Category Archives: Essays

32. Looking Up, Going Up

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.

31. Being a Doorway

In this essay I want to share something of my understanding and appreciation of a process of communication, a language, which has a genesis totally independent of the Alexander Technique.  It is the process of Nonviolent Communication developed over the last half century by Marshall Rosenberg.  I believe the two languages, the two techniques – of the Alexander Technique and Nonviolent Communication – do have a natural affinity and can enhance each other’s effectiveness.  But in this essay I am more concerned with trying to describe Nonviolent Communication in order to illuminate certain features of the Alexander Technique.  Because Nonviolent Communication more obviously concerns itself with how we speak to one another I think its insights can more immediately strike home.  They can be grasped, and their profound implications sensed, because the processes stay closer to our everyday speaking, responding consciousness than do the concerns of the Alexander Technique with movement and action.  In fact, both engage the whole human being.

Nonviolent Communication is a language which hopes to increase our well-being, through establishing a quality of connection – connection with myself and with others, being able to express myself and to receive the thoughts, feelings and intentions coming from others.  This process is used around the world from the most ordinary domestic situation of a mother anxious that her children will get their shoes on before the school bus comes, to highly charged political negotiations with slaughter as a possibility.  However, the way it works is not, first, to be looking for a solution, a resolution, but, rather, to build and maintain connection between people: not to press forward too fast with action but to stay in the attentiveness to what is alive in yourself, and in those you are meeting, alive to feelings and to what, in the process of Nonviolent Communication, are called needs.

Before I go on I will stop for a moment to stress that the process of Nonviolent Communication is no more, nor less, than a process – a reliable learnable process which hopes to get people into connection, with themselves and each other, so that their well-being can flourish.  So, the end is what matters, not the process, and there are many other ways to work towards that end.  Some people do not need a process they learn and practice: they will have gained or been blessed with an empathetic, creative way of being.  So, its possible virtues become clearer, for me, when I realise that it is a process, a practice, we can learn and turn to when we need it.  This, for me, lets it shine and be defined.  So, there is a discipline but the mood is playful, in the sense of curious, wondering, present.  I encounter someone, there may be difficulties or misunderstandings, but, to use one of Marshall Rosenberg’s phrases, it can help if we “guess human”.  The act of guessing, of inquiring of the other what is going on for them, of offering them a help towards their own self-understanding, is a gesture of equality, of companionship, not of the expert.  The guessing is important in that it doesn’t matter if I’m right.  And your guess will embody a conviction that some valuable human need is alive in what the other person is feeling or doing – even if you find their behaviour offensive or disturbing.  I might ask you if you’re feeling angry because of… (here I give my guess, but not a wild one) If it’s a genuine compassionate inquiry, and not an interpretation, then all the energy is about the connecting between us.  You can tell me if my guess is off the mark.  My question may help you realise anew what is going on for you right now.  The guessing will try to tune in to what you are feeling and needing – here we are back at this question of needs.

Needs are what is alive in you, what you value, wish for, hope for.  Needs are yours but not thereby selfish.   Contributing to the needs of others is part of the spectrum of our needs.  In any situation, so goes the Nonviolent Communication process, try to identify the need or needs which, right now, are being met, satisfied, or, more likely in a difficult situation, are not being fulfilled.  The path to recognising what needs are alive in anyone, including myself, is through what feelings I am experiencing.  Here we need to dwell a while, in inner attention, to be able to give a name to the feeling that is moving in us and to follow it down into the less bright areas of our consciousness to find the need, met or unmet, which is sending forth the feeling.  This is the inner core of the process.  It has two more outer elements.  The first is when I try clearly to identify what it was that triggered the feeling – what happened, in my memory or in my encounters, to bring to life a feeling and a need?  Here we come to another crux of the process – the acceptance of responsibility for my feelings and my actions.  To attribute the cause of my feelings or actions to another is, in the understanding of Nonviolent Communication, failing to get to the heart of the matter, and failing to live from our own heart.  The needs (and whether they are being fulfilled or frustrated) which I have let live in me are the cause, the origin, of my feelings.  Not you, not what you’re doing to me.

At the other end of the inner patient, playful process of identifying what is going on in my heart, comes the framing of a request.  This may still be a purely inner act, I can request myself to remember something for example, but it may well be voiced to another, be asking something of the other.  Note it is a request, and not a demand.  A request is open to a refusal.  It is not a matter of grammar but of what is living in the speaker of the request.  Is there hurry, the wish to get things sorted out, or is there the primary wish to deepen the connection?  We are moving from isolation in the head, the intellect as the place of judging and demanding and dominating, to allow a response from the heart, from the whole person.  The process begins with a sense of oneself stopping, pausing, and of refraining from stopping the other(s) you are with.  All kinds of labels, judgements, demands are different kinds of closing down.  The playful quality of Nonviolent Communication is always listening to the unspoken, perhaps unknown ‘yes’ which is there in any ‘no’ that is spoken.  When you recognise that there is a situation or mood or action which you or someone else don’t want to happen, try to find the other thing which you or they do want.  So the stopping leads to an active responsibility, for oneself, and an active intention for connection.  We take any element of compulsion out of the interaction, because compulsion takes all the colour away.  Even on the everyday level of ‘I have to go now’, an opportunity has been lost for me to tell you what it is that I want to do once our conversation is over.  We part less connected than might have been the case had my explanation been fuller.

I will stop now with this description of a language which I value and which goes hand in hand with my Alexander work.  They share a commitment to non-judgemental mindfulness, that has a deeper security than knowing what the right answers are.  I think the image from John’s Gospel, “I am the door” expresses something of the common quality of the two disciplines.  The self allows both inner and outer movement between separate spaces – a journey which is best not hurried, although hurry is only the most obvious way in which we constrict the space, close the door.

I want to reflect on the process by which we become individuals and why it is difficult.  The human brain, to continue the theme of connection, grows a great deal after birth, primarily because of the growth of connections, not the multiplication of neurones – and this goes together with the complex connections of the social organism into which the child grows.  We, as we grow up, have the opportunity to learn, to respond and grow into the world, and, at the same time, free ourselves from the direct influence of the environment.  This emancipation brings self-awareness and will mean that the child not only appreciates that she is a separate physical self, with boundaries, but will have to cope with the fear and anxiety that go with realising that she is not only separate but helpless and dependent.  How do we move towards a state of maturity which can acknowledge dependence?

I think this was a particular concern of Carl Jung, who was intrigued by the ways in which we can come to feel more fulfilled by letting go of the need to direct the course of our own development.  We acknowledge  forces which are not of our own making.  This for him also entails the paradox that what we are sure of, our convictions, support us better if we let in some doubt, a tolerant scepticism.  This is one element of the self-regulation, the ongoing balancing of the self, which Carl Jung suggested as a process we can rely on beneath our everyday consciousness.  Both the Alexander Technique and Nonviolent Communication suggest that if we still the noise then we will discover that our individuality, the feeling of belonging to ourselves, leads us to be able to connect.

