There is no doubt the body is a moulded river.
This article is, essentially, an edited transcription of a class I gave in 1991. Consequently, the writing style in this essay is informal, more like the spoken word.
I use metaphors a great deal. This is not the same as using visual images. I don’t ask you to visualize. I ask you to think metaphorically. I find when I teach through metaphor, people understand what I am saying. The language of metaphor speaks to a person’s inner life. Mostly, I use organic rather than mechanistic metaphors. We’re organic. We’re natural. We’re wild. The animal kingdom is within us, and we are within it. Perhaps we’ve gotten a bit too ‘civilized.’ We are mammals, not machines.
I’m not particularly interested in arms and legs, heads and spines. They are interesting and beautiful, but I don’t want to reduce a person to a body. This is a great disservice. I am interested in people. I never touch a person’s body. I touch a person.
In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Perhaps Leopold is telling us that the way we know we are conducting ourselves in accordance with nature is when we are preserving our integrity, stability, and (inner) beauty, and that we are out of balance when we are not.
I came across another quote, taken from an interview with writer and conservationist Sir Laurens Van der Post. He ran wilderness expeditions taking people who had never had contact with the wild into the deepest parts of Africa. Van der Post writes:
“If you keep the Earth as close to the initial blueprint of creation as you can, and you bring a person into contact with it; a person who is not whole, from a lopsided society – poof – that person changes.”
I changed the word earth to body and read through it again –
“If you keep the body as close to the initial blueprint of creation as you can, and you bring a person into contact with it; a person who is not whole, from a lopsided society – poof – that person changes.”
Yes! That’s my job – to understand our initial blueprint, what I like to refer to as our original design. And when I can do that – poof! – people change – they become more natural. Old restraints fall away. New freedoms are found. Perspective changes. Life shifts.
If The Peaceful Body is a natural body, then naturalists and ecologists may have something to offer us. Some deep ecologists conceive of the Earth as a body. I have, for years, been thinking about our bodies as moving earth, as living landscape, as knowing water, as fluid fire.
I’d like to introduce The Peaceful Body to you, as an amateur naturalist, as someone who loves nature.
Bioregions and Indicator Species
Does anyone know what a bioregion is? A bioregion is a region, an area that is defined by natural criteria, for example, by the fauna, the flora, the watersheds. Areas can be defined by other criteria as well, political criteria for example. Nations decide where Canada ends and the United States begins.
We are landscapes. We have regions. How do we define them? Where do we place our boundaries, our borders? For example, how do we define our necks? Do we use natural criteria in doing so? Or do we use other criteria?
I find that most people do not understand their necks in terms of natural criteria, as a bioregion. Most people think of their necks in terms of the clothing they wear. We are the only mammals that wear clothing. We are human beings, but we have turtle-necks.
Does anyone know what ecologists refer to when they talk about an indicator species? An indicator species is a species in a region that indicates to us that there’s trouble. If the air pollution becomes critical, certain birds, or tree frogs, may begin to die. So those little birds and little frogs are telling us through their fragility, through their sensitivity, that we are heading in a unwholesome direction. If we listen, if we heed their warning, we can change direction. If we don’t listen we, as a whole being, as a whole body, begin to break down. Sometimes we lose whole parts of ourselves forever.
Our necks are like indicatory species. That’s their function. Our necks are very sensitive, extraordinarily sensitive. And they’re designed to pick up trouble, and they can if they are not rigid, if they are fluid and free.
Now we know one important way our necks serve us. Now let’s return to the concept of a bioregion and see what constitutes our neck as a bioregion.
A neck has a bottom and a top, a front, back, and sides, insides and outsides. My experience is that it’s very difficult to make your neck receptive if your definition of it is incomplete.
Let’s look for a moment at the musculature skeletal life of the neck. The neck muscles are multi-layered and attach onto your skull, onto your jaw, onto your spine, onto your upper ribs, and onto your upper appendicular skeleton – a fancy way of saying onto your arms. That means your neck muscles attach onto five bony systems.
When neck muscles become stiff, all those bony systems are immediately affected because those are the bones to which neck muscles attach. And conversely, when neck muscles return to a freer, more fluid condition, all those bony systems release into movement, all at once, altogether.
Understanding precedes freedom. For me to acquire a keenly receptive neck, I needed to understand my neck as a bioregion. I needed to expand my definition of my neck to include all the bones to which my neck muscles attach: my skull, my jaw, my spine, my ribs, my arms. That’s unquestionably one of the mighty regions of our bodies, one of our hubs, the only area where five bony systems intersect.
