30. The Smile Between Us

I will begin with a few observations about our eyes and about seeing.  Eyes move; they move to compensate for the body’s movements, to keep the world still.  This all happens thanks, in the human being, to the subtle connection between our organ of balance, in the inner ear, and involuntary movements of the eye.  One way of describing the Alexander Technique is to do with maintaining the sensitive communication between the muscles of the eyes and the canals of the inner ear.  Because we can see, and form images, therefore we can move freely, and we need to move freely, if we are small and edible, if we are being seen.  The path from basic light detection by some simple creature to a detailed view of the world is the path of becoming more independent and in charge of our responses.  Our eyes are, typically, ahead of our movement: they are directed to where the ball is estimated to be going to bounce, or pass by our body, preparing the motion necessary to hit it, anticipating.  Anticipation goes along with pattern and predictability of response.

There are often hares on a stretch of road I drive home on.  They behave in the daftest way, seemingly unable simply to run away but, rather, stopping, doubling back etc.  This is typical of animals who are chased.  They behave unpredictably in order to confuse the chasing animal, leading it into a tiring and muddling sequence of stops and starts.  On one level the extremes of unpredictability of the human being are a way we express our freedom – this is unpredictability that lies, somehow, even if not consciously, in our control.  On another level, our unpredictability can be, or can become, an enactment of a basic uncertainty regarding our environment, a chaotic reactivity with a fundamental fear unrecognised as the trigger.

When we come to the intensely human business of looking at another person’s face I can recognise the reciprocal connection between my attention to the other person’s face in order to gain an understanding or impression of what they are interested in, or feeling, and the rich potential our faces have to express and reveal our emotions.  I look where meaning is to be found.  This reciprocal subtlety can be linked back both to our uprightness and to the flatness of the human face.  It is not, first and foremost, a muzzle pointing as a continuation of a horizontal spine.  The face of another faces us.  We take in the gaze, a word, originally, which could mean the thing looked at as much as the act of looking.  This crucial encounter, the meeting face to face, brings home to me the enigma of how the eye, and vision, are so important in our attentiveness, in our ability to give or pay attention – to move freely through the world.

The Alexander Technique, if it has a question at its heart, is asking how we focus our attention.  When we wish to see, or to act, how is that desire related to the things or the processes we are seeing or engaging with?  The more I interest myself in these questions the less satisfactory is any mechanical view of perception or attention.  Simon Ings, in his thorough and thoughtful book The Eye : A Natural History, quotes the nineteenth century philosopher scientist Ernst Mach – “Bodies do not produce sensations but complexes of elements (complexes of sensations) make up bodies” (ENH, p 263).  Our identity is not in substance – this, vision and attention tell us.

Daniel Dennett, the severe physical materialist of the nature of consciousness, encourages us to want to get backstage behind the “theatre of experience” in order to understand what we saw, or thought we saw, onstage.  If we wish, as I do, to stay with the truth of the performance we will rely on insight, not biochemistry. Insight distracts us, for Daniel Dennett, from the attempt to describe our experience solely in terms of usefulness, in helping us to survive.  Experience does not feel that calculating.  But I am more interested in how knowing our own states of mind, and recognising what is going on for other people, belong together.  Insight develops, thanks to the richness of our experience of the world through our vision.  So I think we come at the question from an unhelpful direction when we only ask how does consciousness get generated, how does it get going?  I want to accept it as a given and live with it as the agent of flexibility, of creative unpredictability – back to the hare in my headlights.

Before we go further into the world of experience I want to place a couple of anatomical features before your attention.  First, the sub-occipital muscles: these are relatively short muscles which connect the skull to the top of the spine and lie quite deep below bigger, longer muscles.  They are the hidden treasure of the Alexander Technique, very sensitive to stretch and intimately connected to movements of the eye and the balance of the head.  They have a strong influence on the whole musculature of the spine: a tumbling cat lands on its feet thanks to the responsiveness of the sub-occipitals.  The almost universal retraction of the head, which is the most basic habit the Alexander Technique aims to unearth, involves disabling these muscles.  At root this retraction is a reaction of fear.  The smallest movement of the eye brings about, or would want to bring about, adjustments in these sub-occipital muscles.  However, they may have no possibility to perform these subtle adjustments, due to the retraction of the head.  This restriction and tension feed back into the eyes and thence into the face.  Developmentally, the skull is formed from two sources – the cranium belongs with the spine but the complex bones of the face and the jaw belong to the visceral development below, or, for us, in front of, the spine.  The influence of tension in the neck, reaches the face through the restrictions in the sub-occipital muscles affecting the eyes.  Tension in the face, tension which blocks the expressiveness of the face and the mobility of the eyes, is an almost universal consequence of the disturbances in the neck which come with effort and fear.  Face and neck, muscles belonging to the two parts of the head, end up grappling with one another.  The blockage in our expressiveness, I believe, goes with a loss of sensitivity to the feelings of others.  It is one of the holy privileges of being a teacher of the Alexander Technique to see a person’s face become mobile, responsive both inwardly and outwardly, set free.

