Friday, January 27, 2006

The Teaching of FM Alexander

The Teaching of F. Matthias Alexander

The annual F.M. Alexander memorial lecture given by Marjory Barlow on 9 November 1965 at The Medical Society of London.

These annual lectures were instituted as a memorial to F.M. Alexander. A decade has passed since his death on October 10th 1955, so this is perhaps an appropriate moment to pass in review the knowledge which he left us, and to recall aspects of his teaching which may be in danger of being forgotten and ultimately lost, as the psycho-physical benefits of his work become better known. An institution, said Emerson, is the lengthened shadow of one man -- we, in this Society, are the rapidly lengthening shadow of Alexander. This lecture is a plea that as the shadow grows we may take care not to lose the substance.
It must be remembered that in order to discuss or analyse anythingthe nature of language forces us to speak in a separative way. The livinghuman being is a whole, works well or badly as a whole, and livingexperiences are integrated and simultaenous in a way which cannot beexpressed in words. Physical and mental aspects of any activity are in factone, but have to be separated for purposes of discussion. The idea that posture affects well-being is a very ancient one. Weknow that the Greeks were concerned with it, that Victorian young ladiesused backboards to encourage straight spines, and that posture training inthe gymnasium is part of the accepted curriculum in schools. Many Easternreligions and disciplines contained instructions about the carriage andcomportment of the body. We might almost speak of the noble lineage of this idea, since somany of the expressions enshrined in our language indicate a knowledge thatbodily attitude betrays inner states of mind or dominant characteristics.We speak of 'a spineless creature,' 'having no backbone,' 'losing ourheads,' or 'being level-headed,' -- we all know what it is to be 'besideourselves.' The Bible abounds in references to a stiff-necked generation --'The stiff-necked and the unbelievers shall be punished' and 'theystiffened their necks that they might not hear the word of the Lord' aretwo nice ones.During the last 30 years, at least, the importance ofbody-mechanics has been widely recognised. Alexander found that the problemof posture was a much more fundamental one than had been suspected. He didnot use the word posture, because it was too limited a concept for thenature of the discoveries he made, which showed that bad 'posture' or as hepreferred to call it 'mis-use of the self' was the end result of muchdeeper wrong processes, involving the whole person. In fact, of bad habits'woven in the weakness of the changing body' as Eliot puts it. One of the things he meant by the 'use of the self' was the way inwhich the various parts of the body are related to one another in actuallyliving, moving and having our being. Posture implies fixed positions, and right and wrong ways ofsitting, standing, etc. and posture training is based on the inadequateassumption that bad posture can be altered satisfactorily from the outside,by doing something different. To start with the wrong end of the stick -- because the wrong endis observable -- Alexander found that we live in almost complete ignoranceof the way we use the body -- that most people are distorting the form, andimpairing the working of the whole organism, by bad co-ordination, muscularovertension and misuse of the parts of the body in their relationship toone another. The body is an instrument -- it is the instrument through which welive -- it can be capable of very fine and subtle perceptions. ProfessorA.N. Whitehead wrote in his book The Romantic Reaction, "The unity of theperceptual field, therefore, must be a unity of bodily experience. Yourperception takes place where you are AND IS ENTIRELY DEPENDENT ON HOW YOURBODY IS FUNCTIONING." This instrument is being damaged and distorted inways largely unconsidered until Alexander began to teach. It is beingrendered gross, heavy and incapable of sensitive behaviour, by overtensionand the resultant internal noise to which it is subject. This lack of peacein the body makes almost impossible the condition known as 'peace of mind.'The form this misuse takes follows the same general pattern ineveryone. Invariably the muscles of the neck are overcontracted, causing lossof the free poise of the head on top of the spine. This leads toovercontraction of some muscles of the trunk, and lack of proper tone inthe other supporting muscles of the body. This results in exaggeration ofthe natural curves of the spine, and harmful pressure on the individualvertebrae of the spinal column and on the joints, coupled with overwork andwrong relationship of the limbs to the trunk. In short we get a state of affairs where the work of supporting thebody is being wrongly distributed -- the form of the body distorted -- andimportant functions such as breathing, blood circulation and digestion areworking inefficiently and under enormous strain. Another way of putting it is that the wrong general principle onwhich the body is being used is that of contracting every part of it intothe nearest joint, beginning with the contraction of the head towards thetrunk. It is as if each of us is trying to take up the least possibleamount of room in the Universe.This unconscious way of mismanagement of the self produces statesof dis-ease -- dis-ability -- dis-comfort and general ill-health whichbaffle the ordinary doctor, and for which there is no help other than aradical change in the manner in which the person is using himself. Fortunately, during the past 15 years in England, medical research,and the publication of scientific papers in medical textbooks and journals,have resulted in a great increase in the number of doctors andpsychiatrists who turn to teachers of the Alexander technique for help withpatients who are suffering from the effects of bad use. To understand the difference between usual methods of posturetraining -- or postural correction -- and Alexander's teaching we must lookagain at his own story, re-examine our origins, and see how he arrived atthe knowledge which has made possible a completely new approach to theproblem of how to manage ourselves in the least harmful way.Alexander began with the concrete -- he had little time fortheories or for ideas which had no practical application. He was forced to his search by a disability which was interferingwith his work as an actor and reciter. The problem seemed to be a specificdifficulty -- that of recurring hoarseness of his voice -- but it led himto discover that a small and apparently isolated weakness could not beovercome without recourse to the total change of his whole self. And thatattempts to change at the outer visible level -- the usual way of trying tocorrect faults -- were completely unavailing. Here then was Alexander, a successful reciter with a passion forShakespeare and a firm determination to become a great Shakespearean actor.All his ambitions were falling to pieces because his voice was not standingup to the demands being made upon it. He sought medical advice. After disappointing trials of theremedies, which worked improvements only as long as he refrained from usinghis voice, he came to a realisation which was the first stroke of genius ina long series. He understood that he might be causing the trouble himself-- that he might be putting strain on the vocal organs in some way whichwas unknown to him. Looking back from where we stand now, this first stepin a new direction in thinking about his problem, stands out clearly as thekey to all that was to follow and shows Alexander's capacity for originalthought and also the awkward way he had of not accepting anything at itsface value. Even when he was a small boy this quality was evident. It issaid that he was a perfect nuisance at the Dame School he attended inTasmania because he invariably questioned everything he was taught, andasked his teachers how they knew that the information they were giving himwas so. There is no means of knowing how many people with Alexander's voicetrouble have given up their careers as speaker, actors or singers becausethey accepted unthinkingly, that if medical treatment failed, there couldbe no other solution to their difficulties. Alexander had now taken responsibility upon himself for histrouble. In order to observe what he did when he used his voice hepractised speaking in front of mirrors. By patiently watching what he wasdoing he found, at length, that three rather peculiar things happened everytime he spoke. There was a tendency to pull the head back, depress thelarynx, and suck in air through the mouth. With these interferences went atendency to raise his chest and shorten his whole body. After much experimentation he found that if he could prevent thepulling back of the head the other misuses did not occur. This was the second major discovery -- namely that the interferencewith the free poise of the head brought interference with the best workingof the rest of his body in its train. The dominance of the head in the hierarchy of the body he latercalled the Primary Control partly because in unravelling the muddle ofmisuse, it is the first factor to be dealt with, and conditions the formsof misuse in the rest of the body.The Primary Control, in its full definition, is the relationshipbetween the head, the neck and the back. It is the Primary Control of theuse of the body whether the use is good or bad. Having discovered what might be causing the voice difficulties,Alexander now set about trying to correct these faults in the most obviousway. He tried to DO the opposite. But the more he struggled to do the rightthing the more entangled he became. He found that he couldn't stop these wrong habits by trying to doso. At last he realised that he hadn't got to DO something different -- butto stop doing what he was doing already. This is the next important principle in his teaching which turnsupside down all the accepted notions about correcting something that iswrong. Usually if something is wrong we think we must DO something to putit right.The new principle is that if something is wrong, we must find outwhat it is and stop doing it. The only cure for banging one's head againsta wall is to stop. The understanding of this principle is cardinal in any attempt tochange misuse, and highlights one of the basic differences between thisteaching and any other method. It also provides a useful explanation of the work on a certainlevel. It can be formulated like this in answer to questions about whatAlexander teachers do. "We teach people to become aware of the unnecessarystrain and overtension they make in everything they do, so that they neednot continue to misuse themselves in this way."In other words we are concerned with giving our pupils theknowledge of how to liberate themselves from the cage of overtension inwhich they are imprisoned, so that the free, natural use of the body canemerge. Cyril Connolly wrote in The Unquiet Grave -- "inside every fat manis a thin one trying to get out." We might alter it thus, "Inside everytense man is a free one not knowing how to get out."We are not teaching people what to do right -- but how