The more it receives,
The softer and larger it becomes.
Soaking, Seeping, Saturating.
Gray, Dark, Dim.
How do we know this?
We don’t know how we know this.
We just do.
Lao Tzu seems at once philosopher, pragmatist, mystic, naturalist, political advisor, coach, and the grandfather we always wanted.
Here, within this passage, speaks Lao Tzu, the mystic. He wants to give us a glimpse into the primordial, into the formless, fertile, cosmic culture out of which all life grows and thrives.
This passage may strike some as obscure, but for me it is accurate and real. When teaching well, this is what I touch. My hands contact a person, but then without my exactly knowing how, my hands drop in and there’s something dark, dim, and vital, something fluid, something moving, something without form or structure. My hands are touching and responding to the stuff of life, to life itself, fluid life.
When my hands sink, drop, fall, melt into this fluid medium, instantly my student and I feel it. It is as if before, without knowing it, we were only half alive, and then suddenly, as if someone flicked on a switch, we are wide-awake.
As an educator, I do my best to demystify the work we do. I like to speak simply and practically. I avoid jargon and intellectualism. I ask questions, tell stories, evoke images. But some things remain a mystery to me, and there is nothing to be done about it.
During a workshop, an occupational therapist asked me what I thought about when I touched someone. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to give an honest answer. Did I think? What was I doing? Finally, I said to her. I don’t have a thought in my head. Not thinking is profoundly restful for me, a quiet joy. I’m just water touching water.
During an Alexander Event at our school, Elisabeth Walker, (a first generation Alexander Technique teacher who at that time was 88 years old), was napping after a good morning of teaching. I gently knocked on the door to wake her up for some tea before her afternoon class. She looked tired. “Elisabeth, can I get you a cup of tea?” “No Bruce, I don’t need a cup of tea. I need a student.”
When Elisabeth taught, she touched the stuff of life. She rarely used the term primary control, or primary movement. Sometimes I used the term primary pattern. Elisabeth liked that but once she said to me, Bruce, all we’re really touching is vitality.
That’s why it’s such a blessing to be an Alexander teacher. We get to hold the waters of life in the palms of our hands.
It should be noted that these are my criteria, my way of articulating what Alexander’s work is about. I do not and never would presume to speak for the Alexander community at large. Obviously, I am not the originator of the Alexander Technique. I am but one interpreter of his work.
Our Essential Task
(From a graduation speech given to the Alexander Alliance graduating class of 1991, written in the long, infamous style of F. Matthias Alexander. Revealing footnotes included.)
Our essential task as teachers and students of Alexander’s work is to bring about a conducive atmosphere for learning and unlearning,*1 thus increasing the opportunities for sensory discernment*2 wherein our habitual patterns of being and doing can become conscious, known, accepted, and experienced as abundant energy,*3 allowed to disintegrate positively,*4 simultaneously re-integrating in such a way*5 that energizes the true and primary movement in each and every activity,*6 thus bringing about a surprising change in proprioception*7 as we proceed to function, to act, to live, now,*8, risking feeling wrong,*9 interacting with deeper contact, responding with greater freedom*10 than we ever imagined possible.
*1. Compassionate attitudes that allow people to learn and unlearn. They are…
Non-diminishment: It helps no one to diminish either yourself or your students. “Moses laying his hands on Joshua may be compared to one candle lighting another, no light is lost to the former.” -Rabbinic Midrash on Numbers 27:18.
Non-objectification: I refuse to work “on the body.” I choose to work with people, with this particular person, and that particular person. I never touch a person’s body. I only touch a person.
Non-forcing: I refuse to use force to bring about grace. I choose to bring kindness, intelligence, and skill to the situation at hand. “Fluid as melting ice. 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? If you realize that all things change there is nothing you will try to hold onto. Less and less will you need to force things.” -Lao Tzu/Stephen Mitchell
Non-isolation: I choose to observe and accept the truth: that we live in relation. My wish is to be simultaneously aware of myself in relation to my environment. My wish is to exist within a unified field of attention, a field that includes me without orienting around me. “Within, but not enclosed, Without, but not excluded.” Abbess Hildegard von Bingen. “Existence Is Co-existence.” -Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Non-endgaining: How we are doing what we are doing as we are doing it is more important than just getting it done.
