Category Archives: Explorations

25. “Er… er… um”

A favourite poem of mine is an early short meditation by Rilke, ‘Evening’, in which he suggests we live in two worlds, “not at home in either one”, sometimes feeling our weight, our boundedness, the life of a ‘stone’ –  sometimes rising to heaven and eternity, the life of a ‘star’.  Out of this polarity comes our life ‘with its immensity and fear’.  I want here to explore how something such as the Alexander Technique helps us cope with this immensity – of our thoughts, plans, ideals, imagination – and the fear, at root the fear of harm or death.  To get at the subject I want to contrast two kinds of pleasure in music which you could discuss in terms of ‘technique’.  If we think of a technique as an internalised skill, a quality which gives the impression at least that the effort has been taken out of the creating of an effect, you could see this virtue in the ‘complaisance’ of Baroque music, the performer pleased with herself and pleased with the playing or singing, the audience allowed to share in the effortless pleasure.

‘Complacence’ now often has a note of vanity or lifeless self-satisfaction, but for now stick with the feeling of flowing ease.  By contrast, I was just listening to a concert in honour of A L Lloyd, one of the leading figures in the preservation and recreation of traditional song and music in the twentieth century.  Here technique is about a lack of artifice; it’s to do with an authentic roughness and naturalness of delivery which is making the song something more than pretty.  These two ideals can meet as grace meets commitment, but they approach the listener from different sides of the stage: polish and awkwardness.  I was listening recently to an early morning interview with an economist about the current world crisis.  The interviewer was pressing the drama, with lots of anger and compulsion, “has to… forced to… must”.  Each time, before replying, the economist paused, just a few seconds, a pause to compose herself, to think, but it was so powerful, so unusual, so disconcerting.  It gave her a very distinct individual voice, but its conscious composure almost cut her off, left her beyond dialogue – a clear voice but her meaning difficult to take in.  We stumble and add ‘er’ and ‘um’ in what is called dysfluency in speech.  This economist had none of that.  This dysfluency serves many purposes: it can keep the interlocutor quiet, it can suggest your search for meaning, it can alert the other that something unexpected is coming.  All through the day, in speech and action, we use lack of fluency, lack of competence, sometimes consciously, often not, as a way of connecting with others, of establishing ease and openness.  It takes us into the space between us and others and reminds us of the limitations of our knowledge and control.  If technique means the wish for faultless performance, or competence in solitude, then for me it’s missing out on enjoying this everyday space of chaos and confusion.   It is a forum where we can try to ‘unravel’, as Rilke describes it, the “immensity and fear”.

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24. Fingers and Precision

I want to explore the architecture of the hand, but, as I do so, I would ask you to allow a distance between you (your head and eyes and attention) and your hand which you may be observing. By distance I also mean connection: it is so common for us to be drawn towards what we are doing with our fingers so that the whole flowing structure connecting head to hand gets forgotten. And what gets forgotten in our structure of movement tends to seize up, to become fixed. My experience as a teacher of the Alexander Technique has shown me how helpful it can be for people to realise the tension they carry in their hands and that release of that tension works back towards the centre, towards the shoulder and neck, to meet the releasing thoughtfulness the student may be engaging at her centre. One way to widen the focus on the fingers is to explore the movements of pronation and supination, which happen as you turn a key or the page of a book. The two bones of the forearm roll or cross over each other, turning the whole hand through 180o, potentially. This movement allows the connection of the hand to the elbow to be felt, before we get involved with the wondrous complexity of the movement of the wrist and through the fingers. It also can alert you to the distinction between the many muscles which, coming from the forearm, move the wrist and the fingers, and the muscles which belong to the hand itself, to the specialised movements of the little finger and, more dominantly, the thumb. These muscles, together with the way the bones of the hand are shaped and fit together, gives the palm of the hand a cup shape. The thumb faces the other fingers at a right angle, which allows the unique human movement of precisely gripping something between the pads at the tips of the thumb and one or more fingers. That precision-grip can be strong as well as delicate and can combine with the hold that the palm of the hand allows on a hammer or a jar lid. All these uses of the hand and fingers are basically flexing movements: what a shock it is often for people to go on all fours and feel the splayed hand, extended wrist and fingers of the hands as they support the body. For the apes, the hand supports, helps with walking, and climbing – and the reconciling of these tasks leads to an inflexibility of the wrist, with bent fingers good for hooking onto branches, and walking on the knuckles. Our hands are short and broad and light and able to combine, at the same time, elements of flexion and extension, bending and rotation. We spend a lot of time gripping in various ways throughout the day, but we are also able to let go of the grip. That very letting go helps to bring us back to the flow of the hand out to the elbow and from there to the back and to our attentive consciousness. For many animals the mouth is a hand: for us too at times. Our hands are uniquely free and versatile, but that freedom needs looking after.

