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Posts tagged ‘Taoism’

Not Yours. Not Mine.

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Not in a place, not in a space,
Not a person, not a thing,
Not a ping or a pong,
Not the soundless sounding of a gong.
Not a word, surely not absurd.

Don’t look.
You’ll not come across it in a book.

Don’t seek,
And you will find,
It is not yours, not mine.

It has no foes, woes, or toes.
There – off it goes!

It hates to sit.
Does not come in a kit.
Some think it illegit.
About to quit?

It’s a zone…where you are not alone.
It’s a ball…floating through us all.
It’s a climate…of refinement.
It’s a breeze…full of ease.

It’s changeable as the weather.
Totally untethered, soft as a feather,
Like a field of heather.

Nowhere does it dwell.
It’s like a well, but without the well.
Well, well, well…impossible to tell.

It is…it is…it is.

From Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

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.

Fluid Life

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Twenty-One

Drenched To The Bone

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

 

Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

The World In A Dewdrop

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

It’s uncanny. You start working with a person doing some simple activity, like eating an apple. You slow it all down. You give someone a chance to sense how they’re doing what they’re doing as they’re doing it. “Well, what do you notice,” you ask. They say, “I’m biting off more than I can chew.” The bell goes off. There’s nothing you have to say. There it is, his whole life in one action. He gets it.

A person walks to the door, opens it, and leaves the room. Simple enough. I invite her to return. “Well, what did you notice,” I say. She says, I don’t know. I saw the door handle, felt the door open, felt myself leaving. My eyes were cast down. Something sad about the whole thing.”

“Very good”, I say. “You’re waking up.” This time see the whole room you’re in before you leave, and everything and everyone in it. Say to yourself, thank you and mean it. Walk to the door, open it, and as you are crossing the threshold, linger there between two worlds. Sense how leaving is entering. Let your eyes take in the space you’re about to enter. Just this time, don’t look down and see what happens.”

As I make this suggestion to my student, the bell goes off, for me. Yes, every lesson is for me. Every life is my life. Everyone in everyone. The whole world in every dewdrop.

Sometimes movement is just movement, and sometimes movement is metaphor. Sometimes movement means something, something important. Something about our lives and how we live them.

This passage from Where This Path Begins is one example of how I have attempted to convey Lao Tzu’s insights through the workings of the body. The goal? Always, always to get to the heart, to the heart of the matter.

Twenty-Four

You’re Too Much

Arms are limbs for your hands.
Arms fold and unfold.  They raise and lower.
They don’t like to be stiffened or over-straightened.
If something is beyond your reach, get closer, or do without it.
Why strain?

Clutching, grabbing, gripping, grasping.
Why hold on to things so tightly?

Legs are limbs for your feet.
Over-stride and your heels will strike against the ground.
Your back will tire. Your feet will ache.
Why get ahead of yourself?

Puff up your chest, and your lower back will tighten.
Your shoulder blades will narrow.
Your nose will stick up in the air.
Look down on others, and they will not look up to you.

Talk too much and you will lose your voice.
Why over explain?

Too much is too much.

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

Putting Your Foot In Your Mouth

55 baby photo

Passage 55 from Where This Path Begins…

Babies don’t interfere with themselves.
Babies don’t judge, correct, or evaluate themselves.
They can’t make a mistake,
Because they don’t know what it means to make a mistake.
Babies can’t fail because they don’t know what it means to fail.
Babies are moved to move. They don’t know why.
What does why mean to them?

Babies want what they want. They are happy when they get it.
What they don’t want, they don’t accept. They’re honest.
Babies are unselfconscious, unabashed, and unpretentious.
We love them because we want to be like them.

Babies sit on the floor, effortlessly upright,
Delighted to see the world from a new perspective.
Babies stop eating when they are no longer hungry.
They immediately throw up anything they don’t like.

A baby can scream for hours without straining their voice.
Babies express strong emotions,
And when the reason for doing so is gone,
They stop, and forget about the whole thing.
Babies cannot hold grudges.
They don’t know what it means to hold a grudge.

Babies can spread out all their toes, even the little ones.
Babies can put their feet in their mouth,
And they don’t care what anyone thinks about it.

Babies fall over and over again, don’t care, don’t get hurt,
And don’t take it personally.
They just get up.
We love them because we want to be like them.

As babies,
We did not identify ourselves as male or female, or even as human.
We had no identity.
We were uncoordinated, inarticulate, illiterate,
Uneducated, unskilled, and unsocial.
Appearing completely selfish, we had no self.

As we ceased being babies, gradually, we became more self-conscious.
Coordinated, articulate, literate, learned,
Socialized and civilized.  We gained impressive skills.
We assumed an identity, a false identity.
We lost, to a great degree, the inherent qualities we had as babies.

We yearn to become unself-conscious, unambiguous, uncomplicated.
We long to unlearn, not to know, to surrender control.
We no longer want to equate self worth with skill and accomplishments.
We don’t want to be dictated by what others think of us.
We want to be ourselves, without apology.

We want to experience our innocence, through our maturity,
To come around, full circle. We want to be able to play again.

We want to see the world, one more time,
Through the glistening eyes of an infant.

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman