I forget the exact sequence of events, but I think it was at the Manchester STAT Conference that Marjory Barlow invited Erika to come and visit her when she was next going to be in London. When that time came Erika was staying with me, so I drove her to Marjory’s apartment near Swiss Cottage and joined them for tea.
After my spell of lessons with Marjory in the mid-eighties I had only intermittent contact with her at various STAT meetings. On one occasion, when I was still Chair of STAT, I asked Marjory to host a meeting of senior representatives of the different “streams” of the Technique at which the question of what to do about a school that was considered by some to have “gone rogue” would be addressed. Marjory had to play the role of “the authority”; the representative of the dharma, so to speak. Whilst the discussion about the various “goings-on” at the school in question was progressing, Marjory at one point gave me a dig in my ribs with her elbow and whispered, “Well you know what old Gurdjieff said don’t you; that sooner or later everything turns into its opposite, and this is an example of just that.” 1
With this in mind, and already by then being quite familiar with Erika’s views on a number of Alexander-related matters, I was anticipating another fascinating encounter. I had seen them together before of course; at Erika’s Memorial Lecture in 1985 (when they had a different recollection about the role of table-work during the Ashley Place training course), at the Brighton Congress in 1988 and more recently at the Manchester STAT Conference, but this was something more intimate. How were they going to interact? Given all that Erika and, to a lesser extent, Margaret Goldie had told me about the development of Alexander’s work and the split between the two groups of students at Ashley Place (see The First Training Course in 1931: a different perspective), I felt that here was an opportunity to gain some insight into the fruits of their different understanding and focus.
Most of the conversation was very light – chit-chatting about people they knew or had known. It was, in fact, at this tea party that I heard Marjory’s story about Margaret Goldie and FM’s ashes (see Lessons With Miss G, 10: Some Meaningful Tittle-tattle). At some point Marjory began to talk about the need to keep Alexander’s teaching just as it had been taught to them. I knew that Erika had a different perspective on this issue, and wondered how she might deal with it. But Erika could always find an angle from which to respond which neither complied with nor contradicted what another person was saying. She just moved the conversation seamlessly along – something at which she was a master. “Well” she would often say, “one has to get along with people.” What I witnessed in her, however, evidenced an inner freedom from reaction. She could allow another person to have their own opinion without it disturbing her equanimity.
Somehow the interaction reminded me of Hermann Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund 2; not by any means in the personal details of their lives – the parallel does not stand up to scrutiny as Erika could not at all be described as Dionysian any more than Marjory could be described as Apollonian. No! It was the fact that Marjory, despite the quarrel with FM in the 1950’s, had – like Narcissus in Hesse’s novel – stayed, as it were, “in the monastery” and risen to be the “abbot”, whereas Erika had, like Goldmund, gone out into the world in search of adventure and knowledge, and had a different understanding of Alexander, his ideas and life itself. Marjory had a mission; to look after the Technique and to transmit it in its purity; to not change a thing. Erika chose to put it and herself to the test in the maelstrom of Life, and thereby to hone her understanding on the wheel of experience. Both of these octogenarian “living treasures” were indubitably evolved human beings; not only did they have the wisdom which comes from a long life, but also they were replete with the palpable energies which ensue from several decades of work on oneself. I had and have tremendous respect for both of them.
My personal impression was that whereas Marjory was a very big fish in the Alexander pond, Erika swam free in the sea of life.
For readers of my blog who might be interested I am starting a limited size online study group on Zoom. This will begin with F M Alexander’s book The Universal Constant in Living. Email me if you would like to participate: email@example.com. The first meeting will take place on Sunday 26 April 2020 at 14:00 BST.
1. G I Gurdjieff (1866-1949). In his theory of Octaves, Gurdjieff states that “…we can observe how the line of development of forces deviates from its original direction and goes, after a time, in a diametrically opposed direction, still preserving its former name.”: In Search of the Miraculous, P D Ouspensky; published by Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London 1950. See also www.gurdjieff.org.uk
© 2020 John S Hunter
They will see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. 1
The Chair! For so many teachers the sine qua non of the Alexander Technique. And, of course, we have all seen the little film of the Master taking Margaret Goldie – looking rather like a puppet – in and out of a chair.