Staying with embryonic development the eye too is not simple in its origin.  There is a process of growing out from the young brain towards the skin which forms the cup of the retina.  From the skin is formed the beautiful lens and then the two elements combine and differentiate so that the lens lies as an opening into the world.  The outgoing, limb-like gesture of the developing organ, coupled with the structural clarity of the organ itself, helps me to recognise that the act of seeing is not performed by the eye, but by me.  Without the experience of my bodily self, through proprioception, the sense of balance and touch, I would not be able fully to grasp objects in space around me, to continue that centrifugal gesture of the actual nerve tissue of the eye as an experience, as attention, as recognition.    Through the eye I am led out into the world: contrast this with the gesture of the ear, deep within the bone.  I turn inward, draw inward in my experience, through my listening.  Both these processes need our restraining, our modulating – they require our engagement to be kept balanced so that we are not drawn too far out nor act inwardly in an overemphatic way.

In the first course of lectures which Rudolf Steiner gave to doctors, in March and April 1920, he speaks of the value of enlarging our activity as self-conscious beings, within ourselves, so that we are present in our whole selves – the full experience of vision and hearing, among other things, helps us feel that our sensory experience is not something that happens in the brain.  Here are words which for me directly comment on what we are cultivating in the Alexander Technique: “Why can we remain calm when something exciting occurs around us?  It is because we have the ability to send our reason into our guts, because we are in a position to engage the whole person instead of remaining only in the brain.  While we are thinking we cannot do this.  While we are busy in a one-sided intellectual way that comes from the brain, the inner part of the body is engaged in its own movements: we are then extremely susceptible to stressful stimuli” (IAM, p 211).  Here Rudolf Steiner talks of our “labile” I, meaning mobile, slippery, unstable.  That instability is essential to our health, it allows constant readjustment of where we’re giving our attention.  But it also means we can go to an extreme in many directions.  This work of lighting up or enlivening the whole of our organism with self-conscious and self-unconscious activity is, I believe, necessary for us to become individuals.

From inner mobility to social, interpersonal mobility: vision is reciprocal.  I’m going to be talking about the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson later, but now it is, I think, helpful to appreciate how liberating photography has been.  We have escaped the conventions of Western art which had expressed the conventions of Western experience – personal, social, political.  The camera can allow our sense of awareness to be mobile, creative, active, reciprocal, a matter of my responsibility for what I’m seeing.  The old conventions of perspective, of the picture being like a window, led us to be passive spectators, stuck, isolated, puzzling over questions of reality and appearance.

Underlying the exploration so far has been the duality of the gaze as connection and the gaze as (interpreted as) threat.  Coming closer or running away.  We use our gaze, our experience of another’s face, to enter into their feelings and thoughts.  This is the purest expression of our need to relate to others which began with our birth and the oneness of mother and baby.  What would lead someone to avoid such a basic activity or state of being as the sharing of a gaze, of meeting face to face?  I think fear has a place here and also surprise, recognising surprise and coping with change, unpredictability.  Jonathan Cole, a neurophysiologist and writer, has written a stimulating and compassionate book about the face, About Face, in which he tells of his  extended contact with Donna Williams.  She has had a huge influence through her ability to convey the ways of being and seeing for someone described as being autistic, a life which had seemed to be beyond articulate communication.  She gives Jonathan Cole an immensely detailed response to his inquiries by fax, and eventually in a direct interview, from which I want to extract a few points which definitely lose meaning by being divorced from the totality of the picture she gives of her experience.

She lives very strongly with the sense of connection, or lack of it, between a person’s face, their eyes and what she calls soul.  Her difficulties in understanding who or what she is seeing when she looks into another person’s face (which difficulties lead her to avoid gazing at faces) connect with her own lack of a clear body image of herself, a sense of herself as a whole.  She writes of being able to tell another’s mood “from a foot better than from a face”.  Faces have too much stored in them and she could only cope with, only see, fragments, and this fragmentary quality means that the parts jar against each other and create confusion, mistrust.  But this all goes back to her sense of her own fragmentedness.  Her relationship with her partner, who is also autistic, she describes as working because they can both live in the fragmentary self, expressed in the other’s face (and behaviour), because this experience matches their own sense of themselves.  Her partner does not extinguish her.  She talks, in the actual meeting with Jonathan Cole, about her difficulties with images of faces, both moving and static (she finds static images easier to deal with) but goes on to say, “I choose to spend time with statues”.  She doesn’t elaborate this remark but I think the solidity of the statue, together with its fixedness, helps her to gain more of a lasting connection and to mean she doesn’t need to assert herself or react to the image.  As a girl she had spent hours looking at her reflection, giving her image a name not her own, hanging on to the elusive sense of feeling herself in her body.  As an adult she is happy when engaged in artistic activity – writing, music, painting – which allow her to be a whole person, to be in her body, with her body, to as great an extent as is possible for her, but without expressing firm conscious intention, or response to powerful stimuli.  She likes her bodily self to be at the edge of consciousness.  Similarly with paintings – her own portraits show the subjects facing away from the viewer, avoiding the sense of another person, with an intention towards you.  Intention comes with a face.