In a late essay first published in 1957 and called in English The Undiscovered Self, Carl Jung develops the distinction between statistical or scientific knowledge and individual understanding.   He sees an obvious tension between these two for the doctor which is also true as a general problem in education and training.  The doctor, faced with a patient, will apply general principles but will also seek to recognise the uniqueness of the individual.  The doctor can be drawn too far towards understanding, in which case the relationship becomes isolated in intimacy and one or both of the two will sacrifice his individuality.  He makes this possibility clear because his main thrust is in the other direction, to do with helping the individual to overcome all the features of the modern world which stifle individuality.  He sees this impulse as requiring the individual to be purposeful in his self-development.  “Resistance to the organised mass can be effected only by the man who is as well organised in his individuality as the mass itself” (US, p 43).  Later on he writes of “the forlornness of consciousness in our world” and of the need to work our way into the unconscious “which can manifest itself only in the real, ‘irrationally given’ human being” (US, p 61).  Both the Alexander Technique and Nonviolent Communication belong to the movement, celebrating the individual, which is deepening and broadening consciousness – or which is allowing the unconscious to come to expression as part of our organised self, although we cannot, and do not want to, determine its influence.

How do we marshall the unconscious, let in the irrational?  Allowing the unconscious to have expression can stimulate fear but it need not be about darkness, chaos, nihilism.  The Alexander Technique helps us to be able to make decisions, and every decision has a possibility for anxiety.  A clear process, such as we find in the Alexander Technique or Nonviolent Communication, has a kind of magic, a self-generated magic, which enhances both our sense of responsibility and the sense of letting go.  The release of allowing, letting a movement happen, letting a moment of connecting be undisturbed, are ways of being which are common to both disciplines.  Above his door Jung had carved the words of the Delphic Oracle: “Invoked or not invoked the God will be present”.  We seek for a being above and beyond the conscious self.  Carl Jung suggests, in The Undiscovered Self that when an individual works at self-exploration, at channelling the energy of the unconscious into his integrated self, that the magic extends to others: such an individual “exercises an influence on his environment… an unintentional influence on the unconscious of others… and its effect lasts only so long as it is not disturbed by conscious intention” (US, p 76).

Here, again we can see the ambiguities of consciousness, of intention going hand in glove with an influence which we need to let take care of itself.  So with the rigorous, reliable, learnable processes of the Alexander Technique, as with Nonviolent Communication, it’s both a skill that is being learnt and something deeper, more personal, than that word ‘technique’ normally suggests.  It has recently become common for medical students to be taught ‘Communications Skills’, something older doctors felt they had successfully acquired through example and osmosis as a satisfactory bedside manner.  Will it be the case that if such skills are learnt they will be part of a performance, and lack authenticity?  Is it just a way of ensuring that no time is wasted and the consultation time can be reduced to the necessary five minutes to achieve targets and justify pay increases?  There may be goals of efficiency but also benefits in being trained to examine yourself, to look at yourself and, hopefully, to deal with this increased self-awareness in such a way that it disappears into spontaneous, engaged communication.  This is what Carl Jung is pointing to as the path of learning which we need today – becoming “organised” in our individuality by working into our unconscious – something which belongs to both the disciplines I am describing here.  Structured empathy protects individuality.

One of the most perceptive and articulate early students of the Alexander Technique was an American academic, a Classics scholar, Frank Pierce Jones, who was in his thirties when he was introduced to the Technique just before the beginning of the Second World War by F M Alexander’s brother, in Boston.  He was the first to offer himself to join a training course for Teachers of the Alexander Technique which took place during the war years in the USA under the instruction of both F M Alexander and his brother.  To pursue this unusual vocation he had given up his academic career.  Many years later, in 1973, shortly before his death, he gave a lecture in London which I will use to give a flavour of this thoughtful man’s  approach to the Alexander Technique.  The paper is called ‘Learning How to Learn’.  His is convinced that the Alexander Technique is not “just another way to achieve individual salvation”.  He mentions a then recently published book Ways to Grow listing one hundred and five techniques, including the Alexander Technique, but he is sure the Alexander Technique is “on a different level, or order of significance”.  He goes on to say that the effectiveness of the Alexander Technique should not be judged by improvement in health or posture.  He feels these are not only difficult claims to substantiate but also miss the point.  He stresses, in relation to posture, that ‘movement pattern’ is much more relevant and that there are students whose improved posture disintegrated in movement and others, whose poor posture was helped, overcome, through the way their movement became freed.  The distinctive feature of the Alexander Technique, for Frank Pierce Jones, is the “character of the thinking involved… an expansion of the field of consciousness (or of ‘attention’ if you object to the word ‘consciousness’) in space and time so that you are taking in both yourself and your environment, both the present moment and the next”.  This expansion “restores free will”.  This is concise and, in my opinion, accurate.  He goes on to describe his work with a jazz musician who needed to be responsive to his fellow musicians and his audience and able to bring forth his own contribution to the evolving music.  The student used the term ‘self-monitoring’ to describe the ability, which some have instinctively, but which, otherwise can come through the Alexander Technique.  The self-monitoring is possible (and again these are the jazz musician’s words), because the teacher and the Technique are helping the student to establish “an objective sensory distance that prevents one from interfering with the task”.  The discipline of the Technique, the pausing, the non-reacting, the thinking into the physical self in its relation to the environment, all these are a process which turns into activity and allows the student to monitor himself while letting go into the activity.  The expanded consciousness includes, or is surveyed by the monitoring attention, which allows one to learn in activity, because one is both acting, performing, and observing in a way which does not interfere.  The teacher does not interfere with the student, and the student does not interfere with his activity.

I feel very fortunate to have been able over recent years to work with a woman, now in her nineties, who is a highly respected horse riding teacher.  For her the Alexander Technique distils the essence of her teaching – that teaching is really coaxing – bringing out what is in you already.  With help the learner gives herself to a clear goal which becomes what teaches you.  The one focus can be, as she says, “just one ear” of the horse you are riding.  In the 1960’s, when the small group of teachers were helping to establish the Technique in the years following F M Alexander’s death, ‘The Alexander Journal’ had a gentle competition to compose a description of the Alexander Technique in 250 words.  According to the editors the standard of entries was disappointing but they print one, from which I quote:

A Teacher, going-up himself,
Acknowledging his individual pupil,

Communicates
Experience
of Going-up

That is it;
And that is all.

