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.”

25. Doing Less

The practice of the Alexander Technique values examining ourselves concerning the effort we put into things, and suggests a basic belief that there is likely to be something we can let go of, some unnecessary effort we can reduce.  I have consciously begun with a bald and somewhat negative statement of the situation.  Tracking down wasted effort or harmful effort or misdirected effort suggests stopping doing something, preventing something happening at least.  I think it’s a very valid concept – doing less – but I think there’s more to it than prevention or reduction.  Michael Lipson’s concise presentation and development of some of Rudolf Steiner’s basic exercises for inner development, Stairway of Surprise, begins with the recognition that “there is something extra about the human soul” (SS, p 9) and that “this something extra, this superfluity in the human soul, needs a task” (SS, p 10).  He sees the ‘extra’ as having to do with our capacity to pay attention; it is the needing of the task.  This capacity, Michael Lipson suggests, has several distinct channels to work through, and it is not automatic or unchanging.  Our attention needs exercise, needs marshalling, needs us, as we lose the child’s natural absorption in experience, to nurture it.

I think that recognising this ‘extra’, this dislocation from our environment, is a helpful beginning to living into the more positive aspects of “doing less”.  The ‘extra’ can get stuck, or diverted away from life, or turned in on itself.  If our concern is with the quality of our attention then we are immediately helped out of the moralising tone implicit in the last sentence.  If I start to pay attention to my thinking and notice how easily I get distracted and how my mind often moves from thing to thing in a chaotic procession, I have already got something lively to notice.  I am withdrawing from practical pursuits and playing with processes, with my own capacity to direct and choose where I give my attention.  Through directing this ‘extra’, this need to have a task, towards objects that are clearly not us, not ourselves, not our normal enmeshed selves, we are actually on the road to ‘doing less’.  We have taken a weight off ourselves.  Doing less is only meaningful because of the extra.  Doing less develops out of doing more.

From such general comments I want to turn again to Raymond Dart and his very precise insights into the dynamics of human activity.  Here we are right in the heart of Alexander Technique territory and the way our attention to ourself can allow a break through into non-habitual behaviour, can unlock ‘the extra’ from unhelpful tension.  Raymond Dart wrote a wonderfully wise article (for dentists!) which focuses on the relation of the head to the spine, the most influential relationship at a joint (or, rather, joints) for the poise of the human being.

Raymond Dart states the basic nature of muscular activity and of the co-ordinating activity mediated through the nervous system: “there is only one thing muscles can do, namely, contract; but their state of contraction can vary to produce anything from a minimal to a maximal amount of tone.  When flexion is actively occurring, the position assumed merely expresses the difference between an excess of tone in the flexors concerned and a relative lack of tone in the extensors.  Moreover, muscles… do not act independently.  Rest, therefore, is purely a relative term… (my italics)  Thus all movements, however restricted they seem to be, involve all the muscles of the body, because if they are not directly concerned in the local resultant of movement, they are indirectly concerned therein, since they have to be kept in a state of minimal contraction.  The chief business of the nervous system is not the initiation but the inhibition of movement.  (author’s italics)  More particularly is every muscle concerned in activities involving the upright posture so that there results a minimum of movement and a maximum of poise” (SP, p 88).

I have referred to this passage before; it is important and relevant to this essay because it is bringing the need for doing less right into the form of the human being.  Dart elsewhere describes poise as a state for which we can strive, but only through “restful study and observation… steady and carefree education of the body and the maintenance of balance.  Poise is a character of rest or repose in the good body, whether it is in the relatively static positions of lying, sitting or standing or is actually in progressive motion during the activities of life’s daily routine or of sport” (SP, p 114).  There is a lot here about doing less but there is also attention, the engagement of the ‘extra’.

To get to the heart of the detailed investigation at the centre of his article, Raymond Dart presents the typical way in which the free balance of the head is lost.  The muscles at the back of the head and neck (the extensors) tend to dominate the muscles at the front (the flexors) and we then try to compensate by bringing into play, antagonistically, a number of related muscles in the face and neck, right down to the diaphragm, creating a permanent battle between the straining flexor musculature, and the extensors of the back of the neck.  The poise of the upright human being is, to a large extent, maintained by conscious attention, but our objectives, our intentions and determination, can easily work into the processes maintaining poise, creating distortion and disharmony and a level of mutually interfering muscular activity which completely destroys the balance which depends on the minimum activity of the muscles involved.

Raymond Dart is clear that to help in such a situation we need “not so much a training to do good movements, as a restraining of the individual from performing improper and inappropriate movements” (SP, p 98).

We do less and we pay attention, and we can pay attention because we do less, and we do less because we are paying attention.  Poise comes about through finding how with least effort to be supported and then to allow what of our personal energy is not needed for support to be free.  Doing less involves a redirection of our attention; some of that ‘extra’ can helpfully be engaged with creative prevention.  What then happens is that the anticipation of doing less, of enacting less unnecessary muscular contraction, creates a general sense of creative anticipation, of connecting with the possibilities which may be waiting in the environment.  Raymond Dart’s picture of the whole body being involved in maintaining the poised structure means we can monitor our wholeness by noticing how well we are using the support the world offers – a rock, a chair, a path, a floor.  Finding support brings freedom, particularly of our arms and of our head and neck.  We avoid the contracting which we use to provide our own internal support.  Doing less allows us to awaken into the wholeness of our poise.  It has a distinctive quality – the ability to do less – which convinces us, paradoxically, that we are active in our thinking and our responding.  It is amazingly powerful as a way of freeing us from passivity and the need to stick with what is familiar and feels certain.

An interesting figure to introduce at this point is Giambattista Vico, a man little known in his lifetime.  He was a historian, a professor in Naples in the first half of the eighteenth century, who developed a view of history, culture and human nature which sought to free the human being from a divinely ordained order.  He tried to understand how our consciousness developed and changed in tandem with all aspects of human culture.  An indication of his significance can be gained from Edmund Wilson’s classic study of revolutionary politics, To the Finland Station.  He begins the history of modern revolution with the discovery of Vico’s ideas in 1824, ideas which can be caught in words such as these: “I speak of this incontestable truth: the social world is certainly the work of men, and it follows that one can and should find its principles in the modifications of the human intelligence itself” (Vico quoted in TFS, p 7).  Vico inspired the first of the revolutionary generation with the intensity of his principle that humanity creates itself.  Vico challenged people to look at the assumptions which they allowed to govern their experience and called on his readers to taker possession of their minds, to recognise that our minds, our ideas, can be the element in the world that we can know most securely because it is the element we have made.  He asserts, more pertinently to this discussion, that we are in a good position to understand our actions, once we have freed ourselves from what closes our minds.  He wants nothing to get in the way of us recognising ourselves, and others, as active agents.  We have a direct understanding of ourselves and others as interactive agents.  And knowing our own minds as our own brings a possibility of easing off, of paying attention to the process and not the result.  I will bring in a couple of poems by one of my favourite poets, the Polish Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska.  One is called “The End and The Beginning”.  She describes a situation after a war with her typical witty, warm scepticism.  People clear up, rebuild, but there is an air of bemused, busy purposelessness.  People need to forget, to get on.  The poem ends with the following verses:

Those who know
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.

Habits take over, the creative mind closes down, we may get drawn into consoling abstractions.  Inactivity may mean apathy, a refusal to make the effort to learn and change, but doing less can become an act preparatory to new meaning.  How do we free ourselves from the numbing weight of events?  Not just by dreaming in a field.  The other poem, ‘Experiment’, I find very stimulating.  It takes us back to Charles Sherrington and his classic experiments on severed dogs’ heads kept alive in order to explore reflexes.  She describes the experimental dog with a measured composure which adds to the shock:

Everyone could see that it didn’t have a body.
The tubes dangling from the neck hooked it up to a machine
that kept the blood circulating.
The head
was doing just fine.

…..

Its moist nose could tell
the smell of bacon from odourless oblivion,
and licking its chops with evident relish
it salivated its salute to physiology.

[The head, she goes on, was:]

convinced that it was part of a whole
that crooks its back if patted
and wags its tail

I thought about happiness and was frightened.
For if that’s all life is about,
the head
was happy.

[The experiment with the dog is said, in the poem, to be a prelude to some kind of performance.]

in which the actors did their best
to make me cry and even laugh –

Here is an alarming picture of the possibility of living with the illusion of wholeness, of agency, an illusion maintained by stimulation, by physiology.  For Giambatista Vico the truth that the human being is a creator, an actor, is found in the artistic or symbolic quality of his total being, body and soul.  He suggested that we danced before we walked, that poem and song preceded speech, that everyday language and thought is diminished symbol.

The ‘experiment’ was a prelude to a performance that was intended to engage, but is such human stimulation – entertainment, art, all that feeds our inner life – any different to the dog’s salivation?  The poem ends with the puzzle of happiness.  ‘Happy’ is such an interesting word, combining ideas of chance and good fortune with the idea of something that just fits, that just suits the needs of the moment.  The active, whole human being is not going to be interested in an ideal of happiness which is concerned only with pleasure and the absence of pain.  If we go back to Plato and Socrates and Aristotle we come to the deep concept of ‘eudaimonia’, literally ‘having a good guardian spirit’, a word we often translate as happiness, but which includes the idea of health and growth.  For Aristotle eudaimonia is a capacity, the capacity to plan, have intentions, reflect and act.  It is the ‘extra’.  Happiness is sustained wholeness.  It had, for Aristotle, an inherent connection to other people and caring for the needs of others, and a letting go of any impulse of revenge, an interesting development given the struggles we see in Greek Tragedy.  The idea of a guardian spirit can remind us of Socrates and his ‘daimonion’, his voice of conscience which was seen as a new god he was introducing, and as a dangerously subversive idea.  The separated dog’s head is satisfied with happiness as pleasure, pleasure as physiological.  The whole person sees happiness as the fulfilment, the full use of the ‘extra’, of the need for tasks.  Doing less, if it is like the figure lying in the grass, may help us to escape the tyranny of outer causes and effects, and the inner pressure of stimulus and response.  But escape is not in itself creative.  Doing less, though, can become doing more fully.

I am very struck by the beginning of the second poem, with the performance, and the intention of the actors to “make me cry and even laugh”.  There is a delicate irony in Wislawa Szymborska’s poems, an irony which I find wonderfully encouraging and energetic.  Today we love irony in the sense of appreciating events which turn out opposite to expectations or wishes.  We enjoy the mocking of the promise of things, the under-cutting of pretensions.  If we go back to Socrates as the father of irony, we find there a different orientation in the pretence of irony, a wish to avoid being too strong an influence on others, by affecting ignorance, by refraining from being clear about what one thinks or believes, letting the others work their way towards the truth.  Irony, in this sense, is already leading us towards Vico’s discovery of human independence of mind, just as the pulling down of the old securities by Vico carries on today in the love of anything ironic, anything which undermines established order or meaning.  But independence is not fulfilled in the refusal to be fooled.  ‘Doing less’ is akin to a more creative irony, irony in the sense of ‘let’s stand back, let’s explore, let’s make this concern my own, let’s allow something to happen’.  Irony is not necessarily about suspicion; seen as part of doing less, of refraining, it is more a prelude to engagement, to trusting that our attention, our extra, will meet something real, fresh.

One great character of modern Scottish culture who died recently was Ivor Cutler, a poet and performer.  He dealt in absurd details.  Like a master magician he would cause the audience to wonder if he was going to get there, finish the story, find the thread again.  There was always the puzzle, the minimal content, which drew the audience in, just as the apparent clumsiness of the magician does.  This is the conscious art of Doing Less, of allowing us to feel the ‘happiness’, the willingness to be part of what is happening.  This leads us to be whole and we find wholeness by doing less, by releasing into carefree rest which we can take with us into movement.

24. The Human Form

Woman with amphora, Matisse

Blue nude, skipping, Matisse

The subject of this essay is subtly but significantly different to that of the previous one.  When we live into the archetype we are implicitly acknowledging responsibility.  With the idea of the human form I am seeking out that way of being and knowing ourselves which allows us to escape the tension of the individual.  The archetype of the human being only makes sense as a generator of growth and development.  To find the human form is to feel the motion more outwardly, more at the surface, more in the moment.

Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso

Let me begin by looking at the way we use, in English, words for parts of the body in other contexts, as metaphors, for form is about the configuration of parts.  In the use of language, head, heart and hand are large – are frequently used and given significance.  Toe and foot are tiny in their usage.  ‘Head’ often appears as the leader, and a leader who is detachable, while ‘heart’ is always the centre, the middle, and ‘hand’ is about many different kinds of interaction.

You may be familiar with the maps of the brain, of the somato-sensory cortex and the motor cortex which indicate areas of representation in the cortex of various parts of the body, indicating by size of representation how significant the different parts of the body are in movement and perception.  There are similarities between the two maps – lips, tongue, the hand, and in particular the thumb, have large representations, the trunk a relatively small representation.  Here sensitivity goes, in most cases, with precision of movement.  I mention these maps in order to distinguish them from the cultural form of the body expressed in language use and metaphor, in order to make clear how, in different ways, we live with the idea of the human form.  Cortex and Culture are both of interest.

In the use of the word ‘form’ itself we can trace a complicated process by which ‘form’ changes from something within a thing, sustaining it, making it what it is and different, changes to mean something external, fixed, liable to lack real inner life.  For Francis Bacon in 1600 to understand the form of something is to give one the power to control or produce it; two hundred years later, for Immanuel Karl, the form is the order I bring to the world through my need to know.  The form is also the outward shape: but means something more with horses as I watch them being readied for the race and decide where to place my bet.  We start with the parts, with the surface.  Can we get to the whole?

In the last essay I introduced two sculptors who in their different ways were freed by drawing.  In this essay I bring in two painters who brought a sense of sculpting to their work with surfaces: Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.  These two are often spoken about together, and contrasted.  Matisse, twelve years older than Picasso, was born in 1869 and lived until 1954.  Picasso lived to an even greater age, dying in 1973.  It’s hard for me to believe that I was already in my twenties when Picasso died, for he seems to belong to a time long gone, the last of those whose individual creative genius could be separated from their fame or even their influence.  The contrast that is usually made, and which has substance, is of Picasso as the violent, aggressive revolutionary, and Matisse, also seeking liberation, but tending towards reconciliation, satisfaction, harmony of colour and composition.  The two would have known of each other for several years when they met in 1905 or 1906 and in the painting of Matisse which was then causing a stir, ‘Le Bonheur de vivre’ the circle of naked female dancers appears which becomes so striking an image in later work.  A year later Picasso painted the shocking and grotesque women of the painting we now call ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’.  In the autumn of 1907 they each chose a painting by the other.  Matisse chose a still life by Picasso which sculpts the space of the painting, drawing the attention to the pitcher, bowl and lemon at its centre.  Picasso chose a naïve, muted ‘Portrait of Marguerite’ in which the composition and form of the flat bounded surface is what matters.  The grace of the Matisse is the grace of the living made abstract on the canvas – the abstraction is not violent but revealing life.

I want now to move on to the last years of his life, when, physically limited, Henri Matisse developed the art of the cut-out, and in so doing revealed the dimension of experience I am calling the human form.  Cut-outs, using all kinds of materials, had a history, in the wish to be subversive, coming from Picasso and others in the early years of the twentieth century.  Matisse came to them in a new way as he attempted to compose an enormous ‘Dance’ mural in the 1930’s and used pieces of cut out coloured paper, which he could move around, to explore the composition.  In the 1940’s he developed the cut-out as his own art form, pre-colouring paper with gouache and then as he described it in the text of ‘Jazz’ – “Sculpting the living colour” which “reminds me of the direct carving of the sculptors… my curves are not mad”.  He sculpted with scissors or as he also said, he could “draw in colour.  For me it is a question of simplification, instead of drawing the outline and establishing colour within it.  I draw directly in the colour” (MC, p 10).  As he worked with the movements of dance in the cut-outs, joie de vivre is the only possible phrase to use.  Matisse identifies dance as the expression of this joy – “it was like a rhythm within me that carried me along” (MC, p 67).  There is a series of blue cut-out nudes which have amazing plastic agility coupled with a clear compositional refinement.  This makes them very immediate, vast, yet also impersonal.  There is tension, tension implicit in the decisive act of cutting, but it is a tension of surprise and liveliness.

The other kind of cut-out which Matisse explored in his last years involved coloured fragments (again cut-outs) on variegated backgrounds, exploring form and colour, space and light.  Space is always there, the figures arise out of space, and Matisse is full of the joy of entering into the object through the act of cutting.  In the huge compositions of his very last years you find this joy fulfilled.  The simplicity of the forms brings release and freedom – for the form depicted, for the artist in the cutting of the colour, for the one who sees.  Michael Gill speaks of these cut-outs having “pure patterns of pleasure.  Here the body is without the connotation of biographical guilt and anxiety.  So we experience it in our few moments when mind, spirit, and physique come together in an effortless harmony” (IOB, p 423).

This is one thing we are after through the Alexander Technique – living in the human form.  How can we educate the imagination to be able to enter in?  How do we find the rhythm?  Energised by this celebration of joy and life I feel able to look at the important elements of the human form – the parts which become incorporated – with the hope that movement is not lost in abstraction.

This next section is really a tribute to one man, Wolfgang Schad, who in the 1970’s produced a book translated as Man and Mammals: Towards a Biology of Form which is a ground-breaking classic work of perceptive intelligence.  It is clear and accessible and has given me life-enhancing insight into animals, and the form of the human being.  He looks at many different mammals and reveals the unique quality of each within the context of other mammals.  The human being stands out in his view as the creature in whom the three fundamental functional processes or systems are balanced: the nerve-sense system, the rhythmic-circulating system, the metabolic-limb system.  These three are each centred in a particular region of the organism but penetrate each other and the whole of the organism.  They are not anatomical features, but systems or even qualities which combine and act together within each part or region.  This view begins with the whole, the animal species, in which the particular qualities of its interpenetrating parts belong together and belong with the environment in which it lives.  I want at this moment simply to bring to your attention some of Wolfgang Schad’s insights regarding the human being.  He contrasts the immobile and, for the most part, unmoved head – “Above the runner’s flashing limbs and panting breast, his head quietly keeps the goal in view” (MM, p 17): he contrasts this with the bodily activity of the limbs and organs of the abdominal cavity, where the organism’s autonomy, physiologically, digesting what is taken in, is maintained.  The head is bony, enclosed, the abdomen unprotected, the limbs jointed with bones as levers not as protection.

There is though greater complexity in the human being than simply, say, the polarity of the outward-directed senses of the head and the inwardly-orientated metabolism of the abdomen.  Through the limbs the organic activity goes out into the world, and the central nervous system, focused in the brain, is establishing the private existence of the individual.  There is a fascinating contrast between the symmetry belonging to the senses and the limbs, expressing the organism’s connection to the environment, and the asymmetric forms of the main organs, developing out of early developmental symmetry through a variety of spiralling and twisting movements which belong to the inner space of life.  A different kind of inwardly-directed asymmetry belongs to the brain, both in shape and function.

Wolfgang Schad sets out to explore the way the forms of the different mammals show adaptive specialisations, and in the end returns to the human form as that which manifests unity most truly.  The human being is unspecialised but differentiated in his configuration; and, as a corollary, independent from defined environments.  This principle of emancipation from the environment, in the human being, reaches its culmination in the limbs.  You can trace progressive emancipation of the organic systems of animal life from the first sensory cells of invertebrates through nervous system, respiratory system, circulation, warmth, reproduction to, finally, the limb system.  All mammals have specialised limbs, which tie them to their environment.  Their limbs are like tools.  Especially through being upright and the freedom this gives to the use of the upper limbs and the hands, then we see the human form as expressing freedom.  Here we see the principle of differentiation: Wolfgang Schad comments: “Is man then characterised by the limbs or the brain?  It could in truth be said that the two characteristics are correlated and mutually condition one another.  For in man alone the activity of the limbs has been withdrawn entirely from the region of the head, which has in turn become free to develop the upright face and arched forehead so characteristic of him” (MM, p 264).

The differentiation that is spatially revealed in the human form is an expression of the development of the human being in time.  Development proceeds from the head downwards as the adolescent finally arrives on the earth with the maturing of the metabolic-limb system and the reproductive system.  This realisation of our form in time expresses our emancipation from the present moment as from our physical environment:  we learn and plan and remember.  Our form, in its development and its spatial differentiation, shows how we live in time.

Wolfgang Schad speaks of his wish to understand “the way life organises itself in space” (MM, p 27) – and in his exploration of the biology of form he reveals how the shaping of life is not only about physical form interacting with various life-functions but also engages capacities of soul: thinking that is clear belongs to the bony head, impulse belongs to the unconscious activity of the metabolism.  But always there is interpenetration.  Wolfgang Schad ends the book with a verse by Rudolf Steiner which, as he says, gives “clear, succinct expression to the wholeness and interdependence of the three main systems and functions of man” (MM, p 276).

In the heart weaves feeling,
In the head shines thinking,
In the limbs lives strengthening will.
Light that is weaving,
Weaving that strengthens
Strength that gives light.
That is Man.

In the series of lectures to teachers which Rudolf Steiner gave at Christmas 1921 in Switzerland, at the initiative of a British academic, Millicent MacKenzie, he spoke about the human form, and I want to pick out a few thoughts of his which seem particularly relevant.  He emphasises that the teacher should look, first, to healthy development of the child physically, because the soul and spirit will then be able to unfold out of their own resources.  The freedom of the future adult depends on the teacher not damaging the soul and spirit of the child and he can trust the unhindered physical being of the child allowing the spirit to be expressed.  This is important because the guiding ideal is “to place the human being into the world in such a way that he can unfold his individual freedom or, at least, that no physical hindrances should prevent him from doing so” (Lecture XII of SFWE).  The development of the child continues on into adult life and is a process by which “gradually, the child takes hold of its body, finally incarnating right into its skeleton, and how, by doing so, it grows together more and more with the external world, how it learns to adapt to outer circumstances” (SFWE, p 207).  This growing together is a growing together in freedom, and depends on living fully with the human form.  Answering questions Rudolf Steiner speaks about the vertical spine and that this verticality is not just a fixed thing; it is not something that takes effect only when a person is actually standing up.  It is the feature which allows him to become self-directing and self-conscious – “An ego can incarnate only if a being is organised in line with the vertical” (SEWE, p 341).  This is a very important realisation, that the quality of upright verticality of the spine is something which can permeate the human being in any position.  It can still be there when I bend although I am no longer vertical.  It is still effective and active when a person lies down, or even, when they sleep.  There is a beautiful little story by Anke Weihs, ‘The King and his Page’ (reprinted in The Little Sower of the Night) which tells of a King, oppressed by doubt and anxiety, who is helped by his page to sleep well and find the grace to live with his doubts and despair.  As the troubled King sleeps a “tiny golden serpent” slips out of the King’s mouth.  It seeks to cross a brook, and the page helps it by laying the King’s sword cross the brook to allow the fearful serpent to cross.  And then in the morning, he lays the sword down again, this time pointing back towards the King’s sleeping body, to allow the serpent to return to the King and let him wake.  The page’s dutiful thoughtfulness remains unknown to the King in his new-found joy and peace.  In the image of the page and the sword laid on the grass I see the power of the uprightness of the individual, living in the human form, as carrying us into the worlds that may hold our fears.  The King meets a figure in his dream who confirms that “To believe is to look beyond the shadow towards the light from which the shadow proceeds”.  Verticality is about the spur to wakefulness, and wakefulness is not just the awakening into the clear day consciousness of the senses and the mind – the passage into the world of imagination, of a consciousness of the world we enter through dream, and in sleep, is another kind of wakefulness.

In his last years Henri Matisse created the windows and the interior of the Dominican Chapel at Vence.  This was another kind of cut-out, Matisse saying that he cut the gouached paper as one cuts glass.  Picasso was, apparently, furious with Matisse for creating a church – “Why not do a market instead?  You could paint the fruit and the vegetables!”  he is quoted as saying (MC, p 57).  The theme for the windows was taken from the Book of Revelation – the river and the Tree of Life.  It seems to say in Chapter 22 of the Book of Revelation that the tree of life is on both sides of the river.  It does not belong to only one kind of consciousness.  Matisse commented in reply to Picasso, “I don’t care: I have greens greener than pears and oranges more orange than pumpkins”.  Colour is taking him towards transcendent simplicity.  The chapel was the right place for Matisse to create his final expression of the spirit of creative purification which led him to the joyful clarity of the human form.  One of his last big cut-out panels was of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ and shows as Gilles Neret says “the magical creatures of the night in the most dazzling colours” (MC, p 77).  The human form belongs there too, as well as in the sunlight streaming through the chapel windows.  It is body and soul.  It is the dancer and the dance.

23. The Human Archetype

Madonna and Child, Henry Moore

Women Winding Wool, 1949, Henry Moore

Archetype’ seems rather an old-fashioned word, perhaps implying a standard to be referred to, a seeing beyond what is immediate and real.  It means the first impress and was used of coins, to signify the standard to which individual coins could be compared.  In the Comparative Anatomy debates of the nineteenth century it was used to mean the assumed ideal pattern of the fundamental structure of particular general kinds of living being – vertebrates, say – of which the individual species are considered as modifications.  Note that in using words such as ‘assumed’ and ‘considered as’ I am implying that the archetype is an intellectual aid in classification and comparison.  In this essay I will try to indicate why I think the idea of a human archetype has more substance, more to offer us, than just a way of bringing order into a diversity of particulars.  I think of it as adding depth and vividness to the experience, particularly, of the human being for the very reason that the essence of being a human being is to be individual, to be unique.  That uniqueness gains in meaning, for me, through the living understanding we have of the human archetype, of something universal which is embodied in each unique individual.

Four Women on a Pedestal, Giacometti

Three Men Walking, Giacometti

The question of ‘the archetype’ becomes more pressing if we turn our attention to the scientific investigations of the German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a man of wide interests who did work, acknowledged as significant by the world of science, in anatomy, botany, geology and optics.  Goethe was convinced his perspective, which could be called artistic, could lead to the integration of knowledge.  Early in life he had predicted that a bone could be found in human beings (which had not been identified previously) because other vertebrates possessed it.  It belonged to the archetype.  And it was there.  Some six years after this discovery, when he was thirty, he published a short pamphlet which attempted to explain (this tentativeness was in his title) or discover the unity inherent in the plant world, to find the archetype.

