatures that could see, and smell, and taste, and hear and touch the world she had created, all simultaneously experiencing the same world differently. “Why, she thought, that would be like creating millions of worlds inside of the one world I created! That struck her as quite clever and efficient.

The little girl spent a long, long time just watching all these creatures and comparing one to the other. Again there was some kind of logic to the whole thing but still she did not know what that meant. Soon this was to change.

After a long while her curiosity got the better of her. What was making her world go round? What made the creatures in the air able to be up there? Why did some creatures eat other creatures? Most amazing to her was how these creatures seemed to come and go. New creatures would appear while older ones would disappear. Creatures tended to be small at first and then got bigger, and the trees too. What was that? The questions seemed endless.

Another idea popped into her head, but she was not sure whether it was a good idea or not so she did not act upon it right away, which she thought was very mature. She loved the world so much as it was, even if she didn’t understand it. “My world seems to understand itself, she thought. It knows exactly what to do. Maybe I should stop here. This feels complete. Everything works. It’s beautiful. It’s interesting. Who cares if I don’t understand it?” But the questions kept coming. They were beginning to make her uncomfortable, sometimes even unhappy.

On The Sixth Day

The little girl decided to take one of the creatures she had created and make them capable of thinking about her creation. Personally, she did not want to think too much about it. That wasn’t her thing. She didn’t feel very smart, just very creative. Besides, there were just too many questions. The little girl became very serious and thought, “If I were to make every individual creature of this particular kind able to think maybe, eventually, this creature would be able to answer my questions.”

And so even though the little girl felt a funny feeling in her stomach, she went ahead and did it anyway. She thought, “Well, how am I going to find out if this is a good idea or not if I don’t try?” There seemed to be something logical about that too.

She mustered up her courage and made it so this one kind of creature could think and then right away she realized these creatures would need to be able to communicate their thoughts to one another if they were to be able to figure things out together, and so she created a bunch of languages because she thought a bunch of languages would be more interesting than just creating one.

On The Seventh Day

Without noticing it, (she had been so, so busy), the little girl was growing older. She had seen a lot, and done a lot. She began feeling tired, something she’d never felt before. “Perhaps it would be good for me to rest for a while and spend a little time not creating,” she thought. The little girl spent a long while simply gazing at her creation. “It’s good,” she thought, “very good.” She loved her world. Sleep was coming over her as if she were being covered with a soft, warm blanket. She thought, “I think the world will be okay for a little while if I don’t watch it.” Again there was that funny feeling in her stomach, but before she knew it she had fallen fast asleep.

This brings us exactly to where we are now. Our little girl remains asleep. As she sleeps our thinking creatures have been busy trying to figure everything out. They’ve found a lot of answers to a lot of her questions. On this front, they are doing very well, even though there remain far more questions to be answered than the ones they have answered because each answer they come up with seems to create new questions. These creatures may be busy for a long time, maybe forever.

I say maybe forever because it seems that thinking as much as these thinking creatures do brings with it strange side effects, something the little girl could not have predicted. One of the side effects is that these creatures seem not to care very much about the other creatures or, for that matter, about anything the little girl created. The thinking creatures seem so busy thinking and trying to figure everything out that they don’t notice how beautiful everything is, how everything works together, how well it all takes care of itself.

As our little girl sleeps, the world continues on its own course without her. I know that sooner or later she will wake up, and when she does I wonder what she will find and what she will think about it. I am sure once she sees the lay of the land another idea will pop into her head.

After all, she is a very creative little girl.

Commentary

You might wonder how this story of Genesis popped into my head. Without my knowing it, it had been writing itself for a long time.

After many years I began to discern a sequence within my method for helping people create more of the kind of world they wished to live in. The story of our little girl, and the creation of her world, unfolds precisely in this sequence. It’s a story that contains within it my pedagogy, the genesis of one way of working with people.

First there is nothing.

There is nothing like the concept of nothingness to put life into perspective. The prospect of individual non-existence can have a sobering affect. And it can have a freeing affect too. Eliphalet Oram Lyte wrote a little ditty that expresses my attitude as a teacher, the mood I do my best to create within my workshops and classes.

