Category Archives: Essays

2. Stillness

At an elderly friend’s funeral (he had recently been presented with his first great-grandchild) we sang a popular hymn which was unfamiliar to me.  The words which struck me most were the repeated ‘Be still my soul…

Be still my soul, begin the song of praise
On earth, be leaving, to Thy Lord on high
…………      ………….    ……………..
Be still my soul, The Sun of life divine
Through passing clouds shall but more brightly shine

This eighteenth century, German text, now married to Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’, makes stillness the nexus between our life and the fullness of reality.  This is the stillness of paradise which pervades those sacred cantatas of J S Bach which express the longing for death.  The tender central aria of ‘Ich habe genug’ (BWV82) ends

Here I but make misery
but there, there I shall behold
sweetest peace and quiet rest

This is not a comfortable vision today – in the words of a Talking Heads song, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”.  Reality for us is unstable.  We play with artifice and alienation.  Experience is shifting, and stillness tends towards lifelessness for us.  But not for J S Bach, though his music is so close to the dance.  But the dance is both moving and still – the pause, the form, the pattern.

The image of a still-life painting, a sculpted human form, a thrown bowl all, too, speak of a stillness which can lead to a deep appreciation of life, of activity.  We create something formed and still, but the very stillness can reveal the essence of movement.

If we go back to the stillness of the soul, in the sense of untroubled peace, I would ask you to picture the young child embedded in the nurturing environment of the mother, able simply to be and to develop; a state of protected unawareness.  Later in childhood, and I’m thinking typically of around the age of nine, will come the confrontation with the world, with a new sense of something being asked or demanded of the child.  In this face-to-face meeting a clear distinguishing of self and the world can happen, in particular the now clearer observation of others, comparing oneself with others, developing a personality.  I want to suggest that the proper intensity of this developmental encounter emerges out of a kind of stillness within the being of the child, a stillness expressed in a lightness of being, a feeling of integration of mind and body.  This buoyant stillness is, I believe, the fruit of the young child’s immersion in a nurturing environment which does not ask her to be in charge, to be aware.  In a way that can be appropriate for adults, I think of the Alexander Technique as offering us the restorative power of this inner stillness which promotes both our overcoming of the adult heaviness of the body, and our ability to recognise other people as individuals.

We are creatures who live our lives so firmly rooted in space, as separate entities.  Here I am, there you are.  We mature into this sense of spatial separateness and it is inherently a lonely state of being.  My experience with the Alexander Technique has shown me that, contrary to what one might expect, the cultivation of stillness, which might seem to fix us more firmly to the spot, is a fertile means of moving out of that lonely space.
Some words of Anne Morrow Lindbergh helped me to understand what I was finding.  She writes about our need for stillness and to be alone – “The problem is not entirely in finding the room of one’s own, the time alone, difficulty and necessary as this is.  The problem is more how to still the soul in the midst of its activities.  In fact the problem is how to feed the soul.”  I enjoy the surprise of her last sentence: no more inactivity, withdrawal, the issue now is nourishment via stillness in activity.  I suggest you work with the idea of stillness in the soul as the body moves, keeping the soul still as the body moves through space.  You walk across a room towards a vase of autumn leaves in a window which catch the late sun.  Let the tranquillity which belongs to your head be there together with the life of your moving limbs.  This new harmony of thinking and doing can be explored in many ways in even this simple journey across a room.  We are feeding the soul through cultivating stillness in movement.

I want to take this inner schooling a step further.  Rudolf Steiner writes in many different contexts of exercises or practices to help our inner development which one could characterise as requiring our active attention, activity, interest.  He also speaks often, as the other side of the pendulum’s swing, of the value of exercises which balance these more active ones, which call for what he often calls ‘devotion’.  By devotion he means an active stilling of the will, a giving of oneself up to whatever it is one has opened oneself to.  It is a state of being open, receptive, awake.  There is something potentially quite frightening in this state of being, I think – I can imagine feeling lost, lonely, afraid, losing touch with the world in the floating vastness of my inner world.  However, if we keep in touch with the world, if we walk, if we hold a cold smooth pebble in our hand, then my experience is that we are filled with the life around us in a nourishing but normal, everyday way.  The receptive openness, the devotion, the stillness, if we can bring it into our actions, our speaking, our doings, is not then escapist, though it may well help us escape from the confinement of the spot we occupy.