I want to stress the “acknowledging his individual pupil”.
I mention also two strands of research – the first to do with the risks run when you drive a car and carry on a phone conversation.  Hands-free kit does not improve a driver’s response time: the distraction comes from the act of talking to someone who is unaware of the situation you are in as a driver and the changing hazards you face.  The divorce of the conversation from the full reality of interaction promotes disorientation (New Scientist 7 April 2007).  Secondly, experiments exploring the sensitivity of babies to sounds of language show that after very little exposure they can pick out sounds from a language they have heard spoken from random speech-like sounds.  But it only works if the speaking caregiver from whom the baby originally hears the spoken language is actually there in the room.  It doesn’t work with film, although film does work with the teaching or demonstrating a manual skill.  Language learning needs the full range of eye-contact, pointing, mutual responsiveness which is impossible with an image (Simpl. Ch 8).

As an adult I want to be able to remind myself or discover why I’m here and what my point of interest is – whatever I’m doing, even if it’s just watching the clouds float by.  This is the need for being present which complements the need to relate, to connect.  Any technique to bring us back to presence and connection will be a technique we will always need to renew.  It can be a habit but can’t be automatic.  With the Alexander Technique or Nonviolent Communication one does not become a teacher who no longer needs the process you are sharing or encouraging in another.  And you can’t pretend you’re practising it in order to demonstrate it in any depth.  The participation of the teacher – the sense that she is engaged with it as much as the student – keeps the process alive.  It means it stays too interesting for me to start worrying about getting it right and too important for me to waste my effort in trying.

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.

29. Standing on the Bridge

The water lily pond, Monet

A famous early poem by Walt Whitman begins

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon and received with
wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain
part of the day… or for many years or stretching
cycles of years
‘There was a child went forth’

– and we get a typical two page list of all the people, experiences, things, sensations, scenes, moods which can be ‘objects’ which ‘the child’ incorporates: and the poem ends, after this wonderful unpredictable catalogue,

These became part of that child who went forth every day,
And who now goes and will always go forth every day,
And these become of him or her that peruses them now.

The experiences become ours, as the reader, through our taking them in as the poem’s meaning. The child is the poet, is the ‘child’ written on the page, is each of us, is me. It has happened without our being told it is happening. That’s what language allows! I find myself in you through something universal.

In this essay I want to touch on the way our speaking, our conversation, can so easily turn us into ‘talking heads’, can disturb beautifully co-ordinated poise in a moment of tense verbal response – and yet, conversely, the refinement and depth of speech can fill and colour our individuality. It can animate us right down to our toes and reach out to the person we are speaking to, creating a space of communication as spiritual as it is physical. There are many ways in which we can be absent and present in our speaking, in this most delicate and strangely unthinking employment of our muscles.

It is important, in the context of the Alexander Technique, to remember that the movement audible in speech, is able to be transformed into, other kinds of movements, gestures, signs, but, in speech, our moving is shaping the air flow of breathing, through the larynx, throat and mouth. Speech comes to life in us, and then we as individuals come to life through speech. This is the sounding through, the per-sona of our personality. As the young child’s speech develops, the different possibilities of speech are manifested – expressing my wishes and feelings, naming the things and beings of the world, allowing me to understand and reach another person. Speaking cannot be without some kind of listening. Once the child is standing upright there is a separation of the child from the world out there. Language helps to establish the child at the centre of a world. The awakening of speech, as the typical two-year-old becomes more fluently mobile – running, jumping, climbing – are developments which show the same spirit of discovery, and out of the gradual development of poise and fluidity of movement, of confidence, comes the acrobatics of grammar, and a joining into the social world. The child learns to talk, to converse, to live in the give and take of social breathing. Out of the creative liveliness of language the wonderful structuring of grammar brings into the child’s life the experience of time, space, number, psychological subtlety. The possibility of thinking awakens through the child’s use of language in connection with the developing memory and the power of play, movement, imagination.

These last elements are so important because they keep the internal world of shadowy abstraction in touch with the physical, with colour, and spontaneous joy. We need our limbs to be energised in order to discover thinking. But thinking, too, cannot do without listening, including a listening to oneself. And this has in it the stilling of movement, and the beginning both of self-awareness, of the sense of an ‘I’, and of the wish to connect more fully, out of the child’s own desires and impulses, with the world she is waking up in. Thinking brings with it both an awesome sense of a separate individuality, something before learning and beyond instinct, and of that individuality disappearing into the active, demanding, frustrating business of growing up into a personality.

Another way to understand the genesis of thinking is to see two streams meeting in the child’s development. One is the child coming into her body, elaborating and controlling movement: the child stands, walks and, in the end, speaks. The other stream is to do with experiencing the world through sensory discrimination, and through this stream the child finds her way into language via listening. Speaking meets language, and thinking is born. The question I want to arrive at is one to do with inner voice, with listening to yourself, and how hearing our own speaking intertwines with – a subtle idea – speaking what you hear another person saying. Entering the world of another, and the impulse to share our own world with others – these two things go together just as do the obviously motor, movement, side of speaking and the sensory side of listening.

We do listen to our own voice but not, I think, in the same way that we listen to the voice of another person. My ideas here are based on my experience and intuition and a certain familiarity with relevant research. You may remember the broadcaster John Diamond who did carry on broadcasting after losing his familiar voice to throat cancer. He would be aware of his old voice as he was about to speak with his distorted, ‘artificial’ post-operative voice: “In the milliseconds before I spoke I would hear the words in my head, sounding quite normal, very John Diamond, and I’d open my mouth to say them and what would come out would be somebody doing that honking impression of Charles Laughton”. I believe below this superficial level of inner voice is a deeper one in which words as such die into thinking, a level in which, unconsciously, I live in the structuring of my own speech, both listening and producing. This level of self-presence, I believe, belongs to all intentional movement, most intensely, language. It is what makes empathy possible, and not just the interpretation of behaviour, mine or someone else’s. My own unconscious inner monitoring lets me find my way to the meaning which is being expressed by the other person, and then back to my own meaning making. True, I often don’t know what I think until I hear what I’ve spoken but underneath the public recognition is a plumbing of my depths which is prior to my going public.

