Tag Archive | Patrick Macdonald

Equilibrium: Mind, Body and the Thing about Feelings

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

Sensations are incoming messages from one or more of the sensory systems:

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

Directions, orders or, as Margaret Goldie called them, “brain-thought-messages” begin as mental activity which may become outgoing messages;

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

It is important to note here that Alexander is referring to an early stage in understanding  direction: “the first step forward”.

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

“Feeling out” encourages attending to incoming messages with barely any attention available for activating the mental processes which can stimulate outgoing ones.

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?”
Pupil: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Did you try to feel it?”
Pupil: “No.”
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

And from FM:

When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.6

A sharpened sensory awareness – the consequence of an awakened psychophysical state – is quite different from “feeling out” what is going on.

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

It might be added that the above applies equally to a taste for certain sensations experienced during the course of learning or teaching the Alexander Technique.

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

Patrick Macdonald: #3, “…at this game for quite a while”, Lewes, 1988

Patrick Macdonald contracted a serious illness whilst teaching in New York in the late ’80’s and retired from running his school in Victoria, London. However, he continued to teach from his home in Swanborough near Lewes, East Sussex and soon attracted visitors from all over the world.

A trip to Swanborough was quite a ritual; meeting two or three colleagues at Victoria Station, a journey of an hour or so to Lewes, then a taxi ride out of the town and into the countryside. Most of the taxi drivers knew where to go if you just said “Mr Macdonald’s in Swanborough”.

His wife Allison would answer the door. Mr Macdonald, if he wasn’t working, and their two large dogs would come and greet you.

Mrs Macdonald liked to chat, but after a minute or so he would say “Come on then, let’s start to work” and lead you into an area of the living room – with a view out into the garden – right beside his aviary, which had a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window through which one could see the birds chirping away. Not that one was there to look at the birds, and if one’s attention got distracted, Mr Macdonald would soon bring you back.

As soon as his hand touched the back of your neck, he knew your level of experience.

“You’ve been at this game for quite a while, haven’t you” he said.

His illness – a viral infection that had got into his brain – had affected him rather like a stroke; some of his mobility was impaired and he did not communicate very much. His hands and his “work attention”, however, had lost none of their force.

It was as well to go with colleagues as otherwise the continuous movement in and out of the chair could become tiring. On one occasion, thinking I might gain some respite, I asked him to do “hands on the back of a chair” with me. “Yes, all right” he said. A colleague brought another chair over, Mr Macdonald quickly placed my hands on the back of it and, with my hands still there, resumed getting me in and out of the chair……

The most rewarding part of the experience, though, was putting hands on each other under his guidance. Then, you were in the crucible  ….. and there was no escape.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Being with Erika: #08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993

A lot of teachers wanted to come and meet Erika, so I organised several half-day workshops over a period of two weeks in my apartment in West London. The participants spanned a period of thirty-odd years experience and came from diverse training backgrounds. The interaction between them and Erika was of great interest to me.

Here was a woman whose contact with the Alexander Technique (her first lessons from her aunt Ethel Webb were in 1919) predated anyone else still alive. For all of the teachers who came, their link with Alexander was through their head of training or that person’s head of training – in all cases leading back to the same eight people: Patrick Macdonald, Peter Scott, Walter and Dilys Carrington, Dr and Marjory Barlow, and Dick and Elisabeth Walker.

Erika, however, had distanced herself from what had been going on in the Alexander world after World War 2. For some time she had felt uncomfortable with certain attitudes in Ashley Place 1 and when the training course reopened in September 1945, Erika found the atmosphere very different from the pre-war era. With FM playing a smaller part in the running of the course, the three ‘crown princes’ (Patrick Macdonald, Walter Carrington and Bill Barlow), as she called them, were already vying for who was going to ‘pick up the mantle’. Consequently she saw the contemporary Alexander world from the perspective of what it had been to her in those early experiences with Ethel Webb, Irene Tasker and the Alexander brothers. She was like a time-traveller who had jumped forward fifty years and could see how, over just two generations, ideas and practices had developed in unexpected and sometimes, to her, unusual ways.