Row, row, row your boat

gently down the stream,

merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

life is but a dream

 We’re all here rowing our own boats. We are all going down the same stream to the same place. It’s not our stream. We don’t know where the stream will carry us. Our boats don’t belong to us either, but we are responsible for taking care of them. We want to learn how to row our boats gently, that means to me, without excessive force. We want to develop the sensitivity to discern the undercurrents, and the perceptivity to read the river. And when we can, why not bring a bit of merriment to our little adventure…merriment, that is, buoyancy, liveliness, zest, lightheartedness, warmth, friendship, festivity, hilarity, and pleasure?

Life is but a dream. Could be. Who knows for sure? Can we know for certain that we are not being dreamt? Could it be we are but figments of one creative imagination, seemingly alive within a very realistic dream?

But whatever the case may be, best not to take ourselves too seriously. When something seems unimportant, that’s the time to take it seriously. When something seems vitally important, that’s the time to crack a joke, to smile, to have some fun.

Why? Because it just works better that way. When people are not trying too hard to get it right they have more fun, and when they have more fun, they learn more.

One the first day she thought, Nothing is nothing, but space is definitely something. Its open and it can be filled.

 That’s where I begin, with a person’s sense of space. For me, the sense of space is a sense, just like our other senses. There is essentially no space within our bodies, but with training we can come to sense a tremendous amount of space within us. We can be in a packed subway car, everyone pressed against one another, and feel a tremendous sense of space and relaxation. There is learning to see and sense the space all around us in such a way that it actually supports us like an invisible spider web, allowing us to sit comfortably in the center of our world. There is the lively space between, between us and our computers, between us and our food, between us and our thoughts, between us and those we love and those we don’t. This is where I begin.

One the second day she closed her eyes sensing the coolness of the moisture upon her skin and as she did she saw darkness, a darkness as vast and as beautiful as the space she had created. 

When I begin to use my hands to help awaken a person’s kinesthesia and propriception my hands have a way of getting under the skin, of finding fluidity within them, a kind of underground stream streaming throughout them. I am water touching water. This sense of moisture is new to most people and they find their eyes closing. They want to sense this moisture within a vast inner space.

On the third day some things were moving slowly and some things were whizzing by dangerously fast, so fast that sometimes things would collide into one another, creating loud sounds. She had never heard sounds before.

 The world sometimes feels like this when we’ve got lots to do. We’ve got to get to work, but first we have to make lunches for the kids, and drop them off at school, then pick up our coworker whose car broke down. I ask students to bring me the “stuff” their lives are made of, their responsibilities, their projects, their problems, their pain, and their pleasures. It’s easy to become overwhelmed. It’s as if the world we’re whirling around us. It’s as if someone were stirring things up. How can we allow the stirring to stop, how can we let the mud settle to the bottom until the water is clear?

On the fourth day she decided to create gravity and ground, and the moment she did, everything, literally, fell into place.

 Humans need mobility and stability. Objects are great at showing us how to be stable. They know how to sit, how to receive support from the ground, so they can rest, so they can just be where they are and what they are. They know how not to fidget, how to be still. Humans need to learn this too. As far as gravity is concerned there is only space and stuff in this world, and humans classify as stuff. Gravity treats us the same way it treats every thing and every one. Gravity is fair. It’s our responsibility to learn how to work with gravity. We live on common ground, shared ground. The same ground supports us all. We’ve got to learn how to come down to the ground. We must come to realize we were all created equal. From where doth our support come? It comes from the ground. But sometimes we must go down to get it.

On the fifth day the little girl thought, What if I could create creatures who had entirely different ways of perceiving and experiencing this beautiful world I have made?

 A big part of my work is re-introducing the sensory world to people. We have spent time becoming oriented, fluid, and stable. Now it’s time to enliven and refine our sensory life. It’s not about sensory indulgence. The senses can take us way beyond pleasure. The senses allow us to gratefully receive the subtle magnificence of the world in which we live. Paradoxically, through the senses we get a glimpse of something beyond the senses, we get a glimpse of the essence of life itself, of life speaking directly through its own language without interpretation. Through the senses we experience communion.

On the sixth day the little girl decided to take one of the creatures she had invented and make them capable of thinking about her creation.

 Once my students have had glimpses into another way moving, sensing, and being in their world, their curiosity awakens. The questions start coming. “How come we lose our mobility and stability?” “Are there cultures who don’t lose it as much?” How about other animals?” “Is there some structural flaw in our upright structure?” “What makes us able to be upright?” “Why is it so difficult to continue to sense ourselves kinesthetically?” Mostly I say, “I don’t really know for sure.” We begin to think about thinking? Are there different ways to think? Cognition. Meditation. Contemplation. Awareness. Consciousness. Intelligence. Sensory Intelligence. We begin to find language for our new experiences. Together we enter a world of wondering.

