To begin this essay I will say something about “feelings”.
In English the word can refer to either emotional states (I feel happy, angry, jealous, joyful, sad, etc., a discussion of which will not form part of this essay) or sensations (I feel cold, pain, ease; this feels rough, smooth, sharp, blunt, etc.). Mostly when referring to “feelings” Alexander means “sensations”, for example:
What you feel is doing is “undoing”.
You are not making decisions: you are doing kinaesthetically what you feel to be right.
If your neck feels stiff, that is not to say that your neck “is” stiff. 1
A sensory system is a part of the nervous system responsible for processing sensory information. A sensory system consists of sensory receptors, neural pathways, and parts of the brain involved in sensory perception. Commonly recognized sensory systems are those for vision, auditory (hearing), somatic sensation (touch), gustatory (taste), olfaction (smell) and vestibular (balance/movement). In short, senses are transducers from the physical world to the realm of the mind where we interpret the information, creating our perception of the world around us.2
When you get to the point of giving an order and hoping to God that it won’t be carried out, you are making the first step forward.3
Trying to sense what is going on means attending to incoming messages. The brain of course processes these messages (perceptions) and the more accurate the information is, the better the processing. But this is not direction. Direction is the mental activity, with or without words, which can – indirectly – activate certain outgoing pathways. If and when the message gets through to muscle, muscle will respond and some sensory feedback may be registered, but the mental processes themselves have no sensation – or at least not what is normally meant by sensation.4
The nature of these outgoing messages needs some consideration. In my experience they involve many degrees of subtlety. The quality of these messages are palpably different in someone who has a great deal of experience of Alexander work (or certain other mind/body or spiritual disciplines) from someone who has none. And even amongst all of the above there are great variations according to either the innate sensitivity or the unresolved blockages, or a mixture of both, of each individual. It is doubtful that neuroscientists yet have either the equipment to measure or the conceptual basis to understand the subtle energies which gradually reveal themselves to the patient practitioner.
Sensation should not be ignored. It is not unimportant. How could it be! It exists for a purpose. It informs us. We do not, however, need to seek out sensation as an end in itself.
Patrick Macdonald give us an example:
Teacher, tapping pupil on shoulder: “Did you feel that?”
Teacher: “Did you try to feel it?”
Teacher: “In the same way, when I coordinate you with my hands, you need not try to feel what I do. If you try, you will only interfere with what you ought to be registering.”5
When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.6
In a key passage from Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM warns us about the danger of indulging sensations:
Bad habits mean, in ninety-nine per cent of cases, that the person concerned has, often through ignorance, pandered to and wilfully indulged certain sensations, probably with little or no thought as to what evil results may accrue from his concessions to the dominance of small pleasures. This careless relaxation of reason, in the first instance, makes it doubly difficult to assert command when the indulgence has become a habit. Sensation has usurped the throne so feebly defended by reason, and sense, once it has obtained power, is the most pitiless of autocrats. If we are to maintain the succession that is our supreme inheritance, we must first break the power of the usurper, and then re-establish our sovereign, no longer dull and indifferent to the welfare of his kingdom, but active, vigilant, and open-eyed to the evils which result from his old policy of laissez-faire.7
Trying to work with only sensory awareness leads to a constant attempt to ‘feel’ oneself in a certain posture or tonal state: another path to the classic “Alexandroid syndrome”.8
Cutting off from sensory awareness in the belief that one should work only with thought, in an intellectual and formulaic way, leads to something equally undesirable; a kind of desensitisation or disconnection from the body, and often one which is vigorously defended by argument.
Making the distinction between thought and sensation is not always apparent to pupils. Constantly asking them to ‘think about’ body parts can even encourage them to seek out sensations. Bringing to their notice some change of tone or release of tension has a place, but not at the expense of ‘dynamic brain-work’.9
What we seek is the capacity to make reasoned choices, in response to stimuli, which generate appropriate, coordinated responses modulated by more accurate sensory awareness which can inform us about the wrong.