We have not even begun to include other organic domains of the neck, for example, nerves, glands, organs, vessels, arteries, etc. That must wait for another time. Let’s continue.
A Little Bit about Albinus
The illustrations I use for my workshops come from a book entitled Albinus on Anatomy, by Robert Beverly Hale and Terence Coyle. It’s published by Dover. Bernard Siegfried Albinus was born in 1697 and died in 1770. He was born in Germany. He grew up and was educated in the Netherlands. These copperplate engravings, officially entitled, Tabulae Sceleti et Musculorum Corporis Humani and Tabulae Ossium Humanorum, took Albinus twenty-two years to complete.
I love these engravings. Albinus draws the skeleton as a living, animated, human being. He allows us to see that we are not just superficial. We have depth. We are multilayered. We are palimpsests – layers of writing, layers of meaning.
Albinus reminds us, through the exquisite backgrounds of his figures, that we exist in relation to a world filled with meaning, symbol, and metaphor, a natural world, beautiful, and mysterious. Meditate on these drawings and you will discover how the backgrounds elucidate the figures. The imaginative backgrounds subtly direct your attention to particular content within the figure, within yourself.
The Ground of the Neck
The first thing that my hands say to a person, when they touch a person, is her or his name. Because I have never put my hands on two people who were the same. There are no repetitions in nature. I want to remember that this is a unique person with whom I am working. She/he has a name. She/he is not a nameless body. People have names. I make it my business to learn a person’s name and to remember that name.
Effie, (the name of the student with me at the moment), has ribs in relation to her arms. These bony systems are the ground of Effie’s neck, and they want to be free and included in her idea of neck. So when Effie thinks about freeing her neck, she is going to include this whole area of herself because she has neck muscles that attach on to these bony systems. (As I am saying the above ideas to Effie, I am communicating, tactually, those same ideas through my hands.)
Effie changes, has a new experience, gains some insight. I thank her and mean it. She sits down and I invite another person up to work with me, Katarina.
Wingspans, Widening Rivers, Holy Places
Do you remember that famous picture by da Vinci, the one where the man is standing in the center of a circle and a square? The man, as he relates to the square, is of particular interest right now. His fingertips on one hand are touching one side of the square, while his fingertips on his other hand are touching the other side of the square. The soles of his feet are touching the bottom side of the square, while the top of his head is touching the top of the square. What does that mean about your arms?
Katarina: They are your height.
Bruce: From middle finger tip to middle finger tip, you are as wide as you are long. I call that your wingspan. Very few human beings experience that truth. Very few would believe you if you suggested it to them.
Katarina: People think their arms are shorter.
(As I begin addressing the whole group, I am simultaneously, working through my hands, to give Katarina a direct, living experience of these ideas.)
Bruce: – (to Katarina and to the group) – Yes, because people use clothing concepts to define their bioregions rather than anatomical realities. Seams and sleeves have come to define where our arms begin and where they end.
Also, our arms fold like wings, compactly along our bodies. Since we don’t use our arms to fly, we don’t get to experience the power and size of our arms, the way birds do. It’s crucial to bring back the support, expanse, and articulation of our arms. Conversely, if you study the anatomy of a bird’s wings, you will be amazed to discover arm bones.
Think of your arms as a widening river. If you look at bones, you will see they are not straight, not pipes. Close your eyes and run your hand down a humerus. You can feel the spiraling motion within the bone itself. It moves the same way that water moves. That is not a coincidence. Embryologically, we come out of water. We are sculpted by water.
“The spiraling forms of muscles and bones bear witness to the living world of water. Through the limbs whole systems of currents stream, and the muscle more or less follows them. Both muscles and vessels speak of streaming movement in spiraling forms. This movement runs through the sinews into the bones. The bone has raised a monument in “stone” to the flowing movement from which it originates…the liquid has “expressed itself” in the bone.”
-Theodor Schwenk, from Sensitive Chaos
(As I continue to articulate my ideas, I continue to articulate the truth of these ideas within Katarina through how I use my hands.)
The way you bring back the full integrity of your arm structure, of your widening river, is to get rid of the dams. This shoulder, for you, is functioning like a dam. If we can find even a little opening, that opening can become a big opening. The river wasn’t meant to end there. The river, without the dam, will keep rolling along, dividing itself between the clavicle and scapula, until it meets another great river, and we call that river the spine, the Great Lengthening River.