But what is the reality of this archetype?  Stephen Jay Gould (ELP, [p153), in a sympathetic appreciation of Goethe’s scientific work, calls it “an abstract generating form”, which suggests it is to be seen as more than a morphological description.  Goethe seeks the archetype of the plant becoming manifest in the transformations of  the individual plant, as the different parts – leaf, sepals, petals, pistils, stamens, fruit – appear.  An archetype – which Goethe identified in the leaf – enables him to understand the growth of the plant as not just growth, and not just growth given shape by cyclical or rhythmical principles, but as growth and cyclical change of a stable element which is more, much more alive than an intellectual abstraction, or a rule or principle.  Goethe did call it a principle but in a famous letter to Herder, the philosopher, in 1787, when he was developing his thoughts, he said, “The archetypal plant as I see it will be the most wonderful creation in the whole world, and nature herself will envy me for it.  With this model and the key to it, one will be able to invent plants… plants which even if they do not actually exist, nevertheless might exist and which are not merely picturesque or poetic visions and illusions, but have inner truth and logic” (quoted in ELP, p 160).

I have said the artist in Goethe sought unity, but his investigations in nature, I think, were helped by drawing, as he himself says.  Drawing kept his thinking close to nature, close to the individual plant he was seeking to understand through his hand and eye.  The archetype brings together the individual instance, and instant, with something universal.  I am reminded here of John Ruskin, who in the Preface to his manual of drawing The Elements of Drawing (1857), writes that his aim for the pupil is “his seeing truly.  For I am nearly convinced that, when once we see keenly enough, there is very little difficulty in drawing what we see; but, even supposing that this difficulty be still great, I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing, and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw”.

So the artist is open to the wholeness and receptive to what she is seeing: the wholeness is experienced in the immediacy of the part, of the particular.  Making things visible is of key importance.  You go beyond what is normally experienced through the senses, especially sight, but you stay with what you are seeing, not standing back, or going beyond, via the intellect.  It is bringing sensation, perception and thinking closer together.  So the archetype, for Goethe, is not a generalisation, it is the whole recognised in the part, and allowing the part to be seen truly.  This way of thinking and seeing, living in the relationship between parts (and particulars) and a whole comes to see relationships as being as real as the elements which we identify as being in relationship to one another.

Normally, with our analytical consciousness, it’s the things that matter.  If we become more receptive, more open to the way some whole, some depth of reality, is working together with the particular expression we are aware of now – then relationships between things start to shine out more.  This will show itself particularly strongly in the experience of motion and action.  I will quote from the comprehensive investigation of Goethe’s scientific mind, Henri Bortoft’s The Wholeness of Nature: “Imagine cutting an orange, for example.  We see the knife and orange simply as separate entities which are brought together externally in space and sequentially in time.  But another way of experiencing this is possible, which is entered into by giving attention to the act of cutting the orange, instead of the separate entities which are brought together.  If this is done, the process of cutting can be experienced simultaneously as one whole, as if it were one present moment instead of a linear sequence of instants.  Similarly, if we watch a bird flying across the sky and put our attention into seeing flying, instead of seeing a bird which flies… we find that our attention expands to experience this movement as one whole that is its own present moment” (p 64).

It is important, for me, to see that an interest in the archetype is not simply a continuation of the preoccupation with the “ideal type” that concerned both Plato and beauty contests, any more than it is a kind of abstract average.  Such ideal types imply fixity, and that reality is not found in experience.  At the other extreme is the biologist who sees the individual organism as interesting only as part of a population which shows variation among the individuals composing it.  You can focus on the ideal type, or alternatively, you can look just at the way the different bits or an organism help it to fit into an environment.  As a third way The Goethean Archetype is giving attention to the form or structure of the organism as something not purely determined by the environment.  If you can expand analytical consciousness you will arrive at a sense for the organism as a whole, which belongs together with its home.

I want now to ask you to look at the work of two sculptors who were active in the twentieth century, Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore.  Both of them have affected me deeply and I find insight into the reality of the human archetype through their work.  I want to focus on Giacometti’s sculpted figures, often small, the women typically motionless, attenuated, tall and thin in their proportions.  He was an artist never satisfied that he had found the reality of the world; he would work away at his figures until they disappeared into dust.  Time and again he spoke of trying to work his way through to reality – “we never see things, we always see them through a screen” (AG, p 141) and he identified the focus of his figures, as he worked, as closing in from the head to the gaze to the eye itself.  “I don’t think directly of the gaze, but of the very shape of the eye… yet the difficulty to truly express this ‘detail’ is the same as that of rendering or understanding the entirety.  If I look at you from the front, I forget the profile.  If I look at you in profile, I forget the front view.  Everything becomes discontinuous.  That’s the truth.  I no longer manage to capture the whole.  Too many layers!  Too many levels!” (AG, p 147).

In 1964, two years before he died, Giacometti painted a portrait of James Lord, and Lord took photos on each of the eighteen days that the artist painted, which reveal how the artist started afresh each day.  “And so it continued for eighteen days, although the number of these could have been greater.  Actually, the work had been completed the first day and note that I say the work and not the painting, for the latter would not have been completed even in ten years”, so a critic comments, recalling Giacometti’s own words about what impels him: “I have the feeling, or the hope, that I am making progress each day.  That is what makes me work, compelled to understand the core of life.  And to carry on, knowing that the closer one gets to the goal, the further it retracts.  The distance between the model and myself tends to increase continually; the closer I get, the further away it moves.  It’s an endless search.  Every time I work I am prepared to undo without the slightest hesitation the work done the day before, as each day I feel I am seeing further” (AG, p 151).

The women are motionless, the men walk.  The figures, worked and reworked by his nervous fingers, actually disappear as figures if you get too close.  The women seem to be on guard both in the sense of defending their own space and protecting something.  They seem to stand both as the accused and the judge.  Giacometti’s artistic way of working and his figures speak of the individual’s loneliness and the difficulty of entering into the reality of another person.  He recalls in an interview that the first drawing he remembers doing as a child was of Snow White in a glass coffin with the seven dwarves (AG, p 139).  I see this figure in all his thin women, I see it as the held form of the human being, which cannot be woken by the dwarves.  They watch over her and place her in the glass coffin – the screen which separates but also reminds.  The artist is the one who hopes to waken her, or at least reach her in her stillness and almost immaterial uprightness from which most of the substance has gone into dust.  In the end the wicked queen will dance her way to her death in the red hot shoes at the wedding she could not keep away from.  She cannot truly see.  So Alberto Giacometti, out of his longing for contact, reaches out to this hidden spirit core of the archetype, this spine of loneliness.  Alberto Giacometti said of himself “I prefer to live in hotels, cafes, just passing through”.  His figures are stripped to the utmost of the comfort of the body, as he was of house and possessions.

Let me bring in Giacometti’s companion, Henry Moore, born three years earlier in 1898 and living twenty years longer to die in 1986.  There are some external similarities in their artistic careers, a period for both in their thirties when they, it seems to me, become drawn into a clever, more intellectual art, influenced by surrealism.  For both men drawing was an important way back to figurative sculpture, Moore with his famous drawings of people sheltering in the Underground in London during air-raids in the Second World War.  Here he found images of shelter, the people wrapped in blankets, within the safety of the cave and the tunnel.  Henry Moore developed a method of drawing which he called ‘transformation’, beginning with only the desire to make lines and tones and shapes on the paper and allowing image and order to emerge out of the activity.  There are photos of him drawing on the tube platforms and you can see the intensity of his observation working with this letting go into imaginative transformation.  This is the path towards the archetype.  If Giacometti is the sculptor of attenuated verticality, Henry Moore is the sculptor of weight, certainty, strength.  He is the sculptor not of the isolated woman or groups of figures like trees next to each other (Giacometti) but, of the mother and child.
If Giocametti’s figures disappear, Henry Moore’s can become landscapes. The mother and child composition, as an entity, is an image of a sheltering environment and typically his figures are either themselves this environment or become real in bringing this quality of shelter to the environment in which they rest.  Often his sculptures belong outside, animating a landscape.

Giacometti’s figures come out of and also create a void around them.  Jean Genet wrote of Giacometti’s sculptures that they withdraw so far that “they are mistaken with death… Giacometti is not working for his contemporaries, not for future generations: he is creating statues to at last delight the dead” (AG, p 108).  I would say, rather, to acknowledge the presence of the spirit.

In 1943 Henry Moore carved a Madonna and child for St Matthew’s Church in Northampton.  I find it very beautiful, the solidity speaking of spiritual strength, the carved form still in devoted responsibility.  Henry Moore described the expression as one of ‘aloof mystery’.  His sculptures often have holes in them, ways of seeing into them or through them: we move between interior and exterior spaces, in fact find the special space which D W Winicott called “Potential space”, the space which is between, and made by, mother and child, individual and the world around, the space which is not fixed spatially, in which the here-and-now mother shape can become a landscape, in which the figure shaped by Giacometti can be at the same moment tall and small, near and far away.  This is the creative potential space in which we discover the archetype.  In Moore’s later work the parts of the sculpted bodies of his huge female figures separate – knees and breasts are not held in a single whole by being part of one material block.  I find, in the ones which work for me, this enlarges the sense of the wholeness, of the human form as an archetype of nourishment.  It is strong enough to cope with spatial separation of the parts.  These two artists, who have enriched my experience of the world, reveal polar qualities of this ‘potential space’ of transformation, in which reality and imagination meet.  In Alberto Giacometti it is the individual in upright isolation, in Henry Moore it is the space of sustaining.

The famous drawing from 1949, Henry Moore’s ‘Women Winding Wool’ (now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York), captures the dynamics of the connection between the two people.  We do not see their faces: the connection is at the level of the heart and is deeper than the analysing eye would notice.  The act of winding connects the two figures in a movement which both stretches out into the world and draws back to the self, the self who, as Giacometti reveals, dwells in a lonely vertical.

These are two elements in the human being which only come fully to be incorporated into us, as individuals, through our own activity.  They express the paradox of our search for freedom – that our morality, today, is not something dependent on any law or authority.  I want to do what seems right to me.  Yet I know that I share a living space with others because, on what can be called a spiritual level, a level of ideas, we can experience a shared world from which my personal world is drawn.  We live with an inherent experience of the archetype because of our thinking, but the realisation of our own individuality requires our own activity.  We create our freedom out of the archetype.

Karl König, in introducing a short series of lectures on ‘Eternal Childhood’, speaks of the human archetype as something we find in the child, and that our enjoyment of children, of remembering our own childhood, relates to the recalling of the archetype.  Our maturing involves a loss: “For personal destiny and suffering have left their mark on us, have chiselled and formed us, and also malformed us.  But if on the other hand we look at a child: light, listening, running, jumping, open, full of joy, we can imagine that this is indeed a lot nearer to what we might divine as an archetype of mankind” (E C, p 74).  The child, Karl König describes, has the inborn developmental impulse to transform herself – this is the archetype.  The adult is faced with achieving this ability, as a creative response to disappointment and suffering.

With the Alexander Technique we are exploring how bodily experience, in movement and response, can be a medium for ongoing self-transforming.  If we can re-enliven the experience of ourselves moving in space, making this not something dead and measurable, but belonging to our inner life, then we will overcome the divorce which deadens our perception of the world.  On the one hand we think of our sensory experience of colour and sound etc. as unreal, inner images produced somewhere in our brains; on the other we are anxious to get behind our sensory experience and create a mathematical model of sight or hearing.  We lose reality – we feel the screen which Giacometti felt between himself and the world.  With something such as the Alexander Technique we are bringing our experience of space back into our inner life and allowing, then, all our sensory experience to be given back, as itself, to the world, a world we belong to.  This is yet another way to see the verticality of the human being as a gesture of separation which makes a deeper connection possible.

Two years after the first school inspired by Rudolf Steiner had begun, he gave a course of lectures to the teachers as they faced beginning a class with adolescents.  In the first lecture he reminds his audience that teaching which directs “the child’s attention to something he is to look at or think about” (WEA, p 9) is sending the child towards a “waking-sleep activity… the child is in a sense, outside his body… when we get the children to sit still and think and consider, it is just the same as though we are calling up in their organism an activity that belongs to light sleep” (WEA, p 10).  The educational activities in which the body is active generate an enhanced waking activity.  Both support the other but Rudolf Steiner insists that if education is limited to study and observation “the children would, as they grow older, lead a dull and disheartened existence.  They would grow into men and women who are bored with the world” (WEA, p 9).  In the second lecture he contrasts our life in our legs and feet with our head-life.  In the limbs, especially the legs, my will is active, directing “processes that are in themselves mechanical… I am outside myself, altogether merged in the objective world: I am become part of it” (WEA, p 22).  By contrast, the head and its typical activities of sensing and thinking – do not belong to the world.  “In respect of his head, man is apart from the world, he is isolated from it” (WEA, p 22).  These two poles work together to constitute the human being.

With this background I turn to the last lecture of this series in which Rudolf Steiner speaks of the crucial significance of the child having an inward experience of movement.  He focuses on the time around the age of nine or ten when “the child is beginning to see himself in the world around him” (WEA, p 103).  The world becomes a mirror.  If the child has been allowed, through movement, and through avoiding undue intellectual development, to develop a sense of felt connection to the world, then this transformation into a heightened self-consciousness at around age nine or ten will be sustained by the child’s vitality on through adolescence.  If not, if the bodily inwardness has been extinguished, then the child misses this important crisis – “And the consequence is that it passes instead into the bodily nature and stays there.  What should by rights be in the consciousness works disturbingly from below, changing there into feelings and impulses… of which they have no knowledge.  They carry on and live their life: but they can find nothing in life, it is empty for them” (WEA, p 104).  Rudolf Steiner is describing the developing child returning to the discovery of a sense of self and repeatedly being offered the chance to deepen it.  This nine-year old crisis could be called the crisis of wonder, of the feeling for beauty which both allows the child to find beauty in the world, and to find himself in the world.  Paradoxically it is also the preparation for the acceptance of what we call faults or failings both in ourself and others.  To cope with this crisis the child needs to know movement from within, as something more than mechanical action.  It is possible to reduce movement to mechanical efficiency, even in terms of sporting prowess or physical fitness, but this will turn the world into a mirror which shows nothing to the inquiring child, or into a stimulus to self-absorption.  The child needs soulful motion.

To go back to the mystery of the drawing by Henry Moore of ‘Women Winding Wool’.  The movement is a lemniscate (the word means a garland of ribbons), a figure of eight, a movement which speaks both of the roundness of the head and the radiating lines of the limbs.  The drawing as a whole focuses on the middle, the hearts, of the two women, the place where these two polar tendencies of the human archetype are drawn together by a condition which carries them both.  This rhythmical middle, because its nature is not fixed, but is not beyond immediate experience, tells us most directly of the immaterial archetype.  The rhythm of connection and separation leads us to know the solitude that belongs to the vertical spine, and the communion of our hands.

22. I to I

Jalleledin Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi poet, has become a voice whom many today feel speaks the concerns of their hearts.  His spirituality is there in the immediate texture of his thoughts.  His wish both to engage with and reach beyond contradictions is in tune with our modern mobility of mind.  Perhaps the core contradiction is between inner and outer: what is separation and what is union between me and what is beyond?  The ways in which two people meet, and part, is the very heart of this debate.  In his own life, Rumi, as a respected scholar, met the much older and disreputable wandering mystic Shams.  Each recognised the other as the one they had been seeking.  They were together only a short time before Shams disappeared but the meeting nourished and inspired Rumi for nearly thirty years.  Shams, his true friend, became one with Rumi’s longing to find the fullness of his own self.  Inner and outer reverberate.  As well as huge volumes of teaching, Rumi, like Omar Khayyam in the previous century, wrote Rubaiyat, short verses to be sung, which explore this space of contradiction.  I will quote three which set the tone for this attempt to capture this flowing, colourful conversation which takes place within the self and between selves.  The first is a verse particularly loved by those who practice what is called Nonviolent Communication, about which I will write later in this sequence of essays:

Out beyond ideas of
Wrong doing and right doing
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase
each other
doesn’t make any sense.

A different quality of space, of relationship, lives in the second verse I choose:

There is a way from your heart to mine
and my heart knows it
because it is clean and pure like water.
When the water is like a mirror
it can behold the Moon.

And yet a third quality, of what is below, comes with my third choice:

Friend, our closeness is this.
Anywhere you put your foot
Feel me in the firmness under you.
How is it with this love,
I see your world
and not you?

I don’t want to comment on these verses except to suggest how close thought is to love in the way his voice speaks to himself and to the one he is seeking.

For now I want to move wider than the meeting between two people, two I-beings who by nature move between centre and periphery.  Rudolf Steiner composed a cycle of fifty two weekly verses, which, most easily for us in the Northern Hemisphere, lead you through the changing relationship between the human soul and the inner life of nature, the most telling expression of the interaction between inner and outer which we have in our lives on Earth.  One truth which the cycle of verses relies on is the symbiosis between self and world.  The verse (numbered 20) for the middle of August speaks of “my life’s reality”, if I try to maintain it in isolation, that it “would bring death upon itself”.  A corresponding verse in November (33) sees “the world’s reality” as able to “find only death” if it lacks the communion and creativity of “my soul”.  Self and world, in isolation, will die both.  Two other verses (7, 46) bring an influx of energy to unite these separate elements and restore them to life.  One, in February, celebrates memory as a creative force in the inner life, by which we actively sustain ourselves in the face of  all that can overwhelm or “stun” our inner vitality in what comes towards us from the world – demands, impressions, information.  Complementary to this verse is one in May (7) which recognises intuition as the power in the soul which can help us to stay centred and not be drawn out and lost (rather than hemmed in and stunned) in all the beauty and stimulation which comes to meet us.  Nothing is fixed.  Once self and world respond to each other, then there will be movement, rhythm, the pull in one direction then the other.  I will return to the significance of intuition.  For now notice that it is paired with memory, and that it is a kind of thinking which seeks a light from above, one might say, to keep the self centred – the polar quality to memory which strengthens the self out of the depths of its own being.

I think it would be helpful and interesting at this point to look at how the self appears, comes into being, in the young child, and, as ever, D W Winnicott will be my guide.  In the understanding of the self which he develops,  creativity becomes an important concept.  By creativity he definitely does not mean the ability to produce anything ‘artistic’, but rather “a colouring of the whole attitude to external reality” (P R p 63).  He describes it as an impulse that is present when “anyone – baby, child, adolescent, adult, old man or woman – looks in a healthy way at anything or does anything deliberately… It is present as much in the moment-by-moment living of a backward child who is enjoying breathing as it is in the inspiration of an architect who suddenly knows what it is that he wishes to construct” (P R p 69).  These descriptions are apparently not telling you much about the content of creativity but the ordinariness of it, and the affinity with breathing are significant.  For D W Winnicott, the opposite of creativity is compliance, the sense the individual has of having to meet the world’s demands which at root induces a feeling of futility.  Creativity is the natural result of healthy development as the young child is led by a nurturing environment, a mother principally, to be able to cope with and enjoy the boundaries between “me” and “the world”, to be able to play.  D W Winnicott begins one paper with a quotation from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore (P R p 95):

On the seashore of endless worlds,
children play.

D W Winnicott writes of these words living in him for years before he could catch their meaning for him – which is to do with the powerful paradoxes of the space in which we most truly are alive, the space between inner and outer, a space between different infinities, a space which is outside the individual but is not the objective external world.  Creativity is an attitude of reaching out which is not constrained by outer demands.  This, for D W Winnicott, is the truest expression of the self, is the true self.

He identifies a quality which he calls formlessness which the individual needs in order to be able to find the creative self.  In one paper he describes a kind of dream which one of his patients had about cutting out material, working on a pattern for a dress.  He explores this dream both with regard to the pressure one can feel, from the environment, to pattern and cut out the individual into shapes conceived by others, and also with regard to the state of the material before it is cut and shaped.  This is formlessness.  Can we make sense of this state of being, can we use it?  For D W Winnicott this state of formlessness is a stage on the way to the space of play.  I separate from my normal acceptance of the demands of the world.  However, because this condition of formlessness does not belong to our normal waking consciousness, because we have let go, we will need some kind of reflection, some person or experience which will give just enough recognition or presence to allow this ‘formless’ functioning to be taken into the ongoing awareness of the individual, to allow “the individual to be, to be found; and eventually enables himself or herself to postulate the existence of the self” ( P R, p 64).  I believe that the kind of contact which the Alexander Technique is encouraging, both between student and teacher, and also between you and the chair you are sitting on or the floor you are lying on, is this unintrusive reflecting presence, whose essence is trust.  Out of this restful presence “the individual can come together and exist as a unit, not as a defence against anxiety, but as an expression of I AM, I am alive, I am myself… From this position everything is creative” (P R, p 56).  In the moment we find the unity, find the self, we are then drawn into what he calls “the exciting interweave of subjectivity and objective observation… intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals” ( P R, p 64).

He also uses the word ‘reverberation’ to describe the unforced, trusting interaction which allows the self to come into being.  This word, for me, speaks of the active, rhythmical quality of the reflective interaction, and leads into the space of creative living which too is rhythmical, is neither my inner world nor external reality.  Those worlds are both fixed, are both, alone, on their way to death.  The space of creativity, of actual experience, is variable and dynamic.  It lifts us into what I would want to call spiritual experience in that it is allowing a kind of consciousness which is not found in the categories of our sensory experience but which, when we find it, we find something which is beyond our ordinary waking consciousness, yet shapes and substantiates our normal reality.  In the meeting with another person, in, you could say, the sight of the face of the other person, there is immediate transcendence, though we do not seek it with too direct attention.  Reflection which leads towards creativity requires the difficult skill of attention which does not try too hard, deliberate without too much effort.
There is a striking and oft-quoted passage from one of the series of lectures which Rudolf Steiner gave as the first teachers were preparing to begin work in the original Waldorf School in Stuttgart in 1919.  This particular series was concerned more with education and psychology, rather than practical teaching methods.  The passage I have in mind occurs in the eighth of the fourteen lectures and is about what happens, in perception and response, when you encounter another person.  He uses the idea of vibration to describe what happens on a level beyond normal awareness.  He uses very dramatic language in trying to present the activity of meeting, to help his audience to realise that the act of perceiving another person is not a “conclusion… drawn by analogy from myself to the other” (SM, p 117).  The knowing of another is not an intellectual inference.  It involves the whole of the soul life of the human being – thinking, feeling, willing.  He sees the confrontation with another as a process of perception which lives in the vibrating rhythm of sympathy and antipathy, of giving yourself up to the impression which the other is making on you and then, in antipathy, “inwardly warding him off”.  The pole of sympathy, of opening to the impression of the other, belongs more with our unconscious life; the antipathy, the separation, is more connected to what we normally think of as knowledge.

This vibrational quality of perceiving another person, this rhythm of sympathy and antipathy, merging and separation is an illustration of the way our inner life is shaped and made manifest in rhythm, in dealing with polarities, in different dimensions of seeking union and seeking separation.  On the one hand, the past, our conscious waking minds, our heads, which all serve our need to separate, to resist; on the other hand, the future, our sleeping, and our active limbs which carry different ways of dissolving boundaries.  The life of our feelings which might seem to be just the theatre where all these rhythms express themselves and perhaps connect with each other becomes something more.  It becomes the field of activity for the self as personality.  From that space we can find the life of the physical body, we can find the movements of our consciousness.

The second of the verses of Rumi which I quoted at the beginning of this essay speaks of the “way from your heart to mine” being like still water.  That stillness is not inertness; it is thinking working into the rhythms of life which rise towards consciousness out of the life within us.
In Rudolf Steiner’s major early philosophical work, The Philosophy of Freedom, he has the meeting of person with person, of I with I, as a primary focus.  If I cultivate my ability to animate my thinking, to direct my attention, then I free myself from external authority or dogma or conventional modes of thinking.  Thinking becomes an intimate tool by which I develop both individuality and freedom.  This prepares me for the “kind of cognition imparted to us when a human individuality communicates to us its way of viewing the world… the content of a human individuality’s willing”.  As I bring my own willing into my thinking, and become a stronger individuality, I can connect with the living being of another.  But for this to happen I need to still my own activity: “we must make use of no concept from our own mind if we want to understand that person’s essence.  Cognition consists in linking a concept with a percept through thinking.  For all other objects the observer must penetrate to the concept by means of his or her own intuition.  Understanding a free individuality is exclusively a question of bringing over into our own spirit in a pure form (unmixed with our own conceptual content) those concepts by which the individuality determines itself” (ITSP, p 228-9).  I mentioned intuition earlier in this essay as that quality of thinking which keeps the self centred and ready for action, for connecting to the future.  If we have stirred ourselves to life in our thinking then our thinking will have something of the quality which Rudolf Steiner describes in The Philosophy of Freedom of “Living thinking – a reality interwoven with light, dipping down warmly into the phenomena of the world.  This dipping down occurs with a power that flows forth in the activity of thinking itself – the power of love in spiritual form” (ITSP, p 133).

Because such thinking is filled with will and with feeling, then it can be used, held, directed.  It can become attention, and my own individuality becomes that by which I am able to recognise you.  The vibrational perception of the other, the unconscious battle of accepting and resisting impressions has been illuminated and warmed by my attention which makes the space into which you make your way.  But this will always be a rhythmical process, an active process.  We don’t achieve individuality as a finished product.  The movement between what is generic, common to all, and what is unique to each of us will always go on, in ourselves and in our response to other people.  It is these reverberations which keep us alive, which keep us in this space of creative play.