In recent years in the contemporary Alexander world, the cultivation of sensory awareness has tended to dominate – to the extent that it is now practically the norm – with the consequence that Alexander work is largely thought of as one of many somatic disciplines, from which perspective it arguably has less to offer and is less successful than some others.
The current interest in Mindfulness gives us perhaps an opportunity to reclaim that “supreme inheritance” to which FM was referring in the above passage from MSI, but only if we re-examine what he meant by that and do not try to pass off sensory awareness in its place.
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). (back to text).
2. John Krantz. Experiencing Sensation and Perception. “Chapter 1: What is Sensation and Perception?” pp. 1.6 (back to text).
3. 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). (back to text).
4. Experienced practitioners report being able to sense a quality of energy in and around the head which they associate with a certain psycho-physical state. At a certain point it can become difficult to separate the mental and the sensory; it is as if both are subject to the same “willing”. (back to text).
5. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald.. Notebook Jottings. Published by Rahula Books, 1989. (back to text).
6. 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). (back to text).
7. Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander, Chapter VII Notes and Instances (response to question III). Published by Mouritz, London 1986. (back to text).
8. Although there exist, in certain spiritual traditions, exercises which involve working directly with ‘sensation’, such exercises have another purpose. They should not be confused with “giving directions”, “sensory awareness” or any other aspect of Alexander work, and neither are teachers trained in the Alexander Technique qualified to guide people through the experiences for which such spiritual practices were developed. (back to text).
9. One of Margaret Goldie’s favourite expressions whilst she was teaching was “The brain-work more dynamic than ever!”. I thought she might have been quoting FM but I never heard another first generation teacher say it. (back to text).
© 2014 John S Hunter
I was very curious to try and understand what Erika Whittaker meant when she once said to me that there was essentially no difference between the ‘styles’ of Macdonald, Carrington and Barlow because “…they are all about teaching”.
Some years later I reread what had been written about the first teacher training course by Lulie Westfeldt in particular (F Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work1 ), Walter Carrington and Marjory Barlow and went back to what Erika had said about FM and the first training course in her Annual Memorial Lecture and other writings. What follows is my personal perspective based on the published material referenced in the footnotes and the conversations I had with Erika over a period of several years.
During the first training course, which began in 1931, some of the students became frustrated that they were not, as they saw it, being ‘taught how to teach’. Although they maintained their respect for FM’s knowledge and abilities, they did not think he was giving them the necessary help to learn how to do what he was doing. This group consisted of Patrick Macdonald, Lulie Westfeldt, Kitty Merrick and Marjory Barlow (née Mechin). They began to observe what Alexander was doing and tried to recreate it themselves by working on each other.
“One of my colleagues (Patrick Macdonald) came out and expressed our problems in words, clearly and forcefully. He said in effect, ‘We have missed the boat. We really do not know what the Primary Control is. We cannot get it at will with our hands. We have got to realize this as we work, and somehow or other pull ourselves up by our own boot straps until we have some solid ground under our feet.’ We had known it in a way, but not with sufficient clarity to be able to express it. WIthout his clear sensing of the problem and his creative thought in helping us solve it, we would have failed as teachers, fourth year or no fourth year.
This colleague, by clearing up a basic point, had resolved our confusion and doubt. This made the greatest difference to us and our work together became increasingly rewarding. We worked as in a laboratory, using each other as guinea pigs, the group mind gradually bringing to light the problems involved in getting the HN & B (head, neck and back) pattern to function. Simultaneously our minds and our hands advanced in knowledge. As I look back upon this time it seems to me that the colleague who expressed our problem was the leading mind in getting us out of the swamp.”2
“We were a group: Pat Macdonald, Kitty Merrick, Lulie Westfeldt and me – it was those four out of the twelve. We always worked together…”3
“I thought that Pat Macdonald was an extremely good teacher and was finding out about things; Marjory Barlow also. I didn’t much admire what some of the other teachers were doing, but I thought that things would eventually work out for them.”4
“I think I am right in saying that it was Pat Macdonald who gave me an introduction to ‘hands-on’. He used to sit in a chair while I put my hands on his head, then he told me what I was doing wrong. So the instructions about the hands did not come from FM initially, but from the junior teachers.”5
“Patrick and Walter and I (Marjory Barlow) worked together such a lot in the early days … when he (Walter Carrington) first came onto the training course. We sort of took him under our wing a bit.”6
Then what of the other group? If they did not agree with Macdonald’s assessment of the situation and his way of dealing with it, what did they think they were there to learn and how did they go about it?