I want to bring in now those experiments and insights about memory which we have come to label ‘false memory’, and which are often associated with remembered, or imagined, abuse as a child. The basic import of such experiments was that it is amazingly easy to create a state of being in someone so that they are convinced something happened in the past which didn’t happen. The classic experiment is that by Elizabeth Loftus in which people came to believe they had once, as a child, been lost in a shopping mall. The subjects not only came to believe in the incident, but added loads of new narrative detail to the story. What this experiment tells me is about our need to create stories to cope with pain, and that means – with life. This story telling, in the experiments, came out of fictions provided by trusted family memories, and for me demonstrate that the story-telling need of the individual is a basic self-healing impulse. Sometimes trauma will be unknown, or be expressed only through physical pain or muscular tension, but the speaking of the pain, the turning it into story, is important for trauma that has been forgotten, trauma that cannot be forgotten, and trauma which is accepted on trust. Language helps us to take personal responsibility for pain. When regrets become fiction, become language, we are doing justice to our deep self. So I don’t like to speak of ‘a false memory’ or of memories being ‘implanted’ or ‘distorted’. We bring the stories forth to deal with pain, and perhaps that story-telling lives in other movements, everyday movements, playful or dance movements. In work such as the Alexander Technique, while we value a certain simplicity and abstract quality in the movements we employ to encourage freedom of use, I think it is helpful to keep an element of fantasy, of story-telling in the action, and to quietly acknowledge language as a way of opening up and exploring those deep domains in which the structure of our self, the way we move, the story we tell of ourselves, abide.
There is a story (true-life) of an autistic girl, Isabel, told by her father Roy Richard Grinker in a book called Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism. Aged 5, Isabel came to know a story book about a girl who travels to visit Claude Monet’s house and garden at Giverny. This story changes Isabel’s life and leads her into totally unexpected possibilities of social interaction. She learns the book off by heart, she absorbs the video of an animated version. Then her parents, who live in Washington DC, take her to see one of Monet’s paintings of the pond and Japanese bridge and, eventually, to France, to the garden itself where, more calm than she had ever been before, she stood at the highest point of the bridge for an hour. Isabel began to learn French, with her parents’ help, in a way that she had never managed with English. She enjoyed the artificial, structured learning. She enjoyed, through the whole procession from book to video to painting to garden, the challenge of the layering of reality. The story had drawn her in and she had begun to play, to connect.

Now, I think it is worthwhile to dwell a little at Giverny, the house and garden to which Monet moved, aged 50, in 1890 and in which he lived for the next thirty-six years becoming more and more of a recluse. These are the years during which Monet slowly progresses to the huge paintings of water lilies, ‘landscapes of water’ as he called them in which the flat surface of the picture represents the flat surface of the water in which the lilies rest and in which the three-dimensional world is reflected. Here we play between illusion and reality, as we do also in Monet’s technique. Paul Cézanne said of Monet – “he has muscles” and that physical presence of the painter’s hand and dedicated attention is there, despite all talk of delicacy and transience. You see the painter’s work, the paint applied and you see the natural world that is being created for you. You see both but you do not confuse the two. Contrast this with all those beautiful mirror-like landscapes from Dutch seventeenth century art where the purity of the artist’s thinking vision means the hand has disappeared: we are left caught in the magic of mirage. With Monet, like little Isabel, we stand on the famous bridge and can move between the two sides – what is painting and what is nature. For the young child developing, in particular, it is so important that there is easy, unconscious passage across the bridge of the life-processes which connect body and soul, the physical and the emotional/intellectual life of the child. I find it so imaginatively appropriate that the isolated Isabel finds her way to the mid-point of the bridge in the garden, where she was able to take in the textures of reality – and find her story. Monet destroyed hundreds of his water-lily paintings during the more than thirty years in which he was experimenting, often slashed with a knife. Some were exhibited quite early on, in 1909, and Monet spoke at the time of their essence being in his “total self-surrender. I applied paint to those canvases the same way that monks of old illuminated their books of hours; these owe everything to the collaboration of solitude and passion, to an earnest, exclusive attention bordering on hypnosis”. The critic within whose essay these words are found, writes that “the magical evocation of the reflection supplements the evidence of reality; it is these reflections that evoke the vanished shores” and of Monet as “the painter of air and light… of shafts of light displaced by the earth as it turns” (Roger Marx, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, June 1909). With language we are always living with different levels, with metaphor, with one thing being like another but not the same. It is this which allows us to go down and into ourselves, to our body, and to go out to the minds and hearts of other beings, other things. We can reach out to the vanished shores of a wider, cosmic existence in which we were once integrated, and sense the hard earth turning under our feet. Isabel on the bridge has distance from each side, and distance from the reflection. Out of the distance can come contact, can come bridging, because contact is always rhythmical and mobile. And language, of some kind, is necessary both to know ourselves and to find distance: distance and depth.

I want to end with a quiet, unpretentious poem which tells me something profound about the everyday discipline of using story-telling to cope with pain, a discipline which is self-questioning, aware, yet spontaneous and open – the qualities which Monet cultivated in himself and which for him meant his paintings stayed in the world, stayed true to nature, even as they conveyed “an idea of infinity” and “the instability of the universe”. He is adamant that it is not the case that his works “simply leads to a fairyland” (quotes from article previously mentioned).

The Bird Feeder

Daughter,
your absence is woven
into giant wall tapestries
but I cannot unearth
your footprints.

A song comes from the empty
birdfeeder creaking in the wind,
as orphans, four rice grains,
wait for a stray bird.

Here we played
for hours the ritual of feeding and
singing that gave you a setting
for the future. I must learn that
letting go can also mean love.

I clean the tarnished tray,
put fresh grains of rice
and wait for the stray bird.

Padmaja Rao

This poem speaks my meaning – the storytelling that treats our pain but stays attentive to the detail of experience, that moves on but remembers, that knows tapestries belong with footprints, but are different.

28. What is solid about us?

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
(L456-467

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:
(L494-497)

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.

27. The Present

Henri Cartier-Bresson

I want in this essay to get a bit clearer about the longing to be ‘in the present’ and what work with the Alexander Technique tells me about my living in and with time.  I was listening last night on the radio to a programme about a well-known flamboyant eccentric in Brighton, a man in his seventies, once a dancer, who associated with Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.  Following two serious accidents and periods of coma he now lives a life without short-to-medium-term memory.  From the ceiling of his flat are suspended many pieces of paper, photos and writing, which can remind him of his life.  He himself expressed his contentment, his sense of absolute trust and acceptance of the limitations of his existence (which he is able to speak about if not fully realise).  His friends and family (whose actions, names, relationship to him he will not remember) expressed their enjoyment of and longing for the freedom from doubt and worry which he possessed.  He described his life as one lived totally in ‘the now’.  I appreciated his open hearted acceptance of where his life had taken him – he had many clear, distant memories, but I was troubled by the admiring wonder of those touched by his difference, by his strangeness, by this kind of living in the now.

I recently saw a film made by a professional film-maker, with her daughter, about her mother, now elderly and suffering with dementia, following her life over a period of years.  Here was a different process, a process of what one could call deterioration, and involving a personality with less self-awareness (at least verbally) of what was happening to her than was the case with the man in Brighton.  I used the usual “suffering” in speaking about her condition, but the film managed to convey how, given the right support, a king of beauty and joy could be found for the subject of the film in this life which was letting go of normal concerns, letting go of relationships, living in the now.  As a way of appreciating an individual’s  immediate experience, the film was more satisfying for me because it acknowledged the fear of loss of personality, and made me aware that both the fear and the integrating of such fears belong to the business of personality and to living in the present.