Remember that the original description of what we now call autism, by Leo Kanner in 1943, referred to “autistic disturbances of affective contact” – the word is just a plain old adjective meaning ‘having a self-quality, confined to the self’.  Donna Williams suggested to Jonathan Cole the description ”born independent”, on which Cole comments that it is a “phrase which sums up their solitariness but not their vulnerability”.  Early descriptions, sadly, saw the autistic person’s difficulties of forming relationships as being about “not bothering” – I am sure Jonathan Cole is right in seeing the basic emotion being fear, and the need being to protect oneself, to avoid the overwhelming, the invasion, the extinguishing, of the fragile fragmentary sense of self.  The baby looks for the mother’s face.  Those who have not, for whatever reason, negotiated the complex developmental processes of separation and reconnection will find nothing more difficult to cope with in their solitariness than the face of another.  We need a body in order to have a face and to gaze into a face.  A body, but not eyes.  John Hull, a man who became blind as an adult, wrote a book of observations which is a masterpiece of simple clarity and honest reflection, called Touching the Rock.  He describes, early on, how he comes to see with his face, to be able to sense his environment, through the quality of his attention, which enables him to experience objects by a sense of physical pressure.  He writes at the end of the book of the “paradoxical world” of blindness “because it is both independent and dependent.  It is independent in the sense that it is an authentic and autonomous world, a place of its own.  Increasingly I do not think of myself so much as a blind person, which would define me with reference to sighted people and as lacking something, but simply as a whole-body-seer…  Blindness is also dependent.  Somewhere along the line, at the end of the road, there is someone with eyes.  Like it or not the blind are weak” (TR, p 164).  He asks how the two worlds can relate without jealousy or pity.  One of the most touching incidents is with his four year-old daughter Lizzie.  He helps her to get dressed, and they both smile, Lizzie then puzzling over how this could have happened – “Daddy how can you smile between you and me when I smile and when you smile because you’re blind” (TR, p 153).  He recognises that now this “in-between smile” was a rarity, but more precious for its rarity.  The emotional life he sustains and develops depends on this new state of being as a Whole-Body-Seer.

Back to the eyes, and to seeing with eyes and with cameras.  Henri Cartier-Bresson speaks of the movement and change in what he sees – “We are playing with things that disappear” (DE, p 12).  Staying with the moment, with action and movement, keeps us in the realm of being – which can be physical, reciprocal, social.  Or it can be about play, the surreal, living on the high wire of instability.  With Cartier-Bresson the immediacy has a trust in it, a sense of connection.  He loves the snapshot, the subject on the move, living, unpredictable.  I will give you two more quotations from the man: “For me photography is about recognition of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, or shades.  The eye cuts out (he means ‘defines’) the subject; and the camera simply has to do its job, that is to register upon film the decision of the eye”.  Seeing through the eye, through the camera.  And: “In photography there is a new kind of plastic art, the function of instantaneous lines, we work in unison with movement, a sort of presentiment of life, and photography must seize the expressive equilibrium of that movement” (DE, pp 80, 96).

These, for me, are remarks which fit the Alexander Technique as much as photography.  Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke about his concern for geometry, by which he meant the inner apprehension which finds the connection of the main focus of one’s attention with all that enhances its meaning, the wholeness of the experience of the moment.  So the image is no longer an image but something opening up into everyday presence.  What is magical about this concern with geometry is not only that it expresses the trust of the observer but it breeds trust in the observed.  This is the love of the mother for her baby transformed into the relationship between friends.  The face to face meeting is still there but it is now more playful, more multi-angled, more inclusive of a space, an environment.  Donna Williams describes how careful others must be if they are not to invade her and that she cannot live in the fullness of the other: “Facial expression in my presence may be like bouncing a ball off a wall.  The ball bounces back but nobody threw it”.  The gaze of a Henri Cartier-Bresson tells us of another possibility that we launch the ball, we use our eye, we reach out into the meaning geometry of the world and the ball comes back from the world, loaded with the trust that we will catch it.  That is the living space between us, the space in which smiles arise.

One response to “30. The Smile Between Us

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