to stopwrong DOING. It is impossible to DO and UNDOING. But to return to Alexander in front of his mirrors. He had nowreached a deadlock. He knew what was wrong, he knew he couldn't DO anythingto put it right. He had exhausted all ways of trying to alter what wasgoing on FROM THE OUTSIDE. The next step was to begin the journey inwards to the central placein himself where the trouble really lay. Along the route came therecognition that he could not trust his sense of feeling -- that is -- thekinaesthetic sense of how much muscular tension he was using. He found thatwhat he could see happening in the mirror did not correspond at all to whathe felt was happening. Up to this time no one had questioned thereliability of this faulty guide which we all use in judging what is goingon in the body -- how much tension we are making -- and also where any partof the body is in relation to other parts, and to the whole. Thekinaesthetic sense works partly through the muscle-spindles in the muscles,as well as from receptors in the tendons and joints. Muscle-spindles aretiny mechanisms whose function is to convey information from muscles to thehigher centres of the brain about the state of muscles, and to receiveinformation back from the brain as to what the muscles should do about it.However, if too much tension is being made in the muscle, there comes acertain point when this "feedback" between brain and muscle is put out ofaction, and we can no longer feel what we are doing. This is the scientificexplanation of what Alexander called "faulty sensory appreciation" and thisis the principal source of our ignorance of what we are doing withourselves when we are wrong. It makes clear why ordinary methods of puttingthings right without taking wrong feeling into account are likely to fail. Alexander could not change anything by doing. He could not trusthis feeling. He then saw that he had underestimated the strength of habit.What he observed in the mirror was the end-result of disordered patternslying deep in the nervous system. And that these inner patterns ofimpulses, conveyed through the nervous system to the muscles acting on thebony structure and joints of the body, were operative perpetually, whetherhe was moving, speaking or sitting still. In fact these inner patterns were him -- insofar as his body wasthe outer manifestation of them.The next step in the journey was taken when Alexander realised thatthe only place where he could begin to control the wrong habitual patternswas at the moment when the idea came to him to speak or move. The moment when, whatever state of misuse he was in, would be madeworse as he went into action. He had reached the only place, and the only moment in time, wherechange could begin, or where he could have any control over the habitualpatterns of misuse, which were dominating everything he attempted to do. This place, or this moment in time, was the instant that a stimulusto activity reached his consciousness. In the ordinary way, when a stimuluscomes, we react to it in the only manner possible. The response is madewithout thought -- without any knowledge on our part of what we areputting into motion. The reaction is the immediate response of the wholeself, according to habitual patterns of movement which we have developedfrom our earliest years. We have no choice in this, we can behave in noother way. We are bound in slavery to these unrecognised patterns just assurely as if we were automatons. When Alexander reached understanding of this part of the problemhe had found the key to all change. He understood at last in what way hemust work. We have now followed him in his journey from the outermostmanifestation of misuse, that is the interference with the normal workingof his whole body, resulting in the vocal failure, to the innermost pointwhere he could stop this interference. Let us now reverse the process and follow him on his way out again.He had to make possible a pause or space between the stimulus andthe response. He decided to do this by saying "NO" to, or inhibiting, theimmediate response. This proved to be the cornerstone on which all hislater discoveries were made, and through which later changes were madepossible. The word inhibition in this sense means the opposite of volition-- withholding consent to automatic reaction. It does not mean suppressingsomething in the sense in which it is used in psycho-analysis.Having effectively prevented the old unconscious patterns fromrepeating themselves, and having made a break in the "perpetual motion"machine that he had become, Alexander then brought his brain into action bysending conscious, verbal instructions to the parts of the body which hehad been unable to control before. The first result of this way of working was to prevent the misuseof the head, neck and trunk. He had to be content for a time to givehimself a stimulus, refuse to respond to it, and give the consciousmessages or directions without actually carrying out a movement. This isthe preparatory stage of what one might call road building or the layingdown of railway lines along which the train will eventually travel. In time he was able to continue the new messages during movement. Eventually the old wrong inner patterns were replaced by the newones resulting in the co-ordinated, trouble-free working of his body. In this way he put to a new use a faculty we all have and use inordinary life. This faculty is intelligence, or the power of the brain todetermine and direct what we wish to do. This power he now turned to themanagement and control of the use of his body, so that the whole of itbecame "informed with thought."Let us