Like many of my contemporaries who trained in London in the 1980’s, I was trying to understand the difference between the various ‘styles’ or ‘approaches’ to training. As the different teachers, from those very backgrounds, came and interacted with Erika, bringing with them (just like me) their mixture of ‘idées reçues’, misconceptions, insights, discoveries, frustrations and ‘strongly held beliefs’, it became clear that she had a somewhat different way of seeing things.

Some people came with very definite ideas about what they wanted to ask, but she stepped deftly aside in the face of ‘specific questions’. What she was interested in was people, and what made them tick. Who was asking this or that question, and what way of thinking was behind it?  She tried to get through a person’s outer shell and connect with the individual with whom she was in discourse. Some found this frustrating; they were waiting for when they could start getting in and out of chairs. Some felt the rug pulled out from under their feet; they were looking for a rational explanation of this or that idea or to justify this or that point of view. Others found it like a breath of fresh air.

When she ‘worked’ with someone, she never allowed it to become the seeking out of certain sensory experiences. She brought the person into the moment, into their own presence in the here and now. One could see the scales fall from their eyes as the questions or concerns which had been dogging them, and were preventing them from entering into a direct experience, disappeared.

Speaking for myself, still the old questions fought to reestablish themselves in my mind. I asked her to talk about the differences between the major lineages of the Alexander Technique.

“But they are all the same” she said. “Can’t you see that?”

“No I can’t” I replied. “What do you mean?”

“They are all about ‘teaching‘.”

I still didn’t understand. But my curiosity was piqued now, and I wanted to find out what she meant. This took quite some ‘unpacking’ and involved an exploration of events which took place in London long before I was born.

1. “…there seemed to be a tendency at Ashley Place to have the attitude that we were the clever ones and the people out there don’t know anything……..I wanted to find out what else was going on in the world”. Erika Whittaker, Annual Memorial Lecture, STAT 1985. (… back to text).

© 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
#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

Patrick Macdonald: #2, “Yes! That’s it! That’s right!”, London 1983

Patrick J Macdonald was the son of Dr Peter Macdonald, one of a number of medical doctors who strongly supported Alexander.

The young Patrick was sent to Alexander by his father when he was about twelve years old because he was, as he said himself in later years,  “rather poorly co-ordinated”.

Soon after graduating from Cambridge he joined the first training course, which was already up and running at Ashley Place.

My work with him was intermittent over a period of eight or nine years.

He was certainly extraordinary. The awe and respect he commanded in his students – some of whom who had been with him since the late fifties – forewarned one of what one might expect, but the experience of a lesson with him could not really be imagined. His touch transformed you; you became a field of energy which, only incidentally, caused the physical body to move. This approach, the flow of energy – particularly along the spine – seems to me to have been uniquely Mr. Macdonald’s.

His 1963 Annual Memorial Lecture repays careful study, as does his book “The Alexander Technique as I See It”.

Key passages are:

“He (Alexander) found that the body was a fluid thing, its various parts held in their proper relationship by a continuous flow of impulses”

“These impulses, which are analogous to electrical currents, are small, but their effect over years is very large”

“It is possible to demonstrate two forces, or sets of forces, acting in the human body, and, in particular, along the spine”

“Force “A” has a tendency to contract and distort”

“Force” B” has an expansionary or elongatory tendency. It is often referred to, in a general way, as “life”. It produces a “lightness” in the body, which I take to be the natural, though not any longer the normal, condition. This lightness is …. not that of avoirdupois. It has an anti-gravitational direction. I presume that the natural interplay of these two forces brings about the integrity of the body, which sets the stage for proper health.”1

I recall a very early experience in my second or third lesson.