23. Playing our Instrument

There is something very special about the way we experience our own physical being and its movements: we have the experience of being, or being carried on, a stream of willing, of active intentional being.  Our consciousness can never grasp this kind of life fully, and most of the time we don’t try to grasp it.  When we plan or practice something new we may become conscious about our movements, and when we prepare ourselves to catch a ball falling from the sky, or hit a difficult putt we may become present with our attention, in and through the body, applying a technique we have practised.  In both these situations, as with normal activity, we do have the possibility to review or evaluate the move we have executed, after it has happened.  So, our activity offers us the opportunity to pass to and fro between consciousness – planning, reflection, awareness of all kinds – and movement, physical action.  For me the Alexander Technique gives me the means to become more fluent in the crossing of this border, in both directions.

In the building in which I trained as a teacher of the Alexander Technique hangs a painting by Linda Mallett, with two separate panels, much higher than they are wide, echoing the graceful shape and structure of the tall Victorian windows in the one-time schoolroom in which the panels hang.  One panel incorporates a quotation from Michael Gelb, an articulate Alexander Technique teacher, from his book Body Learning: “The body is our instrument for fulfilling our purpose on earth”.  The body is instrument, tool, but is also us, ourselves, the agent or tool-user.  It was Michael Gelb, in the same chapter this quotation comes from, who describes the most fundamental form of misuse, of not integrating our agency and our instrument, as “the failure to make choices”.  This act of choosing, thinking, directing, separates us from our instrument, so that we can then fully connect with it.  When things go wrong I end up having a body – “I have a bad back”, which becomes part of me when things go well and I send the Frisbee freely spinning through the air.  The more mental aspect of fully realising that we have the power to make choices is that we become able to enter into the unfamiliar: these two ideas really mean the same thing.  The other panel of Linda Mallett’s painting includes a quotation from F M Alexander himself – “The things that don’t exist are the most difficult to get rid of”.  Our body and its movements give us a physical foundation for our thoughts and feelings, helping us transform our fears and prejudices into revitalised action.  Body and mind disappear together into the wish to change.

22. Standing Up

If sitting down is about enjoying the unknown, standing up is about not seeing every task as a mountain to climb.  For various reasons, including the design of the chairs we sit on or in, and the things we tend to do when we are sitting, many people actually make sitting more demanding, effortful and tiring than standing.  Because we associate sitting with comfort and relaxation this discomfort belonging to sitting is often hard for people to notice.  Sitting tends to bring on the battle with gravity, or the sense of giving in, collapsing.  This in turn leads to the idea that what is needed is the (painful) effort of sitting-up straight, and the battle continues.  So, for the Alexander Technique, standing-up really begins with truly sitting – and that means giving up the determination to stand.  The chair is there below you.  Is it supporting you?  Is it able to support you?  Are you allowing it to support you?  In asking these questions I could be imagining you sprawled on some giant sofa, leaning back in a supposedly relaxing recliner, or sitting on a simple stool.  Something is supporting you, unless you have just fallen through the floor, and it’s good to know whether it’s you with the chair, or you hovering above the chair, holding yourself up, or you collapsing into the chair.  So, the hope is, with the Alexander Technique, that you are moving, as you stand up, from a position of ease and freedom, so that your head (again) can lead you, taking the spine with it.  Your head actually moves forward and down in a typical action of beginning to stand up, but the strong emphasis in your thinking, in your sense of where you are heading – up! – means that initial movement need not be one of collapse.  Collapse would mean that you have even more of a mountain to climb than you had to begin with.  There’s always something there to support you!  Here it shifts from, mainly, the chair under your pelvis, your sit-bones, to, once you’re on the way to standing, to the floor under your two feet.  So easily we rush that transfer, pulling ourselves up, pressing down with our hands on our thighs, not waiting for the weight to be there, over our feet.  We forget we have legs which are ready to straighten through the big joints of ankle, knee and the head of the femur.  If my head truly leads me – in more senses than one – I will stay whole, I will stay supported.  I will be the mountain rising rather than the straining climber.

21. Sitting Down

I want to ask you to explore the act of sitting down, something you no doubt do a good number of times each day.  It might be interesting to estimate how many times on an average day.  I am asking you to bring to consciousness an action which probably, normally, hardly exists for you.  When you do it your mind is probably elsewhere, or nowhere in particular, or focused on what is in front of you on a desk, or screen, or plate.  The Alexander Technique asks you to bring an action to consciousness, or more strictly, your preparation and anticipation of the action, so that you can then fully let go of that consciousness into the movement itself.  For the Alexander Technique student the act of sitting down comes alive because it is the transition between two other active states – standing and sitting.  Normally standing and sitting, in themselves, are contentless, a mindless position or condition in which you do things – talk, eat, relax, work.  Now, sitting down is a movement into the unknown, or rather the unseen, the space behind you, the space which is not the busy demanding space in front of us, where things happen.  The Alexander Technique is directing our awareness into this space behind, so that it becomes part of what gives us shape, definition, support.  Often, as we sit, we actually start falling and then have to stop ourselves falling, both because our attention to the world in front is so dominant and also because we associate going lower, which happens in sitting down, with collapse, abandonment of control.  In the practice of the Alexander Technique we give our attention to maintaining the experience of ‘up’ even as we go back and down.  Picture the trajectory of your head as you sit down in a normal dining chair.  It goes in a curve, if you imagine it from the side, with its final position being below and behind its original position.  The thought which guides this movement, for a student of the Alexander Technique, is that the head leads this movement.  The head leads, taking the spine with it and allowing the big joints of the legs to freely fold, and the quality of support from the ground to be experienced, until the contact with the chair is felt.  So sitting down is no longer falling into the unknown, hoping the chair will be there, tightening in fear in case it isn’t.  No, the thinking ahead allows the action of sitting down to be part of a free-flowing sequence in which you stay connected to your environment.  It is not an interruption at the end of which you emerge with no idea how you got where you are now.

