Patrick Macdonald did not, in those later years, speak very much when teaching, but he knew the moment when a few words could help to either induce helpful self-questioning or make something clear.
I recall two such incidents which took place during my last period of study with him.
I was working on one of my colleagues. Mr Macdonald was watching and reminding me with a gesture of his thumb to “take her up!”. Then something shifted; that recognisable change in state occurred in which everything begins to flow. Mr Macdonald leant over towards me, looked me in the eyes and said, very simply and very directly in a quiet but firm voice– as if confiding something both important and personal:
“That’s right! Never mind about her! You look after yourself!”
Then the moment was over. He changed, stood back again and in his usual voice said,
“Go on then, take her up! Your job is to take her up.”
But I wasn’t fooled. Something that I had already at certain moments tasted was now understood; that experience will always stay with me.
In my last lesson with him I remember asking him, when I felt myself moving freely in and out of the chair,
“Who is doing this, Mr Macdonald? You or me?”
“Who do you think is doing it?” he replied.
“I don’t know”, I said.
A minute or so later, when something had really got out of the way and a finer energy was flowing, he asked:
“Who is doing it now?”
“Nobody is doing it,” I replied. “It’s just happening.”
“That’s right,” he said. “It’s just happening.”
And again, at that moment – something was understood.
© John Hunter 2015
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
After Christmas and New Year with her family in Edinburgh, Erika had a few more days in London before her flight back to Australia. The book she gave me as a Christmas present reflected many of our conversations about Taoism and Zen over the past weeks. She was particularly fond of the story about the Taoist master who – when asked, “What is the Tao?” – replied, “It’s nothing special”.
It’s time to drive her to the airport and we are, for some reason, behind schedule. Before I know it she is off downstairs with her heavy suitcase.
“Erika!” I exclaim, “Let me carry that for you!”
“It’s all right” she replies. “I’m not carrying it. It’s just hanging from my arm.”
Then we are in the car and up onto the flyover of the motorway.
I’m anxiously checking the time and calculating how long it will take to get to the airport, find a parking space and walk to the terminal. Erika is watching the planes flying parallel to us on their approach to Heathrow.
“Erika, don’t you get nervous when you are late for a plane?” I ask her.
“What’s to be nervous about? I am just sitting in a car watching the traffic or the planes … and that’s all!”
A couple of weeks later I was very surprised to receive a phone call from her in Melbourne. She was a wonderful correspondent and I am one of several people with a great collection of letters from her (will they ever be published?) but, calls being still very expensive at that time, she practically never phoned.
“That book I gave you…” she said, “…it’s on page 29. That’s what Alexander was trying to teach us. You can’t separate things.”
I found the quote and read it over to myself, recalling several conversations we had had about making the link between Alexander work and daily life. They are words I often come back to:
“All practices are carried out at once: there is no before or after, and no in between.” 1
1. Zen Dawn: Early Zen Texts from Tun Huang, translated by J. C. Cleary, Shambala Publications Inc, London and Boston, 1986, p29
© 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
#10, A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
“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
According to Erika Whittaker, when one of his students or pupils would complain to FM Alexander about something or other that was going on in their lives, his response was often to say:
“But it’s you! It’s you who’s doing it.”
So Alexander’s concept of “use” was total. It is not just about what you do or don’t do; or whether you do it with a free neck. It is about who you are: not “use of the body” but “use of the self”.
© 2013 John S Hunter