There are some oft-quoted words of Carl Jung which come to mind: “Personality is the supreme realisation of the innate idiosyncrasy of a living being.  It is an act of high courage flung in the face of life, the absolute affirmation of all that constitutes the individual, the most successful adaptation to the universal conditions of existence coupled with the greatest possible freedom for self-determination” (IP, p 169).  Anthony Storr, a leading figure in psychiatry in the second half of the twentieth century, comments on this passage that the fulfilment of personality involves our recognising limitations, involves acceptance, and involves self-knowledge: “the sense of being at one with oneself, of being true to and in harmony with one’s own nature, is ultimately a subjective experience… it is really only the individual himself who knows his own truth” (IP, p 171).  Idiosyncrasy is not enough, is not really there unless the subject is involved in making the mixture.

A very different ideal of living in the present comes from the person who has come to have an intense experience of mortality, perhaps through religious teaching, perhaps through an illness overcome or a serious injury escaped.  In Ireland people will often add to a future arrangement made – “if we’re spared”.  Live each day as if it were your last.  Here ‘the present’ takes on a different quality.  But it shares one feature with the way we view, from outside, the person with no short-term memory, or who is becoming demented.  In both situations – escaping death or losing memory – we are open to unfamiliar or paradoxical understandings of how and when we are active in ordering our lives, how and when we are passive.  We face questions about agency, about decision making, about allowing our lives to be led.  Who is in charge?

The idea of ‘the present’ is initially a spatial one: what is here before me, before my eyes or my attention.  The most obvious opposite to ‘present’ is ‘absent’ – past and future come later.  And in the very idea of the present is the idea of me, or whoever it is; the one before whom the event or thing has arrived.  You find in the past all these lovely expressions of such-and-such being “present to my spirit” or “present to the imagination” or “present with my mind” .  The move from space to time is easily made – ‘here’ becomes ‘now’, but ‘here’ can easily be turned into ‘there’ or ‘then’.  It was perfectly natural to speak of ‘this present’ (here and now) and to contrast it with ‘that present’ – the experience of another place, another time, another content of my mind or imagination which could also be real, be filled with actuality.  That’s what human beings are good at – not being confined to one present.  To present, to make or give a present, to be presentable – all have the sense of display, of formality, of coming into a relationship of respect.  To present arms means both to get ready to fire your weapons and, in different circumstances, to proffer your weapon as a gesture of respect or deference.  ‘The present’ is something strong and vivid but it is not denying time.  It is appreciating what has come into awareness, within the wider context of space and time.  In itself now is nothing.  What matters is that something is before me.  Perhaps the longing for ‘the now’ is for a unity, something outside of time, with no development, no change.  That is the lure of living in the now.

Let me now give some of the basic shifts in attention which I think belong to what I am trying to do with the Alexander Technique.  Something is placed before me, is present to me.  Can I experience the way the two – me and the other – belong together in a more intuitive rather than an intellectual way so that the spatial fact that the two are in proximity is not what dominates or determines the togetherness?  The unity is something we discover through our own attentive effort in the act of perceiving.  I have already spoken of this kind of consciousness when talking about Goethe and the archetype – (in essay twenty- three) – leaving behind a linear succession of things perceived moment by moment for a way of seeing which sees relationships within a whole experience which happens in space and time.  A bird flying across the sky is a present event with no inevitable need to analyse, to relate bird to action to environment.  Is life a succession of still frames?  I will return to that later.  The shift is the shift from entities to relationships.  It is interesting to note how common in the past was the use of the word ‘present’ or ‘this present’ to mean the book or text which is before you right now – the words, the meaning, requiring you to read and understand it.  ‘The present’ asks for active reading and I think the shift in consciousness I am speaking about is a shift towards reading the meaning, using our active minds.  Living in ‘the now’ need not, to my mind, be mindless.

One aspect of this activity is caught by Henri Bortoft in trying to describe what he feels belongs to full conceptualisation.  He wants us to overcome the prejudice that ideas stop us seeing what is really there: part of the mystique of living in the now is the longing fort a richer seeing, a simpler perceiving.  Henri Bortoft wants to offer us this other, alternative way of seeing which is not about fixed images and the self viewing a screen, but is about knowing as an act, about the thinking/seeing which combines distinguishing and relating: “The primary act of distinguishing does not point out something which is already “there”.  It “theres” it.  Thus the concept, or organising idea, does not apply to something which is already present.  It “presences” it (GWS, p 135).

I am going now to briefly present two perspectives on the idea of the present from two of the pioneering pupils of Rudolf Steiner.  I think their insights will help my presentation but I also want to share with you the elegance and distinctiveness of their thinking.  Both were medical doctors.  F W Zeylmans van Emmichoven, was born in 1893 and published De Menselijke Ziel in Holland in 1946.  It was translated into English with the somewhat cumbersome title of The Anthroposophical Understanding of the Soul.   Karl Konig, ten years or so younger, created the book known as The Human Soul as a series of articles in 1959.  Karl Konig’s book combines a scientist’s interest in clarity and research with a poet’s sense of depth in experience.  Zeylmans van Emmichoven approaches the human soul with an attitude at once both artistic and logical, looking for the essence, the living abstraction.  Compare their two formulations.  For Zeylman’s van Emmichoven we reach the present in and through consciousness.  We find in mental images “a point of rest”… which gives birth to a word (say tree) just as a word allows the mental image to be born into it (AUS, p 42).  Something becomes fixed, allowing us to communicate, and to know what another person means.  “A mental image always has the imprint of a memory” (AUS, p 122).  This is one key element in reaching the present – the reaching back into our unconscious being, into a past through the activity of forming mental images.  He contrasts this activity with desiring, which he bases in “the demand for life” (AUS, p 40), which emerges in the soul as feeling.  In the young child he sees desire permeating perception, permeating the child’s sense of connection to the world.  The word is born out of this “happy experience” (AUS, p 39) but this finding of the word leads to disengagement.  Desire does not initially belong to consciousness but as part of the expression of our personality it fuels the urge for self-realisation.  It leads into the future.

from The Anthroposophical Understanding of the Soul, F.W.Zeylmans Van Emmichoven

“The forces working from the past carry the mental images into the soul.  The stream leading to the future carries with it desire.  In the soul, past and future meet in the present.  Thus, the two forces of desiring and forming mental images, polarically opposite in direction, meet in the here and now.  This is the secret of consciousness; it is always linked to the now, and this is why it is so difficult to grasp… it is the mental images or the desires and forces in the soul connected with them that arise in consciousness and drive the soul either into the past or the future.  In one way or another there is always consciousness of this inner play of forces but the clarity, breadth, and depth of this consciousness change continually” (AUS, p 123).

The present is a mobile place of meeting.  We have come here to a stronger sense of time.

