I think I’m getting it. The more we, as Alexander teachers go about waking ourselves and our students up to the true and primary movement, the primary control, inherent control, the primary pattern, the integrative pattern, whatever you wish to call it, the better. Whether it’s through Alexander’s procedures, Barstow’s procedures, (she had them), or other ways-etudes-procedures that talented teachers have evolved is not my main concern here. For me the key question is, for what are these procedures for? Imagine someone gives you a new tool; state of the art, top of the line. She teaches you how it works, but neglects to tell you what it’s for. That’s my question. What is Alexander’s work for? What does it offer us? What can it do for us? Why, 40 years later, am I still asking myself this question?
Phase One. We help one of our students, a singer, Maria, become beautifully poised, exquisitely organized. She now stands effortlessly, walks elegantly, and sings like a nightingale. People love watching and listening to her perform. Helping people with postural support, helping people to move well, sing well; it’s great. Phase one.
Phase two. Maria begins to notice how, not only her singing, but many things in her life are getting easier; doing the dishes, vacuuming the floor, riding her bike, opening jars, falling asleep. She’s getting increasingly curious about the technique. She begins to realize what still gives her trouble, what is still effortful; scrubbing out the bathtub; working at the computer, carrying bags of groceries up three flights of stairs, putting in her new contact lenses. You suggest she bring some of these activities into class. You tell her that if she brings her life into class, she will bring what she learns in class back into her life. You suggest having a lesson at her place to work on the site specific activities. Phase two. As Marj once told me, “Bruce, our job is to help people become sensitive and to make good use of that sensitivity in their everyday life.”
Phase three. Maria comes into class obviously distraught. Her daughter is showing signs of anorexia. She sits at the dinner table and won’t eat. “It’s driving me crazy. I sit there angry, sad, scared. I have no idea what to do. I’m a nervous wreck.” You suggest that there’s no time like the present. “Let’s work on it right now. Remember, bring your life into class and you will bring what you learn in class back into your life. Be brave. I am sure your Alexander friends here will be happy to help you. Maria, what’s your daughter’s name?” “Jody.” How old is she?” ” Twelve.” “Where are you eating and who else is sitting around the table?” “Her sister, Laura. She’s nine.” “Is there anyone here that reminds you even a little of Jody and of Laura?” Maria looks around and finds two people. “Okay, will all of you help get a table, some chairs, go into the church kitchen down the hall and bring back all the stuff we need to set up a dinner table. Don’t dilly dally.” Off everyone goes, and in a flash everything is set up. “Maria where does everyone sit?” “I sit at the head of the table, Jody is on my right and Laura on my left.” “Great. We’re almost ready to go. I need to ask you a couple questions. Tell us what everyone’s day was like before getting to the table. See if you can do it in less than a minute.” Maria sums it up. “I drop off Laura at day care, rush to work, spend most of the day on the computer, pick up Laura, get home, throw together dinner, try to get my kids away from the TV, and sit down. Jody bikes to school, hates her school, comes home, does her homework. She’s super smart. She watches her favorite cooking show, which is funny now that i think about it, and then comes to the table and doesn’t eat.” “Okay. does everyone know who you are and what you are doing, I say to Maria, Jody, and Laura? Take about 30 seconds and just be quiet, and then begin.”
At first everyone is smiling a little but after about 45 seconds it suddenly becomes real. The triggers have gone off. The buttons have been pushed. Jody is curled over herself, sulking. Maria is off looking up to the left, away from Jody, her hands on the table, shaped into fists. Laura is eating as if she hasn’t eaten in a week. You can feel the tension in the air.
And so the work begins. “Maria, don’t move. Just notice what’s going on physically. Start from the ground up until you have a picture of what you look like. Does that position feel familiar?”
“Absolutely.” “Now, I’m going to come over and, together, quietly and ever so slowly and gently, we’re going to undue this pattern and see what happens.” My role, primarily, is to be softer than soft. The first impression I want to give Maria is one of nurturance and kindness. This is what she needs most. I proceed how I often do; dissipating the tension in her neck region. Everyone can see what happens. As the neck ungrips, the shoulders drop and spread, the hands unclench, breath enters, and her head turns and she looks at Jody. “Maria, what’s happening?” “I’m getting calmer. I’m really seeing Jody. I can see she’s sad and lonely.” Maria starts crying. Jody looks up. Laura looks up.
And so it goes. The ice breaks. The melting begins. Phase three, and where I believe Alexander wanted us to go with the work. For me chair work was Alexander’s movement metaphor, a metaphor for what happens to us in our lives. In chair work someone tells you that in a moment you are going to stand up, and you find that your neurological preset for reacting to that stimulus, and the stimulus itself, are coupled together, like two links in a chain. Chair work then becomes about decoupling the stimulus from the response, so that you can unplug the neurological preset which, when successful, creates the option, the possibility of a different and perhaps better response, a new response, a fresh response. As Alexander said, “You are not here to do exercises, (doing chair work), or to learn how to do something right, but to get able to meet a stimulus that always puts you wrong and to learn to deal with it.”
It’s one thing to be able to decouple a stimulus that doesn’t have a lot of charge to it, as in chair work. For sure, it’s a good place to begin. That makes sense. Consider playing with other simple, everyday movement metaphors: opening a door, (entering into a new space), eating an apple, (a famous metaphor, how much do we bite off? Do we swallow things whole or chew them over), tying our own shoes (doing things for ourselves; remember when you couldn’t tie your own shoes?).
But then comes the truly formidable task, the truly humbling task of encountering what Alexander aptly called our habits of life. Until we’re able to discern what triggers our disintegration pattern, every time, and begin to deal with those triggers, be they our critical thoughts about ourselves or others, or our grandiose ones, or our destructive emotions like anger, jealously, envy; or resentment, hatred, and greed, or our fears, we don’t get our black belts, we don’t get into the major leagues. How can we be integrated, how can we be free if we are holding a grudge? How can we be free when we are gossiping? How can we be free when we are busy defending ourselves, or rebelling, or retreating, or panicking? Can we learn to meet a charged stimulus, something that unnerves us, and learn to deal with it in a better, more humane way?
It’s dawning upon me how profound our work can be.
I haven’t been able to stay on every road I’ve begun walking down, but I’m staying on this one. Like Nikos Kazantzakis once said, “At the end of the road, that is where God sits.” And that’s where I’m going, where I’ve been going all along.