Non-correction: Correction is usually too quick, and often founded upon a lot of judgment and too little information. I choose to become curious, ask questions, conduct experiments, and let my students arrive at their own conclusions.
Non-concentration: Rarely is it desirable to give more than 25% of your attention on the figure of an action or event. Background is beautiful, orienting, restful, meaningful. Think about the distribution of attention of a driver behind the wheel for the very first time, and that same driver having driven for years, listening to Bach, sensing the road under her hands, enjoying the landscape all around her, while listening to her friend.
Imperfection: I choose to look for the way, rather than the form, the end, or the ideal. I care not about what a person looks like. I hold no graven images before me. I care less about the acquisition of knowledge and more about the eradication of blocks. I care less about learning and more about nurturance, maturity and growth. My wish is to deepen the quality of experience, responsiveness, and attention for my students and, of course, for myself.
Unhurried: “ As Alexander teachers , we give people our time,. We give time. You can’t change a habit if you are in a hurry.” – Marjorie Barstow.
*2. Sensory discernment – sensory perception, void of judgment, founded upon a wish for understanding and direction.
Sentience – The immediate, accurate, and inclusive perception of reality, received through a harmonious use of the senses, free from the intervention of language, thought, or analysis. Bruce Fertman
*3. “Energy is eternal delight. William Blake
*4. Alexander’s “inhibition and direction”, Barstow’s “a redirecting of energy,” all expressions implying that the energy of the old and the new are one and the same, and that this energy must relinquish expressing itself one way, before it can do so another way. “Our habitual holding pattern is our true and primary pattern, incognito.” Bruce Fertman
*5. …in such a way, implying that the change to which Alexander Teachers refer is tremendously subtle and delicate, a blending of sensitivity, keenness, kindness, knowledge, wonder – too difficult, or perhaps too simple, to describe.
*6. That energizes the primary control, the head/neck/back pattern, the primary pattern, deep structural integration, the pattern which connects everything to everything, the pattern of reciprocal interactions, of interdependent co-arisings, the life-force within us, our vitality.
*7. Read Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, chapter three, “The Disembodied Lady,” for a truly moving account of proprioception.
*8. “Structure is the record of past function. Function is the source of future structures.” -Ludwig von Bertalanffy.
*9. F.M. would sometimes begin a lesson proclaiming to his student, “Let’s hope something goes wrong!”
*10. From reactivity to responsiveness, from impulsivity to spontaneity. From repression to deliberation. How we respond to the myriad, constantly changing stimuli from within and without.
I confess. I don’t enjoy doing more than one thing at a time. I don’t enjoy waiting on hold for a real person to pick up while I am chatting on Facebook and listening to iTunes. That’s over the top for me. I can do it, but why?
When we are multi-tasking sometimes we are mono-sensing. When straining to read some small print on some chat window at the bottom of the screen that popped up just as I was getting ready to sign off on Facebook, my hearing, touching, and kinesthesia plummeted without my knowing it. When the person finally picks up on the other end of the line after 20 minutes, having forgotten all about them, I hussel through my open windows looking for the very little icon I have to click, not feeling much of anything other than a general sense of panic and that all too familiar tightness in my neck that goes with it. I can’t hear her because iTunes is still playing and a song just came on that reminds me of a really hard time in my life that I’d rather forget. I quickly locate the speaker-off button, push it, and that God awful song in gone as well as the woman’s voice I waited 20 minutes for, the women I need to speak with because yesterday my car insurance expired. I quickly push the speaker-on button and that song returns accompanied by a strange gulping sound meaning someone has just hung up on the other end, like they did on that day I’m trying to forget.
That’s why I like doing one simple thing at a time, like washing dishes. In fact, even doing one thing at a time for me is a lot. Because I am a multi-senser, often happily lost in a world of multi-sensorial experience. I’m washing a bowl. I’m enjoying its shape, visually and tactually. I’m listening to the water, feeling its coolness. (We’re all saving energy here in Japan). The sinks are lower here so I am finding a wider stance and a little more flexion in my leg joints. I feel like an athlete ready to wash a mound of dishes, the more the merrier. We’ve got an assembly line going. I’m washing. Yoshiko’s rinsing, and Masako’s drying. It’s great being with them. Warms my heart.
