16. A Sense of Responsibility – pointing at the moon

The focus of this essay is really the idea of a “leap of faith”, not just as an isolated dramatic event, but as a quality of our everyday experience, and one that is connected to our bodily selves and to our willing acceptance of responsibility.  Responsibility is about answering for our actions.  I will begin with a short poem by Ted Hughes in which he shares the rising moon with his young daughter as she is just discovering language.  The poem is from his 1967 collection Wodwo.

Full Moon and Little Frieda

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clunk of a
bucket –
And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor
Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their
warm wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk
“Moon!” you cry suddenly, “Moon! Moon!”
The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

I want to draw your attention to the vitality of connection, and separation, found in this small incident.  The young child is caught in a moment both of expression and of naming, a moment without thinking, without self-awareness, but one which is carrying her towards the world, and towards separation from the world.  And the whole only exists in the awareness of the father.  He creates the completed world of one person recognising the dawning of the other person.  He makes the moment a social event.  He witnesses.  Perhaps they walk hand in hand down the lane, perhaps he is carrying her and she points with her raised arm but, either way, the birth of speech has come out of the hard path towards uprightness and movement.  Speech is another movement, connecting and separating us, and, as the poem suggests, it is taking her into the realm of art, of creativity and symbol, beyond any simplistic ideas of representation or imitation.  I sense the way the young child is being carried towards responsibility.  The repeated ‘moon’ which she has spoken she also hears.  Meaning is being built up on the foundation of her bodily sensations, of her perceptions, of her movements, her sounds.      Ludwig Wittgenstein begins his philosophical journey rather tangled in the problem of whether the self is all that it is possible to say can be known.  By the end of his tragic, heroic life he has come to a clearer appreciation of the life of a community, the life of those who share a language, or who share what he calls “a form of life”.  By a form of life I think he meant a particular way of seeing the world, the gathering together of things we feel certain about.  Some of these will be passively received, some will need our active leaps of faith.  He writes at one point, “Don’t be afraid of talking nonsense”, adding, “You must keep an eye on your nonsense”.  I think here he is talking about the value of both recognising the boundaries we have created (together with others) of what we are and value, and of keeping those boundaries flexible and permeable.  I think the Alexander Technique can be a great help through its attention to obvious physical boundaries – our sit-bones on the chair, our back against the wall, the quality of the contact between my foot and the floor, my hand resting on my thigh as I sit.  We know where we stand.

That has certainty.  In our childhood development we move into the handling of all the symbolic meanings, that will make up our ‘form of life’, out of the direct sensations of ourselves.  Partly these sensations are directly felt as we feel pleasure and pain, or ill or well; partly we distance ourselves and see ourselves as though from outside, as though our bodies are also part of the “outer world”.  With adults, I find that, for myself and the people I work with, as I teach the Alexander Technique, it is possible to enhance the reality of our personal world of thoughts, ideas, abstractions, symbols, by knowing ourselves as physical, bodily beings.  Responsibility for actions and deeds, for myself as a free agent [the essence of our normal sense of responsibility] moves into responsibility for my conscious thoughts and on into the recognition that I want to take responsibility for a whole domain of my life, which I could summarise as my beliefs, which are not just passively accepted as true.  The clearer our bodily sense of self, the clearer will be the acceptance that our beliefs are not as sure as ordinary perceptions of trees and streets.  I will accept responsibility for what I believe.  I will recognise some elements of ‘my form of life’.  I will not need to make those leaps of faith explicit at each moment, but I will be able, when I’m asked, or when I ask myself, to acknowledge or express my reasons, my impulse to take the leap of faith.  In a remark curiously similar to the one by Wittgenstein which I quoted earlier, the Danish thinker, Kierkegaard writes to himself, “Leaps of faith – yes, but only after reflection”.  But how do we find the ground from which we can leap?  I think this ‘reflection’ can usefully be about awareness of our bodily self.

I also believe it has something to do with imagination, with metaphor, but here again we are faced with the need to keep our boundaries flexible and permeable.  Metaphor always tends towards losing its life, becoming dead and literal, too overt.  James Proctor, a geography professor from California, based a very interesting paper on a famous Buddhist proverb.  This saying is often presented as a picture in which an enlightened master points heavenward and asks, “Mr Moon, how old are you: seventeen or three?”  There is no actual moon to be seen, only a pointing finger.  The moon is not there, not to say that it doesn’t exist, but to emphasise the importance of the finger, the person and his activity, curiosity, need for meaning.

The subject of Proctor’s paper is the significance, for people in the USA, of trust in authority.  This pictorial proverb also asks us to accept, with Wittgenstein, that we will talk nonsense at times (voice our personal beliefs) and that we can keep an eye on the nonsense.  We can take leaps but we can also reflect.  James Proctor’s study suggests that the pointing finger is showing us that the relating of man to moon is what is alive.  What is fact, what is belief, what is truth – these questions exist in the relating.  It is not arbitrary or absurd, but it is up to us how we confirm both our scepticism and doubting and, on the other hand, our leaps of faith.  Coping with these two tendencies is what leads to growth.  The picture of the pointing man, content for now with his ‘nonsense’, I think, can stimulate in us the moment of reflection.  This moment is in essence, the moment of noticing our subjectivity, and having noticed it, we can let go into our life, into our “form of life” which may be more or less eccentric, in which we enact our beliefs and commitments, our scepticism and doubts.

The moment of reflection, of self-awareness, is given a powerful connection to our physical selves in the Alexander Technique practice of inhibiting and directing.  This, for me, increases its efficacy in balancing that which draws us out into the social world of our language, or our ‘form of life’.  In returning to the quiet centre of ourself and then reconnecting in movement, as one does in using the Alexander Technique,  we can be discovering a sense of responsibility because, at heart, responsibility comes back to embracing the real part we play in constituting the world and its meaning.  Irvin Yalom, the eminent American psychotherapist, identifies four ultimate concerns – death, isolation, meaninglessness and freedom.  He sees freedom as belonging here, despite its positive connotations, because freedom implies responsibility, and because freedom leads us to see that we help to constitute the world as something independent and separate from ourselves.

Little Frieda is still carried in the safety of her father’s love and of the natural order, but her naming of the moon is setting her on the next stage of her lifelong path of intertwined loss and discovery.  Freedom brings anxiety.  If I make the world, is the ground solid under my feet?  It is a common experience for us to be jolted out of our everyday reality and suddenly to be reminded of these ultimate concerns.  Such shocks return us to a deeper and simpler sense of “being”.  Thinking will not sustain us on its own though it is the gift we are given to enable us to become free moral agents.  Recall Pascal’s famous words that “man is only a reed, the weakest thing is nature; but he is a thinking reed”.  It is the upright, mobile, balanced reed-like form of the human being which expresses his possibility and longing for responsibility.  That form expresses his “thinking” nature; it means we are no longer part of the world.  We face the world.  We must start to deal with separation and connection, with keeping boundaries flexible and permeable.  We can become trapped in our big brains, and the burdens of responsibility, but we also have the power to explore and create reality with movement and with stories.  I end with another short moon poem, which shows this mature power of imagination.  We give reality to our imagined world, we acknowledge the moon.  It finds us with the clarity of geometrical connection, and our response becomes love, becomes physical contact.  We grow more substantial than a thinking reed by reaching out.

‘Moon Compasses’ by Robert Frost

I stole forth dimly in the dripping pause
Between two downpours to see what there was.
And a masked moon had spread down compass rays
To a cone mountain in the midnight haze,
As if the final estimate were hers;
And as it measured in her calipers,
The mountain stood exalted in its place.
So love will take between the hands a face…

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