This is an ancient as well as a modern concern.  Of the five Confucian virtues from the China of 500 BCE the most central is Ren (or jen in older transliterations).  -The written character for Ren includes the character for the human being and the character for two.   It is the virtue of human-heartedness, combining in sense and sound the human being with the idea of relationship to another.  Ren was very closely associated with Shu, the virtue of using your feelings as a guide to how you treat others.  Shu leads into Ren, into acting in response to the uniqueness of the other person.  Karen Armstrong has a lovely example from the Confucian Analects in which a disciple of Confucius laments his inability to grasp Ren: “Something seems to rise up standing over me sharp and clear.  Yet though I long to pursue it, I can find no way of getting to it at all”.  She goes on to comment, “Ren was not something you ‘got’ but something you gave.  Ren was an exciting yet exhilarating way of life.  It was itself the transcendence you sought.  Living a compassionate, empathetic life took you beyond yourself, and introduced you into another dimension” (GT, p 211).  The face to face relationship, the path from one heart to another, relies on this more vertical realisation, of what is “standing over me sharp and clear”.  But, again, it is the rhythm which sustains life.  In the end such breathing takes in, too, the separation between two individuals.  D W Winnicott called the space of creativity “potential space” because it arises out of a unity, the unity of mother and child, and then, out of trust, enables us all to find an autonomy which then enables us to have empathy.  We work to create separation, to imagine separation, so that then we can love.  As war was breaking out in 1914 Rudolf Steiner gave some meditative verses at what was basically a first-aid course held at the sacred building which was at that time being constructed in Switzerland.  Rudolf Steiner repeated the verses during a lecture he gave a fortnight later and spoke of the verse I repeat here in a deeply respectful way.  These words, he said, give voice to the wish that “the pain in which another has to live does not leave us aside… We speak them silently within ourselves as often as we can (TT, lecture 1).

So long as thou dost feel the pain
Which I am spared
The Christ unrecognised
is working in the World.
For weak is still the Spirit
While each is only capable of suffering
Through his own body.

Empathy is not an invention, not an imposed virtue.  It is through the body we each have that we gain one kind of separation but also an affirmation of connection, as in those words from Rumi I shared at the beginning – “Feel me in the firmness under you”.  This is the grounded quality of love, the other pole to the dipping down of living thinking.  I relate above and below.  I live in my uprightness, my separation.  But out of that freedom I seek to know you, to see through your eyes, to feel what pain is yours:

How is it with this love,
I see your world
and not you?

21. Touch

In the last essay I quoted from the Nobel Prize Address of Nikolaas Tinbergen in which he described the Alexander Technique as being “based on exceptionally sophisticated observation, not only by means of vision but only to a surprising extent by using the sense of touch”.  I want to try to clarify what kind of contact and interaction is being practised, in the approach of the Alexander Technique teacher, through what Nikolaas Tinbergen calls observation by using the sense of touch.  This quality of touch is one of the distinctive characteristics of the Alexander Technique teacher, and of putting the Technique into practice whether as a teacher or in any other situation or activity.  It was part of F M Alexander’s way of teaching from the beginning but there is anecdotal evidence that in the last years of his life, after two strokes in his late seventies (1947-8), the quality of touch he brought to his teaching more fully realised the qualities that had been inherent in it when his teaching was more outwardly vigorous and, one might say, instructional.

Rudolf Steiner’s investigation of the sense of touch has helped me to understand what is being aspired to in the touch of the Alexander Technique teacher, and I will present his thoughts on the subject after some preliminary markers have been put down.  The word ‘feel’ has in its root the hand – ‘palm’ comes from the same ancient root as ‘feel’.  There is the basic gesture of reaching out, groping, with the hand, with a stick, into the darkness, into a place unknown.  Becoming aware of something other, through touching, leads into more active examining or searching.  It can also lead the other way, back into the one doing the searching, so that touching turns into being touched, and then into experiencing an emotion or a particular conscious state.  So ‘feel’ embraces both an act of touching and the sensation aroused when touching, or when touched.  We speak of the ‘feeling of water’.  Compassion is also implied – I can ‘feel for’ the other.  And both in the groping, and in the emotional state, and in the responsiveness which is included in the use of the word ‘feel’, there is something that is outside the clarity of the intellect, that is, perhaps, vague, perhaps opening up a deeper interaction which is beyond words, or statable reasons.

If I am feeling my way the caution may be because I cannot see where I am going.  Feeling can contrast with seeing – leading us to be slow and deliberate or also allowing us to get below the surface.  We recognise the distinctively human ability to move between participation in the external world and participation in a more personal emotional-moral inner world.  Opening out to experience, or closing off, withdrawal, are both characteristic gestures of the human soul.
If we think of feeling (the inner state) as touching, as an inner touching, then, within this realm of inner touching we can experience both opening out and withdrawal.  In opening out, in a movement towards uniting through this inner touching, there will be the tendency towards moving out of the boundaries of the physical body, out of the awareness of the physical.  Conversely, in a movement of withdrawal, there is likely to be both a sense of loneliness and an enhanced experience of bodily boundaries and of the impact of physical existence.  There is, in us, a very basic longing for losing the boundaries, for uniting with a wider existence.  D W Winnicott, the pioneering psychoanalyst, captures, very convincingly for me, the process by which the mother’s care, her touch, helps the young child “gather the personality together from within” (FMM, p 79).  Winnicott describes the child getting her feet on the ground, becoming a “specific person whose particularity is rooted in his body”, as Adam Phillips summarises Winnicott’s view (FMM, p 80).  But Winnicott also believes we need to be able to choose to let go of this necessary integration so that we don’t live all the time with the fear we will fall apart into pieces, dissolve.  We need to be able to allow “the innate capacity of every human being… to feel that the world is unreal” (FMM, p 80).  Here Winnicott adds “the famous footnote” as Adam Phillips calls it – “We are poor indeed if we are only sane” (FMM, p 81).  Touch is about the body and the sense of integration but because it is not intellectual it can help us to find a mobile integrity which is not charged with fear or denial.  It can help us more freely, inwards or outwards, from the boundary of the self.  It can help us to be whole and to let go.

Rudolf Steiner spoke and wrote about the senses on many occasions.  On one of the earliest he has just tried to characterise his world view in a kind of motto “Take your stand between God and Nature and let the human being in you speak.  Speak of what is beneath you as well as what is above you, and you have anthroposophy.  It is wisdom spoken by man” (WM, p 5).  He goes on to say “Observing the human being in this anthroposophical sense, we ask what it is that must first engage our interest.  It is his senses, and it is through these that he acquires knowledge of the physical-sensory world” (WM, p 11).  In this lecture Rudolf Steiner is keen to distinguish the sense of touching as groping, searching, feeling around for something.  In this sense he wishes to characterise all the commonly considered senses as being different kinds of touching, of reaching out to find out about the physical-sensory world.  Touching is the coming into contact with something external – he is not really wanting to admit it into the company of the human senses at this stage.  The reason for this is that in this pure sense of contacting, bumping, Rudolf Steiner is questioning what, if anything, we are learning about the world.  This realisation is crucial to getting at the heart of what the Alexander Technique is relishing about touch.

Rudolf Steiner explored the sense of touch from many angles.  Some eleven years after the last lecture quoted, in 1920, when Rudolf Steiner was deeply committed to social renewal after the First World War, he spoke about the senses as a way of bringing spiritual concerns into physical existence – “it is not a question of our penetrating mystically into our body through our soul-spiritual phenomena” (SSFSF, p 54).  Regarding the sense of touch, he describes the obvious associations of the activity of touching, and also the more hidden inner experience.  This is a demanding passage which I will quote at length.  “Still less do we perceive the inner processes of the sense of touch which, in fact, we project entirely to the outside.  We can sense whether bodies are hard or soft, rough or smooth, made of silk or wool.  We project the experiences of touch entirely into external space.  What we have in the sense of touch is actually an inner experience, but what takes place within remains completely in the subconscious.  Only a shadow of it is present in the properties of the sense of touch ascribed to the objects.  The organ of the sense of touch, however, causes us to feel whether the things are silken or wool, hard or soft, rough or smooth.  This, too, sends its effects within.  It radiates into the soul, but the human being is not aware of the connection of his soul experiences with what the sense of touch attains in touching, because the two aspects are greatly differentiated – namely, what streams to the soul within and what is experienced on the surface outside.  What does, however, stream into the soul is nothing else but being permeated with the feeling of God.  Without the sense of touch, man would have no feeling for God… the condition of permeation with universal cosmic substance, with being as such” (SSFSF, p 49).

If we take away the information which touch gathers to it, information which is all interpretation based on memory, or which brings in elements from other senses – then we are left with a very basic experience of our own bodily nature, of our separateness, of a boundary.

Imagine yourself in the dark, in an unfamiliar room, perhaps a bit fuzzy having just woken up and looking for the light switch as you manoeuvre across the room.  You bump gently into something.  We experience what is other than us.  We experience we are outside it, and by meeting with something, touching, we are called into experience of ourself.  But there is also the longing for union, for what D W Winnicott called unintegration which is definitely not the same as disintegration.  It is the longing for union, for rediscovering the mindless union.  So the firmness of body meeting body – minus all content of texture, temperature, material, or any interpretation – can reveal an underlying longing for intimacy, as a potential, a longing to explore ‘how do I relate, how am I like, how can I go through the barrier with – this thing?’  So our touch confronts us with the nature of reality, of whether we can live both as a clear self and reach beyond the surfaces which we bump into, or which we see.

I will mention one other reference by Rudolf Steiner to touch.  I do so in order to bring in a topic I will enter into in the next essay – the sense which Rudolf Steiner calls the sense of Ego, the sense by which we recognise that another person is a human being with a self-conscious individuality.  In his mature description of the senses Rudolf Steiner links the sense of touch with this sense of (the other’s) I.  Through touch we find ourselves, we enclose ourselves.  To engage the capacity to perceive the I of the other we have to go through, transform, give up, that inner clarity which has emerged out of the contact.   For there was longing in the contact – the longing to know the other.  The purer and simpler the touch, the more satisfying that which is being touched, then the preparation is made to forgo that clarity of separateness and (as an unconscious consequence) find the I-being of the other.

I will say more about the sense of Ego in the next essay but for now I will quote from a lecture by Rudolf Steiner in which again he is looking at what is above, and what is below, the purely ‘human’ being.  Again he is wanting to focus on the inner experience of the bodily senses, especially touch.  “When you touch something like a table, it exerts pressure on you, but what you actually perceive is an inner experience.  If you bump into it, it is what happens within you that is the content of the perceptual experience” (R H Lecture XIV).  The inner experience radiates in from the surface.  Our attention may be more directed to the external world, to the table we have bumped into, but we can let go of that element and let it give us what Rudolf Steiner calls, “an inner feeling for our own I, an inner feeling of the I” (RH Lecture XIV, p 200).

Martyn Rawson, whose monumental book The Spirit in Human Evolution is my constant companion, as he explores prehistoric art and what it tells us about human evolution, describes two of the earliest traces people made: first, finger flutings, – meandering swirls of 2 to 4 grooves made by fingers tracing across soft chalky precipitates on cave walls.  Imagine or try the act of drawing your finger tips across a contoured soft surface in which your active contact would be registered.  There need be no representational impulse.  But this meeting of self with world is more than touch.  It brings in movement and texture and suggestions of form and life.  These are active traces.

Very different is the second kind of trace, the common hand stenciling which Martyn Rawson describes and comments on.  A hand or arm is placed against the rock and pigment was, it seems, often blown by the person concerned from their mouth, or through a tube, leaving a bare print of the hand on the wall once the application of pigment was completed and the hand removed.  Martyn Rawson describes how different is the effect of such a stencil technique from a (more obvious) hand print.  “The halo of colour sprayed onto hand and wall unite both in one focused sphere.  Removed, the hand takes some of that quality with it, leaving an empty-handed space behind.  A unity is consciously formed and then divided.  The place retains the outer part, the person takes the inner part with him, with the colour as a reminder.  The two parts can be reunited” (SHE, p 272).  Touch is about separation and reunion.  Our consciousness of ourself needs the physical body with all its frailties.  Some of the hand stencils and other marks in the Pyrenean caves at Gargas show marks made by fingers reduced to stumps, probably by frost bite.  Our self, born of the body, awakens as a sense of mortality, and as a sense of personal power, the energy of being.  Both aspects of our inner world can be obliterated by the world as we perceive it and interpret it with the intellect.  The outwardly directed ‘touching’ of other senses such as sight and taste, take us into a social world in which we can lose what, in a quotation from Rudolf Steiner which I brought in earlier in this essay, he calls the experience of God.  Bare, pure, touch takes us back to that, because it reawakens the deep awareness of our own existence.

Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher who died in 1965, wrote a work called Dialogue in 1929, following on from his famous I and Thou of 1923.  In defining ‘dialogue’ Martin Buber introduces the idea of “experiencing the other side” of a relationship – of really entering the uniqueness of the other person.  The need, Buber says, is for a comprehensive kind of listening which includes much more than listening to words, but means attending to all that is present in the meeting.  What is significant about Martin Buber’s view, in relation to touch and in relation to the Alexander Technique, is that he is not advocating an ideal of instant mutuality, equality, friendship.  We meet others but we hold our ground.  There is a beautiful description by Martin Buber of what ‘conversation’ can mean.  He describes two men, recently met, who are together: “The one is sitting on the common seat obviously after his usual manner, calm, hospitably disposed to everything that may come.  His being seems to say it is too little to be ready, one must also be really there.”  The other man “withholds himself”, cannot communicate, but then, inexplicably, he “releases in himself a reserve” and the release streams from him “and the silence bears it to his neighbour.  Indeed it was intended for him, and he receives it unreservedly as he receives all genuine destiny that meets him” (BMAM, p 4).  This is Buber’s dialogue “in the precise sense factual, thoroughly dovetailed into the common human world”.  There is no touch in this picture of the silent dialogue, and it can happen under the surface of ordinary speech.  But touch, in the context of an Alexander Technique lesson, is what helps the teacher not to be pushy, to stay factual, stay human.  The man, in Martin Buber’s situation of dialogue, who sits “on the common seat” with his calm presence has not suppressed himself.  His deed is one of strengthening and of withdrawing – strong and silent, but able to ‘listen’, with many senses, out of a created space.

Touch can give the measure of the space to be created within.  As we touch we are also being touched.  We can impress ourselves on our surroundings, be elastic and sustain our own responsiveness; we can be plastic, by contrast, letting other bodies impress themselves on us.  Touch is the most physical expression of that quality of meeting which enables us to take in experience and consciously assimilate it: make it our own – to be both impressionable and have integrity.  Nikolaas Tinbergen, in his address quoted at the beginning of this essay, spoke of the “observation… by means of the sense of touch”.  He had noticed or experienced something of importance.  It is the complementary but different qualities of sight and touch that are important.  He realised that the two were working together but did not find the words to capture the pure but elusive wisdom of touch which the Alexander Technique reveals like the shape of your hand on the rock of the cave’s wall.

20. Wearing our Habits

One way to begin overcoming an unhelpful concern about getting things right is to enjoy getting them wrong.  It can begin with letting go of the way our past experience controls what we believe or accept as true.  One of the basic exercises which Rudolf Steiner gave for enlivening our inner life concerns developing openness to what goes against our expectations: “To declare in the face of some new experience: ‘I never heard of such a thing, I don’t believe it’ should make no sense at all to a pupil of the spirit.  Rather let him make the deliberate resolve, during a specific period of time, to let every thing or being he encounters tell him something new… [let him] be ready all the time for entirely new experiences; above all, to admit to himself the possibility that the new may contradict the old” (O S, p 250).  Michael Lipson, in his commentary on these exercises in Stairway of Surprise reviews the range of our prejudice, from “macro” issues of stereotyping people to the “micro-prejudices” of how we experience the world, the continuous acts of perception and thinking in which we unconsciously see the world through the established filter of our ways of seeing.  Prejudices are hardening, they prevent flexibility.  Our normal existence relies on our accumulated experience, on our developed powers of judgement, but we can benefit from the openness which helps us not to be determined by the past, by what we ‘know’ to be correct.  This exercise takes our power of thinking and brings its power into the act of perceiving.  The ‘opening’ is not a fixed state in itself: there is a saying in the Sufi tradition ‘What a piece of bread looks like depends on whether you are hungry’.

The concern in the Alexander Technique with preventing end-gaining (the focus on achieving the goal at the expense of the way there), embraces both action and perception.  Rush and routine are devitalising elements of both seeing and doing, and, mutually reinforce one another.  To rush we need routine, and through both we are unable to notice what is new.  It may seem as though I am wanting to abandon a sense of a world that is independent of our minds, but my emphasis is really on our possibilities of working our way into ‘truth’ via our experience.  Perception can be constrained by our memories and expectations: this is one way in which we maintain truth in experience.

It can also be kept open through our imagination.  An important implication of my wish to get through the fixed prejudices of our habitual way of seeing is that, as we suspend our prejudices, reorientate ourselves towards the activity of experiencing, we come closer to what we are experiencing.  We let go of our fixed perspective and so enter more fully into experience.  We are not so separate.  Letting go of habitual prejudices makes the whole need for habits less strong.  And these efforts at restructuring the way we experience need not lead us into a personal world of rootless fancies.  In beginning behind or beyond ordinary ways of thinking, in letting go of prejudices, I am being more faithful to the inherent nature of experience than when I separate out my self.  In ordinary experience there is no ‘me’ without something ‘other’ which I am recognising – as a part of my perceptual or thinking life, or as an element in my emotional, practical or moral life.

The word ‘habit’ comes from the idea of ‘having, holding’, a way of being or acting.  We know it as something external (dress, for example) or as something of the mind.  There is a fascinating archaic use in medicine in which the ‘habit’ of the body is the outer part of the body, but experienced from within – the outer reaches, or suburbs of the city of the body, a bit lost to central awareness and liable to harbour ill influences.  Just as the word comes to be used of plants and animals, to describe their characteristic modes of growth and appearance, and their natural tendencies, there arises a stronger sense, for the human being, of habits as acquired dispositions, acquired through repetition and established as fixed and involuntary.  John Locke is to my mind the philosopher of habit.  It is John Locke who is most influential in formulating the weak sense of self, of truth, of personal agency which underpins the modern sense of how and what we know.  The firm commitment to freedom of speech, political liberty, religious toleration which John Locke brought to the Western World all stem from a modesty, an asceticism, of knowing, a generalised uncertainty.  There is the underlying security of a God and a “state of nature” which sustain some basic assumptions about the world.  But these foundations are distant and silent.  John Locke is content to apply his reason to the practical tasks of life, to avoid speculation and to affirm that all we know comes from our experience which makes impressions on our mind as a seal will in wax.  We are born with a mind like a blank piece of paper.  Locke, as the spokesman for uncertainty, becomes the promoter of democracy, the social contract and the possible legitimacy of political revolution.  You can see too, perhaps, why habits, as acquired dispositions, come to have more prominence.  They express the malleability of the human being.  They connect him, in his own sphere of social action and responsibility, with the animals and plants, each with their habits.  They represent the modesty of mankind.

A turning point in the establishment of the Alexander Technique was the acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Medicine in December 1973 given by Nikolaas Tinbergen.  I will give you an extract from the speech before telling you more about Tinbergen.  He used almost half his address to speak about the Alexander Technique and the benefits he and his wife and one of his daughters had gained from it.  He describes the Alexander Technique as “based on exceptionally sophisticated observation, not only by means of vision but also to a surprising extent, by using the sense of touch.  It consists in essence of no more than a gentle, at first exploratory, and then corrective manipulation of the entire muscular system.  This starts with the head and neck, then very soon the shoulders are involved, and finally the pelvis, legs and feet, until the whole body is under scrutiny and treatment.  As in our own observation of children, the therapist is continually monitoring the body and adjusting the procedure all the time.  What is actually done varies from one patient to another, depending on what kind of misuse the diagnostic exploration reveals.  And naturally it affects different people in different ways”.  He talks of the method “teaching the body musculature to function differently” and he explores how we come to incorporate harmful habits into our awareness of ourselves.  What we do, even if damaging, will come to feel familiar and part of ourselves.  Nikolaas Tinbergen comments on the way in which we are continuously and unconsciously checking on the “correct performance of many movements” and this takes place “at various levels of integration, from single muscle units up to complex behaviour”.  We compare expectations with performance, but major distortions can go unnoticed.  “But what Alexander had discovered beyond this [that our functioning was affected by the changing internal state of expectation, etc] is that a life-long misuse… can make the entire system go wrong.  As a consequence reports that “all is correct” are received by the brain when in fact all is very wrong.  A person can feel at ease, for example, when slouching in front of a television set, when in fact he is grossly abusing his body”.

Nikolaas Tinbergen, who died in 1988, was a pioneer in the field of ethology, the study of animals as they behave in their natural environment.  Together with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch he established this separate discipline of ethology.  He was a man fascinated by animal behaviour, a man who took science back into natural surroundings.  He loved common species, one of his classic studies being of the herring gull.  In one book, Curious Naturalists ( an apt self-description) he recalls receiving a letter from a ten year-old who describes a meeting with a gull who pecked at a red scab on her little sister’s knee.  You may recall the bright red markings on herring gulls’ beaks.  The 10 year-old correspondent had heard Nikolaas Tinbergen discuss gull behaviour on the radio and thought he would like to know about the incident “because she realised that this was a kind of experiment”.  I quote this phrase because Tinbergen, and ethologists in general, are working with a special sense of what an “experiment” is: he called them “natural experiments”.  They took place in nature, they depended on active, direct observation, patience, intuition, simple methods, an attitude of curiosity towards mystery.

Three things, which go together, were there waiting to come to the fore in such a man – an enthusiastic response to the Alexander Technique as a method and attitude, an appreciation of habit as an element in how we live, and a curiosity about how habits could be changed.  He could appreciate the human being as an organism living in its own environment, but his appreciation came out of curiosity, wonder and the interactive consciousness which could imagine change.  John Locke’s is a world of habit, of tolerance and moderation.  To get under the skin to reach habits, to work with habits, we will need more conviction, but with conviction comes the danger of dogma, of certainty.

Tinbergen’s work recalls the mood of experimentation promoted by Francis Bacon at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when experiments were experiences that we made or tried, not operations to test something, which we do or carry out.  Peter Medawar stresses this quality of Bacon’s optimistic inquiring, describing his impulse as “the idea that experience could be stretched in such a way as to make nature yield up information which we would otherwise have been unaware of (PR, p 335).  He captures this kind of experiment (our everyday use of the word) with the expression “I wonder what would happen if…” (PR, p 94), distinguishing it from other senses of the words – thoughts experiments relying on deduction, critical experiments which test hypotheses and demonstrative experiments designed to convince people of some truth or fact.  “I wonder what would happen if…” exposes, for Peter Medawar a basically optimistic and amoral spirit of inquiry.  He will have none of the pessimism about the increase of one kind of knowledge (scientific and technological discovery) outgrowing our ability to understand, to really know what we are doing or what we are dealing with.  “We might, of course, blow ourselves up or devise an unconditionally lethal virus, but we don’t have to.  Nothing of the kind is necessarily entailed by the growth of knowledge and understanding” (PR, p 334).  This is Peter Medawar, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on tissue transplantation.  He is absolutely committed to the increasing pace of the race, a race to know, which for him is a race “to make the world a better place”, and to “forsake the course is to die… a spiritual death” (PR, P 339).  Thirty five years ago Peter Medawar was aware of the dangerous impact of technology and the need for reasoned care of the environment but he is committed to the race which Bacon began.

What this diversion about experiments has to do with habits is really to do with channelling the very power of “I wonder what would happen if…”, the power which impels the race, channelling that act of stretching nature into the investigation of our own nature.  This will exploit that energy of change, of progress, of achievement which animates personal and social life – life as motion, desire, restlessness, anxiety.  This is itself a prevailing habit.  I believe it does need balancing, not with an overt moralising, but with a deeper kind of knowing.

In Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), the utopian island far away, the only export is the light of understanding, the light that enables us to do things.  I believe we need a light which really gets to what Bacon calls the “courses and the secret motions of things” and the kind of exploration of effort, motion, tranquillity which is attempted with the Alexander Technique – this is a stretching, a trying, an experimenting which is beginning in our person, in our I-experience, to find that deeper light.

In a series of lectures in 1916, The Riddle of Humanity, Rudolf Steiner introduces the subject of habits when he is trying to illustrate the ways in which mind and body relate, and to disavow the idea that materialism can only be combated by keeping the mind away from the body, the spirit away from matter.  He speaks first of memory.  A friend of mine has just returned from Japan and was there during the time of the opening and the fall, the fading, of the cherry blossom.  From her description the people experience a kind of communal dream, re-enacted each year as a process beyond the personal.  Rudolf Steiner contrasts such experiences with our need for individualised memory, memory that is our own property, memory bound to our living movements: “The shape of the physical body marks the boundary of these accompanying movements.  To a certain extent they are unable to pass beyond the limits of the skin”… and he goes on to say that memory “develops in response to the physical body’s forces of resistance” (Lecture XI).  He then goes on to speak about habits and that habits are another way in which we bring our I-consciousness out of a dreamy awareness into our defined bodily individuality, and leave go of the sense of being influenced from without: “acquiring the capacity to form habits is also intimately connected with the way humanity achieves inner freedom” (Lecture XI).

Habits come from repetition and from guided learning.  He describes the child’s path from imitation, coming under the direct influence of what is happening around us, to “the capacity to live in accordance with habits”.  Both memory and habit develop in the body – they are intrinsic elements of what it means to live physically as a human being.  Rudolf Steiner goes on to say how such active processes, as the growth of memory and the establishment of habits, really brings us into the business of how our ideas, our thinking, relate to objects, how we establish truth.  Again, the question is mind and matter meeting.  As memory and habits become our own property, then a sense, too, of responsibility for our thinking can grow: thoughts don’t just happen, and we can start to feel that they don’t just stay within our own orbit, they affect the world.  Rudolf Steiner puts it in these terms: “It is important to know that we are involved in the transition to an age when our thoughts will once more be inscribed directly into the universal world-substance.  This is being prepared.  But this time it will be the thoughts that we ourselves think, not thoughts that have been thought beforehand.  If one takes this into account, then a sense of responsibility for what we think can flow from it – responsibility for everything we do in the world of our thoughts” (Lecture XII).

If we see thinking in this light, then, Rudolf Steiner suggests, we will “need to learn to view all thinking as a kind of search.  At present, our consciousness is much too influenced by the feeling that every thought must be formulated immediately.  But the purpose of our ability to think is not to help us immediately complete each thought.  It is there so that we can seek out matters, pursuing the facts, putting them together and looking at them from all sides.  But people today like to formulate their thoughts quickly – do they not – in order to get them from their lips or down on paper as soon as possible.  But we are not given the ability to think in order to formulate thoughts with undue haste, but, rather, so that we can search.  Thinking is to be seen as a process that can remain for a long time at the stage of searching for a form.  One should postpone formulating thoughts until responsibility has been taken for the facts” (Lecture XII).