On the seventh day the little girl thought,Perhaps it would be good for me to rest for a while and spend a little time not creating, she thought. The little girl spent a long while simply gazing at her creation. Its good, very good, she thought. She loved her world.

 You can’t do anything forever. Obsessing doesn’t help. It’s not healthy. Sometimes you just have to forget about the whole thing. Take a break. Don’t think about yourself or your work. “You’re fine exactly the way you are,” I tell my students. I tell them, “Never change. I love you just the way you are!” Everyone smiles. I encourage people. I know people do the best they can. I don’t evaluate people. Through this work goodness in people rises to the surface by itself. I don’t know why. Goodness, and love too. Love for the world, love for others, love for themselves. And love for that little girl.

The Dwelling Place – A Contemporary Midrash On Genesis For Children And Grown Ups

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

In Honor of Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – (August 28, 1924 – July 3, 2014)

There was once a little girl and she was terribly bored. There was nothing to do, and not only was there nothing to do, there was absolutely nothing at all.

On the first day…

Since there was absolutely nothing, the little girl whose name was Shekina, decided quite confidently that the first thing she needed was space. “Nothing is nothing, she thought, but space is definitely something. It’s open and it can be filled.” She was surprised how easy it was to create space. Just like that.

Shekina liked space. It made her feel free. For quite a long while that was enough for her. Then one day she felt the need for something else, something a little more substantial though she didn’t want to lose the sense of space she loved so much.

On the second day…

Shekina created moisture. She was proud of herself for coming up with such a good solution. Her creation still felt infinitely spacious and yet now, it also felt full. She closed her eyes sensing the coolness of the moisture upon her skin, and as she did she saw a darkness as vast and as beautiful as the space she had created. The little girl rested within this moist coolness and safe darkness for a long time. She enjoyed being creative.

On the third day…

Feeling mischievous, Shekina awoke with a sparkle in her eyes. She wanted an adventure. She decided, in one fell swoop, to create the opposite of space though she had no idea what that would be. And so she did. Every thing in the world that ever would be, appeared. She hadn’t realized she had inadvertently created time, and she had no idea of just how many things that would be, but then again she had made a tremendous amount of space. To make sure she had indeed created all the stuff of the world, she made light to shine upon everything she created.

Suddenly there was utter chaos, and it was exhilarating. Some things were moving slowly and some things were whizzing by dangerously fast, so fast that sometimes things would collide into one another, creating loud sounds. She had never heard sounds before.

All this commotion was awesome, a little scary and at the same time wonderful. But after a while Shekina began getting dizzy. Nothing ever stayed in the same place! Something would appear that she loved and then, in a flash, it would be gone, never to be seen again. Or worse, something would smash into what she loved and it would shatter into a million pieces.

On the fourth day…

Shekina was still dizzy. She didn’t want to get rid of anything she had created. She didn’t even know for sure whether she could de-create something. Then she came up with another original idea. She decided to create gravity and the ground and the moment she did everything, literally, fell into place.

She couldn’t believe how good her world now felt. It was as magnificent as her first experience of space. Every thing was sitting comfortably. Every thing was at rest. Every thing was settled and seemed entirely happy exactly where it was, and exactly being what it was. The stars found their place in the night sky. True, there was an occasional star that would without notice dart across the sky and vanish. But for the most part the stars stayed put. There seemed to be a pattern, as if the stars had arranged themselves. The more Shekina gazed at the stars, the more patterns she saw. She wondered, “Were the patterns there to be found, or am I imagining them?” There was a peaceful stillness to the mountains and the rocks. Again it was quiet and she was no longer dizzy. There was some logic to where every thing was, but Shekina did not yet know what it meant for something to be logical.

Even with all the stuff now filling her world there still seemed to be an equally infinite amount of space. And there was still plenty of moisture. In fact, by creating gravity and the ground, some of the moisture had concentrated fallen, making oceans and rivers and waterfalls. The contrast was perfect; the strong, still silence of the mountains and the rocks combined with and the constant motion and comforting sounds of the waves, streams, and waterfalls. Her world was singing its own song. From where she did not know, winds spiraled, moving the clouds and the trees. Her world was dancing its own dance.