It was 1985 or ’86 and I had only recently started having lessons with Margaret Goldie. “Chairwork” had taken on a completely different character. It was never about getting in or out of a chair this way or that way. I began to see that every action or non-action that happened in a lesson was about what was happening in my brain. What Alexander had been at pains to write about in his four books began to make sense in a way that, up until then, it had not.
More than once during this time of coronavirus, Albert Camus’ novel La Peste has come to mind. Set in the Algerian city of Oran in the 1940’s during an outbreak of the plague, the whole city is in quarantine. It is a fascinating, multi-levelled piece of writing. One of the main characters, Joseph Grand, aspires to write a prose-perfect novel but his search for perfection has become an impassable barrier. He explains to his friend Dr Rieux:
“What I really want, doctor, is this. On the day when the manuscript reaches the publisher, I want him to stand up – after he’s read it through, of course – and say to his staff: ‘Gentlemen, hats off!’
Rieux was dumbfounded, and, to add to his amazement, he saw, or seemed to see, the man beside him making as if to take off his hat with a sweeping gesture, bringing his hand to his head, then holding his arm out straight in front of him. That queer whistling overhead seemed to gather force.
“So you see,” Grand added, “it’s got to be flawless.” 2
Not a bad aspiration by any means, you might think, but Grand does seem to be getting lost in the details:
“I’d like you to understand, doctor. I grant you it’s easy enough to choose between a ‘but’ and an ‘and.’ It’s a bit more difficult to decide between ‘and’ and ‘then.’ But definitely the hardest thing may be to know whether one should put an ‘and’ or leave it out.” 2
Rieux persuades Grand to read him the all-important opening sentence of his manuscript:
Then, pitched low but clear. Grand’s voice came to his ears. “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.”
Silence returned, and with it the vague murmur of the prostrate town. Grand had put down the sheet and was still staring at it. After a while he looked up.
“What do you think of it?” 2
Rieux politely responds that his curiosity is whetted and he wants to know what comes next but, in his search for perfection in the opening sentence, it seems that Grand has not succeeded in getting beyond it.
“That’s only a rough draft. Once I’ve succeeded in rendering perfectly the picture in my mind’s eye, once my words have the exact tempo of this ride – the horse is trotting, one-two-three, one-two-three, see what I mean? – the rest will come more easily and, what’s even more important, the illusion will be such that from the very first words it will be possible to say: ‘Hats off!’” 2
During that period back in the 1980’s I have a vivid recollection of a morning working in a teacher-training course. One of the teachers there confessed to the students that she could not immediately think how to respond when her pupil had asked her, “What happens when I can get in and out of a chair perfectly? What happens then?”
My lessons with Miss G flooded into my mind. “But it’s not about getting in and out of a chair” thought I.
This teacher however, after what must have been a very pregnant pause, had responded, so she informed us, thus:
“Why then, you make an art of it!”
Later that morning there was a coffee-time reading from one of Alexander’s books – I forget what exactly it was – but the contrast between the material in the reading and the practical work taking place was startling. After the reading everyone went back into their routine of trying to get each other in and out of chairs “perfectly”. The precise and detailed feedback they gave each other seemed to differ only in the medium from Grand’s obsession with finding le mot juste.
The procedure had become an end in itself: another example of the medium becoming the message.
The exposure we all get to the daily repetition of what happens – including what is said – in a training course conditions us to accept it as “right”, even to the extent of rejecting what happens in other such courses. As one of my colleagues once said to me, surprising even herself by always going back to the same place for refresher courses, “It get’s into your nervous system.” There are many kinds of addictions to which human beings are susceptible.
And the books? That’s a whole other matter.
For readers of my blog who might be interested I am starting a limited size online study group on Zoom. This will begin with F M Alexander’s book The Universal Constant in Living. Email me if you would like to participate: firstname.lastname@example.org
© John Hunter 2020
So you’ve learnt how to direct – and perhaps you experience some expansion, integration and a flow of energy when you “give your orders”.
You can inhibit some of your reactions and enter into a more quiet state. Maybe you can let your head lead as you go into activity. Then now it’s time to explore the world of giving and withholding of consent: the secret of “letting do”.