Karl Konig, in his concentrated description in The Human Soul, is eager to make us aware of what lies beyond our normal day-consciousness whose very brightness blinds us to what is beyond: “In this confined but well-illuminated cell, we experience the clarity of our thoughts and the certainty of ourself.  Its three-dimensional space, not too wide and not too deep, is well fitted for establishing our personality”.  He describes an ever-changing inner world, likened to a river or a sea in which the consciousness of the mind is the brightest experience of the soul which we have – but it is not in any sense the substance of the soul.  Karl Konig sees the present as being created by the meeting of the streams relating to future and past but he emphasises more than Zeylmans van Emmichoven the idea that the stream of the future is truly flowing towards the present, that it is the meeting of two opposing currents which creates the present.  “We have to abandon the usual concept of time running only in one direction, from the past to the future… We can only say that the clash between past and future creates the present and that this present in us appears in the form of consciousness.  It is the object-consciousness to which we referred” (HS, p 97).  He sees this object-consciousness to be as if “the flow of time were stopped and turned into space”.  The constant stopping is like the taking of a picture; it is “almost a figment”.  It can be that these streams only gently meet and mingle, or pass each other by.  When this is so we dream or sleep.  The day-consciousness is a cell, or an ark surrounded by the waters of the unconscious.  Karl Konig suggests that to leave this ark in which we preserve our lonely selfhood needs us to call a halt to the two rivers of time by “the devotion of our heart and the clarity of our mind”.  This will then make it possible that “a space of the present will grow within us” (HS, p 99).  The present becomes something we can create and work with.  It still has the quality of light but light which does not blind us to the surrounding depths of reality but which shines into them and reveals what lives there.

The present takes on such significance for us because it is where our I-being belongs.  This focus opens up for us both the concern about development, about meaningful change in ourselves, and, I believe, the hint of  some kind of ideal of original unity, or potential maturity.  The concern with the present both offers us a way out of the ongoing flow of time and suggests that the flow can have, must have, some movement which we are in part responsible for.  Another way of putting this insight is to say that only the human being, in comparison with the animals, can have a biography and can have culture, and that the human body is able to be the form of life which allows a biography to develop.  It allows free movements – on all levels.  This is what we are promoting or unearthing with the Alexander Technique: the ability to play with temporal being the better to engage with development in time.  Maturing is only possible in time.

A different perspective on the concern for the present comes from the wisdom of the chakras, in which the spiritual chakra, the chakra of prayer, of living in the present is considered to have a strong connection to the muscular system, the skeletal system and to the skin; to the moving form of the human being.  To pay attention to the divine is to seek to release ourselves from regrets, to come into the body as the form of our freedom.  I want to tell you about an experienced climber I was talking to recently.  It could also have been a musician or a craftsman.  He spoke of going about his daily business and finding himself visualising and imagining the feel of the rock on his toes or fingers, the distinctive feel of lichen or different textures of rock.  He felt this prepared him for the peculiar quality of presence he often had when climbing, present but not planning.  He, strangely, described it as being ‘like a robot’.  We prepare ourselves for presence.

I am a great admirer of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the photographer who is always associated with “the decisive moment”, the instant which the camera is able to capture and preserve.  The magic of my decisive moments is there too in my memory, in my being – the chance word or scene or gesture which has become, in a way I could never predict, a significant moment in my biography.  Contrast this with the deeply impressive but, for me, disturbing work of the German photographer Andreas Gursky who creates huge, incredibly clearly focused images of things which feel, to me, as if they will exist unchanging forever: a frame, like a note or a chord going on for eternity, like the end of Vaughan Williams’ sixth symphony.  This, for me, is an overwhelming eternal present which I feel squeezes the life out of me.  The lightning-quick responsiveness of Cartier-Bresson brings alive for me the unpredictable elasticity of the present, of the way the moment grows into meaning.  We may well lose awareness of how this intense present is rooted elsewhere in past or future – because of its intensity.  But without those living threads, the present would not happen.

I will end with my favourite psychologist, William James, and his concept of “the specious present”, a term he borrowed from a writer by the name of E R Clay.  By ‘specious’ he mans misleading (or misleadingly attractive).  He wants to suggest that we recognise a (short) duration of time with a beginning and an end, and only within that duration do we make a story or give order to the succession of events or moments within it.  He is depicting something almost spatial: we are able to apprehend an action, or a sentence, or a melody because we encompass a now, an enduring now, an ever-shifting now which has a beginning and an end.  He describes the specious present as being like the rainbow on the waterfall.  It is an awareness of time standing still, but it is interesting only because it allows what is passing through it to be more vivid by contrast.  We sustain the experience of the present but it needs the energy and life of the waterfall, of the processes, which belong in time.  The degree to which we enter into experience allows it to be ‘felt’, a favourite word of James, felt as time, as becoming a stream, as becoming events which melt into each other.  We do not create the waterfall.  We are the ones who notice the rainbow, who can be mesmerised by the rainbow.

I think the practice of the Alexander Technique is one way to be at one with the colours but also to be able to expand the feeling of now into what is past and what is coming to be.  Our experience, private and personal as it is, gains reality only through being taken up into time, into a larger reality.

As a coda I would like to draw your attention to a passage in a lecture by Rudolf Steiner in which he contrasts a sense of space and movement which is divorced from our inner world, “something quite inhuman”; he contrasts this with movement in which “man learns to know himself”.  This needs what he calls “blood activity”; the participation of the I-being of the person in the willed movement, epitomised in the child gaining uprightness: “The blood has one tinge when I raise my foot, another when I place it firmly on the ground.  When I lounge around and doze lazily, the blood’s nuance differs from the one it has when I let thoughts shoot through my head.  The whole person can take on a different form when, in addition to the experience of movement, he has that of the blood (all quotations from ONS lecture III).  This added quality is, Rudolf Steiner says, no longer about changing position, about space; it is “a time experience, a sequence of inner intense experiences”.  The freedom to move between a more abstract spatial orientation, and a way of being which lives more strongly in time, in the feeling of participation, of oneness of self with the world – this is a valuable skill and one at the centre of the Alexander Technique.

26. Movement (Mountain and Lake)

Walking man. Rodin

John the Baptist, Rodin

This essay will take you to Rome and Paris, but I want to begin in China.  The I Ching or Book of Changes is one of the classics of Chinese philosophy and literature.  One part of the work gives pictures of states of mind or being which the reader can explore.  Our modern Western understanding may well describe the book as helping to integrate conscious and unconscious elements in the soul – the spiritual and the pragmatic.  This was how Carl Jung, the leading psychotherapist, saw it.  The I Ching works with abstract representations of the polar qualities of yin and yang, qualities which are mutually generative and supportive.  It formalises the deep sense of active interconnectedness of events which is the heart of the Tao.  I want to give you three of the images from the I Ching as a prelude to this essay on movement.  The image in which Heaven, or the creative (yang), stands above Earth, or the receptive (yin), is called Standstill or Stagnation.  The two principles have withdrawn into their own tendencies, there is no interaction.  The wise man is encouraged to withdraw, he “turns to his inner worth”.  In every picture in the I Ching there is the possibility of change, of movement, but this picture of Heaven and Earth as separate is a moment of stagnation in the cycle.