Everything looked beautiful to her. Suddenly Shekina realized that, since she had started creating, she hadn’t been bored for a second! It was as if she had discovered the secret to happiness. She was content for what felt like eons.

On the fifth day…

Shekina noticed she had not had an original idea in a long time. And then she did! Out of the blue another idea popped into her head. She wondered where on earth these ideas came from. She thought, “What if I could create creatures who had entirely different ways of perceiving and experiencing this beautiful world I have made?” So she created creatures that could see her world from above, and creatures that could see under the water, and creatures that lived within the ground itself, and creatures that lived in the trees. She created creatures that lived where it was hot and creatures that lived where it was cold, creatures that could see, and smell, and taste, and hear and touch the world she had created, all simultaneously experiencing the same world differently. “Why, she thought, that would be like creating millions of worlds inside of the one world I created! That struck her as quite clever and efficient.

Shekina spent a long, long time watching all these creatures and comparing one to the other. She loved watching all the creatures making their resting places…dens, lodges, lairs, hives, nests, burrows. They were all so original, such creative creatures! “I see. I am like my creatures and my creatures are like me!” Just like them, I’ve made a resting place, a dwelling place, a home. Again she sensed a logic to her world but still she did not know what that meant. Soon this was to change.

What was making her world go round? What made the creatures in the air able to be up there when all the other creatures rested on the ground like everything else? Why did some creatures eat other creatures? Most amazing to her was how these creatures seemed to come and go. New creatures would appear while older ones would disappear. Creatures tended to be small at first and then got bigger, and the trees too. What was that? The questions seemed endless.

Another idea popped into her head, but she was not sure whether it was a good idea or not so she did not act upon it right away, which she thought was very mature. She loved the world so much as it was, even if she didn’t understand it. “My world seems to understand itself, she thought. It knows exactly what to do. Maybe I should stop here. This feels complete. Everything works. It’s beautiful. It’s interesting. Who cares if I don’t understand it?” But the questions kept coming. They were beginning to make her uncomfortable, sometimes even unhappy.

On the sixth day…

Shekina decided to take one of the creatures she had created and make them capable of thinking about her creation. Personally, she did not want to think too much about it. That wasn’t her thing. She didn’t feel very smart, just very creative. Besides, there were just too many questions. The little girl became very serious and thought, “If I were to make every individual creature of this particular kind of creature able to think maybe, eventually, this creature would be able to answer my questions.”

And so even though the little girl felt a funny feeling in her stomach, she went ahead and did it anyway. She thought, “Well, how am I going to find out if this is a good idea or not if I don’t try?” There seemed to be something logical about that too.

She mustered up her courage and made it so this one kind of creature could think and then right away she realized these creatures would need to be able to communicate their thoughts to one another if they were to be able to figure things out together, and so she created a bunch of languages because she thought a bunch of languages would be more interesting than just creating one.

On the seventh day…

Without noticing it, (she had been so, so busy), Shekina was growing older. She had seen a lot, and done a lot. She began feeling tired, something she’d never felt before. “Perhaps it would be good for me to rest a while and spend a little time not creating,” she thought. Shekina spent a long while simply gazing at her creation. “It’s good, she thought, very good.” She loved her world. Sleep was spreading over her as if she were being covered with a soft, warm blanket. She thought, “I think the world will be okay for a little while if I don’t watch it.” Again there was that funny feeling in her stomach, but before she knew it she had fallen fast asleep.

This brings us exactly to where we are now.

Shekina remains asleep. As she sleeps our thinking creatures have been busy trying to figure everything out. They’ve found a lot of answers to a lot of her questions. On this front, they are doing very well, even though there remain far more questions to be answered than the ones they have answered because each answer they come up with seems to create new questions. These creatures may be busy for a long time, maybe forever.

I say maybe forever because it seems that thinking as much as these thinking creatures do brings with it strange side effects, something the little girl could not have predicted. One of the side effects is that these creatures seem not to care very much about the other creatures or, for that matter, about anything the little girl created. The thinking creatures seem so busy thinking and trying to figure everything out they don’t notice how beautiful everything is, how everything works together, how well it all takes care of itself.

As Shekina sleeps, the world continues on its own course without her. It is up to her thinking creatures to be like her, to be creative, and to keep the dwelling place safe and beautiful. I know sooner or later Shekina will wake up, and when she does I wonder what she will find and what she will think about it. I am sure the moment she awakens another idea will pop into her head.

After all, Shekina is a very creative little girl.

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.

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.