I had my first real experience of this in a lesson with Margaret Goldie. I was sitting with my hands resting palms-up on the tops of my legs. She took one arm, moved it around – up and down and rotating it in a particular way that she had – and let it rest at my side. Then the brain work!
“Not you doing it!” she quietly insisted.
“You are going to give consent to letting your hand come back up onto the top of your leg, but you are not going to do it.”
I had already been having lessons with her for some years so I was not distracted by “unbeliever” thoughts. I just listened to her and followed her instructions as exactly as I could.
“Not you doing it! You are going to give consent to allowing your hand to move. Give consent and let it do it!”
Then suddenly, effortlessly – my hand floats up onto the top of my leg. How? Not, evidently, by using the familiar pathways I associated with such a movement.
It’s all there in one of Alexander’s Teaching Aphorisms:
“The reason you people won’t give consent is because none of you will give consent to anything but what you feel.
F M Alexander 1
This approach gave me new insights into Alexander’s work, in particular the similarity with aspects of Taoism. 2
Withholding consent – inhibition – is the doorway. Pass through it and experiment with giving consent to what you wish to do – volition – and then “letting do”! Allowing activity to take place using unfamiliar pathways, given that so many of our “identity habits” are embodied, challenges our sense of who we think we are, opening a door to a world which seems to operate under different laws.
…the Alexander Technique, like Zen, tries to unlock the power of the unknown force in man.
Patrick Macdonald 3
Your early experiments might be simple physical activities – like the one Miss Goldie showed me; giving consent to a very basic movement of some part of the body, getting out of a chair, moving around from A to B or even (and this takes patient practice) making a cup of tea. As you become more at home in this new medium, you could experiment with interacting with other people. Give consent, for example, to chatting with your neighbour about the weather.4
You must learn to get out of the teacher’s way, learn to get out of your own way, then learn to get out of ITS way.
Patrick Macdonald 5
What do you find? Do you become more the watcher than the doer?
If you wish, share your experiences in the comments section or write 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).
2. The concept of non-doing in Taoism – Wu Wei – has been understood in different ways throughout its long history. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_wei
3. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald; Notebook Jottings. Published by Rahula Books, 1989
4. At the time of writing we are all practising social distancing so interacting with others may have to wait.
5. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald; Notebook Jottings. Published by Rahula Books, 1989
© John Hunter 2020
F. Matthias Alexander was one of those rare human beings: an innovator in the field of human potential. His research was always practical and experiential. At a time when psychology was moving more and more into the realm of the unconscious, Alexander was exploring consciousness, in particular at the level of the interrelationship between the physical and the mental aspects of human functioning.
What he discovered is that as humanity evolved we developed our intellectual capacities more quickly than our physical and sensory capacities, and this resulted in a parting of the ways, a dualism. In a properly integrated human being there is a constant two-way flow between mind and body; intention flowing into activity modulated by feedback.
Certainly Alexander was not, as perhaps some may have thought, a “blank sheet of paper” (but then if one thought about it how could he – or anybody – have been). Recent research is bringing to light a great deal of material about the period in which Alexander was developing his ideas and practice. What is clear from this research is that many of the principles and ideas used by Alexander can be found elsewhere (and some of them I will explore in these writings). To me that is not at all surprising. There have always been human beings who are interested in philosophy, health, self-improvement, posture, energy, mind and body, respiratory and vocal techniques, etc., etc. One has only to look at some of the most ancient texts – or other forms of transmission – to see that these questions constitute fundamental issues for human beings. When one starts along this path, one is not the first or the last to do so. It is a path of discovery shared by those human beings who have that particular interest, which might be termed “evolutionary”, in the exploration of the self. What one then finds along that path cannot in essence be very different from what others have found. We are not different in our functioning or our possibilities from our ancestors. If Alexander ‘borrowed’ or ‘stole’ from others, from what sources did these others in their turn draw, and similarly those before them and so on? What is important is that a human being has the potential to develop; some do and some don’t. The ideas are around us and can be found. The point then is to make something practical and useful for oneself in order to embody the ideas; very few achieve that. Alexander was such a person, and that it why so many of us are interested in him rather than the various ‘others’ who may have shared parts of his journey. That he found something of a different order is apparent to any sensitive person who has worked with or even been in the presence of those who were his pupils. A tree is judged by its fruit.