1. A Leg to Stand On

In 1974 Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who has written so perceptively about the strangeness of people, had a life-threatening accident while walking alone in the mountains in Norway.  He severely injured his left leg whilst fleeing from a bull, ripping the great tendon, in which your kneecap sits, from its attachment to the top of your shin, with lots of damage to nerves.  It took him until 1984 to finish a concise account of his profound experiences in the minutes, days, weeks and years following, which was published as A Leg to Stand On.  This book is considered a classic of popular science, combining careful recording of his bodily and emotional experiences with medical, psychological and philosophical reflection and background.  It goes from torn tendon to existential crisis through a wonderfully fluent and humane self-examination. Oliver Sachs is plunged into a realm of experience beyond pain and injury and fear – he undergoes a loss of self.  This begins in the mountains when he fears he will die, there being little hope he will be found alive before nightfall.  He writes of a silence in which “I could no longer hear myself”.  In the days which follow (he is, as you will have guessed, rescued!) he recounts his loss of his sense of self, at first just through the simple experience of being horizontal.  This is significant because for many people the periods of lying down, semi-supine, are an essential part of practising the Alexander Technique.

Then comes the more familiar loss of personality and autonomy as he suffers becoming a hospital patient in a narrow room cut off from the fresh air.  The core focus of his loss, though, is his injured leg, which becomes more than, and other than, just part of himself which he cannot feel or use – it becomes something alien – a scotoma, an absence, a shadow.

The book recounts his path back to wholeness, to certainty, a path which requires his thinking and his doing to be brought together in action so that he can become again a centre of agency, an ‘I’.  It begins with this inhuman absence and can be described as passing through stages of unrecognised contraction and contortion into rediscovered space, freedom, spontaneity, grace.  More than once he has to take the unavoidable ‘first step’ which seems unimaginable until it is made or until someone helps or forces him into it.  He does get pushed into a swimming pool.  It has to do with a spirit of play, of audacity and adventure.  Gratitude for each step of his recovery is felt by him to be as necessary as the helping push.  Gratitude reconnects him to a wider world.  It expresses his own recaptured sense of self and has to be expressed towards a Being, to an other.

“Secretly, half-sceptically, hesitantly, yearningly, I addressed myself to this unimaginable ‘Thou’.” (A Leg p 82)

The medium through which Oliver Sacks finds again the active principle of unity in himself is music: recovery begins with a tape, his only tape, of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto which he plays again and again in the first days of his absolute sense of an aloneness sadder than death.  The music works right into the tissues of his being, wakening him to both awareness and movement, and leading him beyond concerns about how he was functioning, about muscles and nerves, flexing and extending, to realising that “without this living stream, this kinetic melody and utterance, without this being who streamed and uttered himself forth, there could be no doing, no walking, at all.” (A Leg p 167)

For the 1991 edition of the book, Oliver Sacks adds a postscript in which he retracts this conviction about a self beyond the working of the nervous system.  It had become too distant, abstract, transcendent.  To overcome that tendency, in the postscript he is content to tone down his enthusiasm, to work with the idea of a purely biological theory of consciousness, in which different levels are revealed and shown to be active in his loss and recovery.

“I repent and retract”, he says, recalling a remark by a colleague – “How come all you neurologists go mystical in the end”. (A Leg p 178)  His wish to respect the vividness, the physicality of his fundamental crisis of loss of self leads him to be wary of a ghost in the machine.  He is puzzling over the bodily experience, the bodily image, of the ‘I’.  An injury creates a void but, unusually, a void he can be aware of and which, with help, he can go through, go beyond.  This account brings out so many of the big questions I want to explore and I am grateful for the acuity and honesty of his insights.  In his researches he comes across a novel written by a neurologist in the American Civil War about a physician-patient who, as a result of amputation, has a similar experience of himself as does the physician patient Oliver Sacks.  The narrator describes his condition:  “It was, as well as I can describe it, a deficiency in the egoistic sentiment of individuality” (A Leg p 157) – a noble nineteenth century phrase to capture the nub of A Leg to Stand On.  The Alexander Technique confirms for me that there are many journeys, albeit less shocking, of divorce and discovery between ‘the egoistic sentiment of individuality’ and the firm and living connection between bone and muscle.