Maybe sometimes we’re doing more but living less. I don’t know. Maybe so. It’s worth considering.
It’s not what I expected, feels nothing like I thought it would, this release from the need to be anyone, from the need to be of biographical worth, noteworthy. No more life lived as an imaginary filmmaker, producer, director, scriptwriter, cameraman, editor, and leading man, a film, mind made, not for me but for others to see, to admire, to adore, and to endorse.
Now that I have abandoned my magnum opus, some fifty years in the making, what remains? What remains having left the studio, the black box behind? What welcomes and waits for me in the cool, fresh blue light of evening?
What shall I do now that my purpose in life has vanished like some mirage wavering before me, there, so real, then gone?
There must be some hidden purpose to my life, mustn’t there? There must be some imperative, some vision to fulfill, some mission to accomplish. How will I know what to do, which way to go? Can I live a life without a center, without a hub?
A yes arises from exactly where I don’t know. What I do need to know is where I am now, and the ability to see just far enough before me to know there is ground under my feet and space through which to move. If I attend and trust that should do it.
Could I be here for the sake of simple enjoyment? Could my job be to be jobless, to be available, a volunteer ready to go where I can best serve? What about money you ask? How will I survive? It seems I have managed, given I am still alive.
Time is not passing, I am. Can I accept this, embrace this?
Do I really need saving? I mean saving myself like an old, obsolete resume stored inside a little image of an icon of a folder within a folder?
Do I really need those photo albums sitting in a room, in a closet, on a shelf, stored in some dusty box no one has opened for years?
Why keep an accounting of my life? Why keep a record? Why keep track?
Why carve some graven image of myself, no matter how striking the resemblance?
Why continue to produce a film about a life that, when lived, is so much more moving and miraculous than a film could ever be?
Why does now feel like the only thing eternal?
Why do friends, and strangers too, who are no longer strangers, look like stars in the night?
When one writes a book, best to write it for yourself. If another person likes it, that’s great, but not necessary.
To be honest, I like my book. It’s already a success, a best seller, a classic. It’s my map, my guide. I read it when I need to read it. It helps me. It brings me back to myself, to others, to the world.
It is as if I extracted, with the help of Lao Tzu, every ounce of wisdom this one little soul possesses. I’ve got it down on paper.
It sounds dramatic, but it’s true: this book saved my life, because at one time I had seriously contemplated ending it. It’s true I wept over almost every one of the eighty-one passages in this book. Yes, they were tears of sorrow, but they were also tears of relief, and tears of gratitude.
Gratitude for the chance, and the endurance, that came from I know not where, (my children? my parents?), to turn my life around for the better. Not that my life was terrible, and not that I had created some grave crime. No, if I am guilty, I am guilty of being completely and utterly human, of daring and not knowing, guilty of built-in-selfishness longing for release.
I almost called this book, Where This Path Ends, but thanks to a dear friend, Celia Jurdant-Davis, I didn’t. Celia wrote, “How about Where This Path Begins?
Thank God for my friends, for people who sometimes know me better than I know myself. How often I have things precisely turned around one hundred and eighty degrees! That’s good. Just one flip and there’s the truth, smiling.
My book is about, at 61, where my path begins, from here, always from here.
Where is my book? Like so many books, it’s sitting inside of some laptop, unpublished, unknown, but not forsaken.
It’s as if I’m having labor pains. I have to breathe. I have to push. I have not to give up, no matter how difficult this feels. I have to birth this book.
I’ll send you an announcement, when the baby is born.
“A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back. A summer rain. Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord. Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.”
…from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Thank God for good writers. I often encourage my students to delve into art for the most beautifully articulated examples of physical and spiritual grace.
This passage reminds me of the definition of Sentience, which, basically, is what t I teach. An athlete might call this, being in the zone, but it can happen to anyone, at anytime, doing anything. And it can be cultivated.
Sentience – The immediate, accurate, and inclusive perception of reality, received through a harmonious use of the senses, free from the intervention of language, thought, or analysis.