from Letters To A Young Student…
How do I know when I am moving in the right direction?
It’s simple questions, like this one, that lead us in the right direction. This is what I mean by a heartfelt question. Questions asked from the heart don’t have intellectual answers. Ultimately a question like yours is about how to live one’s life. Living a life is not intellectual, not even for an intellectual! So I will reflect on this question, not only for you, but for myself as well.
You are asking this question in the context of the work of F.M. Alexander, so let’s begin with a famous quip of Alexander’s. “There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a think as a right direction.”
Let’s first zoom out and get the big picture and then work our way into the center. Alexander implies here that what you want is not a posture, not a place, nothing fixed. So if we feel held, placed, or fixed in any way then we are off. He seems to be saying that it’s about “the way” rather than “the form.” Taoism immediately comes to mind as it did for Aldous Huxley who referred to Alexander as the first Western Taoist. Lao Tzu’s references to “wu-wei”, translated non-doing, effortless effort, or harmonious activity, his reverence for water, the watercourse, his love of the valley rather than the mountain, of space over substance, his praise of softness over hardness, his desire for less rather than for more.
Ironically the best book on Alexander’s work may have been written 2400 years before Alexander was born, and may still be the best guide for pointing us in the “right direction.” That’s why I’ve spent the last eight years studying and writing my own interpretation of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching, because my experience tells me this text is the predecessor to Alexander’s work.
I would however go a step further. I would say not only is there no right position, I would say there is also no right direction, no one right direction. Being on “a way” is important. In Japan, where I live half the year, people study such disciplines as Kyudo, the way of the bow, Aikido, the way of harmonizing energy, Sado, the way of tea, Shodo, the way of calligraphy, etc. But being on a way, doesn’t mean we don’t lose our way because we do. Sometimes we have doubts about the path we are on, whether we are getting anywhere, whether it is the right path for us, whether or not we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way, whether we are ever going to get where we are going.
Perhaps a certain amount of doubt goes with the territory. Alexander asked us not to try to be right, not to try to feel that we are right. Not even to care whether we were right. In fact he’d sometimes begin lessons saying, “Let’s hope something goes wrong.” When we don’t know for certain where we are, we sometimes begin to see where we are, to experience where we are. We open to what is around us.
Yet still, something in us wants some confirmation that we are moving in a good direction. There must be signs, and if there are, what are they? Alexander gives us a hint when he says,
“When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing that we are doing is exactly what is being done in nature, where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.”
What does Alexander mean by “right conditions?” I’m not sure, but maybe it’s similar to Aldo Leopolds’s definition of right. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Perhaps Alexander is telling us that the way we know we are right, is when we are conducting ourselves in accordance with nature, that is, when we are tending toward the preservation of our integrity, stability, and (inner) beauty. And we are out of balance when we are not.
Let’s zoom into the biotic community within us and return to the question of knowing when we are moving in the right direction. If we are a fractal of our larger ecosystem, then we too would be moving in a right direction when we are tending toward integration, stability, and beauty. I would add the complimentary opposites to these indicators: integration and differentiation, stability and mobility, and beauty and functionality. Complimentary opposites work with one another. Opposing opposites work against one another. My experience tells me that when we are experiencing an integration of complimentary opposites within us, we are moving in the right direction.
When we are feeling unified and articulate.
When we are feeling stable and mobile.
When we are feeling functional and beautiful.
When we are feeling light and substantial.
When we are feeling still as a mountain and moving as a river.
When we are feeling rest and support.
When we are feeling gathered and expansive.
When we are feeling within and without.
When we are feeling open and focused.
When we are feeling connected and independent.
When we are feeling committed and free.
When we are feeling spontaneous and deliberate.
When we are feeling soft and powerful.
When we are feeling relaxed and ready.
When we are feeling near and far.
When we are feeling time and the timeless.
When we are feeling gravity and grace.
When we are feeling self and others.
When we are feeling self and no self.
When we are doing less and receiving more.
If we decide to use the word direction in the strict Alexander sense of the word, and then ask how do we know when we are moving in the right direction, the answer may be hiding in The Use of the Self, one of Alexander’s books I read some 40 years ago. Somewhere, I believe in a footnote, Alexander mentions that a direction is a message we send to a part of the body. If the message is correct, if it is a right direction or order, it will conduct the energy within that part of the body in a way that will result in a general improvement of one’s overall integration.
The metaphor I use to get a picture of this is that of a lock and key. A joint in your body would be a lock, the key, its direction. It’s necessary to examine the lock to find out its structure. Then you can make a key to fit the lock. When the key fits the lock, the lock opens. This opens a door which allows you to enter into your house, your body, where you reside, your abode, your dwelling place, your refuge, your sanctuary.
Eventually, through study, whether that is on your own, or with the help of a teacher or teachers, you come to discover and learn about many of the doors and their locks, and you construct ever more precise keys to these doors which lead you through the gates into the holy city. You learn, in Alexander’s enigmatic term, how to free into your primary control, or your true and primary movement, or as I sometimes refer to it as, your primary pattern, which is a fluid, moving, organizing pattern. You learn how to enter into this fluid organization, into this knowing river within us, and it is this river that knows where to go, knows what a right direction is. Our job is to surrender to the river, to let the river take us to a place known to it, forever unknown to us.