A friend of mine, who is also a teacher of the Alexander Technique, remarked to me in passing, about her grown-up children, that she was full of wonder at their ability to “stand in the other person’s shoes” and that it developed out of their ability to stand in their own. I enjoyed the simple strength of this everyday image and it set me yet again to exploring empathy and its relationship to our bodily selves. Empathy is a fully human realisation of an ability to hold two things, or streams, or meanings in our mind. The young child can be fooled by a drawing or a small model and mistake the image or model as “the real thing”. Gradually the fundamental metaphorical or symbolic quality of understanding emerges. Our normal sense perception has an element of fantasy, of one thing being like another, which is shown in the basic progression from “This is my world” (the standing in your own shoes) via “let me show you my world” to “I can feel or see your world” (standing in their shoes). We see this power of fantasy in the young child who is allowed, and free, to live in her senses and weave living stories out of everyday experience. It is a gift which needs no overt stimulation, only the freedom to be expressed. But it goes together with the child finding and speaking of herself, with greater clarity, and with a kind of limitation, a drawing in, of the previously wider, cosmic consciousness of the child. The physical organism gradually becomes animated – think how unpermeated by the being of the child are the baby’s limbs and body. The body is shaped by the being of the child to be her means of expressing herself. I want the will of the child to be recognised as being active in the transformations of development. Being and body come to be one, and through that union the embodied being can begin to know the world. These elements – the gradual mastery of the body in movement and the reaching out to receive the world through the senses – work together to make the human being whole.
I believe with the Alexander Technique we are given some basic ways of re-enlivening that open interest, both passive and active, which impels our development. Karl König offers us the challenging thought “even when we are adult there is always a lot of child in us, although it is rarely experienced today. We would not be human if this remnant of our childhood nature did not sometimes dream, or at least sleep in us throughout the whole of our adult life. This sleeping part of our child-being keeps us upright as human beings”, (Eternal Childhood p73). In a later lecture Karl König explores this idea further by speaking of the core of our self-consciousness as “the very small child that is really a baby still, which is our ego”. This infant self has to work to achieve uprightness and can achieve it only because of the solidity of the earth. The potential for uprightness belongs to the individual but can only be realised in each of us because of that which connects us to the totality of mankind – the earth. Through our physical nature we belong to the earth and to mankind. But, “the child” who keeps us upright is not physical. We can recognise it in the child’s freshness and openness. Our self-willed creation emerges out of a wider, immaterial wholeness. As adults we continue to give birth to ourselves in our bodies out of wider conditions of being which we more obviously see at work in the baby or young child.
In a series of imaginative, poetic lectures Rudolf Steiner (Man as Symphony Lecture XII) explores the connection between the natural, physical human being and us as soul-moral beings, starting from the premise that most of us will be “unable to find any link to join the bony system and system of muscles… with the moral world-order”. He notes how prevalent it is that, half-consciously or unconsciously, we are unwilling to accept the individual characteristics of others: “Are not people today mostly so constituted that each one regards himself as the standard of what is right and proper? And when someone differs from this standard we do not take kindly to him, but rather think ‘This man should be different’. And this usually implies, ‘He should be like me’.” Rudolf Steiner connects this lack of empathy with the very solidity and mineral quality of our physical bodies; that these cold qualities are inherent in the welding together of our physical organism. We are made separate, and this tendency is most akin to the thoughts that work in our bony heads. He then goes on to ask us to be aware, in ourselves, and others, of the different kind of thinking that accompanies our limb system, to realise that we also think with our fingers and hands and feet and that it is deeply significant when “we look at the way a person walks.. or when we allow his hands to make an impression on us so that we interpret these hands and find that in every movement of the fingers there lie wonderful revelations of man’s inner nature… it is man’s whole moral nature which moves, his destiny moves with him; everything that he is as a spiritual being”.
If we live into our own movement-thinking, and that of others, we will prevent that physical coldness and hardness from influencing our soul life, and through our whole-body-thinking we will make more real and meaningful our meeting with other people. We will feel our connections to them; we will be able to stand in their shoes. This is the child, the ever-mobile child, at work in us but she needs the firm bones, the muscles, the resisting, supportive earth in order to be able to relate: your own shoes, then the other’s.
An unspoken theme throughout this essay has been the possibility of reversal between activity and receptivity. If we make our thinking more active then we find ourselves open and receptive to new kinds of more living, nourishing ideas. If we still our will, we discover what we want to do, what others want from us. I think this is one of the basic transformative methods of the Alexander Technique – the attempt to be active where we are normally passive and passive when activity dominates, so that new, more open, richer qualities in the domain we have inhabited (activity or receptivity) are given to us. This could be described as the child at work in us, the child who loves the world as if it were herself and who lets herself be at peace with all she meets.
My grandmother gave me a silver snuff-box which had belonged to her great grandfather and which included in the engraved inscription thanks for his ‘disinterested kindness’, for kindness that was seeking no advantage for the doer. ‘Interest’ means ‘to be between’ and the position of being in between brings with it awareness of difference and comparison. This phrase ‘interest’ goes back to the Latin use, as an impersonal verb, meaning ‘this is important’. Comparison is at the heart of our awareness of the world: it tells us important information. Often we will analyse comparisons in terms of advantage and harm to us or to the other party. We move from the space in between, the space of interest, sharply back into our own shoes and start comparing our place with the other person’s. Our humanity offers us other (more interesting) ways of using the space between people than calculations of fear and envy. The Alexander Technique is a way of discovering the thinking that lives in our limbs.