Habits help us to free ourselves, to become responsible, and to begin to explore out from ourselves, developing a searching awareness, which is not dreamy, nor dry and abstract, but which is alive and looking to find what is alive.  At the very simplest level the Alexander Technique is encouraging us to bring new thoughts into being, into taking responsibility for our thinking.  This is just the kind of attitude Nikolaas Tinbergen was putting into practice in order to enter into and understand the life of animals.  It is in part the spirit of Francis Bacon, but without his wish to accelerate, his determination to dictate and dominate nature.

In Nikolaas Tinbergen I sense a deep love for the natural world, a love which brings wonder and warmth.  I find it wholly appropriate that such a man, immersed in the habits of animals, should respond to the Alexander Technique with its deep acknowledgement of habits, their power and place, and its interest in ways to approach and change them.  To change a habit is part of that searching relationship to the life around us.  It is a process which is greatly helped by what people do together, by sustained, searching intercourse.  We can practice the Alexander Technique as individuals but its heart and inspiration belong in the simple meeting of student and student, and who takes the role of teacher is often not what one might expect.  I wonder what would happen if…

19. Attention

I will begin with John Dewey and William James, both of whom I have written about already in this sequence of essays.  John Dewey was an American philosopher and educationalist, who died in his nineties in 1952.  He was one of the best-known intellectuals in the USA in the first half of the twentieth century and was both a champion and student of the Alexander Technique from the early days of F M Alexander’s work.  William James, the man who in the English speaking world did more than anyone to establish psychology as an academic discipline, was also a philosopher, and John Dewey’s hero.  Dewey called himself a ‘biological behaviourist’ by which he meant that he was interested in the ways in which an organism interacts with its natural environment.  He did not want to try to penetrate psychological states as expressions of a ‘mind’ and he did not want to try to reduce minds to physiological processes within the organism.

When we turn to William James we find a man happy to deal in ambivalence.  He wanted to study and give meaning to physiology, and he also wanted to acknowledge an immaterial spiritual force in the human being.  William James wants to stress that we feel ourselves to be in the world in a very physical way – in a famous dismissal he describes our inner active self “to consist mainly of the collection of these peculiar motions in the head or between the head and throat… it would follow that our entire feeling of spiritual activity, or what commonly passes by that name, is really a feeling of bodily activities whose exact nature is by most men overlooked” (P.P. Vol 1, p 288).  This is how we experience ourselves, but reflection leads William James to discover a genuine “spiritual force”, an active inner moral agent which is the “substantive thing which we are” (P.P. Vol 2, p 1181).  The activity which confirms James’ belief in such an immaterial entity is attention, or, more precisely, the effort we put into attending.

For Dewey it is important to only recognise the workings of the mind in an individual’s behaviour, of pursuing ends and choosing means to attain those ends.  This is at the heart, too, of the Alexander Technique.  What James also acknowledges, and which Dewey tends to ignore, is that the whole process, leading to action, begins, or can begin, with the free volition, the effort we bring to our attention, the effort to sustain an idea in our consciousness.   ‘Behaviour’ is not just ‘moving into an action’.  This too, for me, is an essential feature of the Alexander Technique – the value of self-motivated thinking attention.  James asserts he cannot measure this energy of attention, or demonstrate that it is created anew from within – only that the effort seems to belong, as I quoted above, to our essence, to “the substantive thing which we are”.  He contrasts this to all those qualities and circumstances – wealth, strength, intelligence, good luck etc – which are “but externals which we carry (P.P. Vol 2, p 1181).  The engagement with reality via our willed attention is, for William James, not just the business of major decisions.  Life asks us the question of whether we will give this attention or not and it is “the most probing question we are ever asked;  we are asked it every hour of the day, and about the largest, as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical, things.  We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words” (P.P. Vol 2, p 1182).

The contrast between what we are and what we carry is an important one.  What we are does not weigh us down.  James recognises a thinking self in a way which Dewey does not – a self whose effort of attention exists outside the flow of behaviour, of stimulus and response.

Michael Lipson helps me to understand the quality of attention in his introduction to a series of lectures Rudolf Steiner gave in September 1924 about the different tasks, and the working together, of the priest and the doctor.  “Throughout his works, Steiner continually emphasises the fundamental deed of the human being as the giving attention to his or her chosen task.  The more wholly we give, the more we are giving of our selves – and our essential self is precisely our attentiveness, for which another name is love” (B.V. Foreword, p 13).  That gets to the heart of it for me – the self is attentiveness.  In a lecture of Rudolf Steiner’s from some years before (1912), which I have already referred to entitled “Nervousness and I-hood” (‘Ichheit’ in the original German), there are many suggestions to encourage the fuller presence of the I-being in the movements of the body.  Rudolf Steiner pictures a man who “continually makes restless motions with his fingers before he begins to write this or that letter”.  Steiner says, yes, rest might help, but more effective, in addition, would be the following suggestion “try, without making a lot of effort – a quarter or a half hour every day are enough – try to take on a different handwriting, to change your writing style, so that you are required not to write mechanically, as you have up till now, but to pay attention” (A E L, p38).  I find this a lovely example of that everyday engagement of attention which William James saw as having such deep personal significance – bringing the self to life.

I want to distinguish this power of attentiveness from the ongoing activity of the person, but also to remember that attention is not solely a mental event.  The activity of perception, especially in the child, has an active, whole-body quality.  What is taken in (especially in the stillness of absorption) goes right into the movement-being of the child.  The child, as a whole being, receives impressions.  Our attentiveness allows us to become what we experience, or, perhaps better put – what we experience becomes us.  The biological behaviourism of John Dewey does not do justice to the being of the behaving organism, or to the fullness of being of what we respond to in the world.

Let me go back to the brain for a while.  We engage in different kinds of attention – anticipating an event, picking out a feature of my environment, keeping focused on a task – all of which involve me selecting.  The many investigations of brain activity which identify the brain areas which are involved in disengaging, moving, re-engaging attention; the experiments which reveal how blind we are to changes occurring outside the focus of attention – such phenomena might seem to undermine the sense we have of being in charge.  But within all this brain activity I notice that our perception is always seeking out what matters to us.  Because we are active in our attention, it can become dominated by expectations and habits.  But it is equally possible to use the fact that we interpret, create, the world we see, to turn our perceiving into an artistic activity so that we always have the possibility of self-education in our attentiveness.

To a large extent we can see our perceiving as being a guide to action, in the spirit of Dewey’s ‘biological behaviourism’.  Visual information (principally) is involved in the unconscious control of movement, much more than in creating images of the world.  Attentiveness breaks into this ongoing activity and lets us recognise what we are seeing.  Attention opens up consciousness to us.

The relationship of attention to consciousness is brought into focus very clearly through looking at meditative practices.  Mark Epstein, a psychotherapist who, as the subtitle of his wise book Thoughts without a Thinker says, works “from a Buddhist perspective” notes that there is not really a word for meditation in the classical languages of Buddhism.  He tells the famous parable of the man who fashions a raft in order to cross water and who wonders when he reaches the other side whether he should take the raft with him, carry it on his back, as he goes on his journey.  The raft is comparable to meditation, a way of helping mental development.  In another text Buddha uses the image of crossing the water and replies to the question as to how he did it by saying it was without tarrying and without struggling – “When tarrying, friend, I sank, and when struggling, I was swept away.  So, friends, it is by not tarrying and not struggling that I have crossed the flood” (quoted in TWT, P 106).

Please bear in mind these two qualities – not tarrying, not being swept away – as I try to look at meditative practices in order to highlight the purpose and nature of attention.  There is one type of meditative technique which consists in the attempt to restrict awareness to a single source of interest for a set period of time – concentration on a visual object, a sound, a movement.  This can be found in many spiritual traditions and typically they speak of the practice leading to a “one-pointedness”, a state of clarity.  The mind becomes quiet because one has consciously separated from the changing input and stimulation which maintains normal awareness.  Our habitual sense of the world, and of our self is lost.  Mark Epstein, through the experience of his teacher, evokes an experience I have mentioned in earlier essays – going through an inner well of loneliness towards a centre, which changes from being experienced as a hole to a state of expanded fullness.  He says that concentration practices “take the spatial view of the self as empty, hollow, incomplete, or closed and expand it to infinity, allowing the meditator to rest in clear and open space” (TWT, p 140).

The second form of meditative practice can be described as mindfulness or opening-up exercises.  Mark Epstein is adamant that concentration exercises were not considered by the Buddha to be sufficient – on their own they can become something of an escape, although the peaceful stability they bring is a valuable foundation.  With mindfulness we shift from a spatial sense of the self to a temporal: by becoming aware of what is happening, as it is happening, we experience the flux but also how removed we often are from immediate reality.  Mark Epstein describes this everyday dissociation: “When I read a bedtime story to my children, for instance, I can at the same time be plotting out the details of my next writing project to myself.  If one of my children interrupts me to ask a question, I find that I have no idea what I am reading about.  Rather than being mindful, I am instead reading mindlessly, and while I would prefer to think otherwise, my children’s experience of me will be lifeless.  Similarly, when walking to the store, washing the dishes, brushing our teeth, or even making love, we often are split off from our physical experience: we are quite literally not present.  Our minds and bodies are not functioning as one” (TWT, p 144).

Epstein is very clear, following Buddhist wisdom and bringing it into our modern western world, that while a kind of surrender is the goal of meditative practice, this surrender is not the charged state of heightened awareness, effortless energy, rapture, tranquillity which may arise.  Buddhist practice is not about bliss. The very intensity of these states asks of us to develop an even clearer strength of detachment, of allowing the self to be experienced as “a flow, a process, a rushing and teeming patterning that changes over time” (TWT, P 151).  Mark Epstein again uses an everyday example – his meditative refreshment allows him to let go of his need to be an efficient and competent parent.  He has just changed his child’s nappy: “She looked up at us and smiled, giving us a look of such love that I immediately felt tears spring to my eyes.  It was the first time that I had noticed her love coming back to me.  I could have gone on for a very long time being efficient, I am sure, without ever noticing that look, yet because of my momentary ability to be more directly with my own sensory experience, I was able to receive my daughter’s overture” (TWT, p 148).  These mindfulness or opening up exercises are more closely related to daily activity than the concentration exercises.  Concentration exercises might be thought of as having the tendency towards withdrawal; mindfulness, through its attention to time, lets us be free of the habitual ways of perception and can bring us back to the present, to bodily-based experience: “opening up to the transitoriness of experience paradoxically makes us feel more real” (TWT, p 145).  To take a rather severe example: a clock ticking.  Normally we stop hearing it, we tune it out.  While concentration exercises enhance that ability to a conscious skill of tuning out what we choose to ignore, mindfulness exercises would enable us, if we so chose, to keep alive and conscious our awareness of the ticks.  Attention can filter or it can keep open.

The power of attention is highlighted by meditative practices and is deeply significant in how we learn, how we develop and interact with others, as Mark Epstein’s stories of his parenting illustrate.  Tim Ingold, an anthropologist with interest in skill and technology, contributed a paper, relevant to my topic, to a volume of essays entitled Alas Poor Darwin which challenge the genetic determinism of Evolutionary Psychology.  The essay concerns walking, and learning to walk, and Tim Ingold is keen for us to see that “skills such as walking continue to evolve in the very course of our everyday lives” (APD, p 234).  “Novices learn through being placed in situations in which, faced with certain tasks, they are shown what to do and what to watch out for, under the tutelage of more experienced hands…   Placed in a situation of this kind, the novice is instructed to attend to this or that aspect of what can be seen, touched or heard, so as to get the ‘feel’ of it for him- or herself” (APD, P 237).  Ingold agrees with the ecological psychologist James Gibson that learning embodied skills is an “education of attention” (APD, p 238).  In this view meaning is generated in relationships, knowledge comes to life “within the field of practice set up through his or her presence as a being-in-the-world” (APD, P238).

His is a very radical rejection of dualism – he wants us to be willing not only to describe our skills as being ‘embodied’ – “one could just as well speak of ‘enmindment’ as of ‘embodiment’ (APD, p 240).  Movement is seen as a form of knowing, of perceiving, not just acting.  He puts such stress on engagement, on trying out the task.  In such a world human development demands participation by the individual and his community.  That participation is, at heart, attention.  Attention is what makes possible two developments which belong together – that we feel ourselves as whole, not split into body and mind, and that we recognise our connection to the people around us and the world we find ourselves in.  Attention – being attentive to ourselves and to our interaction with the world – is a primary concern in practising the Alexander Technique.  So too is overcoming the split between mind and body.  If you take seriously Tim Ingold’s picture of knowledge emerging out of interactive attention between people, then you can see why John Dewey saw in the Alexander Technique a pure image of how learning takes place.  Skills develop out of a relationship of attention, and attention becomes a foundational skill in itself.

If we look for a minute at the word ‘attention’ – it means, at the most physical, to stretch out, to reach out towards something.  This meaning has always included the act of directing the mind towards someone or something: mind and body.  As the use of the word developed, it came to include the idea of serving another, being a servant, waiting upon, being an attendant, a lady-in-waiting etc.  The going out towards the world belongs with the patience, the readiness, being truly present.  Attending a meeting once meant more than being there in body.  So, the activity, the outgoing nature of attention has always been balanced by, been founded in, the quiet self-abnegation of the faithful servant.  But the kind of participatory engagement which Tim Ingold describes speaks to me of the presence of the inner certainty of the free personal agent, the self.  There is a clear and delicate description of this give and take by Rudolf Steiner when writing about the path of individual development in Stages of Higher Knowledge: “The human being must find within himself a spiritual centre of gravity that gives him firmness and security in the face of all that would pull him hither and thither in life.  The sharing in all surrounding life must not be shunned, and everything must be allowed to work upon one.  Not flight from all distracting activities of life is the correct course, but, rather, the full devoted yielding to life, along with the sure, firm guiding of inner balance and harmony” (p 18).

This is attention, the path of everyday mindfulness, the negotiation between self and the world which the Alexander Technique can support.  A spiritual centre of gravity allows us to be and not to have to carry, to refer back to William James’ distinction at the beginning of the essay.  He also spoke of the effort a man brings, out of himself, to his attention as “the effort he is able to put forth to hold himself erect and keep his heart unshaken” (PP, Vol 2, p 1181).  The Alexander Technique teaches us to value being erect but also to be concerned about where and how the effort to achieve and maintain being upright is being expended.  Attention, combining quiet inwardness and active reaching out, can help our effort not to be wasted, not to be trapped inside a mind, or a body.

18. Understanding Balance

The wish to write this work was strengthened some years ago when I read the Foreword to a collection of short talks about the Alexander Technique given by Walter Carrington.  Walter Carrington, who died in 2005, well into his nineties, was one of the most renowned and respected Alexander Technique teachers, having trained with F M Alexander before the Second World War and having taken responsibility for the training of teachers after Alexander’s death in 1955.  He would regularly extemporise to students and teachers as part of the training course, and the book in question – The Act of Living – is one collection of such informal spoken essays.  The talk which gives the book its title can give a measure of the nature of these talks: Walter Carrington speaks about how difficult it is for people not to try hard, but if we can rediscover the idea that living is an act we may, paradoxically, discover how to engage in that act with less effort and interfering complications.  How do we give encouragement to ourselves, or to others, to let go of the effort to get things right, without encouraging yet more effort, or else fear and anxiety?  We explore the act with a certain detachment, discovering the joy of doing less.  This short talk, perhaps ten minutes long, embraces both philosophical reflection on egotism, and comments on the mechanics and psychology of movement – “And in the act of living, whether it is walking down the street or learning to play the piano, you must keep in mind that the primary energy cost is the support of the body weight.  If the body weight is not being supported efficiently, then there is a tremendous energy leak, and the whole process of living will not be efficient”.  This is quite dispassionate comment, yet what interferes with efficiency may well be that “people have the egotism to believe that things are of their doing”.

Here we are in the territory of “use”, of the fundamental Alexander Technique perspective which links education, emotion, thought, choice, physical functioning and anatomical structure in exploring how we go about things, how we act.  So, Walter Carrington’s training course talks are the main body of this book, but it also has a Foreword by Tris Roberts.  Tris Roberts was Reader in Physiology at the University of Glasgow where he worked for many years on the neurophysiology of balance, posture and locomotion in human beings and other animals.  The author of a textbook on riding, Equestrian Technique (not his major professional field), his best known work is Understanding Balance, a detailed undergraduate and graduate level work on the mechanics of posture and locomotion.

What does such a man, a scientist with specialist knowledge of a field of direct relevance, make of the Alexander Technique?  I found his Foreword fascinating.  He begins by telling of his long association with the Alexander Technique, interested, but bemused and somewhat irritated by its jargon.  His thirteen page Foreword is mainly quite a compressed analysis of the meaning and use of words such as gravity, weight, stress, strain, and of our understanding of the co-ordination of muscular activity: physics and physiology.  He recognises the value of people being attentive to inappropriate postural habits, and the skill needed to help people effect beneficial change in their habits.  I sense his deep respect for Walter Carrington, and for the Alexander Technique, but I sense he is less than happy with some of the terminology employed and with the validity of the view of human and animal functioning which the terminology implies.  Having met and received “a demonstration” from Walter Carrington, many years before, Tris Roberts recalls “I started to wonder just what it is that the teacher is doing to his client”.  I felt deeply challenged by this man’s response to the Alexander Technique and to Walter Carrington.  His favourable response was more to the quality of relationship between teacher and student, I felt, than to the understanding of the principles of movement and posture which underlie and emanate from practice in the Alexander Technique.

In one of the talks, ‘Theory and Practice’, Walter Carrington refers to Tris Roberts, speaking about postural mechanisms; “So Roberts was saying that you must not pull down, and if you do pull down, harm will come”.  Whether this reference is the cause I do not know, but Tris Roberts mentions more than once in his Foreword that he cannot come to a satisfactory understanding of what Alexander Technique teachers mean by “Pulling down”.  I won’t directly try to answer that query, but I would like to note that in another of the talks, ‘Forward and Up’ Walter Carrington turns this problem on its head – describing the mechanism and motivation which lead to us shortening, pulling down, pulling back etc. but also emphasising “the up, the forward and up if you like, the lengthening in stature, that I’m afraid inevitably has to remain a bit of a mystery… People do go up.  People go up more at some times and in some circumstances than others.  There’s a very big variation and clearly it is desirable that you should go up as much as possible all the time.  Because the more the upward energy flows, the lighter and freer you’ll be and the more all the functioning of the body – respiration, circulation, digestion – is able to operate… Putting it the other way round, the less you go up, the more you pull down, the heavier you become and the more the respiration, circulation, digestion are handicapped and suffer for it”.

This is the Alexander Technique in a nutshell.  Tris Roberts is concerned about the use of the term ‘pulling down’ because he is not able to recognise the activity in relation to which it happens – the active ‘going up’.

What is this ‘upward energy’ as Walter Carrington calls it in the passage just quoted?  That is the crucial question which was crystallising in my mind as I read Tris Robert’s Foreword.  I felt such respect for the man and his work and I was intrigued by the mixture of appreciation and scepticism in his response to the Alexander Technique.  I felt that I needed to step beyond the limits of modern natural science in order to understand what this ‘upward energy’ was, but I wanted to be able to speak of it clearly.

For now I want to turn to Tris Roberts’ book Understanding Balance of which he says in his Preface “This book is the outcome of a lifetime’s research”.  I respect the commitment which that statement records.  I have spent many hours studying this book.  There are many things in it which I have not understood or which I have to work to regain understanding every time I return to them.  I would like to share with you some of his explanations and interpretations which I have found particularly helpful in my Alexander Technique teaching.

Tris Roberts is keen from the outset to help us distinguish the force we call gravity, from those forces which belong both to the cohesion of solid objects and to their interaction – the world of colliding billiard balls.  What is odd about a billiard ball is that it seems so perfect and inert that it may prevent us from realising the effects of deformation.  Roberts uses the example of squeezing a rubber.  “If a block of solid material is loaded by applying impressed forces on opposite faces, as when we squeeze a rubber eraser between finger and thumb, some of the molecules are displaced from their rest positions.  The deformation is resisted by the inter-molecular forces so that the compressed rubber pushes back against our fingers.  All solid objects behave in this way, although some materials are more easily deformed than others.”  (U.B. p 6)   The deformation is the strain and the material is under stress, measured as the force with which the strain is resisted.  The rubber can be compressed between two fingers, it can be stretched and come under stress in tension – and the two will usually go together.  As you stretch a piece of rubber it gets thinner – tension in one direction, compression at right angles.

This rather dry concept comes alive when Tris Roberts makes us aware of what actually happens when we start being active, when we push against a heavy object: “When we push against a massive object to set it in motion, we set up stress forces that act in both directions.  We push against the object to accelerate it, and it pushes back against us with a reaction force… The reaction force that leads to the sensation that our push is being resisted is a stress force acting on our body: it does not act on the object that is being accelerated.” (U.B. p 9)  From this very active image of trying to get an old banger started, we can move to the apparent neutrality of standing still, where, though, we are faced with the problem of how it is that we manage to stand.  “All the active forces developed by the muscles of the body are tensions.  In contrast, the forces needed to support the body in an upright posture, with the feet below the centre of gravity, are compressive thrusts against the ground.  We need, therefore, to consider the relationship between tensions and thrusts.” (U.B. p 15)

I am hoping to give you a few choice quotations to illustrate Roberts’ way of thinking and presentation.  We begin with a clear presentation of the active mechanics of human posture and locomotion.  We push against the ground using a structure of struts (our bones) and ties (muscles and tendons), with the essential requisite for movement and flexibility being the low-friction joints between the struts.  One way of looking at the Alexander Technique is to see it as a way of preserving the low friction quality of our joints.  I find it a little disconcerting when this quality is referred to as “space” in the joints, or between the bones, as some Alexander Technique students do.  I want free contact, fluid movement: ‘space’ sounds a bit scary.  As a further aside, again significant for the Alexander Technique, Roberts is clear in distinguishing the role of the long muscles which cross two joints from those which cross one.  You could think of the hamstrings at the back of the thigh, or the big muscle, gastrocnemius which connects the lower end of the thigh bone, via the Achilles tendon, to the heel.  What is significant about these muscles, which span two joints, is that, on their own, they do not resist collapse of the leg under the weight of the body.  These long muscles of the legs are very much engaged in movement and in stabilising the upper body but need the shorter muscles which only cross one joint to enable our legs to be able to support the weight of the body.  I don’t want to get lost in anatomical details but just to give enough precise description to realise, in this case, the subtle needs of our limbs not to be too rigid and yet to be able to resist folding and collapse: to be able to provide the necessary stiffness and moveability.

Roberts is keen to analyse in order to help understanding, but recognises, right from the beginning, that an animal or a human being is not simply concerned to maintain itself in an ideal upright position.  The animal, the human being behaves.  It is not governed by automatic reflexes, as he recognises with a lovely dry humorous obviousness: “Animals characteristically move their heads about a good deal, turning from side to side and looking up and down at their surroundings.” (U.B. p 3)

An interesting experiment which I often use in my teaching and which Roberts analyses in his book is to try to balance on the palm, or extended finger, an upside-down broom.  I use a shorter-handled deck scrubber as being an instrument neat and manageable.  As it begins to topple, you quickly try to move your finger to stop the tilt.  You are working with three different movements: the broom falling vertically towards the ground, the broom moving horizontally across the room, the broom tilting over.  It is possible to play with the way you apply the supporting thrust so as to cancel out the various movements.  You actively balance the broom, leaving, as Roberts again puts with humorous reserve “only such desired horizontal movement as you decide upon”.  This experiment gives us insight into what we are doing as we walk and stand.  We don’t slide our feet about [which would be the direct equivalent of the hand movement to actively balance the broom]: we use our two legs, repositioning one leg while supporting with another.  We are a completely different, more complex, (and living) structure, but the work with the broom helps Roberts to explain that the complexity of co-ordination of muscular activity (dependent, especially in the human being, on learning), cannot rely on the involuntary responses we call reflexes.  In the Preface, and in the main body of the book, Roberts squarely faces the problem of ‘recognition’ – how do we distinguish the conditions when it is appropriate for us to move in a certain way (even an apparently involuntary movement like hopping to avoid falling over) from conditions that do not call for or lead to that response.  Roberts recognises that, real though the reflexes are as part of our neurophysiology, we employ behaviour patterns, habits, skills.  The balancing activity of the animal or human being is part of the animal’s behaviour, based upon its physiology and anatomy.  Thinking back to the broom, the animal is actively maintaining itself in relation to the world: “The animal does not necessarily wish to remain in the same place; he moves about by manipulating the thrusts exerted against the supports.  He must, however, at all times have regard to the need to avoid falling over and hitting his head against the ground.  This requirement involves a decision as to the best direction in which to push against the support.  This direction can be referred to as the ‘behavioural vertical’.  Uprightness is maintained by reference to the behavioural vertical, rather than to the gravitational vertical.” (U.B. p 94)

This is an important distinction.  It makes our posture alive and intentional; it lets it become poise.  This perspective links the activity of standing with the organisation and production of more visible movement: we are always engaged with being upright; and as the quotation above has suggested, Tris Roberts is acutely aware of the perils of uprightness.  We may fall and hurt our precious heads.  Through the book the clear relationship between the ground, support, and the activity of the legs, on the one hand, and the safe freedom of the head on the other, is emphasised.  “Even in quiet standing, there is always some movement.  In consequence there are continual changes in the position of the vertical projection of the centre of gravity of the body… the expression ‘vertical’ has to be taken to mean the direction judged by the animal to be currently the best one in which to aim the limb thrusts against the ground in order to avoid falling over and hitting the head on the ground” (U.B. p175).  This perspective is in accord with the basic concern of the Alexander Technique to help us be aware of the mutual interaction between our feet on the ground, and the head in the air.  Looking at the interaction of the thrust against the ground with the way we support ourselves with our muscles, as upright creatures, allows Tris Roberts to explain that we can look at the form of the human body in two ways.  We can see it built up “triangle by triangle, from the foundations provided by firm contact with the ground.  This is the way buildings and other engineering structures are constructed.” (U.B. p 95).  But, the living activity of the human being, even more so than for other animals, also allows us to think of the structure as coming into being from above to below, from the task of supporting the free head so that it can take in the environment and initiate and lead the responses we make to the environment.  The support we achieve for ourselves works from above towards the ground.

