Category Archives: Essays

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.

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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.