now examine in detail the series of new orders or messageshe was employing. The first and most important break in the old patternscame, as we have seen, when he said "NO" to the habitual reaction. He thenordered the muscles of the neck to release. The neck muscles are the onlyparts of the body which can exert direct traction on the head, and it willbe pulled back or down or sideways according to which group or groups ofthese muscles are being over tensed. No change in the poise of the head can happen while it is held inthe grip of neck misuse. Moreover, the small sub-occipital muscles betweenthe base of the skull and the top vertebrae of the spine, the axis and theatlas, cannot perform their function of delicately balancing the head. Thenext order was for the head to be directed forward and up -- not put butdirected. The next order was to the back to lengthen and widen.Alexander explained to us that this was the nearest he could get inwords to the actuality he wished to bring about. These simple verbalformulations are designed to bring about the reconciliation of two opposingtendencies in each case, and to ensure the balance of forces in theantagonistic muscle pulls in the body. A harmony results, where everythingis doing its own work of maintaining stability, and there is a stillnesswithout fixity, or if you like, a lack of disturbance, in the working ofthe parts of the body in their relationship to each other. Too much forward of the head and you lose the upward tendency --too much up and the head goes back -- "leave it alone, in fact."Too much effort to lengthen the back and it narrows -- too muchwidening and you lose length and slump down. The whole process is self-checking. I hope this makes it clear whyone cannot do the orders. Their first function is preventive. The wronginner patterns are the doing which has to be stopped.I'm afraid I have rather laboured this story -- so familiar tomany of the audience. The full account of it is in Alexander's book, TheUse of the Self, but I warned you that I was going to re-examine ourorigins. It was necessary to do this if what follows is to make any sense,especially to our guests who may not know Alexander's teaching. After he had worked out the technique by putting it into practiceto restore his own normal co-ordination, he was very surprised to find thatthe misuses he had overcome in himself were present, in varying degrees, ineveryone else. It is a curious fact that until the scales fall from oureyes in this matter of misuse, we do not notice the misuse of others. It isas if the words about the beam in our eyes and the mote in other people'swent into reverse. Alexander then had to find a way of teaching others what he knew.This was a considerable task, involving not only explanation, but learningthe special and subtle skill in the use of the hands needed for working onother people. Later still he took on a further burden in the shape of studentswanting to learn how to teach the work. This is a different task again,group work instead of work with one individual. It is important to remember that we are all in the same situationas Alexander. He has found the way and the technique for following the way.We have the enormous advantage of the skilled help of a trained teacher.But the real importance and value of the technique is that we learn to workon ourselves. Alexander used to say, "Everyone must do the real work forthemselves. The teacher can show the way, but cannot get inside the pupil'sbrain and control his reactions for him. Each person must apply it forhimself."Learning this work is like learning anything else. We make use ofthe same faculties and need the same patience and perseverance as in anyform of learning.So far we have explored Alexander's work in its application to ourfaulty muscular habits and general misuse of the body, and seen how we maybuild up a stable good use which is under our control. Let us now examine some applications of his principles to otherspheres of our experience, and see if we can catch some part of his visionof its importance which inspired him throughout his life. He understood, as perhaps no one else has done, that here was thepossibility of a different quality of living, which could help resolve manyof the difficulties of life which we bring on ourselves through lack ofawareness and control. He was very modest about his part in thediscoveries, and often used to say, "if I had not discovered the work someother poor chap would have had to go through all that, because the need forit is so great." This attitude is probably common among creative people.Once the poem is written, the music composed, the painting finished or thescientific discovery made, the creation assumes its own life, and itsoriginator feels a certain detachment towards it. The Alexander technique will work wherever it is applied. It is notmagic, but does its job at the point of application. How deeply it isapplied depends on the aims and wishes of the person concerned. If the aimis to get rid of a pain in the back it will do so effectively by bringinginto consciousness the 'wrong doing' which is producing the pain. If theaim is greater awareness of habitual reactions in other departments of theself, it will work there too, and by the same process. We are all bound inthe prison of habit. We have habits of thought -- unexamined fixed opinionsand prejudices which determine our behaviour without our realising it. We are also the victims of emotional reaction. These are verypowerful driving forces.A young pupil of my husband's, when she first realised theimportance of these things, burst out, "Oh, I