You will all be familiar with the ‘knee–jerk’ reaction which occurs when the quadriceps muscle receives a sudden stretch from a physician’s hammer or other sharp tap.  Such gross jerks are not part of normal behaviour.  There is, however, as we move, a continuous activation of less dramatic stretch reflexes which allows what Tris Roberts calls the activity of “converting the loosely jointed assembly of bones of the skeleton into a springy framework capable of supporting the weight of the body” (U.B. p113).  Stretches activate the contraction of the muscles which develop the tension to maintain the uprightness of the human being.  By looking at the co-ordinated and continuous process of maintaining the “springy framework” Roberts arrives at three significant insights which all feed into a fuller appreciation of what is the ‘up’ which Alexander Technique students speak of.  The first insight is that, especially for the human being, examining movement and balance in terms of habits and skills is going to prove more fruitful than trying to explain it through automatic reflexes, important though they are.  “Learning is consolidated by repeated rehearsal, and conditions involving a liability to overbalancing recur very frequently, particularly in the course of locomotion.  The well-rehearsed responses thus soon come to have the status of habits, in that their successful performance is no longer dependent on active conscious supervision.  An example of a pattern of motor behaviour which, once learned, continues to be performed successfully without conscious supervision is the relaxed riding of a bicycle.  When close attention is called for, as in the avoidance of obstacles, the act of bicycle riding is not strictly habitual, but is more properly classified as a skill” (U.B. p 160).  These are clear and important distinctions, I believe.
The second insight is that when we respond, move, we can describe many different, localised types of movement or activity in, say, an arm or even a finger, but the activity will lead to muscular and positional adjustments throughout the whole body.  Roberts is very clear in describing how it comes about that “even a small free movement of a finger will involve adjustments in the control of most of the skeletal muscles in the body” (U.B. p 116).  Movement belongs to the whole body.

The third insight his exploration of balance yields is the significance of what he calls “anticipatory pre-emptive action” (U.B. p 159).  If, for example, we find ourselves in danger of falling over, we learn (somehow) to recognise the situation as it develops (over, perhaps, a very short space of time).  It is possible to identify a number of features of what is happening to us which will lead us to react in a way which rescues us from danger.  This reaction can in certain circumstances be involuntary, totally reflex – or it can be voluntary.  When voluntary the typical human response is one that is anticipatory (we sense what is about to happen) and pre-emptive in that we react before the situation has developed to the state in which we would be unable not to act.  Such anticipatory pre-emptive action is linked to our ability and need to learn, and to be able to recognise a pattern or what Roberts calls a ‘gestalt’ by which he means a pattern which we recognise and respond to even when it is not complete.  We can use a limited number of changing features to lead us to respond voluntarily, when a complete set of features would be needed for an involuntary, reflex action.  The human being’s ability to learn and to anticipate and act voluntarily are great gifts and skills, but bring with them those problems of attention which, paradoxically, can lead us to lose touch with the present.  Anticipation can become the preoccupation with gaining the projected goal, end-gaining as F M Alexander called it.  A healthier state is when anticipation is still part of present attention.

Elsewhere I talk about the startle response (exploration 16).  In the womb and in the first few months of life the human infant uses a reflex known as the Moro reflex, an involuntary reaction to threat.  I won’t here describe it in detail.  It is normally inhibited by about four months of age and is transformed, in the adult, through normal development, into the startle response, which is usually a matter of responding to a sudden stimulus by a shrugging movement followed by a turn of the head to discover the source of the disturbance and, following this, a response is chosen.  In extreme circumstances of a danger in adult life, the Moro reflex may be triggered, and the Moro reflex, in some people, is retained as an habitual reaction if the normal processes of development are unfulfilled.  My point here is that attention we give to the future, which takes us out of the immediate responsiveness to the present, can lead to the reflex level of behaviour becoming fixed and damaging, rather than becoming absorbed into personal, adaptable habits and skills.  We are in danger of damaging ourselves both by striving with too much effort to gain a future end and by losing touch with the flow of automatic reflex movements.  It is very common, in my experience, for people to be carrying, permanently, manifestations of the movements ( useful in response to a sudden stimulus, and designed to pass away quickly), which belong to reflexes such as the Moro and its adult transformation, the Startle Response.

So, these three insights lead us to the conundrum with which Roberts begins and ends his book, and which is implicit in the idea of “anticipatory pre-emptive action” – how do we recognise that a corrective movement is needed?  How do we cope with all the subtleties of the continuous and widespread readjustment of the supporting forces made possible by “the brief time-course of the mechanical responses of skeletal muscle cells to activation through the motor nerves”?  Roberts ends with a limited expression of faith in the working of computers as offering us a model of how neuronal connections facilitate the signal-processing involved in balance and locomotion.  I do not think this model is helpful.  I will try to explain why in the next essay but let me end as I began with expressing my respect and appreciation for the work of Tris Roberts.

17. Giving Pause for Thought

It was the tape-recorder (audio-there was nothing else) that brought the pause button and the pause most universally into our language and our doings.  There it has a neutrality born of mechanism: in other situations it suggests a variety of feelings, ranging from hesitation and uncertainty to the dramatic emphasis of the performer holding his audience – either with words or music.  It can be an interruption or an intermission – more or less under control – but it is a break in the flow, the flow of action, of thought, of the moving tape.

I want to look at the uses we can make of pauses – they are a tool in the Alexander Technique, and, more widely, in our use of freedom and consciousness.  In a short series of lectures which Rudolf Steiner gave in December 1920 he ends with an image I find very stimulating.  He suggests that we can give reality to our thoughts by imbuing them with our own personal will.  This is the activity of freedom, like seeds for the future.  But these seeds need to find light, air, soil – something in which to grow and the growing medium for our free thoughts are the deeds we perform which are permeated with conscious attention and love.  Our thoughts and deeds, both originating in our organism, meet out there in the world.  Reality is made when thought and deed finally find each other.  I think  “the  pause” is a potential help to this cultivation of reality.

In complete contrast, you might think, are those descriptions of Mozart, as he improvised at the piano suddenly jumping up and, in the mad mood which so often came over him, leaping over tables and chairs, miaowing like a cat, and turning somersaults like an unruly boy.  I introduce this picture of Mozart not because I subscribe to the characterisation of Mozart as the disturbed, immature genius.  I see him as a man of intellect and imagination, a man who worked at the craft of his talent, a man channelling all the forces of his will and creative thinking into music, into precisely formed movement, into intense order.  As David Cairns says in his recent study of Mozart, “Is it any wonder that such a mind needed to let off steam from time to time and play the fool?”  (Cairns p 13)  This extreme example opens up the interaction between thought and deed.

To go to a completely different mood, I am very fond of a short book called Pilgrims which recounts what the author calls an unlikely friendship between himself, Paul, in this thirties, and a woman, Val, who is dying of cancer, and in her seventies.  I won’t go into the circumstances of their meeting: a breakthrough occurs when Paul has to act to help Val through a dramatic angina attack and they find a new intimacy: “All her defences were blown, and also mine.  There was just she and I sitting there, exposed.  Nothing needed to be said or done…” (Pilgrims p 49).  Some time later Paul arrives at her house and finds Val excited and eager to tell him of an experience.  She found that she had, just, stopped “the kitchen knife was in my hand, in mid-air… It was wonderful. So peaceful.  I said ‘ I’m not Val.  I’m not an old woman.  I’m not this and I’m not that.  I’m just me.  I’M ME!  And I love it’”.  And at that she managed with a sharp upward celebratory thrust of her arms to momentarily free herself from the gravitational pull of the black hole that was the sofa, before falling back down into it” [Pilgrims p 123-4)  Some months later, in the hospice, close to death, Val and Paul have wonderful conversations, structured by her pauses:  “I would sit beside Val as she lay back against her pillows, her head at the level of my heart.  She said little since she tired easily and seemed to flit in and out of life itself.  Sometimes in mid-sentence she would leave, only to continue that same sentence two or twenty minutes later.  I would sit here, no longer waiting, no longer thinking, but just sitting here, listening, being with her”.  A few days later, very close to her death, there is moment of estrangement between them but Val is able to overcome it.  “There was a short pause, only three or four minutes.  We were both feeling bad.  We both knew how much we cared about each other by how dire this rift felt.” [Pilgrims p 194].  Then, but not through analysis or apology, Val leads them through it and Paul recognises what the new sense of time makes possible: “There was nothing Val could hang onto now, neither resentment nor disappointment.  And I was learning how rapidly things can move, when you’re travelling so very slowly” [ibid p 195].  That last sentence is a constant inspiration to me.  The gaps, the pauses, become gifts, whereas we usually think of gaps as deprivations or absences.  What we can’t grasp becomes a gap, a threat, but both for the growing child and the mature adult the ability to tolerate and, indeed, enjoy gaps is essential for health and well-being.  Breaks and discontinuities in the presence and attention of those who love us, our memory, our awareness, knowledge or experience – we need to be able to integrate them, to make sense of them.

Val and Paul become close through accepting the presence of death.  This is the commonly recognised paradox of people feeling their lives enhanced as they face death.  It’s there in Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’ and in Ivan Illyich in Tolstoy’s short story.  It is usual to refer to “boundary experiences” of which the confrontation with one’s own death is the most intense, which alter our perspective towards life.  The alteration is one which, typically, moves our attention away from the normal everyday sense of how things are rigidly connected and caused, and enhances the possibility for personal change.  This is another way of expressing the realisation of Paul about things moving rapidly when you’re travelling so slowly.  Death and mortality are there in the background of so many events in life.

Every decision-making situation we find ourselves in has the potential to be a boundary experience, pregnant with the confrontation with death.  This opens up, for me, what pausing can contribute to the act of deciding.  Irvin Yalom, the psychotherapist, recognises every decision as an action reminding us, principally, that alternatives exclude (The Gift of Therapy, Ch 49).  Decisions “confront us with the degree to which we create ourselves but also to limits of possibilities.  Making a decision cuts us off from other possibilities”.  We face our limits and experience, implicitly, what we will not do, or be – and hidden in there is death, as Yelom describes it, as “the impossibility of further possibility”.  Robert Frost’s well-known poem ‘The Road not Taken’ reveals the poignancy of regret in daily decisions.  Highlighted by being an isolated traveller, and by the clear alternatives of two paths, the storyteller looking back to the moment of self-deception, forward to the unknown limitation.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

One way to understand what the pause can bring to the meaning inherent in decision-making itself is by looking at positivity, our capacity to seek out what is of value, to be positive, optimistic, look for the good.  I do not mean cultivating the spurious power of ‘positive thinking’, but something deeper and quieter, a basic trust and orientation towards what satisfies.  When I listen, for example, to the Octet which the sixteen-year old Felix Mendelssohn composed, then I hear this affirmation.  When we find what is pleasing or beautiful or satisfying in some way, then we willingly pay attention to it.  Rudolf Steiner, in describing a set of basic soul exercises to help our development, includes at the fourth in the series, an exercise to do with positivity.  It is my experience with this exercise that it is not only that what is valued attracts our attention but that attention allows the positive to flourish, to appear, to be revealed.

But it doesn’t work if the attention is forced, if it is not already committed to beauty.  Michael Lipson, a clinical psychologist with a deep insight into Rudolf Steiner’s work, suggests that this virtuous circle between appreciation and attention can be reached, in difficult situations especially, by pausing: “In the pause that follows an inward act of restraint – a pause that may take no clock time at all – there is the possibility of invention and generosity.  My teacher, Richard Fulmer PhD, used to say that in treating couples he always looked for “the generous offer”.  This is the moment when husband or wife will argue for a split second on the other person’s side, make an offer or suggest a perspective that is outside the role of antagonist.”  [Stairway of Surprise, p 86]  Karl König gives a description of the state of mind which can develop from exercises in positivity, likening it to discovering a new world.  What is kindled in our hearts can “stream into our eyes and through them out into the surrounding space, we will acquire a new relationship to the space within which we live.  This feeling will give us the first experience of the ego, for such as experience of bliss is the substance of our own ego-consciousness”. [The inner path, p 19].  The sense of positivity is founded in the inner joy and tolerance of the person practising it, in the order that permeates their feelings, the sense of heart and head enhancing each other.      Michael Lipson, to illustrate the depth and power of the kind of positivity he is describing (and he would see it best described, simply, as loving) used the personality and work of the biologist, Barbara McClintock.  She was honoured principally for her work on so-called jumping genes, which upset the idea of the cell’s genetic information being fixed and static, and isolated from its products.  Her discoveries emerged from trying to understand development in an organism (she used maize), the genetic regulation of timing in growth and morphogenesis.  So, although she was working with the components of the cell, including chromosomes and genes, her interest was in the development of form, the development of the organism.  She is famous, as Michael Lipson notes, for using a different kind of reasoning and insight to that to which most scientists are committed.  The common scientific method is one of reducing processes and systems to the simplest components and exploring the logic and sequencing of cause and effect.  She developed a “feeling for the organism” as her biography is called, which involves both an intuitive insight involving seeing a question all in one go, seeing it, knowing it without having to think about it (remember this is no crank, but a Nobel Laureate), and a loving knowledge of each plant she worked with.  She speaks about maize plants as others might speak about children, “No two plants are exactly alike… I start with the seedling, and I don’t want to leave it.  I don’t feel I really know the story if I don’t watch the plant all the way along.  So I know every plant in the field.  I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them”.  This is the attention of positivity, combining the detail and the whole, the observation and the intuition.  And it is fitting that this mode of research first revealed how mobile and interactive the life of the organism is, right down to the level of the gene.

The pause allows the integration of the specific into the universal.  You might notice how in the recollection of the moment of decision in the Robert Frost poem we have the repeated I, the emphasis on the active I:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,

In the pause at the end of the line between the two ‘I’s’, we reach the same depth of experience which can be expressed in the generous offer.  In the practice of the Alexander Technique we value the pause, as we value the reaching out to the space around in awareness and movement.  The pause is, perhaps, more to do with freedom, freedom which finds completion in our loving attention and action.  But the detail needs the insight which the pause makes possible, the connection to something beyond ourselves which yet belongs to ourself.  This is the joyous ego-consciousness Karl König describes as the fruit of practice in positivity.

16. A Sense of Responsibility – pointing at the moon

The focus of this essay is really the idea of a “leap of faith”, not just as an isolated dramatic event, but as a quality of our everyday experience, and one that is connected to our bodily selves and to our willing acceptance of responsibility.  Responsibility is about answering for our actions.  I will begin with a short poem by Ted Hughes in which he shares the rising moon with his young daughter as she is just discovering language.  The poem is from his 1967 collection Wodwo.

Full Moon and Little Frieda

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clunk of a
bucket –
And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor
Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their
warm wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk
“Moon!” you cry suddenly, “Moon! Moon!”
The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

I want to draw your attention to the vitality of connection, and separation, found in this small incident.  The young child is caught in a moment both of expression and of naming, a moment without thinking, without self-awareness, but one which is carrying her towards the world, and towards separation from the world.  And the whole only exists in the awareness of the father.  He creates the completed world of one person recognising the dawning of the other person.  He makes the moment a social event.  He witnesses.  Perhaps they walk hand in hand down the lane, perhaps he is carrying her and she points with her raised arm but, either way, the birth of speech has come out of the hard path towards uprightness and movement.  Speech is another movement, connecting and separating us, and, as the poem suggests, it is taking her into the realm of art, of creativity and symbol, beyond any simplistic ideas of representation or imitation.  I sense the way the young child is being carried towards responsibility.  The repeated ‘moon’ which she has spoken she also hears.  Meaning is being built up on the foundation of her bodily sensations, of her perceptions, of her movements, her sounds.      Ludwig Wittgenstein begins his philosophical journey rather tangled in the problem of whether the self is all that it is possible to say can be known.  By the end of his tragic, heroic life he has come to a clearer appreciation of the life of a community, the life of those who share a language, or who share what he calls “a form of life”.  By a form of life I think he meant a particular way of seeing the world, the gathering together of things we feel certain about.  Some of these will be passively received, some will need our active leaps of faith.  He writes at one point, “Don’t be afraid of talking nonsense”, adding, “You must keep an eye on your nonsense”.  I think here he is talking about the value of both recognising the boundaries we have created (together with others) of what we are and value, and of keeping those boundaries flexible and permeable.  I think the Alexander Technique can be a great help through its attention to obvious physical boundaries – our sit-bones on the chair, our back against the wall, the quality of the contact between my foot and the floor, my hand resting on my thigh as I sit.  We know where we stand.

That has certainty.  In our childhood development we move into the handling of all the symbolic meanings, that will make up our ‘form of life’, out of the direct sensations of ourselves.  Partly these sensations are directly felt as we feel pleasure and pain, or ill or well; partly we distance ourselves and see ourselves as though from outside, as though our bodies are also part of the “outer world”.  With adults, I find that, for myself and the people I work with, as I teach the Alexander Technique, it is possible to enhance the reality of our personal world of thoughts, ideas, abstractions, symbols, by knowing ourselves as physical, bodily beings.  Responsibility for actions and deeds, for myself as a free agent [the essence of our normal sense of responsibility] moves into responsibility for my conscious thoughts and on into the recognition that I want to take responsibility for a whole domain of my life, which I could summarise as my beliefs, which are not just passively accepted as true.  The clearer our bodily sense of self, the clearer will be the acceptance that our beliefs are not as sure as ordinary perceptions of trees and streets.  I will accept responsibility for what I believe.  I will recognise some elements of ‘my form of life’.  I will not need to make those leaps of faith explicit at each moment, but I will be able, when I’m asked, or when I ask myself, to acknowledge or express my reasons, my impulse to take the leap of faith.  In a remark curiously similar to the one by Wittgenstein which I quoted earlier, the Danish thinker, Kierkegaard writes to himself, “Leaps of faith – yes, but only after reflection”.  But how do we find the ground from which we can leap?  I think this ‘reflection’ can usefully be about awareness of our bodily self.

I also believe it has something to do with imagination, with metaphor, but here again we are faced with the need to keep our boundaries flexible and permeable.  Metaphor always tends towards losing its life, becoming dead and literal, too overt.  James Proctor, a geography professor from California, based a very interesting paper on a famous Buddhist proverb.  This saying is often presented as a picture in which an enlightened master points heavenward and asks, “Mr Moon, how old are you: seventeen or three?”  There is no actual moon to be seen, only a pointing finger.  The moon is not there, not to say that it doesn’t exist, but to emphasise the importance of the finger, the person and his activity, curiosity, need for meaning.

The subject of Proctor’s paper is the significance, for people in the USA, of trust in authority.  This pictorial proverb also asks us to accept, with Wittgenstein, that we will talk nonsense at times (voice our personal beliefs) and that we can keep an eye on the nonsense.  We can take leaps but we can also reflect.  James Proctor’s study suggests that the pointing finger is showing us that the relating of man to moon is what is alive.  What is fact, what is belief, what is truth – these questions exist in the relating.  It is not arbitrary or absurd, but it is up to us how we confirm both our scepticism and doubting and, on the other hand, our leaps of faith.  Coping with these two tendencies is what leads to growth.  The picture of the pointing man, content for now with his ‘nonsense’, I think, can stimulate in us the moment of reflection.  This moment is in essence, the moment of noticing our subjectivity, and having noticed it, we can let go into our life, into our “form of life” which may be more or less eccentric, in which we enact our beliefs and commitments, our scepticism and doubts.

The moment of reflection, of self-awareness, is given a powerful connection to our physical selves in the Alexander Technique practice of inhibiting and directing.  This, for me, increases its efficacy in balancing that which draws us out into the social world of our language, or our ‘form of life’.  In returning to the quiet centre of ourself and then reconnecting in movement, as one does in using the Alexander Technique,  we can be discovering a sense of responsibility because, at heart, responsibility comes back to embracing the real part we play in constituting the world and its meaning.  Irvin Yalom, the eminent American psychotherapist, identifies four ultimate concerns – death, isolation, meaninglessness and freedom.  He sees freedom as belonging here, despite its positive connotations, because freedom implies responsibility, and because freedom leads us to see that we help to constitute the world as something independent and separate from ourselves.

Little Frieda is still carried in the safety of her father’s love and of the natural order, but her naming of the moon is setting her on the next stage of her lifelong path of intertwined loss and discovery.  Freedom brings anxiety.  If I make the world, is the ground solid under my feet?  It is a common experience for us to be jolted out of our everyday reality and suddenly to be reminded of these ultimate concerns.  Such shocks return us to a deeper and simpler sense of “being”.  Thinking will not sustain us on its own though it is the gift we are given to enable us to become free moral agents.  Recall Pascal’s famous words that “man is only a reed, the weakest thing is nature; but he is a thinking reed”.  It is the upright, mobile, balanced reed-like form of the human being which expresses his possibility and longing for responsibility.  That form expresses his “thinking” nature; it means we are no longer part of the world.  We face the world.  We must start to deal with separation and connection, with keeping boundaries flexible and permeable.  We can become trapped in our big brains, and the burdens of responsibility, but we also have the power to explore and create reality with movement and with stories.  I end with another short moon poem, which shows this mature power of imagination.  We give reality to our imagined world, we acknowledge the moon.  It finds us with the clarity of geometrical connection, and our response becomes love, becomes physical contact.  We grow more substantial than a thinking reed by reaching out.

‘Moon Compasses’ by Robert Frost

I stole forth dimly in the dripping pause
Between two downpours to see what there was.
And a masked moon had spread down compass rays
To a cone mountain in the midnight haze,
As if the final estimate were hers;
And as it measured in her calipers,
The mountain stood exalted in its place.
So love will take between the hands a face…

15. Control

In 1982, John Cleese, the master comic, co-wrote a best-selling, wise and entertaining book, Families and How to Survive Them, which was followed ten years later by Life and How to Survive It. Both books had cartoons by Bud Handelsman to illustrate the text and John Cleese’s co-author in both cases was the psychiatrist Robin Skynner, a leading figure in the disciplines of group and family therapy. I love these books for their spirit of inquisitive tolerance, patient exploration. In 1964, Robin Skynner, already a qualified psychiatrist, contributed to a symposium of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique about the relationship of the work of Alexander to modern psychology and psychotherapy. The title of his contribution was ‘The process of growth’ and in it he put forward his view that “any system that can be used to facilitate an extension of the existing personality can also be used to prevent such a development”, citing as examples religion’s tendency to replace the cultivation of self-knowledge and wisdom with moralising and dogma, or the psychoanalyst using theory to avoid his own self-exploration. He does not answer the question as to what is the “most central and effective principle, which can be used for or against its aim” with regard to the Alexander Technique but he does hint that it may be to do with “over-emphasis of control and safety, at the expense of expansion and widening of the personality”. This potential for any structured process which promotes growth to block that very growth is inevitable, and not just about misuse or misapplication. Growth and development require loss and risk and regret and courage, and we will feel the pull of the safety of the known. And as Robin Skynner states – “Where a system is most powerful to aid us… it can also be used most effectively to block our progress”. He also warns about believing we can find the answer to the question of this hidden danger. Perhaps it is more valuable, simply to be open to this inherent challenge when change is in the air.

To go back, with these provisos, to the idea of “control and safety” mentioned above, I would draw your attention to the following phrases from the titles of Alexander’s first three books – “Conscious Guidance and Control”, “Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual”, “The Use of the Self – its conscious direction”… “control of reaction”. His fourth book, The Universal Constant in Living refers in its title to the all-pervading influence of our use upon our behaviour and functioning, with the idea of ‘influence’ drawing our attention to the realms of ‘consciousness’ and ‘control’ which were named in the other titles. So, for now, I am wanting to explore the nature of ‘control’ to gauge its power and its danger.

The word ‘control’ goes way back into the middle ages to describe the process of keeping a check on accounts and transactions by keeping a copy with which one could check and compare in the future. In later usage, there is often, as in the language of scientific experimentation, the idea of establishing a norm and then finding out what might distort that norm. From that sense, which still suggests comparison, we move to the more everyday sense of restricting or restraining, or just plain keeping calm. I think the history of the word reveals how in the more generalised modern usage there is still that idea of keeping a standard or a norm in mind, and using some kind of influence or power to prevent getting knocked off or distracted.

I want now to bring before you the infant gaining control over her bodily self in the first years of life. It begins with control of eye movements, during the first days of life after birth and over the next months spreads down to head and neck, then arms and hands, then on down into legs and feet. The process can also be pictured as an emergence, for the child, out of chaos, which is like a second parturition – the head emerging, drawing the rest of the body up and out of chaotic movement. So with the finding of the feet on the ground and the upright stance with head directed upwards, both processes become complete through movements of descent and ascent. I think this sense of a double movement is important because it reveals the reciprocal connection between head and limbs, between sense awareness of the world, and mobility. Learning to walk is not a process, simply, of motor control but is the self discovering herself in the interaction with the spatial world and her own body. Standing and walking bring about a creative separation, confrontation of the individual in relation to the world. As Karl König puts it “The awakening consciousness that enables the child to comprehend his own self at the end of the first year moves from the gaze of the eye over the grasp of the hands to the step of the feet” (The First Three Years of the Child p 13).

We are here in an innocent but active expression of personal control as the child exerts herself towards the joy of balance and mobility. How, in the child’s life, in our own, do we marry freedom and control, do we integrate our enjoyment of spontaneity and desire with our need for peaceful, sociable autonomy? This is a very pertinent public and private debate about how and when we seek to give up responsibility to a leader or a religion, or a drug, and how and when we seek power: control by us, control over us.