Although others may help to open the door into the ‘inner world’, once you are there you are on your own. Nobody can do the work of integrating your organism for you; and in just this lies the mystery (though this does not appeal to the scientific mind). ‘Non-doing’ or a “directed (integrated) state” are not things that anybody discovered or invented, they are states which can be entered into.
Certain ‘researchers’ into early influences are now trying to make a case that Alexander was at best a synthesiser and at worst a plagiarist of other peoples work.
I have to say that I find their arguments very weak, because there is no evidence that any of the people who might have influenced him, directly or indirectly, ever reached such a level of realisation as he did, otherwise there would be many more traces of their work. Where is the fruit of those trees?
I can’t help thinking that if some of those ‘researchers’ (not all) had ever spent half an hour in Margaret Goldie’s teaching room or had felt Patrick Macdonald’s hands on them for even ten minutes, they might understand that they are barking up the wrong tree altogether. But there again, perhaps they would not.
© John Hunter 2015
“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
Erika Whittaker and Margaret Goldie were really like chalk and cheese. In the early days, as young women, they did not get on too well. Goldie had, said Erika, somehow got into what she called the “inner circle” at Ashley place (by which she meant the Alexander family, plus Irene Tasker and Ethel Webb) and she did not mix very much with the other students.
According to Erika the children at the Little School were a little bit frightened of Goldie; one day when they were all being served with soup, none of them dared to start eating in case they had not “inhibited” enough. Then F.M. came in, sat down and said, “Eat, eat. It will get cold!”
“She had this way” Erika said, “of looking you up and down as if to say ‘what are you doing here?’, and one felt an icy chill. The other students were all a bit frightened of her.”
When, more than half a century later, they re-established contact, they formed a touching friendship. Erika, having found some strange things going on in the Alexander world after an absence of several decades, was very grateful to be able to talk to Goldie and be re-assured that she was not alone in her critique. While Erika was staying with me on one of her London visits she was invited to Goldie’s for lunch. She came back delighted.
“We had smoked salmon, Stilton cheese and champagne; my favourites.”
Goldie also valued the contact with Erika. When I told her on a later occasion that Erika was coming again to London, she became quite emotional.
“Oh Erika!” she said. “When we were at Ashley Place she was always so light, so joyful and so free. Mr Alexander was always sending us off to go for a walk, saying we were too serious.
‘Why can’t you be more like Erika,’ he would say. ‘She understands.’
But we couldn’t. We didn’t know how.”
I only went to Miss Goldie’s house in Richmond once, and that was to take Erika to visit her. I dropped her off and went a few hours later to pick her up. I went in and spent half an hour or so together with these two old ladies who had influenced my understanding of Alexander’s work so much over the last twelve years. It was the only time I was to see them together and it was the last time I saw Goldie before she died.
Goldie was sitting at her little desk under her bookshelves, full of fascinating titles. You really got the sense that she was a thinker: someone who reflected on subjects which had concerned mankind throughout the ages. She looked very fragile and had bruises on her face after a recent fall, but with Erika’s clever and considerate questions and prompts, the conversation was lively and Goldie reminisced happily.
She told us the story of her first lessons, when she was having each day one from FM and one from AR. She said she loved her lessons with FM, but hated the ones with AR. In desperation she wrote to her father who was paying for the lessons, and said that she thought it was not right that he should be spending all this money when she was only benefiting from half of the lessons. His response was that he was paying all this money so that she could learn to face and deal with any problem that life put in her path, and this was one of them. Later, she said, she became great friends with AR.
Erika asked her, for my benefit really, how was it that FM could see and work with so many people in a day without seeming to get tired.
Goldie laughed. “It was because he wasn’t doing anything” she replied.
“A lot of young teachers nowadays” continued Erika (and by “young teachers” she meant more or less anyone under the age of seventy), “are very concerned about getting more pupils and trying to make FM’s work more popular. What’s your view about that?”
Goldie smiled and said. “It was never meant for everyone. It is meant for the few who wish to evolve.”