This group consisted of George Trevelyan, Erika Whittaker, Gurney and Jean MacInnes, and Irene Stewart. Neither Marj Barstow nor Margaret Goldie were part of either of the student groups: according to Erika, Marj “was in the middle somewhere”7 and Margaret Goldie was ‘part of the inner circle’8 (i.e the Alexander brothers, Irene Tasker and Ethel Webb).
Erika’s attitude to Alexander work was very much conditioned by two factors: one was the influence of her father Hans Schumann9, a German musician who, having lived and worked in China, was steeped in Taoist philosophy – correspondences with which Erika intuited in Alexander; the other was her first exposure to Alexander’s ideas as an 8 year old child, encouraged by her Aunt Ethel Webb to attend to her use whilst doing the things she anyway wanted to do. Years before the first training course Ethel Webb was asked by FM to take his place giving a presentation about his work at a girl’s school. As she was leaving he said to her, “You can do anything you like, but don’t do what I do”. This was the spirit of the work which FM inculcated in his apprentices, Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker, and the one which Erika was ready to explore when the first teacher training course began,
Erika valued highly the application work her group did with Irene Tasker during the training course. This seemed to her a continuation of what she had first learned from her Aunt in 1919 and had tried to put into practice in 1929 and 1930 at Ashley Place, both helping her aunt with administrative work and helping Irene Tasker in the Little School:
“She (Irene Tasker) used to ask us to dinner in her tiny flat and one person would peel potatoes, another do the sprouts, another do something else, but it was all to do with keeping your length in a useful activity, some people sitting on the floor and some on the sofa. And why not sit on the sofa? Be comfortable! Sit right back with the support behind your back and make yourself comfortable. It was all very alive and with the idea that you carry the Alexander work into the things you are doing. You are observing and not just standing around ‘doing Alexander work’.
“On the whole I think I learnt more from my work with Irene Tasker in the school with the children (….) The Alexander work was always connected with the school work that they were doing, and that could be painting, for instance.”10
“I think Irene Tasker was of more value than we could realise at the time we were in training. Now I appreciate what she did for me more and more.”11
“We knew FM did not believe in telling people what to do, it was up to us to make our own discoveries. We each, in our own way, gradually became aware of the changes in ourselves, our ‘use’, our attitudes and ‘posture’ (as others saw it). The training-to-be-a-teacher was not mentioned until some time later when several of the students felt FM was not teaching us to teach. I do not think FM ever intended teaching us to teach in the usual way that training for a profession is considered correct.”12
“I began to see more clearly why FM had resisted all attempts to categorise our progress and had such problems answering questions that seemed to him irrelevant and strange, since he put his working principles plainly before us. It was a case of the Chinese saying: ‘There are answers to questions that are never asked’.13
For Erika the training course was primarily a study of one’s own reactivity and use in daily life: a means to an end, not an end in itself. She was of the opinion that the group which began to focus on ‘how to take people up’ were making that the end, thereby leading Alexander’s work in a wholly different direction. If Alexander’s oft repeated injunction “Don’t copy me!” had been heeded, then each person who began to explore and give life to these ideas might, instead of trying to conform to some kind of ideal, discover their own individuality; other forms of teaching could then emerge – rooted in practical self-knowledge developed from the application of the principles to the activities of life, in all its rich variety.14
Visiting training courses after a gap of half a century, Erika saw the consequences of those events in the 1930’s. Many students were struggling to make the link between the kinaesthetic experiences of the hands-on work and daily life.