One deep way to explore this conundrum is to picture the clear consciousness that brings the flux of life to a standstill, that defines and very much controls. As we walk as individuals, as we walk our own way, do we remove ourselves from the flow of life? When Henry David Thoreau goes to live alone by Walden Pond he describes how he is in one way expressing his individuality but he is also seeking a living connection to wider worlds. He writes “Men of little faith stand only by their feet… when most at one with nature I feel supported and propped on all sides”. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor, expresses this enlarged sense of energy, which is moving from one sense of control towards another: “beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a new energy… by abandonment to the nature of things, that beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors”. (“The Poet”) . This expansion moves on into a wider sense of control which Emerson sums up in his advice to “Act singly”. This is a kind of trust in yourself rather than an impulsive strength of will and is expressed in integrity and presence rather than action. Control means attending to your centre. “I ask primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man to his actions. I know that for myself it makes no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent” [“Self-Reliance”]. A still centre seems to allow release, abandonment, unlocking the human doors.

There is a wonderful reversal possible here because the expansion of the activity of control, by going through the eye of the needle of “acting singly”, can bring a freedom that is to do with escaping the heaviness of the separate, self-centred (not a moralising term) individual. This is something which can belong to the practice of the Alexander Technique. We are controlling, we are comparing with a norm, but it is a norm inherent in our individuality. In Life and How to Survive It there is a lengthy conversation about humour and laughter, which I recommend for its breadth of reference and depth of understanding. One theme is the theme of control. Incongruities of some kind, two things or frames of reference unexpectedly brought together, cause us surprise and loss of control. Laughter is the expression of that clash and it opens us up, so long as we are able to cope imaginatively with the loss of control, to make it a fiction of some kind. The inflexibility inherent in the clash promotes openness and flexibility in us. And their discussion ends with exploring the way we use humour to challenge and test, to poke fun at ourselves or others, and in so doing create a distance, which in the end can lead to greater intimacy. We recognise common human limitations, pretensions, illusions in and through the contradictions of particular humorous encounters. Unsettling the certainties gives us flexible control. Individuals come alive through what is odd or ‘inappropriate’.

The other kind of norm that can come in, the norm which frustrates the developmental potential of the Alexander Technique, is the standard prescribed by the book or the teacher. Here too is self-observation but it is one concerned with apology and penance and failure and success. For control to be healthy the norm must be our own. We can learn, we can seek change, but at each step we will have the courage to risk change only if we are actively trusting in ourselves. Control, if it relates to a wider more inclusive sense of self, then becomes discovery rather than restraint.

14. Anxiety and Security

I want to begin by discriminating between various major disturbances in consciousness.  In coma someone will show no wakefulness, attention, emotion, purposive behaviour or consciousness.  It is like deep sleep.  In what is called vegetative state a patient will have a pattern of some kind of sleeping and waking, some responsiveness, for example, in the eyes; but the patient shows no signs of consciousness in the normal sense.  In what is called locked-in syndrome, the sufferer will awaken, will be conscious but will be reduced in her movements, typically to eye movements in the vertical direction and to blinking.  I am relying solely on reports of this distressing condition, particularly those of the neurologist, Antonio Damasio, who comments on one unexpected feature of patients with this condition – “they do not experience the anguish and turmoil that this horrifying situation would lead observers to expect.  They have a considerable range of feelings, from sadness to, yes, joy.  And yet, from accounts now published in book form, the patients may even experience a strange tranquillity that is new to their lives.  They are fully aware of the tragedy of their situation, and they can report an intellectual sense of sadness or frustration with their virtual imprisonment.  But they do not report the terror one imagines would arise in their horrible circumstances.  They do not seem to have anything like the acute fear experienced by so many perfectly healthy and mobile  individuals inside a magnetic resonance scanner, not to mention a crowded elevator” (The Feeling of What Happens p 292).

Damasio has a multilayered view of human consciousness, and its connection to emotion and our bodily sense of ourselves, which means I do not want to attempt a full presentation of why he thinks such patients do not experience the distress one might imagine they would.  The essence of his analysis is that their lack of movement directly reduces their  emotional reactivity.  Damasio has as one element in his picture of the living organism the importance of managing life, of maintaining stability, which he prefers, following Steven Rose, to call “homeodynamics” rather than the more conventional “homeostasis”.  It’s dynamic, in movement, even in stability.  He integrates wakefulness, motion, consciousness into the chemical and neurological elements of the overall activity which manages life.  When the possibility of more stressful interaction and response to the environment is lost, as in ‘locked-in syndrome’, when, as Damasio puts it, “the brain is deprived of the body as a theatre for emotional realisation”, then the patient’s life of feeling will be tuned to the basic regulatory aspects of the internal milieu and these are inherently calm and harmonious.  If the ability to modify existence is lost, then an adjustment takes place: it is not the case that knowledge of what is missing or unattainable dominates.  The very limitations of bodily existence seem to be that which can allow the certainty of being to control the uncertainty of knowing.  This balances the creative help that our knowing brings to our being in everything that belongs to human culture.

Karl König, in The Human Soul, links the experience of anxiety to a fundamental loss of the meaning of touch, of the unconscious certainty of existence which lies in touch.  Anxiety has elements both of drifting, rising, floating indeterminacy, and of oppression, tightness, constraint.  We have lost the security of the body.  In another context König presents us with the triangle of our security being formed by

from Karl Konig, "Being Human", ch.3

A triangle formed both in connection and in separation between the three elements.  He too looks at restrictions in movement, different degrees of paralysis (though not the ultimate conscious paralysis of locked-in syndrome) and describes how the realisation of our selfhood, the activity of our body, and our experience of the three dimensions of space all rely on each other.  I am particularly interested at this point in the distinctions he draws between, first, my sense of myself moving forward, yet with the world behind me, from, second, the self I am in the interplay of up and down, of lightness and heaviness, of buoyancy and rootedness, and, third, the ‘me’ who has his own individual orientation to right and left and who through this achieves self-awareness and a new healthy distance from the world.  I come alive in these dry dimensions of in front, behind, above, below, left and right.  This is the active certainty achieved by the bodily self exploring space, the certainty the child is deprived of when her education is divorced from bodily senses.

In yet another context, König makes a distinction which clarifies the way our stability relies on both activity that is more inwardly directed and activity that goes out into the world.  He calls the first the search for certainty and the second the search for security.  I think his choice of words reveals the distinction he is after between the certainty of the world’s truth and the security of knowing our own reality.  Our thinking can be contributing, at certain times more to our activity in the world, at other times more to the creation of our inwardly established identity.  Our willing, similarly, can be outwardly directed to our contributing to the world, or concerned, more or less consciously, to the inward forming of our self – from the unconscious growth and development of the child to the spiritual self-education of the mature adult.  As has already been suggested, if certainty and security depend on the variety of ways in which we contact and connect the I-activity to both body and world, then so too will anxiety spring from disturbances of that matrix.  There is the Grimm fairytale of “The Youth who set out to learn what  Fear was”.  Nothing can make him shudder – ghosts, hanged men, wild beasts, skulls and coffins.  Only when he has tried everything, married the King’s daughter, does her maid go and fetch a pail full of little fish from the stream, so that his wife could pour them over his naked body as he slept – “Oh, how I shudder, how I shudder, dear wife.  Yes now I know what shuddering is.”  Only now, out of this strange, invasive experience of touch – of little fish slithering over his body, waking him out of unconsciousness – does the physical expression of fear come – the shudder which he had never known before.

In the eighth of the Duino Elegies which Rainer Maria Rilke finished in 1922, he laments that “We’ve never, no, not for a single day,/pure space before us, such as that which flowers/endlessly open into: always world, /and never nowhere without no”.  This fundamental defect is deeper, for Rilke, than our failures of heart or our fear of death, for it means we are always ‘spectators’ – ‘we live our lives, for ever taking leave’.  The poem ends, with the image of a man as he leaves his valley.  He turns and stops and lingers on the last hill.  For this poet of intense consciousness, seeing and being become the prison of awareness lost in space.

There is an escape in mysticism, or the absorption of the child, but there is also the engaging with the world of space, the world of touch, recognising that in the body which consolidates our sense of self also lives the fear which our contact with the world may release.  Antonio Damasio uses the beginning of the play ‘Hamlet’ to illustrate his picture of consciousness.  Afraid, the guard calls out in the night “Who’s there?” when he hears footsteps.  For Damasio this is the question which consciousness answers before it is asked, in giving us a sense of ourselves as agents.  Out of the experience of being changed comes, eventually, the feeling of being in charge.

Damasio is committed to an idea of evolving consciousness in which altruism, for instance, is an expression of our evolving beyond the self-protecting body-based conscious self.  For me, the fear which can stimulate self-awareness can also lead us, via a conscious cultivation of our inner certainty to an experience of ourselves as spiritual beings.  Through our bodily self we find our individuality through the changes and growth we go through.  At times we live as though our soul and spirit being is always trying to escape the body, at times as though it has been excluded from it.  If we can accept the dynamics within our identity then we may be able to face our fear of death, our uncertainty as individuals, our uncertainty about the future.  I feel the person who finds calm in the loss of locked-in syndrome is experiencing the nakedness of a kind of death, a bareness of being, which gives a present security because it contains within it a hint of resurrection.  The calm which the locked-in patient cannot escape, in a modest way we can find for ourselves and in so doing find a certainty of spirit.  It means letting go of something and most of us are fortunate that the letting go can be of our own choosing.

13. Raymond Dart

Raymond Dart is a very significant figure in the study of human evolution and in the development of the Alexander Technique.  Dart was born in Australia in 1893.  By 1924 he was working as an anatomist at a University in South Africa.  He had been interested by some baboon skulls a student had shown him and requested more be sent from the limestone quarry in Botswana.  The chunks of rock supposedly arrived as Dart was dressing in white tie and tails to be best man at a wedding.  The rocks deserved this honour for one lump contained a child’s skull and the cast or mineral impression of its braincase, now thought to be between one and two million years old.  The fossil is known as the Taung Child (from the name of the quarry).  Dart named it Australopithecus afarensis (Southern ape of Africa).  This find, a miracle of good fortune, in its preservation and the special qualification of its discoverer, was significant in several important ways.

First, for Dart personally, there followed more than a generation of academic rejection of his conviction that this fossil represented a human ancestor.  Most authorities, at that time, looked to Asia for human origins and, anyway, the Taung Child was considered to have too small a brain to belong to the human line of descent.  For Dart it was features of the skull, including the jaw and teeth, and the upright bipedal posture which were more telling than brain volume.  A figure of 750cc had been put forward as the necessary minimum brain volume for recognising human qualities.  A generation later Dart’s view became accepted.

A deeper significance is that this fossil gets us away from the simplistic and false idea that humans are descended from apes.  Dart’s insight led to a recognition of modern apes as specialised creatures and that looking at evolution and descent requires us to imagine the whole functional morphology of any given creature, from its teeth to its toes.  In his later years Dart became a feted and revered figure by the young researchers of the 1960’s onwards.  In his writings he comes across as a refined intellect and a meticulous scientist, but there is one emphasis in his work that appears to be exaggerated.  Certain features of his finds led him to stress the predatory hunting and violent behaviour of  Australopithecus, and this picture was coloured sensationally by the popular writer Robert Ardrey whose African Genesis (1961) promoted ‘the Killer Ape’ hypothesis.  For Dart, the impulse to interpret finds as tools or weapons was an expression of his interest in understanding human development as the development of skill, and of skill as refined movement, and movement and function as the expression of structure.  Anatomy was for him more than bits of bone but on more than one occasion he will speak in such terms as “Man is a creature of fear” (Skill and Poise, p 53).  This is always related to the challenge of being upright and to the fear of falling but there is something more emotionally pervasive, I find, in Dart’s sense of fear.

Dart encountered Alexander’s work, in South Africa in 1943, through Irene Tasker, one of the earliest teachers authorised by Alexander.   Dart was already fifty.  He tells how he had “a series of daily demonstration of Alexander’s self-analytical technique.  She… revealed to me how my own malpostured habits of sitting, standing, walking and lying down could be bettered, by her manipulating my moving body concurrently with my consciously inhibiting that wrongful ‘intermeddling with reflex details’ of such activities, mentioned by Sherrington” (SP  p 122).  The reference is to Charles Sherrington, the famous English physiologist who researched the nature of reflexes and their contribution to voluntary movement.  Once Irene Tasker departed for England shortly afterwards, Dart, both for himself and his infant son who had movement impairment, soldiered on in the slow and patient exploration of his structure and functioning in movement, his ‘malpostured habits’ as he called them.  He even included his daughter’s ‘night terrors’ as another manifestation of malposture.  Fear is the key.

In the 1940’s, following his introduction to the Alexander Technique, Dart wrote three articles for Journals in South Africa which brought together what he had learnt through his own practice with the Alexander Technique with his own expertise in human anatomy, evolution and development.  This was another fortuitous conjunction.  Just as the limestone block in 1924 had required months of patient removal of rock to expose the find, so now Dart took great pains to unearth what was going on in himself, and thereby to give a developmental foundation to the Alexander Technique.  He also found a way of bringing an understanding of the dynamics of anatomy alive through self-exploration in movement and stillness.

One place to start describing his findings would be with the idea of torsion, of twisting.  Compression and tension are relatively simple – pushing and pulling.  We can move on then to shearing – the sliding of one object against another (someone pulling the rug from under your feet) and then to twisting, to a rotational movement.  If you consider a wheel you will grasp why nature does not, normally, like torsion.  A wheel cannot be physically connected to the part it connects with.  Unless it can spin freely it must rotate back.  In the human being, as in any animal, bones are not fixed to each other, but there is the surrounding envelope of tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, muscles, nerves and skin.  There are exceptions among unicellular creatures but nature does not use wheels, and avoids torsion.  But, Dart realised, the human upright stance (a crucial feature for him in his description of Australopithecus) depends on torsion, depends on the spiralling of the musculature around the body which is achieved by the subtle co-ordination of muscular contraction throughout the whole organism.  A muscle, at one place, can contract and draw one bone towards another, flexing or extending like a hinge.  A look at an anatomical drawing of the skeletal muscles will show you what I am talking about.  The spirals are there.  A muscle, though, can only contract and draw one bone towards another, flexing or extending like a hinge.  Dart saw that the spirals of the human being were a particularly distinctive property of our uprightness.  They come about through a complex co-ordination of muscular contraction throughout the organism to turn flexing and extending, simple contraction, into the spiralling structure and functioning.  Spirals, twists, were the basis, first, of our uprightness, and secondly, of the skilled movement our uprightness made possible.  You can’t play a flute with four feet on the ground.

For the human being, exercising any skill relies on the healthy activity of those unconscious processes we can call reflexes which maintain the freely poised uprightness.  And in the working of these processes, as Dart fully realised, the inhibitory working of the neuromuscular system was as important as the more obvious work of muscular contraction.  Dart had in the 1930’s written of the relaxation of unwanted muscles as the key to skilled performance.  So Dart is focusing in on the area of our life, of our physiology and our structure, where our will, our voluntary intentional action, disappears into unconscious bodily movement.  He is exploring the features – such as the way we achieve uprightness, our fear, the emotions which affect our voluntary activity – which can interfere with the free poise of our movement.  What the Alexander Technique brought him he describes as a way of “clearing the ground”.  “In conscious attempts to execute movements, the brain or mind, instead of clearing the ground, as it were, for that movement by inhibiting all unnecessary movement and allowing the movement to take place by the free (or uninhibited) operation of the attitudinal and body-righting reflexes involved in the twisting movement, is obsessed with the determination or will to perform the movement despite the reflexes involved therein” (Skill and Poise p 93).  The reflexes specified are those which respond to change in the position of the head in space or relative to the body, and to disturbance of the relationship of parts of the body to each other and to space.  These are the reflexes which are vital for our poise, our mobile balance, our safety as upright creatures – and as the foundation for skilled movement.  But alarm and hurry and preoccupation and habit lead us to become fixed and limited.

So Dart set off on his “self-analytical” practice, of relaxing unwanted muscles, focusing on the simplest basic elements of any movement, cultivating what he calls a memory for the “feel of a movement” by repetition and sustaining interest and attention.  All this on the back of the  few crucial weeks of lessons with Irene Tasker.  Work lying down takes on a crucial role for Dart in allowing the releasing of fixed postural twists because, lying down, we need not fear falling.  From release we can move into poised, skilful movement.  Dart speaks of his years of “equilibrational education” which, he admits would have been “time-consuming, humiliating and disappointing to those who expect rapid and obvious physical returns for the labour and mental effort involved” (Skill and Poise p 98).

Raymond Dart’s fascination with, and knowledge of, human structure  and functioning were the basis on which his personal self-education could rely as he tried to master the way our intentions animate the physical instrument of the body.  He helps us understand both why we need to ‘clear the ground’ and why such clearing is a slow revelation.

12. Ends and Means

There are two claims made for the Alexander Technique, during Alexander’s lifetime, by public figures, which stick in my mind.  The first is by John Dewey, the leading American philosopher, who, in an introduction to Alexander’s book The Use of the Self (1932) states that the Technique “bears the same relation to education that education bears to all other human activities”.  Dewey sees life as being about learning, and that learning depends on recognising our ignorance, and puzzling things out together.  Learning is a social enterprise and the teacher-student relationship in the Alexander Technique lesson was, for Dewey, the focused essence of a learning situation – integrating mind and body, giving attention to the means, to the next step, finding, as he calls it “an act within our power”.

The second arresting claim made for the Technique came in 1941 when Aldous Huxley wrote a review of another of Alexander’s books, The Universal Constant in Living.  Huxley claims that he knows “only two solutions have been discovered to the problem of bridging the gap between idealistic theory and actual practice”.  One is the traditional mystic’s ‘technique of transcending personality in a progressive awareness of ultimate reality’.  The other is the Alexander Technique which he praises, as would Dewey, for getting away from preaching, for not ignoring the body, and for concerning itself with means, indirectly approaching a goal.  I think Aldous Huxley’s relationship to the Alexander Technique, all of seventy years ago, can still be of interest because of the very extravagance of the claims he makes.  It touched something deep in his destiny and through the magnifying glass of his extravagance I think I can find a more modest but clearly defined assessment of the Technique’s helpfulness and purpose.

Aldous Huxley was born in 1895, the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s champion and a great Victorian self-taught intellectual activist.  As a teenager Aldous suffered a severe eye infection which left him with very poor sight for the rest of his life.  He had over a year of severe incapacity.  This followed the death of his mother and preceded the suicide of his loved and admired brother Trev.  He soon, via Oxford, joined the aristocratic literary set.  By 1934, when he first met Alexander, he had produced over twenty books and was seen as an enigmatic intellectual – cynical, witty but with a humane sympathy known only to his friends.  Virginia Woolf describes him, at this time, as “a most admirable, cool, antiseptic, distempered, but humane and gentle man”.  Huxley himself writes, just before he met Alexander, “I am more and more struck by the hopelessly primitive and uneducated state of our minds – utterly ignorant of all rational techniques for encouraging such essential states as concentration on the one hand and ‘decentration’ – relaxed quiescence – on the other… It’s a dismal story of wasted talents and unrealised potentialities.. and I come more and more firmly to believe that the most important task before human beings is the perfection of a series of psychological techniques for the proper exploitation of personality… We remain barbarously unplanned as individuals”.

This long quotation would show, to anyone who knows of Alexander and his Technique, that it is just what Huxley is looking for, but you perhaps can also get a hint of the way an idea or a method can take hold of him, at least temporarily, to the exclusion of all else.  This was a crucial period in his life.  He tries Yoga, he becomes involved in the birth of the Peace Pledge Union and finds himself starting to allow “the belief in a spiritual reality to which all men have access”.  He associates the rise of nationalism, unwelcome to him, with a-spiritual humanism.  His wife recognised the part his work with F M Alexander had played in what may be called Huxley’s conversion.  She writes of the lessons bringing out “all we, Aldous’ best friends, knew never came out either in the novels or with strangers”.  In the novel Huxley had begun in 1934 (before he met Alexander), a character modelled in part on Alexander is introduced.  It is an autobiographical novel in which the hero undergoes the same process of letting go of scepticism and turning towards a higher meaning in life which Huxley was going through himself.  A friend writes at this time of hoping that Huxley’s “unself-seeking nature” might “give him the courage to know himself, to cast aside his superiority and revalue his burden of knowledge, and to conquer contempt by compassion”.

Eyeless in Gaza”, the title of the novel, is a quotation from a poetic drama by John Milton about Samson, blind and a prisoner of the Philistines and in despair, who goes through a series of meetings in which he overcomes both his apathy and his passion, only to take tragic vengeance by pulling down the pillars of the theatre in which he is being exhibited by his enemies, bringing death also to himself.  Huxley, the almost blind and previously disillusioned intellectual, was discovering new access to creative energy, to light.  Soon afterwards he left England to settle in America.  You can see how the Alexander Technique came at a time of deep upheaval.

Within ten years he is editing an anthology of spiritual and mystical literature, The Perennial Philosophy, which is presenting his new preoccupation with a kind of seeing which recognises the limitations of language, a kind of knowing which depends on the knower.  To quote from his editorial introduction:  “Knowledge is a function of being.  Where there is a change in the being of the knower, there is a corresponding change in the nature and amount of knowing… what we know depends, also, on what, as moral beings, we choose to make ourselves”.  This tone continues right through to Huxley’s death and, again, I can see how it relates to the particular qualities of the Alexander Technique – about personality, choice and change.  It is illuminating but in danger of burying the practical work of the Technique in grandiose generalities.

In fact, for Huxley, I think the Alexander Technique had an important role as the most immediate, physical image for the process of change he was seeking.  A life-changing transformation such as Aldous Huxley underwent at the time he met Alexander had a deep and complex genesis in which the Alexander Technique played a necessary and readily identifiable part.  His longing for “techniques for the proper exploitation of personality” was in part answered by his meeting the Alexander Technique and in part by his discovery of mysticism.  This second path took him into the experiments with LSD and mescalin which he wrote about in the 1950’s – another passing cause which consumed his enthusiasm for a while, but which disappointed.

I think the physical groundedness of the Alexander Technique moderated the potential fanaticism of this searching intellectual, and kept his striving for non-attachment in touch with life.  “I will have nothing to do with a perfection that is annihilation” he had written in 1929 and I think the hidden spirit of humane tolerance, which others saw beneath the cleverness, was nurtured, as Huxley became more focused on personal development, by his practice with the Alexander Technique.  I will end with one story of Confucius, which Huxley included in The Perennial Philosophy in the section on non-attachment, a story which also keeps its feet on the ground, and shows how the Alexander Technique might appropriately be compared to the path of the mystic, in that it was a first step, a means to be attended to.  Confucius offers an image for someone seeking to overcome self “Look at that window.  Through it an empty room becomes bright with scenery; but the landscape stops outside.  In this sense you may use your ears and eyes to communicate within, but shut out all wisdom (in the sense of conventional, copybook maxims) from your mind”.

Huxley was seeking this state to his last days, in which he wrote “We must learn to come to reality without the enchanter’s wand and his book of the words.  One must find a way of being in this world while not being of it.  A way of living in time without being completely swallowed up in time”.  To return to the review I mentioned at the beginning, it is clear to me how easy this giant of a restless intellect found it to get lost in idealistic theory.  The Alexander Technique was for him a bridge between “idealistic theory and actual practice”, as mundane as Confucius’ simple window, a technique to go beyond words and wisdom, to let in the light.

11. The Effort of Not Caring

William James was born in New York City in 1842.  He had a privileged upbringing, a wide, eccentric education and contact with many outstanding people of his age.  In April 1870, after interrupted studies and travel, during which he had received a medical degree at Harvard, he had a profound personal crisis, and recorded his own “death and rebirth” in his diary.  He defines Free Will as “the sustaining a thought when I choose when I might have other thoughts” and goes on to assert, as he emerges from his crisis, that “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will… now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well, believe in my individual reality, and creative power.  My belief, to be sure, can’t be optimistic, but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world.  Life shall be built in doing and suffering and creating”.

Although a man of great learning, a founding father of psychology as a modern discipline, a prolific writer who wrote the standard textbook The Principles of Psychology (1890), which was in use for generations, I want to focus on his lifelong search for direct experience, his mistrust of intellectual understanding.  The reason I think William James is significant is that I think he is the intellectual father of the Alexander Technique.  He is always thinking in terms of paradoxes, and one that he dwells on is the way we identify with our attempts to control life when in fact all such attempts at control alienate us from ourselves.  Towards the end of his life he gave a series of Talks to Teachers, in one of which ‘The Gospel of Relaxation’ he tells graduates of the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics “the way to do it [that is, anything] paradoxical as it may seem, is genuinely not to care whether you are doing it or not.  Then, possibly, by the grace of God, you may all at once find that you are doing it, and having learned what the trick feels like, you may (again by the Grace of God) be enabled to go on’.  There is a second paradox here – the secret is not to care – “Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free…” and yet, as in the extract from his diary, he values the activity of the ego, the effort.  From another of the talks to teachers he marks the meaning of life as “the marriage of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance, with some man’s or woman’s pain”.  I think the paradox is resolved in how our actions come about, in how a seed of freedom grows.  The renunciation James is promoting is not giving up on action but is about revitalising our action with the exercise of choice and responsibility.

In the last major lectures he gave before his death in 1910 he asserts “the return to life can’t come about by talking: it is an act; to make you return to life, I must set an example for your imitation, I must deafen you to talk, or to the importance of talk, by showing you, as Bergson does, that the concepts we talk with are made for purposes of practice, and not for purposes of insight”.  So often with William James you have the experience of conversation – not teaching ideas or expressing personal feelings – because he thinks of our most important inner activity as a conversation with, or within, ourself.  Talking to the teachers he says that their primary art is “a happy tact and ingenuity to tell us what definite things to say and do when the pupil is before us.  That ingenuity in meeting and pursuing the pupil, that tact for the concrete situation, though they are the alpha and omega of the teacher’s art, are things to which psychology cannot help us in the least”.  In the last series of lectures he gave, which I have already mentioned, he refers to the personal crisis he experienced as a young man, and to his realisation, then, that he had come “to the end of my conceptual stock-in-trade” and that he needed to begin a conversation with a self he describes as ‘higher’, ‘wider’ and ‘central’.  “Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self, it quivers along various radii like the windrose on a compass, and the actual in it is continuously one with possibilities not yet in our present sight”.

