The story of Narcissus involves another character, isolated and incomplete too, Echo, the wood-nymph who fell in love with him and who led him to the pool and the reflection of himself which paralysed and enchanted him, and led him to his death. Even passing across the water to the world of the dead, the spirit of Narcissus leaned over the boat to catch its reflection in the dark waters.
Narcissus seeks perfection; he rejects all loves because they do not have the perfection he recognises in himself. Echo, though, must respond to others, must reply, have the last word. Hera punishes her for her insistent insensitivity, takes away her body, leaves her only the power to repeat the last words spoken. Her invisible impotence turns her bitter. She enjoys, eventually, leading travellers into danger: a disembodied voice. Narcissus had been led on by Echo for her voice had enough of him in it, with her repetitions, to enchant him. He found her voice, as his reflection, the reflection that was beyond, the reflection he could not give a body to. His movements faded away into a deathly gazing at the undisturbed image.
Before making any comments I want to mention the passage in Book IV of John Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Eve’s first ever words describe how she awoke, puzzled, into life and is drawn by the sound of water which is flowing into an unmoving lake:
I thither went
With unexperienced thought, and laid me down
on the green bank, to look into the clear
smooth lake, that to me seemed another sky.
As I bend down to look, just opposite,
A shape within the watery gleam appeared
Bending to look on me, I started back,
It started back, but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love, there I had fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire
Had not a voice thus warned me
Eve is fortunate to have God’s voice to lead her out of this infatuation with herself. The voice says it will bring her “where no shadow stays (awaits) thy coming”. She is led towards Adam whom at first she turns away from as something less fair, “less winning soft, less amiably mild, than that smooth watery image” (L478-480). Adam speaks, takes her hand: she yields. He speaks of having given her from “nearest my heart substantial life”. The voice which first awakened her from the power of the image of herself had spoken of her future generative power, to bear “multitudes like herself”. Life and creativity dispel illusion. The physical confirms reality; the scene ends with the secret intensity of their touch, their contact, as Eve:
half embracing leaned
On our first father, half her swelling breast
Naked met his under the flowing gold
of her loose tresses hid:
Satan has seen and overheard all this and is sickened by their “fill of bliss on bliss” but he has also learnt that they are forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge and his plan for destruction starts to form: “knowledge forbidden? Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord envy them that?” So, body, contact, help to free us from the reflection in the water, but Echo, the responding, restless voice, belongs to the story of Eve as of Narcissus.
D W Winnicott, one of my main authorities, gave late in life a talk to mathematics teachers entitled, wittily, “Sum, I am”, which explores the relationship between individual development, and, particularly, the idea and experience of unity, of oneness. It is about where oneness, wholeness, comes from, and what can happen to it. He offers one sparkling insight after the other, circling round the ongoing developmental need to be, and sense one’s being, as a person – and to cope with the anxiety inherent in arriving at this state of being. The intellectual process may well become split off. The intellect helps the child cope with the frustrations of existence, it allows explanation, but it can as D W Winnicott says “function without much reference to the human being” (HWSF, p 60) and to what he calls the true self, which is a more unselfconscious state of being. Being alive and unpredictable, the true self can easily become lost. Echo’s disembodied voice can dominate.
As, say, we establish one kind of unity as the “Sum, I am” of being myself, this sense of being will need to be fulfilled in some kind of relationship. That relationship, some kind of ‘doing’, is going to involve anxiety, adaptation, staying true to the act of relying on your environment. Each act will tend to involve just a bit of me. All day long I divide, multiply, deal with loss of unity. Narcissus kept one kind of stagnant unity in the barren meeting with his image. D W Winnicott also brings in the ‘I am’ as the name for God we find in the early Hebrew Bible and considers this as a response to the anxiety of becoming individual – “When people just came to the concept of individuality, they quickly put it up in the sky and gave it a voice that only a Moses could hear”. How can we stay true to being on the Earth? Can I know who I am, and fulfil my need for recognition, and meet others’ need for me to acknowledge them?
Perhaps I can present these questions in terms of two kinds of isolation and two kinds of emptiness. There is the true and almost inexpressible isolation of each of us as a centre of being, as an entity who is developing. Then there is the isolation we experience within the constructions and defences we make in order to both protect ourselves and to feel real. With emptiness, there is the emptiness that belongs to this second kind of isolation, the emptiness of trying to be perfect, trying to comply, of losing spontaneity and life, and then there is the emptiness when this self-conscious edifice is removed, an emptiness which is a recreation of unity, a release from fear, from images. Narcissus found a certain reality in his own image; it gave some satisfaction to his wish that everything should be the way he wished it to be. But it was deathly perfection. We need something to rely on while we grow into accepting imperfection. For Narcissus the image he relied on was no more than a wish. Wishes are powerful but liable to trap us because they may lead us to avoid disappointments. Again, through our physical selves, through the feel of the feet on the ground we come back to a limited but reliable sense of something solid, and of a defined boundary to our bodily being. This can help us deal with the more powerful questions both of isolation, and of dissolution, of losing our identity. The Buddhist perspective on developmental dilemmas, so wisely handled by Mark Epstein, leads us towards letting go of all solid or spatial or thing-like senses of self; through our attention we can, through letting our self become this activity of attention, allow the fiction of the self to dissolve. The self becomes strong enough to do without itself. Mark Epstein is certain that this process needs uncertainty, needs the presence, the silence, within and between people, that does not “know what is going to happen or who this person is” (TWT, p 187).
