I have just watched my neighbour, a farmer whose animals shine with health thanks to his habits of care, turn into his yard driving a lorry with an additional trailer at the back, loaded with big straw bales. He took the bend at about twenty miles an hour with a flow coming from familiarity, inches from a wall on one side and a large lime tree on the other, the trailer rippling behind him as he moved into the next bend. Here was skill I could never match – my marvelling contained almost an element of dread. As I begin the last essay, I can conceive of what I have attempted as manoeuvring weights – a collection of thoughts, themes, voices, images – with the hope they can have a use as appreciated as the straw bales will be in the coming winter.
This book begins with an accident and will end with an accident, one which led to a slower re-integration than the loss of self which needed a leap, and a push, for Oliver Sacks to reclaim himself. This second accident happened to Tim Rushby-Smith on April 1st, 2005, when, working as a tree surgeon, accompanied by his pregnant wife, he fell six metres out of a tree, severing his spinal cord, leaving him with no sensation or movement below the level of the injury: in his case meaning, approximately, below the waist. This permanent incapacity brings a different challenge to the uncertainties experienced by Oliver Sacks. I want to pick out some features of Tim Rushby-Smith’s account of the first eighteen months after his accident. He calls it Looking Up, a wry ambiguity combining his basic determination to be positive and the unavoidable position he finds himself in of looking up people’s noses from his wheelchair.
Some of the features of his experience are no less powerful for being obvious – such as the doctor who takes time to explain what has happened and is honest about the implications and who immediately helps Tim to feel included in his treatment and how important this is. Then, when he is transferred to Stoke Manderville, the consultant comes in, makes strong eye contact and shakes Tim’s hand, the first doctor to have made physical contact: this reinforces Tim’s sense of being involved, of existing, of being “at the centre of things, and important in the decision process” (LU, p 18). He suffers a lot of pain, and needs to accept, know, live, what has happened. His first contact with someone in a wheelchair is also, thankfully, very positive. Jackie has had twenty five years of determined adventuring and Tim is able to begin imagining the future. He struggles with the whole question of control; on a physical level exhilarating in his first active wheelchair journey: “I feel elation at being a body moving through space again after so much inertia” (LU, p 37). He starts to notice the wonder of his physical and physiological adjustment, and adjustment means being able to respond: “I have something to push against” (LU, p 50). The distress, the deep loss is there and he both avoids and is drawn to it “just to see how much it hurts” (LU, p 65).
His wife is due to give birth to their child a few weeks after the accident and this is a powerful help to his rehabilitation – he is determined to be at the birth – and he also connects to the birth by realising that he is starting all over again, “learning how to sit up, how to move, how to avoid shitting and pissing myself” (LU, p 74). There is a moment of insight when he finds himself in the workshop at the hospital and spends an hour talking with the man who works there, “able to focus on tools and skills that have nothing to do with my injury, my rehab” (p 80). He has to cope with severe, unpredictable episodes of pain and distressing realisations of adjustment – for instance that he may forget what it feels like to walk, dance, jump or run. He lives with a parallel life, of how things would have been without the accident, but those images are what paralyse him, and impel him into movement in order to regain a sense of control. He keeps returning to an image of a box he is sitting on which is full of the sadness and depression of what he has lost – and the loss is summed up as the loss of “spontaneous movement, the ability to act compulsively, without condition”. He did write ‘compulsively’, not ‘impulsively’! We all need our portion of insanity.
All the time he is building up the slow patient mastering of basic skills – the two hours of his morning routine of dressing and personal care. He makes the interesting observation that those who had their accident while doing something they love, something they knew was hazardous, are more likely to be positive in their readjustment. As he moves towards leaving the hospital he has the complex experience of finding he is enjoying some simple domestic situation with his wife, forgetting there is anything wrong, and then suddenly “I leap out of my body, and look down upon the scene being played out, and scream ‘And what the fuck are you so happy about’ – the trials of adjustment and acceptance”. His wife Penny’s labour begins and he faces no longer being the centre of attention, four months after his accident. They wonder about the wisdom of converting their flat in London – Tim is eager but unsure – “I want to get back to square one, and see where we go from there” (p 155). Life with their daughter, Rosalie, brings both opportunities for Tim to feel useful but also moments which intensify the feeling of being a spectator in his life, and in hers. He is searching for ways to stop comparing and tries to stay in the present, “only dealing with the next ten minutes, and the last ten minutes” (p 163).