William is one of the philosophers in America, known as the Pragmatists.  John Dewey, the long-term supporter, pupil and friend of F M Alexander was another.  Alexander helped and inspired Dewey in his personal life and in his thought, and Alexander was grateful for the support and endorsement he received from such a leading American intellectual.  They first met in 1916 and thirty years later Dewey, well into his eighties, recalled the benefit he received from work with Alexander.  Talking of himself he is reported as saying “he had always been physically awkward and performed all actions too quickly and impulsively and without thought… Thought in his case was saved for ‘mental’ activity, which had always been easy for him… It was a revelation to discover that thought could be applied with equal advantage to everyday movements.  The greatest benefit he got from lessons, Dewey said, was the ability to stop and think before acting.  Physically he noted an improvement first in his vision then in his breathing.  Before he had lessons, his ribs had been very rigid.  Now they had a marked elasticity which doctors still commented on though he was close to eight-eight” (conversation reported by Frank Pierce Jones, a young colleague of Dewey’s and an enthusiast for the Alexander Technique who had trained as a teacher).

I wanted to give some detail of Dewey’s commitment to Alexander’s work before returning to William James, who belonged to the previous, first, generation of the Pragmatists.  In his talks to teachers William James introduces them to the significance of inhibitory action, beginning with the physiological and then looking at the mental and emotional levels – “any higher emotional tendency will quench a lower one.  Fear arrests appetite, maternal love annuls fear, respect checks sensuality”.  He continues with a lovely, conversational analysis of lying in bed on a cold morning and the processes which might lead to getting up, of the complex interaction of what he calls impulsions and inhibitions.  He then goes on to ask how this realisation about this interaction affects our ideas about free will.  He uses the image of the interaction of the flexor and extensor muscles to suggest to the teachers that “the ideal sort of mind we should seek to reproduce in our pupils” is one which recognises this interaction of impulsion and inhibition and “whose fields of consciousness are complex”.

He then explores the ways in which ideas relate to action or inaction and that education can easily overemphasise the inhibitory – “you must also see to it that no habitual hesitancy or paralysis of the will ensues, and that the pupil still retains his power of vigorous action”.  For this to be the case, and to prevent the opposite extreme, he pinpoints the quality of attention, the effort of attention we give to our intentions.  So the exertion of will, in education, has, if it is to be healthy, to come from the pupil.  The teacher will present the ‘ideas’ (the intentions, ideals, purposes) and help develop the habits which put them into practice, but the attention must be voluntary and must be the pupil’s.  And more than that, discovering that the quality of our voluntary attention really is up to ourselves will make  “the whole question of free will concentrate itself, then, at this same small point” – the part played by our free attention in the path from thought to action.  He ends his lecture by pointing out that this conception of the will leads to two types of inhibition “inhibition by repression or negation, and inhibition by substitution” in which we act “under the notion of a good”.    We stop and direct our attention to what we want and how we can get there.  We substitute a good.  He then describes the virtuous circle in which this second kind of inhibition enriches and confirms our sense of having free will, a sense which for him still demands that “the very first act of a will endowed with freedom should be to sustain the belief in the freedom itself.  I accordingly believe freely in my freedom” (all quotes from ‘The Will’).

We renounce our efforts at control, we take hold of our power of choice and action.  This is the paradox at the heart of William James’ view of the human being as “a little sensitive, impulsive, associative and reactive organiser, partly fated and partly free”.  We need techniques to touch our freedom.

10. Inhibiting – a way to develop

Inhibit is an old word, going back via French to Latin, with a heavy legal weight of ‘forbidding’ about it.  The meaning can soften a bit towards restraining or preventing.  Towards the end of the nineteenth century it comes into scientific use, in particular, in physiology.  Here is a definition of inhibition from 1883, “the arrest of the functions of a structure or organ by the action upon it of another while its power to execute those functions is still retained and can be manifested as soon as the restraining power is removed”.  Please note the idea of restraining, postponing.  It went together with the then current theory of dynamogeny, of a force in the nerves which allowed a common nature to be recognised in sensory and motor nerves.  Sense impressions were thought of as bringing about “movements” in the central nervous system which were experienced as stimulation and pleasure.  The idea of enzymes in natural processes, catalysts which speeded up chemical reactions in, for example, fermentation, was becoming established.  As the ideas of “animal spirits” or “vital forces” were being countered or replaced by an understanding of life based solely on physical and chemical processes, there was a need to bring in a principle of control at the organic level.

Why this word matters so much to my purposes is that it has been such an important word in the development of what we call the Alexander Technique.  If I were to write a description of the Alexander Technique on the back of a postcard then it would include the concept of, if not the word, inhibiting, as one of only two key specific uses of language connected with F M Alexander – the other being “direction”.  My description might well not use the word ‘inhibition’ or ‘inhibit’ because in our time the word is associated with being stiff, unnatural, self-conscious, the very qualities which I believe the Alexander Technique is working to overcome.  However, these are the qualities which the Alexander Technique can, temporarily, stimulate as one learns, so the pitfalls of the word “inhibit” are doubly deep.  I am wanting to channel the instinctual or unconscious energy, not bottle it up, hold it in [“hold in” is the basic etymology of ‘inhibit’].

I want to present to you some of F M Alexander’s own words about ‘inhibiting’, but before doing that I would like to bring up to date the use of the word ‘inhibition’.  In pharmacology we find it much used; many people will be familiar with it from the description of the actions of medicines.  Here the older idea of slowing down, restraining is still to the fore.  But in studies of human development, inhibition has taken on a more subtle meaning.  Take the set of “primitive” reflexes which the perinatal human infant demonstrates.  These are a sequence of involuntary responses, which are essential for the baby’s survival and prepare the child for later, voluntary skills.  Normally they become inhibited during the first months of life.  If they don’t, then later motor and intellectual abilities do not come about.  As the child develops new interactions, then new movements contain within them inhibitory effects on previously existing reflexes.  The first, reflex, function becomes integrated within a second, perhaps also a reflex, eventually leading to voluntary skill and action.  As successive patterns of response are incorporated, previous ones disappear but are not discarded and not repressed.  The primitive reflexes can re-emerge, for instance in Alzheimer’s disease, but the natural sequence of reflex inhibition demonstrates a process more subtle and alive that one chemical process being, simply, stopped by another.  Inhibition, in behaviour, suggests growth and development.  This is also the meaning Alexander gave the word a hundred years ago.

In Alexander’s first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance (1910), he is keen to get away from the desire to get things right, and in this endeavour inhibition has a crucial part in helping to overcome apprehension.  The pupil “is doing what is wrong.  Obviously he should begin then by ceasing to do what is wrong, not by endeavouring blindly to do what is right” (p 157).  Alexander says, in this situation, the ordinary human being has “lost the habit of inhibition”; instead we renew our efforts to put something right, resulting in more undue physical tension.  The teacher has an important role in not stimulating this undue effort: “If you mention that he did a certain thing when you placed your hands on him, he will make an endeavour physically to prevent himself the next time” (p. 159).  So, inhibition is not the exertion of a force to prevent something happening: that is just increasing the tension and the apprehension.  It is activity by which the pupil is enabled to “be really once more in communication with his reason”.

In Alexander’s next book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, the inhibitory act is linked to the following volitional act.  This is made clear in Chapter 4, “Illustration”, one of the few occasions on which Alexander described in detail his teaching procedures.  Inhibition is not something imposed from without, and is the essential act allowing us to get beyond symptoms such as a stiff neck, to the cause which will lie in our behaviour.  “The stimulus to inhibit, therefore, in this case, comes from within and is not forced on the pupil.  This means that the pupil’s desires will be satisfied, not thwarted, and that desirable emotional and other psycho-physical conditions will be present which do not make for what is known as suppression in any form.” (p 124)  So, as the title of Alexander’s Third Book The Use of the Self might suggest, inhibition is an essential component in action: the refusing to respond in the habitual way (which had led to narrowing of focus, hurry, effort, discomfort, pain) becomes, is integrated into, is transformed into, the act of responding in a freely willed way.  This is the whole self at work.

In one of the few detailed records of lectures which F M Alexander gave (the lecture given at Bedford Training Course in 1934) there is a lovely, relaxed presentation of how impossible it is to induce, by instruction, changes in a pupil with the aim of putting something right.  Alexander is identifying the crux of the process as “giving consent”, or withholding consent, the process of decision making.  The act of inhibiting, of not responding, brings us in, as agents, into our activities, and leads into the conscious giving of consent and on further into activity imbued with active thinking.  In a later lecture from which notes remain (from 1949 when Alexander was 80) he is more insistent than ever about inhibition: “The great thing is inhibition.  You may think that when you ask a person to sit down and they don’t [do it] immediately, that they are not doing anything, but they are doing a great deal.”  Here Alexander is referring to the more physiological aspect of inhibition which I referred to at the beginning of this essay.  But he was always concerned to see how mind and body integrated.  In one of his earliest publications (1903) he had written about “motive power”, and in his final book The Universal Constant in Living (1941) he, in a passage I find very interesting, speaks about motivation and learning (Ch 11).  Alexander is always wanting to bring us back to “that use and functioning of the self as the instrument of learning and learning to do”, and that the necessary step towards active self-knowledge, or learning, is to develop the ability ”to inhibit the habitual (automatic) reaction to the stimuli of daily living, which, as I have been teaching since the beginning, must be inhibited before any such fundamental change can be brought about.”  The chapter begins with a quotation from Herbert Morrison – “It is an irony that man, so skilled in learning, should be so stupid in living”.  Fundamentally, Alexander’s emphasis on inhibition is suggesting a shift in the skill of learning that will help us to be less stupid in living.  Inhibiting is the foundation of learning, and Alexander was, above all, a great teacher.  We practice not reacting followed by moving into action until these two states of being are present within each other.  We can bridge the gap between learning and living.

9. Perfection

There is a self-portrait by Rembrandt which hangs now in Kenwood House in London which I find both beautiful and fascinating.  It shows in the mood of the man depicted, and in the technique, Rembrandt in his maturity, vigorous and with authority.  Behind him are parts of two large circles inscribed on the walls, bare hemispheres, empty maps, exactly shaped, though each is incomplete, cut off by the frame: a perfect outline comprised of many careful brush strokes.  Rembrandt paints his face and head with a powerful stillness and composure, with a striking imprecise but exquisite daub of white at the tip of his nose.  In contrast the hands and the brushes he holds are in whirling undefined activity, asserting his freedom, and, paradoxically, his control.  Head and hand, clear lines and unformed scribbles. Thought and action – I think this painting is a complex revelation of where a longing for perfection might lead us.  A painter described to me the effect this painting has on him by saying that “it gives me ideas without overwhelming me”.  That seems to me to get right to the heart of a different kind of perfection, beyond faultlessness.  And I think it suggests the nature of the human being’s perfection – that it resides in creativity, in finding the wholeness which goes forward, which is unfinished.

Rudolf Steiner, speaking to teachers about avoiding fatigue in education (Soul Economy lecture XI), asks them to distinguish making too great demands on the head-nature of the child from overtaxing the limb and metabolic system.  He asks the teacher always to look to the breathing and blood circulation, to all that is rhythmic in the child’s being, because this system in the human being, is by nature indefatigable and constitutes the inner independent world of the child.  Rudolf Steiner describes the head, especially in childhood, as the source of what forms the child, what flows into the whole physical organisation.  On their own, these forces, in their inner mental and intellectual manifestations, are forces which separate the individual human being, leading to an “artificial state of perfection”.  Through our limbs, our metabolism, we are in touch with the external world, we generate warmth, we can soften and disturb what would become isolated and perfect through the influence of our heads.  Rudolf Steiner characterises the development of the child as involving gradual penetration of the body, and through the body establishing a relationship to the world.  He is at pains to insist that the true intellectual development of the adolescent depends on the full incarnation into the limb system; “the human being pours himself into the skeleton”.  I think this description illuminates the Rembrandt self-portrait and is signalling the dangers of that one-sided, head-orientated idea of perfection which could have belonged to the empty circles behind Rembrandt.  But they are incomplete; they engage our imagination to leave them be or complete them.

The softening of the perfection which belongs to the head is inherent in all care relationships which mature from dependence to true mutuality.  It is vital that we do not imagine that we, or others, have all the answers.  I appreciate D W Winnicott’s insight into the way that growth is helped by the lack of certainty about what the other person needs.  It’s important not to know, to get things wrong – as a doctor, as a mother, as a friend.  You wait for the other person to give a signal.  You have to wait – and this is also relevant in our inner dialogue.  Waiting – a core activity in the Alexander Technique – is about moving to a different ideal of perfection.  If, as Winnicott puts it, we “know too well” we stifle growth.

A couple of examples will help give some colour to this concept of wise imperfection.  There was a famous concert by the pianist Keith Jarrett given in Köln in the mid seventies.  He was ill, it was an unlikely venue with an inadequate piano; out of it came a mesmeric performance in which he felt “nothing could go wrong, nothing can stop me now”.  Out of the inadequacy of the situation came a total trust and faith in his playing and his imagination.  That example may, for you, only suggest the omnipotence of intoxication.  I move on to a more intensely suggestive event, recorded by the Dutch doctor L F C Mees about the treatment he received, when ill in his twenties, from Ita Wegman, a doctor who was a close collaborator of Rudolf Steiner.  He describes Ita Wegman approaching his bed, greeting him, and beginning with a basic examination and questions.  “I still remember very well that, after a few minutes, I developed a strong sense that this person knew nothing, that she was a great question; and at the same time I was filled with the awareness that someone like that was a proper doctor.  A doctor should actually know nothing, but be solely a question.  He asks patients about their complaints and at the same time asks the world of healing what is needed.”  I love the way this description opens up a new path towards perfection.

In the Jewish mystical tradition there is an image of the creation of the Universe as the shattering of the vessels which were channelling the light of God into the space that had been emptied to allow creation.  As some of the vessels shattered, sparks and shards fell to become manifest, trapped in material existence.  Thus comes our broken, asymmetric universe: our task is to raise the light, to liberate the sparks and restore them to divinity.  Our world in inherently flawed.  If it were not so, it would not exist, but this image also allows the perfect, the divine, to be recognised here, and everywhere.  I think in this picture we can bring together the imperfection of Keith Jarrett’s piano and the unknowing presence of the doctor at the young man’s bedside.

Often, in work with the Alexander Technique, we have a longing for perfection, for being without flaws, without faults.  I believe it is, at heart, a method which leads us beyond such a head-bound, intellectual concept of perfection into one that is more about the perfection of intuited completeness, of the becoming that is not yet realised but which guides the present changes.  It’s the very antithesis of an achieved state of virtue – it’s the expression of the individualised path of self-development which is the human being’s path.  We are the least specialised, the simplest of animals in a way, with so much scope in the way we mould the flow between head and limbs, playing our poor piano, pausing so that we can release the spark from where it lies hidden beneath our habits and our hurry.

8. Geometry can be more than measuring

This essay is about our experience of space.  Even today, when our lives tend to be dominated by accurate time-keeping and the relentless passage of the minutes and the hours, we can recognise, in ourselves and in nature, that there are other experiences of time which are possible, expressed in rhythm and in feeling and in the quality of our engagement with what is happening.  Time can become something different to soulless clock time.  Is it also true of space that we can recognise other kinds of space than the normal?  I believe we can and do.  I will begin with three short poems by the reclusive Emily Dickinson whose condensed poems often open out into a revelation which she has to work at containing.  In one poem beginning “We pray – to Heaven –“ she tries to grasp this place beyond our ordinary dimensions:

Is Heaven a Place – a Sky – a Tree?
Location’s narrow way is for Ourselves –
Unto the Dead
There’s no Geography –
But State – Endowal – Focus –
Where – Omnipresence – fly?

The poem ends with a verb, ‘fly’: the place or state of Heaven cannot be grasped from our “narrow way”.  Another poem begins:

They leave us with the Infinite.
But He – is not a man –

We cannot conceive of this condition which is beyond our human conditions when it comes at us in a word like ‘Infinite’.  But there is a hint in another poem of how we can leave our everyday space without trying to define or describe the Infinite.  The poem beings “I dwell in Possibility –“.  This possibility is there in her poetic imagination:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

She spent most of her adult life not leaving the same house.  Out of such confinement she finds a release through something within her which can also be imagined as a simple physical gesture, the gesture of possibility.  The poem ends with this gesture which touches infinity, touches Heaven:

The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

In this gesture is a more feminine infinity, not the dominating Absolute of ordinary space:

They leave us with the Infinite
But He – is not a man –
His fingers are the size of fists –
His fists, the size of men.

Geometry means, originally, measuring out the earth, a necessary activity for all the practical calculations at the heart of culture, from parceling out land, to building, and travel and communication.  Just as with time, our modern technological culture needs accuracy and order in the handling of space.  This need for control, that things fit together, is one way of dealing with space.  There are other experiences of space which complement this primary geometry.  These other experiences are to do with life and with consciousness and the self-consciousness of the human being.  We all live with these other kinds of spatial awareness but we tend to think of cold, clear measurement as being the most basic, the most real, and that the other kinds of experience of space are somehow just fanciful and insubstantial.  The realisation I am working towards in this essay is that the practical attitude to space, however valid and useful, is not the primary one, but comes into being out of a richer, more living understanding of space, one we carry with us all the time but which cannot be pinned down so easily, and, so, escapes our awareness.

The essence of our everyday way with space is that things have, at any moment, a fixed position – there, and there, and there.  This belief goes together with a view of space itself which both sees it as emptiness and yet also gives it existence as an entity.  It is as though we pass our lives in various kinds of empty rooms – the walls and floor and ceiling giving the space within a sense of reality, however clearly we know the space is empty.  As someone looking at the room we can see ourselves as another thing in the space, separate from the other things.  Some or all of the things may move in the space but that doesn’t in itself affect the other things, unless they collide, and doesn’t affect the space, the emptiness, in which all this is happening.  I recall a cartoon showing two architects looking up at the night sky, with stars shining down from the heavens, one saying to the other, “Wonderful use of space!”.

To try to present other experiences of space I want to use plant growth as a pure manifestation of the way life manifests in space.  The innocence of plant growth means it can’t speak directly of human experience, but it can help the shift which frees us from being observers, for whom space is dead and empty, and things just stay where they are put.  The growth of a plant asks us, allows us, to participate, to feel our way into an experience of space as something in which living forms come into being.  Space is coming into being in our consciousness and in the life forms we participate in.  Things will no longer stay still to be measured in this kind of space.

Before living into the growth of the plant, let me give you a couple of examples to help you let your thinking be more mobile.  Take a famous painting, Georges Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnieres’, which you will find hanging in the National Gallery in London.  You can focus on the myriad dots of paint, or you can redirect your attention, and see the painting’s subject.  It is not a question of changing the optical focus of your eyes.  Your attention must move.  The two experiences are inter-related – the image is created out of the dots, and the dots embody the idea.  You can focus on the parts, the separate bits, and you can separately see the whole which is both the purpose and, in a real sense, the source of the dots.

A second exercise is to compare the normal experience we have of being with a group of strangers in a space such as a railway carriage, or shop, or on a city street.  However friendly our disposition, we will be behaving as though all the people are like points, separate entities.  An unstated conviction will be that I am in control of my own actions, although I may have to avoid bumping into others: separation and personal control.  We are usually wary of participation – I have already used that word to describe the quality of space which I am working towards and which I consider primary – we are wary because participation usually means loss of personal control, and autonomy is a key modern value.

Now imagine a completely different social situation to a crowded railway carriage.  Imagine a situation in which you have joined together, voluntarily, with others for a common purpose or out of a common commitment.  There is no leader, no ruler, no traditional hierarchy.  The obvious image for such an arrangement is a circle, without there being any need for the people to be actually gathered in a physical circle.  Each individual belongs in the circle but, in the ideal social possibility I am imagining, the circle is a source from which, out of which, all the individuals can experience themselves as individual, unique centres of being and agency.  The space within such a circle of consciousness is not an emptiness in which separate entities have their positions.  It is many spaces of interpenetrating activity, all with a common source but with many individual centres, concentrations of being, coming into being within.  You may feel this picture stretches the idea of ‘space’ beyond anything still connected to the meaning of what it is we measure with a ruler or a pair of dividers.  It is a big shift but I have consciously chosen this as a way of disturbing the deadness of measured space.  Our constant wish for ‘some space’ in our lives is both staying connected to good old reliable, measurable ‘space’ and asking for something intangible and soulful.

The everyday space of fixed entities actually extends out to this thing we call Infinity, the ungraspable Absolute.  The emptiness just goes on and on.  In a way which I hope you will be able to enter into, having imagined your way into the growing tip of the plant, when you come in towards a centre from a source, from the plane of the expanded sphere, you are not contracting or collapsing in towards a heavy centre.  Think of “spreading wide my narrow hands” of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems and not the fists of the named Infinity.  The coming in is like the gesture of a sculptor, living in planes which shape, not fists which consolidate.  It is the gesture we see in the spirals of seashells such as Nautilus, and in many plant and animal forms, a gesture  which does not come to rest in a definite point of matter at the centre but spirals in towards an inner infinitude.  But this infinity is there within the material world.  It disappears into the material substance of the living form but it was necessary for the genesis of form.

If you examine the growing tip of most plants you will be able to see that the appearance is not of a point thrusting up into space.  The plant does grow upwards, of course, but, typically, via a process that occurs around and within a concave, hollow space enclosed by uncurled, unformed leaves.  Growth involves the opening out into substance of these incipient leaves, each becoming, in turn, more substantial and flatter.  In so doing the leaves engage, biochemically, with the light, in photosynthesis, but this inner space, this hidden enclosed space also belongs to the sun, as an infinitude drawing in the life and form forces of the light.  In the flower you see this cup-like space caught, filled with delicate substance, yet still magical and immaterial in its colour and scent.  In the fruit you find the hollowness filled and rounded just as most living bodies are filled and rounded, finite.  The seeds are then the, typically, hard, grainy, point-like entities which are at the same time the place where the lifting up of substance into the forms of life can begin again.  Growth and the development of form in living organisms are best understood by conceiving processes, fields of force, working in from outside, rather than as processes in which substance is built up from the centre in the way that inorganic structures become larger.  In the plant, living substance is drawn up and out by forces which work in towards the centre from the periphery, like hands that have been spread wide, now shaping inwards in planar movement.  Living forms cannot be understood without trying to live into the way that expansion and contraction, the relationship to the centre and the relationship to the periphery, work together in the interplay between the material substance (and the forces belonging to the centre), and the spiritual or life-forming activity which comes from the periphery and works in to draw the physical substance into the form that appears and moves in space.  Expansion and contraction, movement in time, are creating space as forms appear and change.  Space is not a pre-existing emptiness in which things are placed and as they move let us be aware of time.  Here I am asking you to give priority to time, to processes of development, which allow our consciousness to know space.  Space comes about through our participation in transformation.

To end I will go back to the human being and offer you two thoughts about correspondences, on different levels of being, to do with contraction and expansion, centre and periphery.  The first is to do with our sense of being at home with solid, measurable earth on which objects do not shift.  Mineral nature accumulates from a centre; space becomes filled from a centre but the rock does not have an inside.  We too feel ourselves to be beings with a centre, with a point centre of individuality, of self-knowledge, connected to our physical embodiment.  This centre is not like the rocks but it is different from the ebb and flow of the processes of life and form, the processes typical of the plant and animal which are ongoing rhythmical processes between inner and outer, between organism and environment.  The I-being of the human being only finds its way into physical existence through these experiences of life but it has its own point-like identity.

The second thought about the human being concerns that hidden concave space out of which the plant’s material growth emerges.  I find in that space of emerging growth an image of the condition of inner empty wakefulness which the human being has the power to create out of the centre of the self.  This is the space which Emily Dickinson meant by “I dwell in Possibility”.  I think it is rightly called a space and it is a space coming into being out of time, out of the relationship between the infinitude within and the encircling plane, in which I also belong, and which is both the source and the intuited purpose of my present centredness.  I dwell in possibility.

There is a much-loved poem by Brian Patten which can give this essay a more familiar world to conclude with: the experience of falling in love.  The poem, titled ‘The Ambush’ addresses the person who has been hurt by love lost:

You sit in a bar and boast to yourself
“Never again will I be vulnerable.
It was an aberration to be so open,
A folly never to be repeated”.

But the ambush will come – ‘a day when in a field/ Heaven’s mouth opens’.  All sorts of disturbances of the normal will happen, emotion ‘will flare up within you and bleed you of reason’ and:

Your body will become a banquet
Falling heavenwards.
You will loll in Spring’s sweet avalanche
Without the burden of memory
And once again
Monstrous love will swallow you.

This essay has been about the experience of falling heavenwards.  It goes together with falling towards the centre of the earth.  The falling in love is a falling upwards.  It can make us dizzy and unstable, it undoes, as the poem says,

The routines which comforted you
And the habits in which you sought refuge
Will bend like sunlight under water
And go astray.

The familiar disturbance of our normal experience of space, the bending of light under water, opens up the universal significance of forces of light and growth which are responsible for life and consciousness and which keep us open, keep us vulnerable.  We don’t have to deny them and we don’t have to rely on intoxication to enjoy them.

7. Interest

A friend of mine, who is also a teacher of the Alexander Technique, remarked to me in passing, about her grown-up children, that she was full of wonder at their ability to “stand in the other person’s shoes” and that it developed out of their ability to stand in their own.  I enjoyed the simple strength of this everyday image and it set me yet again to exploring empathy and its relationship to our bodily selves.  Empathy is a fully human realisation of an ability to hold two things, or streams, or meanings in our mind.  The young child can be fooled by a drawing or a small model and mistake the image or model as “the real thing”.  Gradually the fundamental metaphorical or symbolic quality of understanding emerges.  Our normal sense perception has an element of fantasy, of one thing being like another, which is shown in the basic progression from “This is my world” (the standing in your own shoes) via “let me show you my world” to “I can feel or see your world” (standing in their shoes).  We see this power of fantasy in the young child who is allowed, and free, to live in her senses and weave living stories out of everyday experience.  It is a gift which needs no overt stimulation, only the freedom to be expressed.  But it goes together with the child finding and speaking of herself, with greater clarity, and with a kind of limitation, a drawing in, of the previously wider, cosmic consciousness of the child.  The physical organism gradually becomes animated – think how unpermeated by the being of the child are the baby’s limbs and body.  The body is shaped by the being of the child to be her means of expressing herself.  I want the will of the child to be recognised as being active in the transformations of development.  Being and body come to be one, and through that union the embodied being can begin to know the world.  These elements – the gradual mastery of the body in movement and the reaching out to receive the world through the senses – work together to make the human being whole.