I asked Mr Macdonald if I could work on him. His back, though deformed from some condition he had, struck me as having an unusual quality of ‘aliveness’ – like an animal.

At first I was only aware of the force of gravity acting through him, very strongly, but when I stopped trying to ‘do’ he moved lightly in and out of the chair.

I carried on, rather like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – not quite knowing how to stop, until he got fed up and said, rather sharply, “Do something else now!”

I put him in a monkey and did one or two other ‘procedures’, which I cannot recall. He did not have a negative word to say. This surprised me as I had heard such stories about him and how tough he was. He just muttered, “Yes! That’s it! That’s right!”

I learnt a day or two later, from colleagues who were training with him, that when he went back into his class he was full of praise for this “student from another course who knows something about the Alexander Technique”, almost using me as a stick to beat his students for their ‘general indifference and uselessness’.

I do not recount this story out of pride. I had little idea at the time of what was really going on in my lesson. Mr Macdonald had, in working on me, brought something to life in my body; he had transmitted a certain energy. I was, for a few moments, able to let that energy flow in me without getting in the way. However, I was not at that time able on my own to ’embody’ that energy; it soon wore off. But the experience did confirm what we were working on daily with Misha Magidov, with whom I was then training; that it is possible to be animated by, and to animate in another, a different quality of energy.

1. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 3: Why We Learn the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989.  (back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter

Peggy Williams: Going Up in High Point

One of my closest friends was the first person I heard coin the name ‘the surgeon’ for Peggy Williams.

“She puts her hands on me and they feel enormous, like I imagine Alexander’s did. She just opens me up. I call her ‘the surgeon’. She can put me right in two minutes”.

With PR like that, how could I resist…!

I had been teaching for a couple of years and still did not know very much. I was already having lessons with Margaret Goldie and with Patrick Macdonald, but my friend assured me that Peggy’s work was something different again.

Peggy lived in High Point, an upmarket 1930’s modernist apartment block (designed by Berthold Lubetkin) in Highgate, London. She was always very welcoming, but definitely didn’t like anybody arriving late.

Standing in front of ‘the chair’ on a thick rug in my stocking feet, I felt her ‘enormous’ (yes they felt like that) hands arrive on my shoulders and start to press them down. The more they released, the more I went up!. It seemed as though my whole frame was going up from the inside and that there was no end to it. With a prod at my hips, my knees went forward and then I was in the chair. I went on going up.

Getting out of the chair was easy if you kept the back back; something Alexander insisted on, she said – adding that many young teachers coming to her would ‘lurch forward’ as soon as they felt the slightest pressure on their backs.

Then she would put me on the table, still chatting throughout; her ‘surgeon’s hands’ would go to work, opening up my whole body. Under those hands everything just let go, and I knew then what my friend had been talking about.

The lessons mostly followed that pattern, and at some point she would always ask “Well, any news?” She loved to hear what was going on in the Alexander world and always had some good gossip to exchange.

There was a lovely flow of direction as she worked, and she kindly commented once that it was a pleasure “to work with someone who knows how to direct”, adding that giving me a lesson was like receiving a lesson, because I had so much direction. She would often make supportive remarks like that, which was very encouraging for a young teacher. When I was grumbling once about some persistent difficulty, her response was “Don’t worry! It must come right in the end, because the direction is there”.

Mostly she would stimulate the upward response of the anti-gravity mechanisms with her hands on my (troublesome) shoulders, or with one hand on my head and the other on my back. Once though, coming off the table, she took my head forward and up with such clarity that I can almost feel it as I write now, some 25 years later.

I continued to see Peggy every couple of months for about three years between 1986 and 1989.

I was very glad to have had that experience, particularly from a senior teacher not only trained by Alexander but also strongly associated with the Constructive Teaching Centre, where she taught for 17 years.

An Interview with Peggy Williams, by Glen Park, is very helpful reading for all teacher-trainees.

© 2013 John S Hunter