He is amusing about ‘hugness’, the tendency for people to hug him who would not have done it before. This starts to fade, normality of a kind is returning – “people feel comfortable enough now to revert to old awkwardness” (p 171). After a long wait he gets a wheelchair which is modern and which fits: “I feel upright, alert and almost – well to be honest – rather proud of my new toy. My appearance is closer to a comfortable self-image of ‘wheelchair user’”. He is observing from within. There is a telling incident of an interview with a self-consciously disability-aware adviser at a Job Centre who is trying “desperately to remember what it is they are supposed to do or not do” (p 180). Throughout these months there is the silent screaming, of shock, loss, and the determination, above all, to keep busy, to cope with daily life. But soon the novelty wears off, the achievement pales – “I can feel the transition from enthusiastic amateur wheelchair user to professional arsey cripple” (p 197). This goes together with feeling himself being seen as ‘disabled people’. A year after his accident, he has surgery to remove various bits of metal which were surgically inserted immediately after his fall and he finds himself relying, as he had then, on the self-administered morphine. His consultant helps him to let go of this escape. Tim recognises that his wife and daughter at home are as powerful a focus of attention and determination to recover as was the impending birth of Rosalie a year ago.
A year and a half after the accident they move back, now with Rosalie, to the flat that they had left one morning to go “out on a job that it has taken us eighteen months to come home from”. Home is the goal but it also brings home the uncertainty about the future. Tim has been carried through the eighteen months by the tasks of rehabilitation, adapting the house, the birth of Rosalie, a trip to Australia (where Penny’s family live and to where they had intended to move). As they prepare for the flight Tim realises that coming home afterwards is much more daunting than the big trip – “But when we get back, then what?” (p 251). The book ends first with him in a kayak, a place where his paralysis is totally invisible, then to the simple picture of Tim with his daughter, an amused concern that his father-in-law’s dog will chew his (insensitive) feet and a sense of gratitude – “I look back eighteen months. If I had been offered this when I was lying on my back in hospital, I think I’d have taken it. With both hands.” Hands he still can use.
There the book ends. All of Tim’s challenges belong to the business of being a body and all the ingredients that we juggle with in the Alexander Technique – control, spontaneity, attention, decision-making, creativity, letting go – are present for him. He is a man who loves painting, socialising, sport, dancing, as well as climbing trees. I feel his life of thinking and feeling will have become more intense than they would have been without the accident and that this rich and at times difficult inner reflection is part of the change in what he has to deal with, is part of the response to the injury.
The Alexander Technique helps us to live with the state of affairs that we, ourselves, are both agent and instrument. I’m not trying to convince you (or Tim) that the Alexander Technique has a lot to offer someone in his situation in life, but I do believe that the paralysis of his legs is irrelevant to the question of whether the Alexander Technique could be helpful, could be enjoyed. He has had to find his path through an unbelievably demanding process of change and the book ends with him continuing on that process into the quieter waters of making a home with his wife and child. His physical limitations have intensified his awareness of how intention leads into action. That’s where the Alexander Technique belongs. Wislawa Szymborska has written a poem called ‘Advertisement’ in the voice of a tranquiliser:
I know how to handle misfortune.
how to take bad news.
I can minimize injustice,
lighten up God’s absence.
[The tranquiliser offers sleep and also:]
You’ll thank me for giving you
four paws to fall on.
The turning away from misfortune, from suffering, may mean we lose something of our uprightness, of our humanity. I think the Alexander Technique, in helping us to live fully with our uprightness, is helping us to meet misfortune – “who said you have to take it on the chin?” asks the tranquiliser. That has often been our confusion – to mistake the calm of uprightness for the tension of the jutting chin.
Ten years before Tim Rushby-Smith, and a few years older, Robert McCrum had a stroke, “a severe insult to the brain, a right hemisphere haemorrhagic in fact”, as he describes it, repeating the medical description (MYO Introduction).
Looking back ten years later he sees what happened to him as leading, or forcing, him “into a belated recognition of the world of pain” – his own and other people’s. In his record of his recovery in the year following his stroke he is puzzled by how and if he has changed – “For a while I had a strong fantasy of renewal and regeneration and for a while it seemed as if I could begin my life again. Now I know that this is just that, a fantasy, though a powerful one none the less. In one respect I did change. I became less intolerant of difficulty” (MYO, p 103). His requirements shrink with his physical limitations – his “season of vulnerability” as he calls it leads him to question his previous much-prized freedom. He would fly off to anywhere at an hour’s notice, now he was “travelling into a new and strange interior – my heart” (MYO, p 171). Together with these elements of reflective growth come anger and depression and a “persistent, and possibly pointless anxiety about the existential and psychic meaning of my illness”. His account ends some eighteen months after the stroke with his wife going into labour and the drive to the hospital – “Now, for the first time in months, I was the one who was looking after her” (MYO, p 221). Here is the same human truth that Tim Rushby-Smith found as his child came helpless into the world.