see, Dr. Barlow, this is alife-sentence." Alexander's favourite way of describing his work was as "a means ofcontrolling human reaction." Under this basic umbrella can be includedevery form of blind, unconscious reaction, and here we come to the wholequestion of Self-Knowledge. The muscular bad habits of misuse harm only oneself -- unconscioushabits of thought and emotion harm oneself and other people, because theydetermine our reactions to everyone else. It could be said that we useother people to practise our unconscious bad habits on. The greatest misery and misunderstanding we experience is often inthis field of personal relationships. Of course, these inner emotionalstates are mirrored in the way we use ourselves -- states of rage, anxiety,and fear -- to take only the most obvious examples -- are there for all theworld to see by the unmistakeable bodily attitudes. This is also true ofmore subtle inner conditions such as depression, worry and hopelessness.In some way the constant and deep reaction-patterns are moreobvious to other people than to ourselves.I sometimes think that there is a wry sense of humour lurkingsomewhere in the background of the Universe permitting this tragi-comicstate of affairs, where certain characteristics of a person are known andclearly seen by everyone, except the person himself. There is a thing known as 'the state of the world.' In whateverpart of time a man's life span is set down there must always be large,terrifying problems, known as 'the state of the world.' In primitive times wild animals and marauding tribes were probablythe main worries -- apart from the weather. Later, perhaps, the plague,persecutions, lawlessness and lack of respect for human life. In this,things haven't changed much -- and always there is war. An individual can do little about these large issues On a smallerscale, but nearer home, there is the problem of other people. Most of thetime they just don't behave as we think they should. Again there is littlethat we can do about it, although we waste an enormous amount of energytrying to make them alter. Where then can we affect anything? We have been told many times inthe course of history, by wise men, that the chaos inthe world is only a reflection of the chaos within us -- writ large. Alexander taught that there is one main field of work for each ofus -- work on ourselves to gain more light on our unconscious habits --work to use more constantly the one place of freedom we have, the moment ofthe impact on us of a stimulus, so that we increase the number of momentswhen we choose our reaction, instead of being driven by habit to react aswe have always done in the past. For this we must be there -- present andaware, at the crucial moment, to inhibit before we react. We have no freedom in dictating the state of the world, we haveonly limited control over the events that happen to us, but we can developcontrol over the way we react to these events. The freedom in ourenvironment and in regard to other people's reactions is also limited, butwe can have some control over the nearest bit of our environment --ourselves. Alexander used to chide us for always trying to change and controlthe big things instead of changing the small things that were in ourcontrol. The inscription at Delphi 'Know thyself' sums it up.Down the ages we can see that all the real teachers of mankind havetried to make people understand this point, that change can only happen inthe individual. We know that fundamental new ideas have always started withone person and spread slowly and gradually as more and more individualsreceive and understand the new knowledge. The vision Alexander had of the possibility of individual evolutionin the development of consciousness and awareness was the mainspring of hislife's work. It is this aspect of his teaching that places him in thedirect tradition of the great teachers of humanity. It is this side of histeaching which could so easily get lost. It is a not unreasonablesupposition that many whose reported teachings have come down to us, alsogave to the people of their time practical techniques for carrying out theteaching. If so, most of this has been lost and forgotten, and we are leftwith reports and writings which today often have little meaning for us. Itis interesting -- apropos of all this -- that a pupil of mine, a doctor,once remarked that Alexander had rediscovered the secret of Zen for ourtime. Another aspect of traditional teaching worth mentioning is thenecessity to live in the present. It is a recurrent theme in the greatmystical writings. The Now is all that we have. We cannot inhibit nextweek, direct ourselves tomorrow, or even control our reactions five minuteshence. All this has to be done Now. The fact that we find it so difficultto BE in the present, and to deal with the requirements of the presentmoment in the most appropriate way is, I might suggest somewhat fancifully,also mirrored in the way we stand. How can we BE all present and correct,if our heads are driving back into the past, our bodies rushing forwardinto the future and only our feet all too firmly anchored in the Here andNow? But you may say -- let's not be so gloomy about it and, of course,you would be quite right. Nothing is achieved by gloom and heaviness. Asone of our students pointed out, "If there is a force of gravity there mustalso be a force of levity." Frequently when he was training us, Alexander would come into thestudents' room, look round at all the earnest, serious faces preparingdiligently for his class, and send us packing for a walk round the squaresaying, "That's not the way to work, let's have a bit of