What to Erika had been a fluid and experimental investigation of the inner content of Alexander’s discoveries had now taken on a definite form – with procedures, checklists and regulations. Now we are all copying Alexander.
Erika’s comment that it was “all about teaching” began to make sense. She always refused to ‘play the role of the teacher’, gently shifting the character of each encounter to sharing moments in time and space; you were simply being with Erika.
All this is not meant to criticise or denigrate all the wonderful teachers who do teach by releasing muscle tension, by ‘taking people up’. On the contrary; thank goodness for them and the pioneering work of the first generation teachers and their dedicated students. But perhaps a whole other discipline, glimpsed by that ‘other group’ all those years ago – less about ‘teaching’ and more about ‘living’ – has yet to evolve.
1. F. Matthias Alexander: the Man and his Work, Lulie Westfeldt, p 135. Published by Centerline Press, California (back to text).
2. Ibid. p 41 (back to text).
3. An Examined Life, Marjory Barlow, p.81, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002) (back to text).
4. Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, Sheldrake Press 1986, p13 (back to text).
5. Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, Sheldrake Press 1986, p13 (back to text).
6. An Examined Life, Marjory Barlow, p.80, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002) (back to text).
7. Ibid, p.197, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002) (back to text).
8. In conversation with the author (back to text).
9. Hans Schümann was granted a post at the German Consulate in Shanghai by Kaiser Wilhelm II. He published in 1924 an esoteric text about correspondences between mathematics, music and universal laws; Monozentrik. Eine neue Musiktheorie, Stgt., Grüninger Nachf. Klett 1924. (back to text).
10. Alexander’s Way, Erika Whittaker, STAT Journal No 13, Autumn 1993, Editor; Adam Nott (back to text).
11. Memorial Lecture, Erika Whittaker, 1985, STAT (back to text).
12. Alexander’s Way, Erika Whittaker, STAT Journal No 13, Autumn 1993, Editor; Adam Nott (back to text).
13. Memorial Lecture, Erika Whittaker, 1985, STAT (back to text).
14. In Japan, for example there are strong ties between Buddhism and Hitsuzendo (Calligraphy), Ikebana (Flower Arranging) and some martial disciplines. The outer activity is also a medium for inner, spiritual work. Erika sometimes mused about possible links between craftwork Alexander work. (back to text).
© 2013 John S Hunter
“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
“When you are asked not to do something, instead of making the decision not to do it, you try to prevent yourself from doing it. But this only means that you decide to do it, and then use muscle tension to prevent yourself from doing it.”1
How fortunate that Ethel Webb, whose ear was attuned to when FM Alexander said something worth taking note of, recognised the significance of these words spoken by him to a pupil during a lesson and wrote them down so that they could be preserved as one of the “teaching aphorisms”.
FM’s pupil, although he or she might have been saying inwardly the words “don’t do it, don’t do it!”, nevertheless had the intention to do it, and the body responds to intention not words.
One way I explain it to pupils is as follows:
The physical body is analogous to a well-trained animal, always listening to it’s master’s voice, waiting to be told what to do, wanting to obey and carry out what is asked of it. However, the language that we use for our inner and outer talking is not one either the animal or the physical body understands very well. In the case of the latter, every time we feel an impulse to act in some way we begin to stimulate neural activity, and muscles get ready to do work. The trouble is that we are so often very unclear about what we want, or don’t want, to do. The poor body gets contradictory messages and, like the animal in our analogy, begins to get stressed.
By making a decision and having a clear intention, the body begins to respond in a quite different way; sometimes mind and body can, like horse and rider, be as one. We are moving in the direction of greater integration.
This is not easy. Many people avoid making decisions, little realising the psycho-physical consequences thereof. Making decisions means taking more responsibility: it also means confronting the very deep-rooted patterns of so-called individuality to which we are very attached.
Fortunately there is another “individual” waiting to be discovered, but more on that another time.
Erika Whittaker told me once, much to my surprise at the time, that what Alexander really wanted from his pupils was that they would learn to make their own decisions. Over the years, this has come to mean more and more to me.
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).
© 2013 John S Hunter