Some Native Americans believe that wherever two rivers meet is a holy place. This meeting in you is a holy place, a place of profound confluence.
(I finish working with Katarina. I thank her and I mean it. She sits down. An exceptional Alexander teacher, Robin Simmons, comes forward.)
The Power of Group Teaching
(Using my hands to help Robin), Your arms and ribs are differentiating beautifully Robin. Now the reason why that is happening so quickly with Robin may be, in part, because I’ve spent about forty minutes talking about this idea.
That is how I often work as an educator. I bring an idea onto the floor. We all work on it, as best we can, within ourselves, conceptually and kinesthetically. Then, when I begin to use my hands everyone is warmed up, having worked with that idea to the best of their ability, own their own, through their own nervous systems.
Robin: I realize the change in my body. Just listening.
Bruce: Yes. Just listening.
This is the power of group teaching. If you have any doubt, be crystal clear about this. You want to convey to your students that you can get the work across not only through your hands. Please understand me. I love using my hands. There is nothing I like better. However, because I am an educator, I don’t want to addict my students to my hands. I do my best to develop other ways of communicating the work, ways that will empower my students, ways that will enable them to make progress on their own. If they begin to understand an idea about themselves that is true, that is in accordance with their original design, with their blueprint, and if they think, kinesthetically, about that idea, they find out they can make changes on their own, without effort. I use my hands, in part, to get my students using their brains.
The Great Blessing
In our culture, men often wear ties. This is a cultural decision, not a physical division. It divides our head from the rest of our body, the perfect metaphor for the 2500-year old split between mind and body in western culture.
In our culture, we also often wear belts. This, too, is a cultural decision, not a physical division. After all, cultures exist that do not wear ties or belts. If we were created in the image of God, (which for me is also in the image of Nature), somewhere along the way, we recreated ourselves using unnatural images. We imagined a soul separate from a body, making the body itself soulless, unholy, only a thing, and thus able to be disrespected, abused, exploited, and ignored.
We have done the same with the earth as we have done with our bodies. We have created the world in the unnatural image of ourselves. We came to see the earth as soulless, unholy, as a thing, and thus able to be disrespected, abused, exploited, and ignored. Many of us are aware of having divided the world into first world, second world, and third world, having divided North from South, but few of us realize that we have done this to ourselves..
We have divided ourselves into first world, what resides above the neck tie, second world, what resides below our Windsor Knot and above our belt buckle, and third world, what resides below our belt, dividing North from South.
The belt creates an illusory part of the body we have all come to believe exists. It creates a waist. We have become obsessed with a part of the body that does not exist. We are the only mammals, to my knowledge, that believe we have waists. Look at whales and find the waist. Look at a cat, a dog, a deer, a monkey, or a horse. Look up waist in Gray’s Anatomy and tell me if you find anything.
Our fellow mammals do not have waists because they do not wear clothes, they do not use labels, nor are they obsessed with reducing everything into parts. Our job is to help our students “unlearn” these unnatural and unhelpful notions. The way I get a student to let go of an ingrained personal and cultural habit is to offer them something that is significantly more powerful – the inherent truth, the blueprint.
Increasingly, out of necessity, and dysfunction, we are being forced to see the world now in natural criteria, bio-regionally. Nature, in the form of germs, air, water, sunlight, etc., does not recognize our man-made view of the world. Nature is now forcing us to look at the world from its point of view. This could be one of the great blessings of our time.
My job is to get people to view themselves from the point of view of nature, through natural criteria. Nothing could be more beautiful, or more holy, than the deeply physical experience of you as complete within yourself, as indivisible from anyone or anything.
To eradicate this notion of a border that separates North from South, a superior upper body, from an inferior lower body, what I offer people is an experience of their Psoas. This is a most beautiful, deeply internal, powerful muscle that connects your legs, through your pelvis, to your spine.
The Psoas gives us core longitudinal support. It allows us to be upright human beings, to see where we are, and with whom we are. It enables us to go where we are needed, to lend a helping hand, to offer a kind word.
Freely and Generously
We want to be self-supporting, supportive of others, and able to receive support from all that surrounds us. We want to know where we are, within ourselves, and within our world. We want to be able to move, to go, and to get on with it. We want to be able to bring this orientation, support and power to whatever it is we are doing. We want to be able to live, work, and love freely and generously.
Thank you very much for being here.