Reverse the relationship and place Heaven fully beneath the earth and the picture is seen as Peace or Contentment.  This is union and the wise man is encouraged to direct his will outwards.  I will bring in one more image which does not try to capture one of these two extremes but which is called ‘Keeping Still’.  The heavenly is above but not dominating, the earthly is strong.  It is also, in the I Ching, called  the image of ‘Mountain’.  There is mention of the back in the exploration of this image.  It leads to the advice:

keeping one’s back still
so that restlessness dissolves

Rest and movement belong together – one is always ready for the other.  Keeping one’s back still is not the same as making it rigid: “this is dangerous!” warns the text:

“Enforced quiet, subduing the self by force, is wrong.  A fire, when smothered, changes to acrid smoke.  Likewise, to induce calmness by artificial rigidity suffocates the heart and one’s meditation is soured”.

I appreciate the distinction that the I Ching draws between the more simple state of ‘Peace’ and the more mixed state of ‘Keeping Still’.  In each picture there is the development that will come.  One of the possibilities or realities found in the image of Mountain, of ‘Keeping Still’, is that:

“To halt, even before beginning to move,
Is no mistake.  Be patient.  Persevere.”

The commentary goes on to speak of the clarity and innocence of a beginning; it is “a time of few mistakes”.  For this very reason, it is a good time to halt, to intensify the clarity and connection one has with the task, to do just enough to form one’s place in the activity, to live more fully in the keeping still.  I find this a beautiful way of discovering the power of Inhibiting in the practice of the Alexander Technique: the restful energetic presence of a still but not rigid back.

Apollo and Daphne, Bernini

David, Bernini

Now I go to Rome, to early seventeenth century Rome and the genius of Gianlorenzo Bernini, and in particular, to one early, famous sculptural group of his, ‘Apollo and Daphne’.  But first a mention of his ‘David’ as an introduction.  There had been the earlier free standing statues by Donatello, Verrochio and Michaelangelo, all more than a hundred years old by the time Bernini begins work.  It was quite an undertaking to set his own statue alongside these Florentine masterworks.  It is recorded that Bernini modelled the face in his own likeness and had his assistants draw him in the pose he wanted.  Previous statues had shown David either before or after the combat with Goliath: Bernini shows David in the act of beginning the movement of twisting in preparation for releasing the rock from the sling he holds stretched between his hands.  Charles Avery in his study of Bernini gives an important insight into the thinking of the sculptor behind the composition and its placement in the Villa Borghese.  Originally the spectator would have been led into gradually experiencing the nature of the body’s twisting and the intent of the movement.  David’s right toes “urgently clutch the very edge of the base” suggesting “subliminally that the statue is stepping into the ‘real’ world”.  The viewer comes on round the statue and as she experiences the tension in the plaited cords of the sling – “the sculptor’s technical prowess in cutting away durable marble… from all round those narrow extensions is breathtaking.  It is a miracle they have never snapped” (Bernini, p 71).  The viewer then arrives so as to be “seeing the distant Goliath in his mind’s eye almost from David’s point of view”.  The movement in the statue is experienced through the movement of the viewer.  This is something new in human experience.

One of the other four unbelievable sculptures which Bernini created in the five years (of his early twenties) at the Villa Borghese is the group of ‘Apollo and Daphne’.  First, the story.  Apollo, having slain Python with his bow and arrows, tries to take away the same implements from Cupid whom he feels is not worthy of such noble weapons.  Cupid refuses, and strikes Apollo with the arrow to excite love, and the nymph Daphne, the daughter of the river God, with the arrow which repels love.  He falls in love with her and she rejects him.  Eventually in the chase, as he reaches her, she calls out to her father to be rescued or for her form to be changed, and she is made into a tree, the laurel tree.  Bernini’s statue captures her poised between these two states of being: her toes are sprouting roots, her fingers are bursting into leaf, but her head still twists away from Apollo’s grasp and her mouth is open in a cry.  I find it difficult to express my intense feelings for this perfect work of art.  Going again to Charles Avery’s analysis of the original placing of the group, the viewer, entering the room, would have seen Apollo’s back and Daphne’s flowing hair and raised hands turning into twigs and leaves beyond Apollo’s left shoulder.  The viewer would be drawn into the room, following Daphne’s spiralling form in order to face the drama, the statue now strongly lit from windows beyond.
Michael Gill has an interesting comment on this statue as representing “a triple metamorphosis “ (IOB, p 384): the stone is turned to flesh in the complex refinement of the carving, the human form becomes a plant form, and the less intellectual, natural spiritual life of wood and river is being taken over by the power and ordered clarity of reason and hierarchy.

We are lucky to have many of the rough three-dimensional sketches and models which Bernini made for the sculptures, and he was a master of caricature cartoon drawings.  But for him such preparatory work meant very little: there are a couple of famous remarks of his which show where his technical attention was directed: “from youth I devoured marble and never struck a false blow”, and “Not even the ancients succeeded in making rocks so obedient to their hands that they seemed like pasta”.  He also wrote of making marble like wax and of his ability to make his figures look as though they were made out of flesh.  This, for me, is the frightening beauty of his work; the conscious longing for a metamorphosis which went beyond the human, although it exploited the human; ideas of Nature and of Art that play with escape, transport, enchantment.  Some thirty years later Bernini carved perhaps his best known work, ‘The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’, in which the recently canonised woman is caught, almost lifeless and limp, yet levitating, suspended in otherworldly spiritual ecstasy.  Again the stone looks like flesh but this is flesh seeking a life that is above life.  Bernini revelled in his power to capture the moment of rapture, the taking of Daphne, the piercing, with the pain of the divine, of Teresa.

These are extreme images but they alert me to the dangers of artistry, of control, in mastering the physical, mastering movement, with a discipline such as the Alexander Technique.  I want to stay true to the place action and movement has in constituting our individuality.  I long for the metamorphosis, the development, the regeneration that is only available in the everyday physical world of perception and action.  In a Preface Rudolf Steiner added, towards the end of his life, to a philosophical work of his early years, he wrote of his life long concern for “the spiritual, which appears to reveal itself within man himself, but which in reality inheres in the objects and processes of the sense world itself” (TK, p XVI).

Antonio Damasio comments on the way that perception involves a complex set of reactions and responses: even memories trigger engaged emotional and motor responses.  Experiments with people affected by curare, which prevents the skeletal muscles moving, reveal that below the level of actual movements, then visceral responses as well as memories and plans are all engaged in the accommodation between perception and movement.  The basis of our consciousness is in the movement that lives in our bodies even when still, even when paralysed.  We can’t simply “think” about an object: “you simply cannot escape the affectation of your organism, motor and emotional most of all, that is part and parcel of having a mind” (FWH, p 148).