gaiety andlightness." One of the most endearing things about him was his capacity forenjoyment and his refusal to be serious about things which did not reallymatter. He liked particularly jokes against himself and would tell themwith great gusto. He knew the meaning of the words Enjoy Yourself. In 1946 my husband and I were on holiday in Brittany with Alexanderand a South African Q.C. with rather expensive tastes. We were nearing theend of our stay and were awaiting, rather anxiously, the arrival of sometravellers' cheques belonging to the South African. They did not come and,meanwhile, the rest of the party were supplying him with cash. On the last day the cheques still hadn't arrived and we had 1600francs between us to foot a large hotel bill. After consultation we decidedthat the only thing to do was to send Alexander to the Casino in the hopethat he would retrieve our fortunes. We all went with him and stood behindhis chair while he, with the greatest composure in the world, proceededvery slowly and diligently to lose every sou that we had. As he remarked inanother context, "You cannot change the course of Nature by primarilyco-ordinating yourself." All ended happily enough as Alexander had made friends with a youngFrench couple who were staying in the hotel, and they agreed to standsurety for us until we could collect the money from the nearest large town.But to return to his teaching. It is, like all important things,invisible and fragile, the heart and core of it I mean. There is a nicelittle piece by Rilke which I can't resist quoting: "This is the creaturethat has never been, they never knew it yet, nonetheless, they loved theway it moved -- its gentleness -- its neck, its very gaze, calm andserene." I am reminded also of Bernard Shaw's remark "Alexander calls uponthe world to witness a change so small and so subtle that only he can seeit." Alexander's teaching comes into being -- it is born anew, only whensomeone uses it. In this way it is like music, it is brought to life whensomeone plays it and makes the music manifest.Alexander used to tell us that he wrote his books to ensure that arecord of his work would exist even if the teaching of it died out. Hishope was, that in this event, someone might come across the books andreconstruct the practical side of it. Now, I know these books come in for alot of criticism. It has always been so. They are not easy to read andcertainly they were not easy to write. But there they are -- the man's ownwords -- how he worked the problem out and what he thought his discoveriesmeant. Francis Bacon said, "Some books are to be tasted, others to beswallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." I suggest that Alexander's books are obligatory reading for anyonewho takes his teaching seriously. He is accused of being incomprehensible. I would like to quote apassage from a recently translated book by Merleau Ponty called ThePhenomenology of Perception. "The excitation is seized upon andre-organised to make it resemble the perception which it is about tocause," end of quote. I don't pretend to know what the author means, but I'm sure he istrying to express something important. It might even be worthwhile studyinghis book to find out. So with Alexander's books -- they require study andhard application, given this they will yield up their gold.Before the war I had a pupil who was home on leave from Armyservice in India. He had a course of lessons and went back to his unit. Twoor more years later he returned to London for a refresher course oflessons. I congratulated him on the change in himself which he had broughtabout. "Yes," he said. "I have been working hard. One thing has helped memore than anything else. I keep Alexander's books on my bedside table andread a chapter every night." The following day I told Alexander this story while we were havinga training class. He was silent for a long moment and then saidthoughtfully, "Yes, and I would be a better man if I did the same."These then are the two aspects of Alexander's teaching. First as ameans of allowing the natural laws of the organism to work withoutinterference -- a means of giving back the birth-right of good use, which,as children, we all possessed. Alexander said, "When an investigation comesto be made it will be found that every single thing we do in the work isexactly what is done in Nature, where the conditions are right, thedifference being that we are learning to do it consciously." Ideally, the teacher has to be a craftsman in the use of his hands,a scientist in his adherence to principles which are subject to'operational verification' and an artist in conveying his knowledge toothers. The teacher's responsibility for the continued existence of thework is heavy, especially if he trains other teachers, to ensure that noneof the essential elements of the teaching is lost.In the second aspect -- the application of the work to the deeperspheres of our experience, the division into teacher and pupil vanishes. There is no end to work on oneself -- here we are all in the sameboat. When Alexander was nearly 80 years old he said to me, "I never stopworking on myself -- I dare not." He knew that the only limits to this kindof development are those which we impose on ourselves. He continued to teach to within five days of the end, at the age of86 and then, having refused all drugs which might deprive him of it, heachieved the rare distinction of being present at his own death.Tonight we have remembered him -- but the memorial that wouldplease him best is that we should do his work.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Just Wake Up