D W Winnicott, in his essay on ‘Living Creatively’ (HSF, p 39), presents the dilemma we all face in reconciling personal impulse and external reality. He offers the paradox that “if one has been happy, one can bear distress” (HSF, p 47). We move towards creative adaptation from a state of illusion, through disillusionment, to the creative surprise at how we manage to cope. We cannot be creative “into the blue” as Winnicott puts it, because it needs a relationship, something for us to push against: “we only create what we find” (HSF, p 53). Creativity lives in adaptation. It can also die in compliance. D W Winnicott ends the talk by affirming to the audience that having children, “starting babies off as creative individuals in a world of actual facts” asks of parents to be ”uncreative and compliant and adaptive” – helping children to cope “in a world of actual facts”. Because we are alive, we reach out and bump into reality. For us to stay creative, to stay alive, in this contact, requires of us that we develop “something personal, something secret, that is unmistakably yourself” (HST, p 43). For D W Winnicott this protected self will emerge out of our “genetically determined tendency to be alive and to stay alive”. His maxim is “Be before Do. Be has to develop behind Do”. Our reaching out reflects back as the sense of a self who simply is. An accident is a severe fact which tests our determination to be.
Both the men I have spoken about, who suffered major accidents, are faced, as Robert McCrum puts it with “a renewed acquaintanceship with my body”, with what it means to depend on the body as the instrument of your will. It is an experience of disillusionment, about immortality, freedom, success, but also a renewal of love.
I want to touch on the ways in which we work with the realisation of our agency, our ability to decide and do, and the seemingly inevitable anxiety that goes with it. I’m going to return to habits as a way of exploring the relationship between anxiety and agency because it is such a key issue in the approach of the Alexander Technique. There is an early essay by Samuel Beckett about Marcel Proust in which he characterises habit as the way we cope with the impossibility of sustained relationship to other people or experiences. The positive view of D W Winnicott, placing the individual in the creative tension between self-expression and the demands of reality, becomes for Beckett the inevitable flight from moments of intense creativity, of “the suffering of being”, into habit, the performance, duty, boredom. For dour Samuel Beckett we swing between suffering and boredom and find a tolerable existence in habits.
I am very fond of The Little Prince, a tale true to childhood and to creativity. Before coming to Earth the Little Prince has visited certain asteroids, and two of them interest me. There is the planet inhabited by a drunk who drinks so that the may forget that he is ashamed of drinking. He confesses this, as he replies to questions, then “the tippler… shut himself up in an impregnable silence”. Two planets later the Little Prince meets the lamplighter, who lives alone, like the tippler, on a tiny planet on which he is continuously engaged in lighting and putting out the one street lamp. The planet now spins so fast that he can never rest, never sleep, having to obey orders. The Little Prince feels drawn to the lamplighter and respects him – “Perhaps that is because he is thinking of something else besides himself”. Here we see two different kinds of dependence, two ways of replacing genuine relationship, of denying true dependence by creating fake dependence. In both cases, the lamplighter and the tippler, there is a kind of control, a sense of agency, of being the cause of their sufferings and, briefly, being able to remove the pain. There is a perfect self-enclosed cycle which removes the two from the fullness of creative adaptation. Later the Little Prince meets the Fox who tells him, among other wisdom, that nothing is perfect and that it is important that we “tame” what we meet. This is a beautiful choice of word – the establishing of a relationship, the spending of time, the creation of mutual need are all there in the meanings of “tame” – subduing, cultivating, making familiar, gentle, even weak and dull. Coping with the mundane, creating with the dull, that is the message of The Little Prince – bringing together the intensity of suffering and the deadness of boredom, and reconciling them in something I am still happy to call habit.
For Beckett, in his essay on Proust, habit protects us from the threat of Death and thus deprives us of the true task of life. For the two men, whose recovery from severe injury I have introduced in this essay, their encounter with Death has helped them learn habits whose wider focus takes in both Death and Life, but only thanks to the active, unpredictable needs of those they love – a universal domestic moral. They both have to work at small, effortful steps in maintaining daily rituals but these do not become the futile cycles, of creating and controlling one’s own suffering, of the lamplighter and the tippler. A nappy needs changing. That’s a fact, and is an opportunity to live creatively. The Alexander Technique is working to cultivate habits that are alive, that appreciate the pull of the absolutes of Suffering and Boredom. Rudolf Steiner, in the first lecture of the course he gave to doctors and teachers working with children with disturbances of development, speaks of three bodies – the body of heredity with which we are born, the individual body which the child helps mould in the years of childhood, and the earthly body, the body which enables us to be interested in and affected by our environment. This ‘body’ frees our soul – free from being too strongly entangled in the physical body, so that we are able to cope with illness or injury or disability as something separate from our will, our interests, our outwardly directed life. In a much earlier lecture from 1909, when Rudolf Steiner was trying to characterise the approach and meaning of the path of what he was calling now ‘anthroposophy’ he distinguishes it both from relying on the senses, on outward knowledge, and from relying on the higher knowledge possessed and communicated by someone with a developed spiritual consciousness or vision: “But there is a third possibility. Here is a hammer; my hand grasps it, picks it up, and raises it from the horizontal to the vertical position. We then say that it was moved and raised by my will. That will not strike anyone as remarkable, for we see the underlying will embodied in the man who raises the hammer” (Wisdom of Man, Lecture III). Embodied will, experienced in oneself, or in another, is the touchstone of experience. Embodied will can find spiritual activity, in a variety of kinds, embodied in all outer forms. Recalling us to embodied will is what the Alexander Technique is all about, I think.