The Alexander Technique is a practice which relies on and builds up this fundamental trust in the safety of not-knowing, through using the fundamental qualities of meeting, of touch, of contact, support, silent presence. In D W Winnicott’s talk to the mathematics teachers, there is a lovely moment when he suggests, for those children caught up in intellectual abstractions, “why not ask them to guess rather than to calculate, thus using their personal computers [he means their minds]? I don’t see why in arithmetic, there is so much emphasis on the accurate answer” (author’s emphasis). I feel this applies to the Alexander Technique. Even in movement and action there can arise a concern with the accurate answer, the one right way to do something, which paralyses creativity. Apply guessing to activity of the body. There is a famous paper by D W Winnicott entitled ‘The Capacity to be Alone’ which describes the experience of being alone in the presence of the mother: a state of togetherness, typically between child and mother, in which both are at peace with themselves. The mother is open, not preoccupied with providing or with protection, and the child is discovering her personal inner life through being alone in someone else’s presence. Here the individual impulse is no longer just a reaction to something external. Being alone emerges out of attachment and leads to self-realisation. This is what Winnicott calls the origin of cultural experience, one of the three lives healthy people live – in between inner psychical reality and shared, functional relationships. It is a life that has dream-like qualities, yet is not a dream.
I believe that with the Alexander Technique we are able to create this space that is the space and time of the child alone in the presence of the mother. Perhaps, at times, say in a lesson, the teacher acts as the mother, the student as the child, but the aim is for the student to be both mother and child, to be the space of trust between the one who is attentive and the object of attention, be it oneself, one’s bodily movements, one’s intentions, or the blackbird hanging onto the disappearing worm on the grass outside. Translating the picture of the child “alone in the presence of the mother” to the individual self (and not just one individual in relationship to another), leads me to think of the now-popular verse by Rumi, in which the human being is likened to a guesthouse in which all experiences, and moods, however conventionally unpleasant or unwelcome, are invited in:
treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
‘The Guest House’
This welcoming is attention, is overcoming the fear which leads to idealising or devaluing ourselves, or others. I find it important to recognise how these two directions – to myself, to others – belong together, and how the quality of the welcoming we bring to our inner space affects the quality of the cultural spaces of interaction we inhabit with others. The way I deal with the images I allow of myself becomes the way I can meet others and deal with the projection of myself onto others, or my desire to lose or engage myself in a group. My experience, as student and teacher, leads me to value how the images we have of ourselves as personalities can be made available to us through gaining awareness of our body image, or images, and vice versa. The separate images we have of ourselves, if they are not integrated, limit our reactions. This is the core of the Alexander Technique: growing clarity in recognising and preventing fragmentary reaction. Reaction usually has some underlying need for self-preservation, for safety. The welcoming space of the self as guesthouse is a space of appreciated risk, of initiative, of the self as a journey, as a life.
I end with the paradox I have been circling round. We hope to have, and to promote in others, strong coherent personalities. But development and health in children and adults need clear experience of the outer world, knocking up against the world, getting to know our self as a moving body. It needs, too, people who mirror us with honesty and tolerance. Even in our maturity we remain dependent on others. That dependence can become shadowy. Narcissus and Echo still live in the forest of the soul.
Two final insights from D W Winnicott which give body to the idea of self as a life, as a biography. In a talk entitled ‘Living Creatively’ D W Winnicott defines creativity as “the doing that arises out of being. It indicates that he who is, is alive” (HWS, p 39). Children are simply our most obvious creation, and the most satisfying because adult creativity is fulfilled by promoting their creativity. But all our experience, all our shared endeavours, can allow us to touch creative reality: “when we are surprised at ourselves, we are being creative, and we find we can trust our own unexpected originality” (HWS, p 651). To return to his talk to maths teachers, he, in speaking about the sense of unity, in people and in numbers, indicates one deep reason that we fear integration: “there is no death except of a totality. Put the other way round, the wholeness of personal integration brings with it the possibility and indeed the certainty of death; and with the acceptance of death there can come a great relief, relief from fear of the alternatives, such as disintegration, or ghosts – that is the lingering on of spirit phenomena after the death of the somatic half of the psychosomatic partnership. Healthy children are rather better at death than adults, I would say” (HWS, p 62).
The journey towards integration which the Alexander Technique offers is one which does recognise mature dependence and does seek to confirm personal identity. But I do not think we need to abandon the wonderful image of the open space of the guesthouse. In fact it is more than a guesthouse, it is also a space where children are born and in which we come to know that we will die. Living truly in that space becomes our security, something to rely on. It will always have elements of the mirror, elements of wanting something to be fixed, and of seeking security in the insubstantial clarity of the reflection of ourself. If we polish the mirror we are less likely to be entranced, more able to let go into creative doing.