Being with Erika: #06, Back in Melbourne, 1992

Despite the political problems, which related to AUSTAT’s path towards affiliation with STAT, I enjoyed my time in Sydney. The four week refresher course went well and the teachers’ group asked me to return for a longer visit.

So about a year later, in 1992, I was back in Melbourne – having delivered this time a three month refresher training course in Sydney; by then I was very glad to see Erika again.

I tried to get her to be more specific about how she worked with people.  She would always answer in a practical or anecdotal way – never theoretical.  Some of my insights into her approach are as follows.

Tea is very important!

My friend and colleague Professor Marilyn Monk also went to visit Erika in Armadale and was duly served with a cup of tea. After about half an hour or so of tea, cake and chat Marilyn said, “This is all very interesting Erika but actually what I came for was a lesson“.

Erika looked at her, somewhat surprised, and replied. “Well, you are having one!”

Tea provided the opportunity for Erika to get to know the person coming for lessons; whether they had what she described as a ‘straight-forward physical difficulty’ or some underlying personal problem.  If the former, they were fairly easy to help, she would say. If the latter, she needed to find out why they were, as she put it, ‘closing themselves’; to discover their ‘trick’ – that is to say, the little habit they had by means of which they avoided something that was uncomfortable for them; not in order to engage in some kind of analysis, but in order to help the pupil to see their ‘trick’ for what it really was, and to then help them to see their ‘problem’ from another perspective – the perspective of ‘presence’ – thereby loosening its grip on them.

As they engaged in conversation and began practical work, Erika would encourage the pupil to use their senses to connect with the outside world whilst bringing about a change in the head, neck back relationship – but with very little hands-on contact; just enough to begin a process. In Melbourne she used the seagulls always visible from her window. Later, when she was teaching in my apartment in London, she used the aeroplanes on their way to Heathrow in the distance.

She said that it was a question of timing. One had to chose one’s moment to help pupils to see their “trick” without it becoming an issue.

However, it would not be accurate to define this as her ‘teaching technique’; it was one aspect which I observed and garnered from various conversations. Her approach was expressed very well by one of her young Melbourne ‘Alexander friends’. “Erika is just so open that after being with her for a while, you find that you are opening too”. R.D. Laing’s term ‘co-presence’ comes close, but with a lightness of being.

I felt that it was outside of the more ‘formal’ teacher/pupil relationship – which she was always keen to avoid – that the most ‘learning’ took place. She often referred to her favourite Zen stories, in particular one which talks of a man advancing to the stage where he goes beyond all techniques; now a Master, he returns to the world and mixes with ordinary people – appearing to be one of them. This was a key element in Erika’s approach to teaching. As she once said, “The best teaching happens when the pupil doesn’t know he or she is being taught”.

Many people, including Alexander teachers, who met Erika saw only a pleasant elderly lady. The ‘wise-woman’ in her cohabited with the very sociable “Leo”; there but ‘hidden in plain sight’.

If one tried, with one’s questions, to ‘pin her down’ – then, like a judo master, she stepped lightly aside; before one knew it the subject was changed and the moment had passed.  She was also very adept at acting. When someone wanted her to do something that she didn’t want to do, she could be a “very confused old lady” for a time. “Well” she told me, “one has to get along with people!”

I remember one incident when I and a colleague were spending a morning with her in Melbourne. She was out of the room when we began discussing some lofty subject – I can’t remember what – and at the moment when Erika came back into the room my colleague happened to be saying the word ‘truth’.

“Truth!” said Erika, in a firm voice.

We both stopped, surprised at her tone, and looked at her.

What I saw at that moment is difficult to put into words; something like ‘total presence’.

She continued, “Truth is right now.”

We were all silent for a few timeless seconds. Then she picked up an earlier conversation and time moved on again.

After my second visit to Melbourne I was beginning to get a taste of something. The things I was learning by being with Erika were, I felt, important not only for me but for the Alexander community. She was having less difficulty with her leg after the accident some two years earlier, and was talking about coming to the UK the following year to see friends and family. We discussed the possibility of her teaching in London.

I had a few days in Tasmania, visiting friends and making a ‘sentimental journey’ to Wynyard and Table Cape, then returned to London.

Erika and I kept in touch and plans began to take shape. Towards the end of 1993, I was delighted to welcome her – on her way to Edinburgh to spend Christmas with her family – for what was to be the first of many visits to my home in West London. A very busy programme awaited her there.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

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