In the Muddy Pool, Floating Weed wrote:

I would not describe conscious recognition and 'allowing' of unconscious 'wrong-doing' as a subtle method.

The subtle method I recognise is unconscious - it acts subtly, without our definitive knowledge of it. There is some sense of it but the state disintegrates any need to investigate or pursue it. That activity would be self-defeating. As soon as we try to know something about this method, it dissolves into 'doing.' You can call it 'allowing' but if it is conscious it remains in the area of 'doing.' True allowing cannot be a conscious activity otherwise we instantly inhibit true allowing and replace it with conscious 'allowing.'

There is great desire in us to know what zazen is, to reveal its secret and how to practise it but it has no secrets it has not already given-up to us. We make this practise our own. It is the very state of 'un-knowing', of 'un-doing.' It is the state of 'things as it is.' This method is truly a subtle one. It cannot be written down or described. It manifests something unadorned, uninflected, uncreated, eternal, immanent, prescient......It is only when we cease to strive, to search, to know, to do that it can emerge.

This weed is floating, it holds no secrets, it is not holding onto anything, not 'Buddhism,' not 'Zen,' not a place or a name, not an activity nor a non-activity. If I can seek out an Alexander teacher, can you release the great man from that headlock you have him in? Re-read your last two posts on The Middle Way - something emerges between the lines that is beyond a technique.

My reply:

In the original version of Fukan-zazengi (Shinpitsu-bon), Master Dogen gives detailed preparatory instructions: Not to think about this and that; not to care about this and that; but rather to allow this and that.

Finally, these instructions draw to an end. Master Dogen writes: "Having regulated the posture already, let the breath also be regulated."

Then he comes to the crux: "When something arises in the mind, just wake up."

He doesn't say to do something unconsciously. Master Dogen doesn't say what Gudo Nishijima says, which is "just go back to keeping the spine straight vertically."

I discussed this problem with Gudo Nishijima in great detail about 2o years ago. The discussion was summarized in a Dogen Sangha Newsletter which Michael Luetchford published around that time--if anyone is interested, Michael Luetchford probably still has a record of it.

The gist of what Gudo Nishijima said was that "just wake up" means "keep the spine straight vertically." As far as Gudo Nishijima is concerned, it is the same instruction.

But the discussion left me with a nagging doubt. The doubt has gradually been resolved by Alexander work. (But, then again, the resolution of this doubt has given rise to other nagging doubts, more serious ones.)

"Just wake up" means "just wake up" --- "just become conscious."

"Just wake up" doesn't mean just do something unconsciously.

Let me give it to you straight, Floating Weed: You are wrong. You have not understood, yet.

Master Dogen's true teaching is hanging by a very fine thread, and in truth I am not such a great man of iron as people sometimes think. After you have understood, I will be very happy to receive the information from you that it is OK for me to let go.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Stuff of Endless Practice

In the Muddy Pool, Floating Weed wrote:

Dear Mike,

The land I visit is this one, it looks like a powerbook keyboard as I write this. How could there be a map leading me to this unknowable moment of consciousness? Are you sure your new map is accurate? What 'land' are you visiting?

I practised Iyengar Yoga for a time with an excellent teacher of that discipline. After each practise I felt utterly content, as if every joint in my body had opened and released itself. It reminded me of the pleasant sensation I had after my first sesshin but more profound, more rooted. The sensation of being was dynamic, vibrant, sensitive. Suddenly I wondered if this was not just like zazen. I wondered whether it was a superior method. I wondered whether Yoga teachers who regard zazen as a higher level asana might be right but that the practise of yoga should precede it. I tried a few other things, the obvious ports of call, Qi Gong et al.

After all these supernatural delights, somehow this dusty old practise emerged again - my stiff neck, my cracking spine, my calm and delightful sitting, my torn and ragged clinging to my cushion, my 'broken bowl' as Pierre puts it. I've visited a few lands as you can see but in the end I came home to my cushion.

I believe and practise that the subtle technique of zazen mentioned by Master Dogen is zazen itself. Zazen notices the stiffness in my shoulder and it passes. Zazen finds the natural curvature of my spine and allows it to relax upwards into its repose. Zazen releases this consciousness into its context. I trust zazen completely to order the universe according to its rule. Zazen finds a muddy pool and clarifies it down to the bottom. This foolish thing is a ripple on that pool, not the pool itself.