© John Hunter 2015
Stories about Miss G abound. They are interesting, often humorous and give some insight into her individuality. Sometimes they demonstrate her capacity to lay bare something in the person with whom she was interacting. Here are a few that I heard, first or second hand, over the years.
A newly qualified young teacher from Israel came to have a lesson with Miss G. As was her wont, she spoke throughout about the need to “stop and be quiet; pay particular attention to the head, neck and back”.
The young teacher, not knowing Miss Goldie’s ways and probably thinking that she was holding out on him, could only take so much of this before interrupting her and saying:
“Miss Goldie! You do realize that I have just completed three years of full-time teacher training, so I think I know the basics.”
“Oh!” said Miss Goldie. “Three years! I see. Well I have completed sixty-three years of training, and I still have to remind myself. So where does that put you and your three years?”
* * *
I heard one story from Marjory Barlow.
A pupil of Marjory’s said to her one day that, having benefited so much from his lessons, he felt a deep appreciation for Alexander and his work and he wanted to know where he was buried so that he could take some flowers to the grave as a token of his gratitude.
Marjory told him that Alexander had in fact been cremated and that she did not know what had happened to the ashes but, thinking that Margaret Goldie would certainly know, she would try and find out.
Another of Marjory’s pupils, an Alexander teacher, was also having lessons with Miss G, so Marjory asked this person if she would, next time she saw Goldie, ask her if she could shed any light on the fate of Alexander’s ashes – adding that it was best not to mention Marjory’s name.
Sure enough, the next time this person was having her lesson with Miss G, she said that “a friend” had been curious about Alexander’s ashes and wanted to know what had happened to them.
“Well!” replied Miss G in a minimalist and dismissive manner, “There are lots of people who want to know all sorts of things!”
Several years later another of Miss G’s pupils was able to supply the missing end to this story. It seems that she had her lesson directly after the pupil who had asked about the ashes, and Miss G had made some comments to her about the incident. She, Miss Goldie, with one other person – most probably Irene Stewart – had scattered the ashes in a place which she said she would never reveal.
* * *
A friend of mine from Mexico would visit London regularly to have lessons with Miss G – sometimes seeing her twice a day. One year she was staying with me while Erika was visiting, and told us a lovely story when she got back from her lesson. By that time Miss Goldie had stopped teaching at the Bloomsbury Alexander Centre and was seeing just a few pupils at her home in Richmond.
I wanted to take her something nice as a treat and went into a delicatessen that was just round the corner from Goldie’s house. It seemed like such an intimate local area that I felt certain that the staff would know who Goldie was and what she liked, so I went in and asked a man who was serving what he could recommend for Miss Goldie.
“Miss Goldie?” he said. “You know Miss Goldie? Wait a minute!”
The shopkeeper then went to the door, put up the ‘closed’ sign, locked the door, pulled the blinds down and invited me into the back room for tea and biscuits. I was a bit worried but he seemed harmless so I agreed. He then interrogated me for half an hour about Miss Goldie, this mysterious woman who had been coming into his shop for years and about whom he knew nothing at all. I told him what I knew and then went off for my lesson. Of course, I told Miss Goldie all about the incident, and she roared with laughter.
When my friend got back to my apartment she could not wait to tell Erika and me this wonderful story.
“It was all so surrealistic!” she said. “I felt like I was back home in Mexico. I can’t believe that such a thing could happen in England.”
* * *
Miss G usually did not have a fixed fee and asked new pupils to consider how much they valued what they were learning before deciding what they wished to pay for their lessons. She had apparently been known to tell some people that they needed to pay more, whilst from others she would refuse to take any payment at all. The issue really was one of valuation rather than money. One story I heard examples a never-to-be-forgotten lesson given to a young man.
Young Mr X was asked, after his first lesson to give some thought to what he wanted to pay. He made the mistake of “trying it on”, however, and said he wanted to pay her her five pounds.
At his next lesson he was told, as soon as he arrived, to remove his shoes and lie on the table.
Miss Goldie arranged his head on some books and then left the room to go and have a cup of tea.
After half an hour she came back and told him to get up and go because the lesson was over.
“But you haven’t done anything” protested the young man.
“Well” she replied, “you wanted to pay five pounds, so you have had five pounds worth. Good day!”
* * *
© 2014 John S Hunter