“Now you are doing it again!” she said, with more than a little exasperation in her voice. She stepped back so that she could look at me and pronounce her verdict. “John, you are such an unbeliever!”
Well, that was not what I was expecting to hear. All sorts of reasons had been flooding through my head as to why it just wasn’t working: it was because I was doing or not doing this or that, or that she was doing or not doing this or that, but the idea that it could have anything at all to do with my beliefs – or lack of them – had never occurred to me …
And yet, she was absolutely right. Because I didn’t feel what I expected – had even been ‘trained’ – to feel when getting out of the chair, I didn’t believe it was possible. I was used to “keeping my back back”, but this was brought about with the help of a strong stimulus from the teacher who provided the opposition, thereby stimulating the “anti-gravity response”. But Goldie didn’t do that; she was not going to make it work for you, and if the usual signals and sensations were not there, then I didn’t believe something could happen.
So Alexander was right: “Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension”.1 I didn’t see this all at once: it was a gradual realisation, but one that was set in motion by that remark of Goldie’s.
Of all the “master teachers” I worked with, it was only with Goldie that I did not always feel wonderful during or after the lessons. Far from it! Sometimes it all felt very static and pointless. On more than one occasion I could not wait for the lesson to end, swearing to myself that this would definitely be the last time I would put myself through such an excruciating experience. She was, of course, picking up this “resistance” and would sometimes comment that I should not concern myself with whether or not I felt it was working, or give way to an inner criticism that she was “not up to scratch today”, but I should “just go on with the brain-work”. Then, perhaps several hours later the same day – and quite unexpectedly – some new discovery would emerge; a clarity of thought, a more vivid perception, or an unknown part of my spine would suddenly wake up. I was coming to understand that what she called “brain-work” was bringing about changes from the inside rather than through muscles or nerves. Another of Alexander’s aphorisms began to make sense:
“When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.” 2
1 Some references to belief and muscle tension.
- “Do you know what we have found that belief is? A certain standard of muscle tension. That is all”. (The Bedford Lecture, in Articles and Lectures, p.174, Mouritz (1995))
- I remember one morning his coming briskly into our classroom, looking very pleased with himself, and saying, ‘Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension.’
‘F.M.,’ I said, ‘don’t you mean that belief about what you can do with the body is a matter of customary muscle tension?’ The discussion was on. He kept talking while he worked. Finally at the end of the morning’s work F.M. said, ‘Yes, belief about what you can do with the body is a matter of customary muscle tension.’ Lulie Westfeldt, F. Matthias Alexander, The Man and his Work, Mouritz 1998, p.68
- Was FM’ s aphorism that belief is a matter of muscle tension simply designed to shock people, or was there a more serious element behind it? He was perfectly serious about it, because he equated belief with fixation. In his experience a rigidity of mind corresponded to a rigidity of body. (Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, 1986, p.45f)
2 Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995).
© John Hunter 2015
Whenever Erika was staying with me I was always keen to get her to talk about her insights into the Alexander Technique and the key individuals involved in its discovery and transmission. Sometimes this became a distraction from actually ‘entering into the moment’.
Erika taught me a lesson, without words and without touch.
After dinner one evening I was washing up. Erika picked up a tea towel and began to dry the dishes. I was impatient to go and sit down and talk about the Alexander Technique. Erika was living it. The more I rushed, the more contrast I sensed between my movements and the freedom with which her arm would appear from somewhere behind me and pick up a plate or bowl or cup. But still I carried on along my furrow of end-gaining.
Then the hand stopped appearing. I turned a little so I could see her in my peripheral vision. She had “stopped”; not ‘frozen’, not ‘paused’ but ‘stopped’. Sometimes when one was with Erika, one became aware of her thought processes. She had stopped, and was giving herself a choice. I felt at that moment that she was perfectly free to put down the tea towel and simply walk out of the kitchen, or to remain quiet and still, or to carry on drying the dishes. She chose to carry on.
By now I had got the message; not only about my own rushing, but more critically about the difference between ‘pausing’ and ‘stopping’. Stopping opens a door into other options.
Even a seemingly mundane activity like ‘doing the washing-up’ could be a medium for teaching.
© 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
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994
“This end-gaining business has got to such a point – it’s worse than a drug” 1
One of the biggest, though not always most apparent, obstacles to applying the twin forces of inhibition and direction in our everyday activities is “end-gaining”. What is “end-gaining”? Is there an underlying metaphysical assumption that predicates it?
At a very fundamental level, end-gaining (i.e. going directly for an end without consideration of or attention to the processes, or the means, whereby such an end can be brought about) is dependent upon a conviction, either conscious or unconscious, that the centre of gravity of one’s life is somewhere else or some “when” else and not in the here and now. It is not a question of speed, or even of tempo. End-gaining cannot be said to be a mental, physical or emotional activity, although it affects all three. End-gaining is a ‘state’. Like a drug, or as FM said “…worse than a drug“, it seems to permeate us at a cellular level.
When I am end-gaining I am “out of sync” with my life.
Unless there is an ontological acceptance that one’s life is happening here and now, and that it cannot be otherwise, we become very susceptible, as is a host to a pathogen when resistance is low, to either end-gaining or, arguably even worse, a kind of dreamy lassitude (see Aimless and Purposeful).
The pull to gain an end is part of the human condition; it is always waiting to reclaim us and our energies. It takes us away from “process”, and consequently away from a real sense of self.
Our “use” – in particular the disposition of our mental, physical and emotional energies – is axiomatically part of any process, whether we are aware of it or not. When we are attending to process – even if only externally – we are open to possibilities which are not there when we are in a state of end-gaining or of lassitude.
It is, in my experience, of great value to try and study for oneself – and in oneself – the phenomenon of ‘end-gaining’.
Here are some suggestions:
- What triggers end-gaining in me? Is it something mental or emotional? For example, is my brain busy making lists of things to do? Am I worrying about getting everything done “in time” or of letting other people down?
- What is the form of it? Does it make me speed up, be more tense, make mistakes? Do I feel as though I am pumped-up with caffeine?
- Can I let it go? Is it possible for me to shift myself back into the here and now and attend to process? Or am I possessed by it? What resists letting go of end-gaining?
- How do I experience myself when I am ‘attending to means-whereby’?
We cannot eliminate end-gaining, but we can certainly reduce its strength and duration.
“I always think the best test one can make on oneself is simply, in the middle of an activity, go away, walk away and maybe look out of the window or open the front door and look out. If you mind the interruption, it means you are end-gaining.”
Erika Whittaker 2
By addressing the universal tendency to end-gain, and developing a practical method of directing attention to means-whereby in activity, Alexander’s work has resonances with teachings from East and West, ancient and modern, about latent possibilities in human beings.
1. Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995).
2. In correspondence with the author.
© 2013 John S Hunter