How could my monkey mind getting involved in this process to consciously 'do' 'undo' or 'inhibit' anything reveal anything to zazen that zazen does not already allow?

You did not notice the subtle method, perhaps as you state you were badly instructed or perhaps it was something in you, the effect of that 'hard-drinking, iron-pumping, just fucking do it' young man? It took an Alexander teacher to remove this obstruction. I contend that the donkey carried the King into your chamber but you crowned the donkey and made the king his subject.I don't know what Alexander Technique is as you point out. As you describe it, it sounds like a reductive analysis of zazen - I'll try it though and get my own hat to talk through.

This reminds me, I must go back to that Yoga teacher....

My reply:

The Technique--the Technique which Master Dogen describes in the opening sentence of Shobogenzo as the Subtle Technique (MYO-JUTSU), and in Fukan-zazengi as the Vital Technique (YO-JUTSU)--is not Zazen itself. It is an art, skill, or means, that buddhas bring to the practice of Zazen.

It has to do with the difference between allowing and doing.

If we take the example of breathing: breath-holding, deliberate abdominal breathing, counting the breaths, et cetera, et cetera, are all variations on the theme of doing the breathing.

Observing the breath, just noticing that a long breath is long and a short breath is short without doing anything to interfere with the natural rhythm of the breath; or forgetting about the breath altogether and letting it take care of itself, are variations on the theme of allowing the breathing.

I think that Iyengar Yoga and Qi Gong are both forms of doing, more or less subtle depending on the teacher and the peculiarities of the individual practitioner. But true Alexander work is a cut above those "doing" approaches: like true Zazen, it is based upon the principle of non-doing.

If you find a good Alexander teacher, together you will discover all sorts of things that you are doing that you didn't realize you were doing. Then you and I will truly be two weeds floating in the same muddy pool.

It is not that Alexander teachers removed the obstruction. Alexander teachers have helped me, and continue to help me, to see how I obstruct myself. How I get in the way of the way, by my unconscious wrong doing. How wonderful it is to be wrong like this! It is the stuff of endless practice.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

What did Alexander mean by Conscious Inhibition?

In the Muddy Pool, Floating Weed wrote:

There is a sense amongst some practitioners that we can consciously intend and practise this actual inhibition of habitual response in our daily lives but we cannot, we can only practise zazen. There is no moment we can identify in which our conscious response is appropriate. Our natural expression (immanence/prescience) cannot be defined or controlled only revealed.

If Floating Weed were familiar with Alexander's work, he or she would not have written this. I am afraid that Floating Weed might be guilty of expressing a view on a subject that he or she has not yet investigated thoroughly.

It is impossible to convey in writing what happens in an Alexander lesson, but I shall attempt to give a kind of snapshot. A lesson tends to be filled with complaints from the teacher along the lines of:

"No, now you helped."
"No, you used your legs."
"Uh huh! Now you want to get out of the chair, don't you?"

These complaints occur when the pupil fails to inhibit his habitual response, and thereby gets in the teachers way, preventing the teacher from conveying to the pupil a new experience of freedom from doing.

The late Patrick Macdonald, a protege of FM Alexander, wrote: "You must learn to get out of the teacher's way, learn to get out of your own way, then learn to get out of ITS way."

In response to feedback from the teacher of the kind quoted above, it is up to the pupil to renew a conscious decision to inhibit his habitual response. This habitual response arises from a desire to get it right or to help the teacher, and so it is necessary for the Alexander teacher to reassure the Alexander pupil that it is totally unnecessary for the pupil to try to get it right or to help the teacher.

If you have never had an Alexander lesson, the above will not make any sense to you, and neither should it. It is merely a snapshot of my own experience of Alexander work.

All I can do is to once again bear witness to the fact that, before having Alexander lessons, I completely failed to understand the real meaning of the first sentence of Shobogenzo, in which Master Dogen writes of the Subtle Skill/Method/Technique of Zazen. In recent years, due to input from Alexander teachers, I believe that I began to understand what Master Dogen was getting at when he described the Subtle Skill as "of the highest order" and "free of doing."

If you want to investigate for yourself whether or not I am talking through my hat, find a good Alexander teacher. There is no other way.