I believe with the Alexander Technique we are given some basic ways of re-enlivening that open interest, both passive and active, which impels our development.  Karl König offers us the challenging thought “even when we are adult there is always a lot of child in us, although it is rarely experienced today.  We would not be human if this remnant of our childhood nature did not sometimes dream, or at least sleep in us throughout the whole of our adult life.  This sleeping part of our child-being keeps us upright as human beings”, (Eternal Childhood p73).    In a later lecture Karl König explores this idea further by speaking of the core of our self-consciousness as “the very small child that is really a baby still, which is our ego”.  This infant self has to work to achieve uprightness and can achieve it only because of the solidity of the earth.  The potential for uprightness belongs to the individual but can only be realised in each of us because of that which connects us to the totality of mankind – the earth.  Through our physical nature we belong to the earth and to mankind.  But, “the child” who keeps us upright is not physical.  We can recognise it in the child’s freshness and openness.  Our self-willed creation emerges out of a wider, immaterial wholeness.  As adults we continue to give birth to ourselves in our bodies out of wider conditions of being which we more obviously see at work in the baby or young child.

In a series of imaginative, poetic lectures Rudolf Steiner (Man as Symphony Lecture XII) explores the connection between the natural, physical human being and us as soul-moral beings, starting from the premise that most of us will be “unable to find any link to join the bony system and system of muscles… with the moral world-order”.  He notes how prevalent it is that, half-consciously or unconsciously, we are unwilling to accept the individual characteristics of others: “Are not people today mostly so constituted that each one regards himself as the standard of what is right and proper?  And when someone differs from this standard we do not take kindly to him, but rather think ‘This man should be different’.  And this usually implies, ‘He should be like me’.”  Rudolf Steiner connects this lack of empathy with the very solidity and mineral quality of our physical bodies; that these cold qualities are inherent in the welding together of our physical organism.  We are made separate, and this tendency is most akin to the thoughts that work in our bony heads.  He then goes on to ask us to be aware, in ourselves, and others, of the different kind of thinking that accompanies our limb system, to realise that we also think with our fingers and hands and feet and that it is deeply significant when “we look at the way a person walks.. or when we allow his hands to make an impression on us so that we interpret these hands and find that in every movement of the fingers there lie wonderful revelations of man’s inner nature… it is man’s whole moral nature which moves, his destiny moves with him; everything that he is as a spiritual being”.

If we live into our own movement-thinking, and that of others, we will prevent that physical coldness and hardness from influencing our soul life, and through our whole-body-thinking we will make more real and meaningful our meeting with other people.  We will feel our connections to them; we will be able to stand in their shoes.  This is the child, the ever-mobile child, at work in us but she needs the firm bones, the muscles, the resisting, supportive earth in order to be able to relate: your own shoes, then the other’s.

An unspoken theme throughout this essay has been the possibility of reversal between activity and receptivity.  If we make our thinking more active then we find ourselves open and receptive to new kinds of more living, nourishing ideas.  If we still our will, we discover what we want to do, what others want from us.  I think this is one of the basic transformative methods of the Alexander Technique – the attempt to be active where we are normally passive and passive when activity dominates, so that new, more open, richer qualities in the domain we have inhabited (activity or receptivity) are given to us.  This could be described as the child at work in us, the child who loves the world as if it were herself and who lets herself be at peace with all she meets.

My grandmother gave me a silver snuff-box which had belonged to her great grandfather and which included in the engraved inscription thanks for his ‘disinterested kindness’, for kindness that was seeking no advantage for the doer.  ‘Interest’ means ‘to be between’ and the position of being in between brings with it awareness of difference and comparison.  This phrase ‘interest’ goes back to the Latin use, as an impersonal verb, meaning ‘this is important’.  Comparison is at the heart of our awareness of the world: it tells us important information.  Often we will analyse comparisons in terms of advantage and harm to us or to the other party.  We move from the space in between, the space of interest, sharply back into our own shoes and start comparing our place with the other person’s.  Our humanity offers us other (more interesting) ways of using the space between people than calculations of fear and envy.  The Alexander Technique is a way of discovering the thinking that lives in our limbs.

6. Grace

 

Cambodian dancer, Rodin

As a teacher of the Alexander Technique I am often looking for the right words to describe the qualities of moving and doing, of being, which I am hoping students will find.  My least favourite is ‘posture’ or ‘good posture’.  To me it suggests stiffness, and a notion of correctness which adds another layer of emotional or behavioural fixedness.  I will happily speak of freedom, or poise, or responsiveness.  I am a little wary of the word ‘grace’, because of its religious connotations, but I think the meanings that hide in this short word teach me, and challenge me, to acknowledge the depth and complexity of what we are touching on in working on ourselves in the way we do with the Alexander Technique.

The first significant publication of the French philosopher, Simone Weil, only published after her death during the Second World War, was given the title Gravity and Grace.  She lived out her short and restricted life in appalling but welcomed suffering, a bleak existence with moments of release into the divine presence.  Gravity and Grace were both intense experiences in her life but connected only by their both being beyond her understanding.  I believe we can find a way in to the life that flows between these two dimensions, gravity and grace, that need not crush us.

I find it interesting that the idea of ‘gravity’, has, through many languages, right back to Latin, combined the ideas of heaviness, of downwards, and of importance.  A grave matter is significant.  What is light goes up and is frivolous.  Gravity is what matters!

Grace, from the beginning, was an idea reborn in Christian thinking, expressing the essence of the new experience of the immanence of the divine.  Its import became even more intense with the Reformation and reveals ambivalence about individual selfhood.  Martin Luther suffered severe anxiety, fear of death, a sense of personal moral failure and divorce from the divine.  Yet he was the one to encourage individual spiritual experience and response to the Gospel.  Martin Luther writes of  “a free surrender and joyful bet on [God’s] unfelt, untried and unknown goodness”.  Just as people are finding themselves as individuals they discover the need for renunciation, for grace.  A conviction has been born that there is something which, by nature, we do not have, but which we can’t do without, and which we can’t engender for ourselves.  On our own we can only worry; strength comes from letting go into the liberation of grace.

Here is the link to the grace of movement, the image of the dancer (look at Rodin’s sketches of Eastern dancers), self-surrendered in graceful motion.  I want to suggest that we sense a strong impulse of the unconscious in such grace; of fulfilled contact with the world through the body, beyond the intellect.  In the dance our desires are fulfilled, perhaps even as spectators, without our becoming weary.  There is life in us.  It feels to both the dancer and the spectator, ideally, that a power, beyond that which normally fuels our achievement of individual goals, is embodied in the dance.  We know that such joy is not the only expression of that unconscious power – it is also the region from which clumsy giants and lumbering monsters can emerge.  I want to look for the polar quality, or complement; the necessary partner to the grace of the unconscious, which can bring just enough balancing clarity of consciousness to meet the sometimes frightening energy of the dark depths.

I want to begin with the idea of dignity, or worth – the two words are connected.   This is the question which many of us ask ourselves – Do I have a place, am I recognised, am I important?  And we ask this question of other people, of things as well.  This is the world of gravity with its tendency towards drawing in towards a centre, towards this heavy important person or book or problem.  But can we let that go and keep the clarity, the imagination, the curiosity?  As we become aware, as we compare and learn, can we enter into comparison without immediately thinking in terms of ‘better’ and ‘worse’?

Another way of looking at gravity and grace is via the fundamental flow from ‘form’ into ‘movement’.  Practice in the Alexander Technique is about enjoying that moment of movement beginning, of a human intention disappearing into the active limbs.  When we bring movement to an end then stillness returns with, perhaps, an enlivened sense of our form, our body.  In our inner life we can practise an interchange between stilling, pausing, and then the directing of our thoughts, feelings and intentions (still as inner activity), through our bodies and out into the world.  As we engage in this inner and outer work then the influence of movement in stillness, and the presence of the form found in stillness in the flow of movement, bring together gravity and grace.  The dignity, the recognised place of the self, becomes one with the grace, the moving desire of the self.  Both exist in, and are held by, the other.

Rudolph Steiner, in a lecture entitled ‘Facing Karma’ contrasts what he feels are the most helpful attitudes to, respectively, suffering and joy in our lives.  He suggests that, if we can create moments of pause, we can come to realise that we have sought out, or can welcome, certain times of pain or suffering which have allowed us, or which we believe will allow us, to develop.  Given the chance, we would normally not choose the road taking us towards suffering, but, at times, what Steiner calls ‘the wiser being in us’ can act without our knowing it, or we can create those “sacred moments”, as he calls them, in which we still the voice which would always avoid pain.

Regarding happiness and joy, Steiner suggests that we take a different path, not connecting  these experiences to our own personal path of development, but, rather, just dwell in the sense of gratitude and allow ourselves to consider our happiness as grace, as an experience of “being embedded in the divine forces and powers of the world”.  He recommends this attitude not in order to deny ourselves pleasure, but because “thinking about joy and happiness have a paralyzing and extinguishing effect” if we are connecting our happiness to our centre of self, our gravity.  Suffering draws our insubstantial thoughts down into gravity: gratitude allows a happy movement of release into a divine, unburdened world of creation.

Perhaps in the child absorbed in play on the beach, or the old couple dancing to a favourite tune we see gravity and grace, dignity and release, working together in ways those of us immersed in the middle of life have to work to achieve.  Grace acknowledges a power working in us which allows us to take hold of movement, pain, our path through life, without being overwhelmed by heaviness.

5. Empathy

‘Empathy’ is a modern word, compared to the more familiar ‘sympathy’.  You find the word ‘empathy’ first used at the beginning of the twentieth century to translate the Geman ‘Einfühlung’, to express the new sophisticated psychological interest in what it takes to create something  artistic, or to respond to the demanding intensity and conscious artistry of contemporary paintings, or poems or novels.  More active effort is being asked of the creator and the spectator to feel their way into the subject.  Sympathy has always relied on the natural capacity of one thing, or person, to be affected by another; to be moved by a natural affinity, to be influenced without thinking.  Empathy implies that we – we who are encountering each other – will need to relate more actively.  I came across these words of William Law, the eighteenth century religious leader, which show that this ideal of recognising and enjoying difference is not new to the twentieth century, but today, perhaps, there is a more acute sense that the natural resonance between different instruments may not now sound out so naturally as it did for the contemplative William Law.  “Every complexion of the inward man… suffering itself to be tuned and struck and moved by the Holy Spirit of God, according to its particular frame and turn, helps mightily to increase that harmony of divine praise, thanksgiving and adoration which must arise from different instruments, sounds and voices”.  Today, perhaps, we are looking for different music, different and more difficult connection.

I want now to lead you through an analysis of empathy as a process taking place between people.  My account relies heavily on the description given by Evan Thompson, a philosopher, who wrote a book called The Embodied Mind.  The title will give you the clue that my interest was roused by the significance given to bodily interaction in a human experience such as empathising.

Empathy is concerned with our wish and our ability to understand what someone else is experiencing.  It is important, for my understanding, to affirm at the outset that we experience other people directly.  We don’t, I believe, go through a process of inferring how another person is feeling from how they’re behaving.  Our experience of another as a person can rightly be called direct perception.  We experience another person as an integrated whole – as a being with a mind and feelings, a personality, expressed through their body, a being with an inner life.

Empathising begins with an involuntary linking with another person through an unconscious appreciation of their whole body activity, and a consequent resonant stimulation, in the observer, which generates a state which echoes or recreates or models the other person’s state of being.  This needs attention but not conscious attention.

The next state is more active and more thoughtful.  We imagine ourselves in the place of the other.  This could result in some vague sense of distress perhaps, or at the other end of a spectrum, in a clear exploration of how we imagine the other person is seeing the world, how they are feeling and thinking.
If we go to the developing child we can see the gradual growth of this ability and wish to share with another.  It is rooted in the growing realisation, first, that others are like me and, second, the growing recognition, for the child herself, that she has her own plans and intentions.  Bring these two dawning developments together and the child begins to reach out towards sharing.  She will follow the gaze of her mother to find out what she is interested in, she will imitate the movements of her mother and find her way into their purpose, she will point and call her mother’s attention towards her own interest.
On the next, deeper, interactive level comes the double step of being able to see another person as someone who sees me as an individual, separate from them.  In this intersubjective relationship, both people have the chance to step out of their ‘I’ perspective, but also to recognise themselves as separate entities in the world.  A new possibility of self-consciousness has arisen, and a newfound complexity about what it is to be a “lived body”.  I am aware of myself as my own unique intimacy, and as an element in an inter-subjective world – but my identity depends on my being able to experience, via empathising, that other people recognise me.  I have a sense of here and there, but also, on a more complex level, the sense of ‘I’ and ‘you’ who help define each other and can’t simply swap places.

This leads on, I think, to the fourth stage of empathising, in the recognition of the other as a person who deserves, or calls forth, our concern and respect.  This is the fundamental birth of our moral sensibility.  Perhaps empathy will most obviously be expressed through language, and will become individual and refined only through language, but it begins in the body and can be expressed at all levels in deeds.  I believe, in whatever way it is expressed, there is something happening in the nature of a conversation, a dialogue.  What is important here for me is that a conversation is not predictable or symmetrical.  There are no fixed procedures, no duties.  There is a spirit of interest, of enquiry in the act of empathising which doesn’t seek to console or to know.  It is not the realm of the expert, unless it be in attentive interest.  The process of empathy involves the subtlety of experiencing oneself both as ‘I’ and ‘other’.  This can lead on to the conscious experience of self-empathy, entering into one’s own experience imaginatively.  This too can begin in the body – we are able to touch ourselves, to hold one hand in the other and, in a sense, be both self and other.  This idea comes more to life in my remembering how I once was, when I recall a recent situation and my part in it, or when I imagine how I will feel in a future meeting.  Bodily being, and feeling, ground our morality.

But without knowledge of other minds it is impossible to have knowledge of our own.  Our connection to others begins more via intentions and desires than the recognition that they have beliefs and thoughts and knowledge.  This progression towards the centre, towards the inner life of the other comes about through conversation.  What the Alexander Technique adds, for me, to this conversation is, first, a celebration of the bodily resonating, bodily responsiveness, which supports the growth of empathy, and, secondly, a path of calming which clarifies and opens the channels of imagination, of empathy, both to myself and to other people.  Sympathy is merging, empathy is about meeting, about making music from our individual instruments, about improvisation which allows us all to find our voices.

I heard by chance a voice of forty years ago – Bob Dylan singing ‘positively 4th street’ – and its relevance to this essay was too good to miss.  The singer addresses with bitter wit the friend or lover he feels has betrayed him.

I wish that for just one time
you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

Yes I wish that for just one time
you could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is
to see you

End of song.

4. Saying No

Our individual biological or body clock typically runs a little slower than the natural duration of the day.  In isolation, and without cues from nature, we tend to experience a day as lasting slightly longer: we think we are back where we started, in temporal terms, after about twenty four hours and twenty minutes.  Each day with the coming of the light after the night, our body clock resets itself like a slow running clock corrected.  This lag in our inner day, our inner stability, means that each day we retune ourselves to natural rhythms.  This retuning coincides with hormonal changes which prepare us to cope with the approaching stresses of being awake and active.  It seems to me that this daily resetting of our clock primes us to adapt to stress, and highlights how important, certainly in our culture, are the demands of anticipating what is coming.  “We guess and fear” as Robbie Burns acknowledges as he speaks to the mouse his plough has disturbed.  Our preoccupation with the accurate recording of the passage of time is the essential accompaniment to our feeling of being at the mercy of the next event.  I think this is not the whole story of our tie to time – without an awareness of time passing there would be no story, no biography, no planning or reflection and limited possibilities for social co-operation.  But on the immediate bodily level our attention to time is very much about anticipating stress, I believe.  Synchronising the mass attacks from the trenches in World War I needed the officers to have accurate timepieces.

Saying ‘No’ is, in part, about breaking this succession of events, one reacting upon the next in our inner life and outer behaviour.  In human beings the soul activities of thinking, feeling and willing are able, to a certain extent, to be exercised separately.  Consider your dog or cat.  In the typical animal these activities are thoroughly mixed and this mixing means that there are limited possibilities of freedom in the way the animal responds to what goes on around it.  For us, these different elements of our inner life do very much mingle, but we can come to a thought, explore a feeling, form an intention – and then act on them, or crucially for this essay – decide not to act.  We can say ‘no’ to others, and, more fundamentally, ‘no’ to ourselves.  This is a capacity which indicates a new type, a higher, more refined type of selfhood, a new principle of organisation within us.  I can say no.  The animal may well refrain from acting – not starting to eat or chase the ball until permission is given – but there is not the essential human act of refraining.  I can say ‘no’.

I want to explore what else this reveals about us – especially as ‘saying no’ is often used as a tool and exercise in the practice of the Alexander Technique.
I’m not quite sure why but several French illustrations have come to me – perhaps because of the famous ‘Non’ of General de Gaulle to Britain joining the European Community?  Is there something in the French spirit which can teach us about the essence of saying No?  Perhaps a loneliness of soul, a determination to stand up for truth?

My first example is Maigret, the detective created by Georges Simenon (actually a Belgian) and the strange hero of over seventy novels.  I loved the television series in the 60s but the novels make of Maigret a more interesting character, working his way into a crime, or a criminal’s mind, through inactivity, aimlessness, doing nothing in a clumsy sort of way.  He keeps unfocused, but this allows intuition to come.

A second example is found in the profound and famous essay which Albert Camus published in 1951 and which was translated as The Rebel.  It begins: “What is a Rebel.  A man who says no: but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation.”  I have been greatly influenced in my life by Albert Camus – I respond to his acceptance of responsibility.  To say no, for Camus, means that the individual takes responsibility, responds, acts, frees himself from any and all ideology.  To say no is the primary act of response to injustice: it is the first step towards meaning.  Camus likens it to preparing to release an arrow: “The bow bends; the wood complains.  At the moment of supreme tension, there will leap into flight an unswerving arrow, a shaft that is inflexible and free” (from the final chapter).  This celebration of tension confirms for me that the ‘saying no’ which we practise in the work of the Alexander Technique is not about relaxation per se but a path of engagement.

My third French example was also, like Camus, a member of the Resistance in the Second World War.  Jacques Lusseyran had become blind as a boy.  In the demands and danger of war, as a teenager, he is able to develop a focused inwardness, already nascent, which enabled him to see in a different way.  Eventually he is captured and, in prison, awaits interrogation.  He has to work hard to say ‘no’, to not lose the connection to his inner core: “One small piece of advice.  In a spot like this don’t go too far afield for help.  Either it is right near you, in your heart, or it is nowhere.  It is not a question of character, it is a question of reality.  If you try to be strong, you will be weak.  If you try to understand, you will go crazy”.  Camus describes this state of being a rebel as one in which “each tells the other he is not God”.  Jacques Lusseyran describes his inner command as he stays focused: “Don’t believe any of it.  Don’t even believe in yourself.  Only God exists.”  I think these two formulations – no God or only God – point to the same state of truthful presence through saying No.

I want to come back to our more normal experience of everyday stress and anticipation and to look at some of the exercises Rudolf Steiner describes in two popular lectures of his.  The first, entitled ‘Practical Training in Thought’ presents a variety of experiments.  At one extreme is the practice of letting distinct outer events, the weather on a particular day, say, and then on the next day, live in oneself as clear pictures, while one refrains from thinking about the connection which exists between them, of how one “turned into” the other.  At the other extreme, on a more deeply personal level, is the practice of thinking about different plans or responses or decisions in a particular situation and then consciously not deciding, not thinking about the choice until some moment chosen in the future.  Steiner suggests, paradoxically, that such distancing is not just an assertion of self but also makes our experience more vivid: “we come to feel as if our thinking occurred within the things themselves”.

In a second lecture, translated as ‘Overcoming Nervousness’, Steiner explores the value of having clear focus and aims, the value of attention.  From outward attention to objects he moves to the practice of noticing how we do things – walk, move our hands, laugh – and then on to the act of suppressing something we do. or of consciously doing it – writing, for example – in a different way.  He sees our not acting on wishes to be a valuable teacher on this path of attention which leads to inner certainty and the overcoming of ‘nervousness’.  Saying No enlivens the will, overcoming “the confusion people often feel today about how to set about doing what they really wish to do”.  There is, I believe, something richer happening here than what we normally mean today by self-assertion.  We are using saying no to embed or link ourselves to a wider support – not God or only God.  Saying no can be an expansive gesture rather than an act of rejection.  It can be the moment before the arrow is released, perhaps even the flight of the arrow itself; the moment in which the anxious energy of anticipation is transformed into creative presence.

3. The Silent I

Trying to see beyond our sometime preoccupation with evil and death, Rabindrarath Tagore pictures for us the young child learning to walk, who has “an impetus of joy which sustains it in its seemingly impossible task.  We see it does not think of its falls so much as of its power to keep its balance though only for a moment”.  He weaves the physical and the moral in his exploration of weight: because life is movement we can overcome weight – “we lightly bear our burden… When we take a pitcherful of water from the sea it has its weight, but when we take a dip into the sea itself a thousand pitcherfuls of water flow above our head and we do not feel their weight.  We have to carry the pitcher of self with our strength”.  Overcoming self – physically, emotionally, spiritually – leads to overcoming weight – and perhaps the other way round too.

How can we lighten the burden of the self?  We can try to cast it away, to see ourselves just as part of Nature, immersed in the motions of biology.  But selfhood came, in the West, with the impulse towards freedom, towards making our moral impulses our own.  We may be perplexed how this new dimension enters the biological, but it feels real, it feels our own.  We have escaped duty and tradition and are discovering love.  This brings the lightness of personal conviction and idealism.  This is both fulfilment and emptying of the self, potentially.  But with selfhood also comes the possibility of a different emptiness, a loneliness, which we may try to fill with ‘noise’ of some kind.  In traditional Eastern paths of spiritual development emptiness will help to free the seeker from illusions of separateness.  But for us today what are we to do with the energy of the self?  Is there a modern way of releasing it which doesn’t lead to desolation or dissolution?

I think the image of the Silent I can be helpful in describing the path which honours and fulfils our strength of self, a path of clarifying.
We are drawn inwards, to our inner life, our feelings, and we are strongly directed towards participation in the world.  We participate through work and social engagement but also through the need to understand the world through science or to express meaning through Art.  These two directions – inner and outer – are both very strong today but also need reconciling in a third dimension, which I would characterise as a state of rest, or silence, in which we sustain our own unity, our own rhythm of inward and outward activity.

I think that for us today there are three qualities of the life of the self which compose this place of silence.  It accepts suffering into beauty and personal growth.  It stays true to the particular, avoiding abstractions.  And, thirdly, out of these two commitments it allows the self to disappear into, and then emerge “out there” in our experience of the world.

 

Old Man in Sorrow (on the Threshold of Eternity), Van Gogh

 

I will use the life and work of Vincent Van Gogh to illustrate what I mean.  He is the tragic pioneer of the life of the Silent I.  He is no genius of natural talent; he works in a faltering and clumsy way in his early drawings of peasants and miners, working away to empty his mind and eye and hand so that ugliness and suffering become beautiful in the giving of himself.  The drawings and paintings are not observations, but recreations, emerging out of the silence of the I.  There is a picture which has the title ‘Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)’ which has an old man, head in hands, sitting by a fire which can no longer warm him.  But the fire of the artist’s self, living in the work, gives new life to the old man.  Look at the famous ‘Blossoming Almond Tree’ which Vincent painted for his new-born nephew whom his brother Theo had named Vincent.  In the blossom bursting from the bare branches we see the creative being, the act of the artist.  He is in the fragile beauty.  He is the tree though he has disappeared into it.  These paintings are his offspring as he implies in the letter to Theo found on him after he had shot himself.  He says, in that last letter, that some of his paintings “retain their calm even in the catastrophe”.  Not long before, in a letter to his mother, Vincent, after describing one of his last paintings of wheat fields and open skies, adds, “I am in a mood of almost too much calmness”.

The effort became too great to sustain this place of calm and silence which let him hold and channel the energies of the self.  One can see, in other artists, then and since, different ways of expending this creative potential – in wildness or noise, hallucination or intoxication, in dream or the absurd, in coldness of form or wit.  But in an artist such as Vincent van Gogh I see someone who is preparing the way for us to find more sustainable and loving ways to clarify the self.  We do not have to hover on the edge of breakdown or suicide, but can be everyday workers with the silence of the I, moving lightly between inner and outer worlds.  For us today loneliness and communion are not simple opposites, alternatives.  We find each through the other and the way between them is this silence, which, although intangible, belongs to us as bodily beings who are always, here and now, in some particular place, some particular moment.
One way to imagine the nature of this silent I – to experience its energy and its power – is to think of the heart, the functioning of the heart.  The first European to understand the circulation of the blood through the lungs was a Spanish physician, Michael Servet, who was burnt at the stake in Geneva in 1553 at Calvin’s instigation.  His crime was heresy, but related to his anatomical insights.  For him the blood which flows to the lungs, and then back to the heart, brings the divine spirit, the enlivening air, right into the core of each of us.

Anatomy is suggesting individuality.  One stream through the heart is leading blood to be renewed in the lungs, the other is leading that refreshed blood to circulate through the body.  The two streams are one, but in the heart is the crossing place of that figure of 8 where they are separated only by a thin partition.  In this organ of continuous, tireless rhythmic movement there is also the sense of a self-unity, a self-rhythm, a centre of presence, keeping self and world apart yet one.

Silence is more than stillness and listening can only grow out of silence, and by listening I mean the opening to the inwardness of what and whom we meet, and of ourselves.  Out of this listening comes the lightness which Rabindranath Tagore offers us.  Simply as we walk or carry something, we allow ourselves to be moved, to be carried by the life that is in us and which surrounds us.  That is an act of individual imagination, of the silence of the I.
Introducing the structure and functioning of the heart was not, I believe, just a fanciful analogy.  Guiding the interchange between inner and outer directions of our selfhood, finding the quality of silent rest which separates and integrates them – this business of the self is helped by our bodily awareness, physical movement, by participating in life, by natural rhythms and circulations.

“The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures… I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life.  And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.”

Rabindranath Tagore