20. Sing Something Simple

At the beginning of Act II of ‘The Magic Flute’ Tamino and Papageno are brought into the Temple to face their trials.  Sarastro, who leads the priests, has already set the tone by replying to one of his fellow priests that Tamino is not to be seen worthy because he is a prince – ‘more than that, he is a man’.  Tamino answers bravely to the challenge to risk his life for high ideals.  The priests then turn to the common man, to Papageno, to see if he is prepared to face the trials – “Hey – fighting, well, fighting is not really my thing, you know.  And as for wisdom and truth, well… take it or leave it”.  We respond to his honesty, his lack of pretence or pretension.  The Alexander Technique is a way of overcoming our fear of the unknown on the level of our habits, of the restrictions we have allowed and needed in the way we go into the everyday trials of life.

In this exploration I am looking at the way simple, abstract movements can help you to cope with the unknown.  There are teachers of the Alexander Technique who like to work only with the complex reality of actual life – of the flautist playing Mozart or the golfer on the first tee – but I find the simplicity of abstract movements both interesting and helpful.  You could work with any simple movement such as bending to pick something up, or opening a door.  The first thing about approaching such a movement or gesture as an abstract movement is that you emphasise its separation from specific circumstances.  You draw back, which is what ‘abstract’ means.  An element of thinking enters as part of this draining of narrative from the action.  It also allows you to experience your wholeness because there is no distraction.  The simplicity encourages the sense of wholeness; the action takes in your whole body.  At this stage you are exploring the basic Alexander Technique discipline of getting out of the way, of getting out of your own way.  The movement becomes somewhat depersonalised.  If you are working with a teacher who is able to guide and observe and maintain the very important interest in repeating the movement, you are likely to find something surprising.  Your drawing back, your simplification, your abstracting, leads you to let go of personal habits and, probably, to feel a disorientating sense of incapacity at not grasping what is going on when you move in the new way your teacher is leading you into.  You pare the movement down to something simple and fundamental which can then become a multitude of specific, practical actions in the future.  In the repetition of the simple version you are giving emphasis to the value thinking can have in establishing a generally applicable skill which leads you from your intention through to the action and your own experience of the action.  You let go of personality on the level of it being tightly bound to the way you do things and then rediscover it as a higher or more centred experience of control and co-ordination.

19. Enjoying the ordinary

I would like to begin with some words from F M Alexander, near the end of his second book published in 1923.  “Unfortunately, we have been taught that all the ordinary acts of life should be automatic and unconscious.  For this reason they have become indifferent.  Such a psycho-physical condition induces stagnation in the organism.  As it is a condition which becomes more and more pronounced with advancing age, we gradually lose the capacity to take conscious interest in and derive pleasure from those normal and useful activities of doing, hearing, seeing etc.  Small wonder, then, that sooner or later we seek satisfaction in less normal and less useful activities and create an undue demand for specific excitements and stimulations” (Part 4 of CCC1).  Eighty five years later with the unimaginable proliferation of leisure, sports, fitness equipment and regimes, I love and need the discarding of all this stuff to mediate my contact with the world.  The simplification cultivated by the Alexander Technique is, for me, a light which allows the clear experience of outer events, and which stimulates compassionate and practical acts.  Just before the passage I quoted above, F M Alexander had been writing about sitting down and standing up, topics I will return to.  Because of our lack of presence in the everyday, F M Alexander describes how it can become so that, for someone, “as soon as he touches the chair, (he) proceeds to ‘sit down’ – that is, he slumps – and as far as his awareness is concerned the act of sitting is then completed…  Likewise with ‘standing up’.  Once he has stood up, the process is completed, again as far as his awareness is concerned.  In both instances he ends a psycho-physical process which, in reality, should never be finished”.  This last thought is, despite the measured prose, a revelatory insight.  The impulse of growth and learning, of preventing monotony and stagnation, can be cultivated in simple ongoing acts like standing and sitting, processes which “should never be finished”.  Henry David Thoreau writes (in Walden)  “to be awake is to be alive” and  “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts”.  Give your willing attention to the everyday.

When I first began teaching I would usually get my teaching room ready both very early and very hurriedly, and then get on with the serious business of preparing myself for teaching via all kinds of special measures. I now try to make the main part of my preparing myself to be the preparation of the room and the normal flow of everyday deeds that precede teaching.  And our engagement with and enjoyment of the ordinary will mean we are alive and awake enough to cope with the unfamiliar.