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A Turn Of Heart


Thirty-five years ago I naively, but bravely, ventured out and began introducing small groups of interested people to The Peaceful Body. These classes were less than wonderful. Nonetheless, I knew there was no other way to gain experience except through teaching, and by trusting that slowly I would learn and improve.

People began to like my work. I was invited to numerous countries to teach. As I began to travel, my curiosity about the relationship between human postural patterns, and social, cultural, and political life increased. In time, this curiosity began to verge on the obsessive. I was full of unanswered questions.

Were we Americans spatial gluttons, spreading out all over the place, and lacking any sense of containment? Were we too impulsive, overexcited? We seemed driven, more like human doings than human beings: pushing ourselves more into the front of our bodies, creating strong facades; stealing energy from our legs and lower backs, holding our chests and faces up, cheerful, always cheerful, trying to impress?

Was I seeing a significant number of Germans who appeared to be bearing an invisible rock upon their upper backs, wanting to just let themselves fall to the ground in exhaustion, in shame, but simultaneously willing and forcing themselves to stand up, to plod on, no matter what, demanding that they work harder and better than ever, as a point of pride or as a self-inflicted punishment?

Did some people in France look mildly unsure, gently withdrawing back on one side of their bodies, as they reluctantly moved forward with the other? Was I seeing some impulse toward distancing in order to consider, to reconsider, to think, to rethink, to discuss at length until the moment to act had long passed, come and gone, lost forever? Was I seeing torsion, asymmetry, the spiral of over-thinking, the spiral of under-doing, intertwining spirals of endless ambiguity?

Might these observations be the crude beginnings of a legitimate ethological study between culture and co-ordination, between posture and place, between movement and meaning?

Then doubts would arise. Was I merely projecting my own problems onto others? Or was I actually seeing something, tendencies, and patterns? Or both?

I wasn’t sure. Looking back, I can see that to a large degree I was casting my own shadow onto the world – my shadow sometimes disguised as a German, a Frenchman, an American, or a person living in Japan.

As life would have it I, a Jewish American, would spend much of my time teaching and befriending people in Japan and Germany. This turned out to be a priceless gift.

The Matted Braid

Japan. It is commonly known on this small, immensely populated island that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Safer to hammer yourself down than to have someone else do it for you, in front of others – the shame of it!

One Japanese man freed beautifully under my hands. His tight stomach un-gripped. His pelvis ceased tucking under. His chest regained its natural tone and volume. Air rushed into his lungs. His eyes no longer looked down, but around. His peripheral vision was expanding in all directions.

‘Do desuka?’ What was happening, I asked him? He said he felt too important. “In my opinion, you are important. We are all equally important, no one more, no one less.” He heard my words, shook his head yes, saying “Hi. Wakaremasu.” Meaning, “I am here and alert and I understand what you are saying.”

But every part of his body and being was saying to him, and to me, that he was sticking out, and I could see and feel his overwhelming fear of getting hammered down. His face began to lose color. He began to sweat. He was about to faint. I grabbed his shoulders and gave him a good shake. “Let it go for now,” I told him. I invited him to sit down, to lean over and drop his head. I waited. I told him that I had helped him to have a new experience; that it was just something to think about. That’s all. I saw and I felt, with greater humility, the matted braid between culture and nature.

So Only I Could Hear

Formally, in this land of earthquakes, houses were brilliantly designed to fall over, to land on the ground, flat and unbroken. As a result, many Japanese houses still have less furnishings. So much more of their lives are lived close to the ground – standing, bowing, kneeling… standing, bowing, squatting… standing, bowing, scurrying…

So many overly turned in legs. Why?

Was this more turned in leg alignment, which at first appeared odd to me, wrong? Was wrong defined by natural criteria, or by cultural criteria? Was I merely evaluating what I saw through my own cultural-esthetic bias, or was I discerning what I saw based upon functional anatomical knowledge? At the same time I saw that, in Japan, in general, people’s legs were considerably more flexible than in America. Why would they want their legs to be, and to look, like our legs, legs that don’t work as well? So many questions, so few answers.

Sitting on a plane, happy, heading back to Japan, to a place I have come to love, the captain announces some bad news.

We land in Osaka airport, two hours after 5000 people die in the Kobe earthquake. 6AM. People asleep on the first floor of their homes, as the second floors drop square on top of them. We stare into the TV, into the classrooms where bouquets of flowers stand upon the empty desks, where only yesterday young Japanese children sat.

Another visit and another workshop, an unusually quiet workshop given on the day when, fifty years ago, Americans dropped a nuclear bomb on all the people who lived in Hiroshima.

A head nurse, in a large Tokyo hospital, showed me how she visited and talked to patients, how she bent over a person and listened to that person, and cared for that person. I watched, and then as I released her out of her hunched over, “concerned” upper back, I asked her, “Who will take care of you, as you care for so many people?” She became very still, very quiet. Silent tears began to well in her eyes. They ran down her face. She started to quietly sob, and through her sobbing she whispered, so only I could hear, that she had not thought of herself for over thirty years.

At that moment I had a sudden and complete turn of heart. Thinking stopped. I stopped. Here beside me was a human being. I did not care what country we were in. I no longer saw her black hair, streaked with grey, or her Asian eyes. I saw her suffering, her loss, her sorrow, her strength, her fragility, and her courage. I saw her.

At that moment my clever pastime of perceiving physio-cultural patterns came to an end.

I could hear Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s voice, one of my teachers, saying to me, “Bruce, people are not numbers. Do you know that Post-Holocaust Jews, when they count people, do so by saying, “not one, not two, not three?” Bruce, people are not their patterns. People are universes. Each person is a world.”

Could I begin to see people in this way? I could, but only by refusing to compare, generalize, classify, judge, label, conclude, and reject anything about anyone.

On The Grounds of Modesty

To Stephen Hawking, one of our great astrophysicists, we are, each one of us, like individual galaxies. In A Brief History of Time, Hawking speculates,

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

I wonder. I wonder what would happen if, “on the grounds of modesty”, I would deduce that, no one country, no one religion, no one tradition, no one person, or point of view sits at the center of our expansion? I wonder what would happen if I could suddenly see and accept the possible truth that there is no center to either our big universe, nor to my little universe. What would happen if I realized, deep within my soul, that I am one little painted spot, in relationship to other little painted spots, in a vast, expanding universe, floating through the night?

Problems and Solutions

Why am I so full of questions?

Abraham Heschel, a Jewish Rabbi, explains in What is Man, that questions have answers, but that problems have solutions. We human beings, according to Heschel, are not questions, but problems – problems to ourselves, and problems to others.

Answers are verbal explanations. For us, an answer will not do. Solutions are real. If we are problems for ourselves, and for each other, then what can move us, not toward an answer, but toward a solution? What exactly is a solution?

A solution, scientifically speaking, is the process of thoroughly bringing together different fluid substances into a homogeneous mixture. This means first we must become fluid substances. Isn’t that part of what our work is about? And then we have to bring ourselves together, from far and wide, into a homogeneous mixture, into a new solution.

But what about our fears and insecurities? What about our need to feel that we are the one sitting in the center of the universe? And what about the relentless need to know and to be right? Sometimes it feels to me that solutions to our individual and collective problems are just too hard.

As I think this very thought, I hear my teacher, Marj Barstow, firmly saying to me, “Bruce, it’s not too hard, it’s too simple.”

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