If you can allow a landscape to be like the soul, imagine a dark, dense forest. John Berger, in Hold Everything Dear, writes in response to a Czech photographer, Jitka Hanzlova, who takes pictures in the forest “perceived like the inside of a glove by a hand within it”. The photographer herself acknowledges but does not understand the fear she experiences in the forest, although the place is safe. The fear, John Berger tries to understand, has to do with letting go of our normal experience of space and time, and needing to wait, to be patient, to be unaccompanied, to “recognise how much is hidden” in the fullness of the silence of the forest. This is the core of solitary being in each of us which comes alive to us in a sense of being both at home and lost. There is a meditative verse by Rudolf Steiner which speaks to this inner stillness, which is a place of hope as well as a place of fear:
I carry peace within me,
I carry within myself
the forces that strengthen me.
I will fill myself
with these forces’ warmth,
I will penetrate myself
with my will’s power.
And I will feel
how peace pours
through all my being
when strengthening myself,
through my striving’s power
I find in me
peace and strength.
Peace and strength intertwined in the inner forest. But from there we step out of ourselves. Our awareness of our own existence spreads out into the space around us. If I do not, in a non-material way, fill the space, then fear grows in me, and I only really occupy the space, only make it my own, by truly acknowledging what else is in the space and, perhaps, wondering about my connection to it. There is fear within, and fear without, and I think we deal with them by seeing both. One of Rudolf Steiner’s close collaborators was an English artist, Edith Maryon. They met first in 1912 and from 1914 until her death ten years later she worked with him on the building being constructed at Dornach in Switzerland. At Christmas 1923, shortly before her death, Rudolf Steiner wrote these words for her:
Human forces are of two kinds;
a stream of forces flows into us,
giving form and inner rootedness;
a stream of forces flows out of us,
giving well-being, lifting, brightening life:
so those plagued by the heavy, forming
forces of physical nature should think themselves
uplifted, buoyant beings of light.
I find these beautiful words speak, for me, to the heart of my practice with the Alexander Technique.
So now I return to the beginning, to Oliver Sacks and the moment in August 1974 when two physiotherapists impel him back towards himself, some eleven days after his accident fleeing from the bull on the Norwegian mountainside. He does not know how to begin to walk – “Hold me, you must hold me – I’m utterly helpless” (LSO, p 104). He finds himself amidst chaos as he begins to cope with weight-bearing, with uprightness, feeling “terror, but also awe and exhilaration of the spirit” (LSO, p 105).He perseveres and afterwards, resting, he felt ecstatic, having regained his leg, regained wholeness, thanks to music, thanks to Mendelssohn’s famous violin concerto which a friend had brought him a few days before – the only tape he could find. He remembered the music of his own movement thanks to the music that he could recall. “All of me, body and soul, became music in that moment.” He felt the joy of doing and he describes it as “the triumphal return of the quintessential living ‘I’, lost for two weeks in the abyss… what came, what announced itself, so palpably, so gloriously, was a full-bodied vital feeling and action, originating from an aboriginal, commanding, willing ’I’” (LSO, p 112). Peter Maxwell Davies, the composer, speaking recently in connection with the two-hundredth anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth, spoke of his music having ‘claritas’, something more than clarity, more a shining out from within. That’s how I experience the self in others – the animating light inter-fusing a person’s being and doing. This moment of revelation for Oliver Sacks, “the most eventful and crucial ten minutes of my life” could not be granted to Robert McCrum or to Tim Rushby-Smith. Their way into the forest of stillness and movement, of fear and hope, was not such an apotheosis. As I noted in the first essay, Oliver Sacks later sought a more ‘bottom-up’ theory of consciousness, based in biology and brain-processes. The persistent struggles of those with more intractable conditions may lack the dramatic insight granted to Oliver Sacks but perhaps they allow us to feel the striving of the I-being to live between rootedness and light. Oliver Sacks was not willing to uphold the veracity of his “aboriginal, commanding, willing ‘I’”. I am and do.