Our individual biological or body clock typically runs a little slower than the natural duration of the day. In isolation, and without cues from nature, we tend to experience a day as lasting slightly longer: we think we are back where we started, in temporal terms, after about twenty four hours and twenty minutes. Each day with the coming of the light after the night, our body clock resets itself like a slow running clock corrected. This lag in our inner day, our inner stability, means that each day we retune ourselves to natural rhythms. This retuning coincides with hormonal changes which prepare us to cope with the approaching stresses of being awake and active. It seems to me that this daily resetting of our clock primes us to adapt to stress, and highlights how important, certainly in our culture, are the demands of anticipating what is coming. “We guess and fear” as Robbie Burns acknowledges as he speaks to the mouse his plough has disturbed. Our preoccupation with the accurate recording of the passage of time is the essential accompaniment to our feeling of being at the mercy of the next event. I think this is not the whole story of our tie to time – without an awareness of time passing there would be no story, no biography, no planning or reflection and limited possibilities for social co-operation. But on the immediate bodily level our attention to time is very much about anticipating stress, I believe. Synchronising the mass attacks from the trenches in World War I needed the officers to have accurate timepieces.
Saying ‘No’ is, in part, about breaking this succession of events, one reacting upon the next in our inner life and outer behaviour. In human beings the soul activities of thinking, feeling and willing are able, to a certain extent, to be exercised separately. Consider your dog or cat. In the typical animal these activities are thoroughly mixed and this mixing means that there are limited possibilities of freedom in the way the animal responds to what goes on around it. For us, these different elements of our inner life do very much mingle, but we can come to a thought, explore a feeling, form an intention – and then act on them, or crucially for this essay – decide not to act. We can say ‘no’ to others, and, more fundamentally, ‘no’ to ourselves. This is a capacity which indicates a new type, a higher, more refined type of selfhood, a new principle of organisation within us. I can say no. The animal may well refrain from acting – not starting to eat or chase the ball until permission is given – but there is not the essential human act of refraining. I can say ‘no’.
I want to explore what else this reveals about us – especially as ‘saying no’ is often used as a tool and exercise in the practice of the Alexander Technique.
I’m not quite sure why but several French illustrations have come to me – perhaps because of the famous ‘Non’ of General de Gaulle to Britain joining the European Community? Is there something in the French spirit which can teach us about the essence of saying No? Perhaps a loneliness of soul, a determination to stand up for truth?
My first example is Maigret, the detective created by Georges Simenon (actually a Belgian) and the strange hero of over seventy novels. I loved the television series in the 60s but the novels make of Maigret a more interesting character, working his way into a crime, or a criminal’s mind, through inactivity, aimlessness, doing nothing in a clumsy sort of way. He keeps unfocused, but this allows intuition to come.
A second example is found in the profound and famous essay which Albert Camus published in 1951 and which was translated as The Rebel. It begins: “What is a Rebel. A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.” I have been greatly influenced in my life by Albert Camus – I respond to his acceptance of responsibility. To say no, for Camus, means that the individual takes responsibility, responds, acts, frees himself from any and all ideology. To say no is the primary act of response to injustice: it is the first step towards meaning. Camus likens it to preparing to release an arrow: “The bow bends; the wood complains. At the moment of supreme tension, there will leap into flight an unswerving arrow, a shaft that is inflexible and free” (from the final chapter). This celebration of tension confirms for me that the ‘saying no’ which we practise in the work of the Alexander Technique is not about relaxation per se but a path of engagement.
My third French example was also, like Camus, a member of the Resistance in the Second World War. Jacques Lusseyran had become blind as a boy. In the demands and danger of war, as a teenager, he is able to develop a focused inwardness, already nascent, which enabled him to see in a different way. Eventually he is captured and, in prison, awaits interrogation. He has to work hard to say ‘no’, to not lose the connection to his inner core: “One small piece of advice. In a spot like this don’t go too far afield for help. Either it is right near you, in your heart, or it is nowhere. It is not a question of character, it is a question of reality. If you try to be strong, you will be weak. If you try to understand, you will go crazy”. Camus describes this state of being a rebel as one in which “each tells the other he is not God”. Jacques Lusseyran describes his inner command as he stays focused: “Don’t believe any of it. Don’t even believe in yourself. Only God exists.” I think these two formulations – no God or only God – point to the same state of truthful presence through saying No.
I want to come back to our more normal experience of everyday stress and anticipation and to look at some of the exercises Rudolf Steiner describes in two popular lectures of his. The first, entitled ‘Practical Training in Thought’ presents a variety of experiments. At one extreme is the practice of letting distinct outer events, the weather on a particular day, say, and then on the next day, live in oneself as clear pictures, while one refrains from thinking about the connection which exists between them, of how one “turned into” the other. At the other extreme, on a more deeply personal level, is the practice of thinking about different plans or responses or decisions in a particular situation and then consciously not deciding, not thinking about the choice until some moment chosen in the future. Steiner suggests, paradoxically, that such distancing is not just an assertion of self but also makes our experience more vivid: “we come to feel as if our thinking occurred within the things themselves”.
In a second lecture, translated as ‘Overcoming Nervousness’, Steiner explores the value of having clear focus and aims, the value of attention. From outward attention to objects he moves to the practice of noticing how we do things – walk, move our hands, laugh – and then on to the act of suppressing something we do. or of consciously doing it – writing, for example – in a different way. He sees our not acting on wishes to be a valuable teacher on this path of attention which leads to inner certainty and the overcoming of ‘nervousness’. Saying No enlivens the will, overcoming “the confusion people often feel today about how to set about doing what they really wish to do”. There is, I believe, something richer happening here than what we normally mean today by self-assertion. We are using saying no to embed or link ourselves to a wider support – not God or only God. Saying no can be an expansive gesture rather than an act of rejection. It can be the moment before the arrow is released, perhaps even the flight of the arrow itself; the moment in which the anxious energy of anticipation is transformed into creative presence.
Bob, I enjoyed your article. William James in one of his essays also comments on the vital importance of being able to say ‘no’. He explains how saying ‘no’ is of a higher order than saying ‘yes’.