And so we move to Paris, or rather to Brussels where in the 1870’s, Auguste Rodin was beginning, already in his thirties, to make life-size standing figures.  He was accused of casting the first, ‘The Age of Bronze’, from the living model, people were so impressed by the form.  Here is a figure awaking, an adult male figure experiencing the pain of birth, of entering life.  He had originally thought of calling it ‘The Vanquished’.  Here is another master fascinated by the interplay of movement and stillness.  He is the sculptor of freedom and instinct, but also of suffering and decision.  Nijinsky, the great dancer, posed for Rodin in his old age, and the small, rough study in plaster which survives has that energy of Nijinsky “half angel, half ape”, as Michael Gill describes it (IOB, p 316), caught in the magic of the held pause in mid-air.  The miracle of overcoming gravity.

A different kind of pause is found in the figure of John the Baptist, a bronze figure some two metres high which came soon after ‘The Age of Bronze’.  We are lucky to have this figure standing in the landscape near my home, at Glenkiln.  Rodin had returned to Paris by the time he undertook this work.  He used a man who had never been a professional model, a man always described as a peasant.  Auguste Rodin asked him to move around in the studio until he happened upon an attitude which pleased Rodin who then told him to stop while he explored how the inner mood sensed in the gesture related to the muscular configuration.  The sketches for the figure show Rodin interested in fragments of the form, the details of expressive life.  Some twenty years later he created ‘Walking Man’ which is an intensified fragment of the John figure, without head, or arms, or any historical reference.  But it intensifies the gesture, the moment in walking when both feet are on the ground, but with the upper body’s twist already indicating the next step.  The original ‘Saint John the Baptist’ was to carry a long thin cross.  This was removed.  In old age Auguste Rodin would draw either cathedrals or nudes, the first with painstaking care, the second with speed and spontaneity.  He loved fragments, which he called ‘abattis’ (limbs from slaughtered animals).  Rodin wanted to find the expressive richness which we associate with the face, he wanted to find this in a back, a torso, a hand.  Rodin sculpted hundreds of hands, modelled them in clay with his own hands.  He was impelled towards fragments.  Rilke, the German poet who was for a time Rodin’s secretary, writes of the beauty of these fragments: “each of these debris possesses such an exceptional and striking coherence, each is so indubitable and demands so little to be completed that one forgets that these are only parts… one suddenly realises that conceiving the body as a whole is more the work of a scientist, and that the work of the artists is to create new relationships with these elements, new unities which are greater, more legitimate, and more eternal” (Rilke quoted in Rodin, p 202).  That shocking association with slaughter, with the abattoir, was keeping true to Rodin’s experience that what is eternal is movement and movement is change and leads to death: he wanted to celebrate that power in the telling detail.  Rilke wrote of this: “In Nature there was only movement; and an art that wished to give a conscientious and credible interpretation of life, might not take for its ideal a calm which was non-existent” (Rilke quoted in Gill, p 316).

To return to Rodin’s two metre high John the Baptist, who years later became the more fragmentary ‘Walking Man’.  A different model had been used for the head originally, so there was fragmentation there from the beginning.  There is yet another revealing remark by Rilke about the figure of John, that he does, in the spirit of the Gospel description, walk “with the great stride of one who feels another coming after him” (Rilke quoted in Glenkiln, p 90).  This is significant for me as is Henry Moore’s remark, about Rodin, that “out of the body he could make these marvellous sculptural rhythms”.  The rhythm extends out into the space, the relationships, the destiny of the figure, but these distant elements are expressed in the rhythm, the relation of the parts, of the muscular activity, of the sculpted body.  Like a musician, Rodin loved to find and explore the small phrase, the telling detail.  Wholeness must grow.  That first free standing figure sculpted by the thirty-five year old Auguste Rodin had many titles – ‘The Vanquished’, ‘Age of Bronze’, ‘Man Awakening to Nature’.  This theme of awakening to or in Nature is in a way opposite to the art of Bernini, the artist in his work rising out of Nature, to an idea of Nature.  Rodin himself was averse to any concern with the perfection of form, with trying to make the material and the shaping of the material disappear in the perfection of technique: “As to polishing nails or ringlets of hair, that has no interest for me.  It detracts attention from the leading lines and the soul which I wish to interpret”.  No, no-one can doubt his skill, his technique which he once described as the ability “to hide what one knows”.  He is interested in blossoming and becoming but in a contrasting sense to the escape of Daphne into the form of the tree.  He loves ugliness in as much as it reveals inner life, is expressive.  In a figure or a movement he is interested in character.  These contrasting movements, concerns, are there in the kind of self-modelling we do with the Alexander Technique: blossoming into beauty or into expression which may be ugly, personal.  Rodin often changed the titles of his works.  He would ask visitors, models, friends, for suggestions, Rodin writing their ideas in pencil on the statue or the base.  It was a game, a game designed to draw your attention back to what mattered to him, the momentary gesture of the model which he has tried to capture, the transient movement.  Don’t let a title interfere with your response to the feel of the form.  Although the sculptures of Rodin often feel so rough, so material, in fact that physicality creates an aura, more to do with light and shadow than mass, and the light and shadow speak of the emotional character of the body.  Rodin said, “a body is not formed on a lathe, like a baluster, nor is it moulded like a candle.  A sculpture must be made from the inside” (Rodin quoted in R J, p 183).

It is light and shadow which connect Rodin with cathedrals.  For him they were vast sculptures which obviously created a space, were spaces, just as he wished his figures to create a space around them.  The life within, what Rodin called ‘the swelling of a torso or a limb’, spread from the light and shadow of the surface into the space around.  Rodin worked more by modelling clay than by carving.  Perhaps this is why hands are so important, why the artist and the human being is known in shaping movement.  There is the famous late stone work of two right hands in a gesture of delicate vertical contact.  One of its names is ‘Cathedral’.  Another similar piece is called ‘The Secret’.  The contact and the space between the hands, the physicality and yet the yearning upwards take me back to the I Ching.  For me Bernini lives in the world of absolutes, of ‘Peace’ and ‘Standstill’.  Rodin belongs more to the different stillness of ‘Mountain’, and also of ‘Lake’, a balancing picture to ‘Mountain’ of a different quality of restful but mobile interpenetration of Heaven and Earth.  ‘Lake’ speaks of more possibility of interaction than ‘Mountain’: two lakes may join and replenish one another.  The commentary speaks of the lightness and joy of sharing – “There is always something ponderous and one-sided about the learning of the self-taught”.  In the form of the two right hands touching I sense this longing for refreshing contact, the modeller seeking to know, to be with, the other, the one who is coming to life.  Bernini’s art is self-contained, Saint Teresa taken up into an ecstasy which drains the tone and life from her body.  Those two right hands confirm for me that the holiness we cultivate in the work with the Alexander Technique is a social, buoyant exploring holiness.  It comes out of a quietness, the quietness, which the I Ching describes, of “the smiling lake which refreshes and rejoices all life… firmness and strength within, manifesting itself outwardly as yielding and gentle.”