The Thread – Graduate Talk to German Alliance Graduates 2015

The Thread

This graduation talk might strike you as egocentric, but it isn’t. It may sound as if it’s about me, but it’s not. It’s about you.

If you want to know what I know, you must do what I did. – Mr. Alexander

Let me tell you what I did, just in case you should want to know what I know.

One. I found my primary teachers. I found my Alexander community. You have all done that.

Two. I read Alexander’s books, barely getting through them. The Use Of The Self was the most helpful. Dewey’s introductions to Alexander’s books were thought provoking. As far as Alexander’s own writings, I mainly studied the cliff notes, and for me that was Ed Maisel’s, The Resurrection of the Body, later entitled, The Essential Writings of F. Matthias Alexander. It was Ed Maisel who introduced me to Marj Barstow. But the book that helped me the most was Frank Pierce Jones, Body Awareness In Action, the name selected by the publisher to help make the book sell. Frank wanted to entitle it, Freedom To Change. I had to buy a second copy of Frank’s book because I had underlined the entire first copy, continually, to the point that the pages were in tatters. I wrote in every margin, on every page, throughout the entire book.

But mostly I read philosophy and psychology and theology and poetry looking for Alexander’s principles everywhere, and I found them. Off the top of my head there was, Zen and The Art of Archery by Herrigel, The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, Discourse on Thinking, Heidegger, I and Thou, Buber, Novalis, Blake, Huxley, The Sabbath by Heschel, On Becoming A Person by Carl Rodgers, The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry, Transactional Analysis, Eric Berne, In and Out of The Garbage Pale, Fritz Pearls, From Frogs Into Princes, Bandler and Grinder, Siddhartha by Hesse, every translation I could get my hands on of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching, The Way of Chung Tzu by Thomas Merton and pretty much everything else Thomas Merton wrote, Teachings of Meister Eckhart, Heraclitus, Zen and Japanese Culture by D.T. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Suzuki Roshi, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and Meditation In Action, by Trungpa Rimpoche,
There was The Natural Way To Draw by Nicolaides, Drawing On The Right Side of The Brain, Edwards, there was Rumi, and Mary Oliver, Emerson, and Thoreau, Gandhi’s writings on non-violence. There was Oliver Sachs. The Diamond Sutra, The Heart Sutra, Sensitive Chaos by Theodor Schwenk, Songlines by Bruce Chatwin , The Book of Tea by Okakura, Sensory Awareness by Selver and Brooks, The Thinking Body, Mabel Todd, Human Movement Potential, Lulu Sweigard, Taking Root To Fly, Irene Dowd, The Hand by Frank Wilson, James Hillman’s, A Blue Fire, John Dewey, Education As Experience, Krishnamurti, On Education. The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori.
Read. And if you are so moved to, study figure drawing. It’s great for developing your eye.

Three. Just as I didn’t only read about the Alexander Technique, I didn’t only study the Alexander Technique. The first time I called up Marj, in 1976, to ask her if I could come to her winter workshop she asked me, ‘What do you do?” I said, “I study the Alexander Technique.” She said, “Is that all? Is that all you do? You must do something else. What else do you do?” “Oh, well, I mumbled, I’m in graduate school majoring in modern dance. I dance with a modern company. I study tai chi, and aikido.” “That sounds more like it. Sure, you can come and study.”

What did I study: Theology: Judaism, Christian mysticism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Western European philosophy, Chinese and Japanese philosophy, philosophy of esthetics, cybernetics, deep ecology. Psychology: transactional analysis, gestalt therapy, rational emotive therapy, Jungian therapy, psychoanalysis, neuro-linguistic programming, the work of Byron Katie. Community Development. Movement Arts: swimming, diving, gymnastics, ballet, modern dance, contact improvisation, tai chi chu’an, aikido, chanoyu, ideokinesis, Alexander technique, tango.
That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary – go study. – Hillel

Beware of Alexander fundamentalism. Beware of purism. Sure the Alexander Technique has a lot to offer other disciplines, but other disciplines have a lot to offer us. Remain wide open to other Alexander teachers from other branches of our Alexander tree. An open mind is a beautiful mind. Remember the Alexander Technique is not about itself. It’s about living your life.

Four. At some point, I began teaching, prematurely. I wanted to find out what I could do and what I couldn’t do. I had an instinct for teaching. I trusted that. In the beginning, I taught Movement for the Elderly as part of the Senior Wheels East Late Start Program – a program that took food to poor, elderly people. We had a few community centers in dangerous, destitute parts of Philadelphia for those who could get themselves to a center for lunch and for some classes. Many were ex-mental patients kicked out of an institution and left to try and survive on their own. America. The land of the free, and all that.

I taught an Ideokinesis class at the “Drop In Center,” a free university inside of the university, and I taught a movement class in my living room, based on a movement series I had developed. I assisted my Tai Chi teacher. In the summer I taught dance classes at my university, where I was getting a master’s degree in modern dance and movement re-education. In everything I did, I used my hands. I tried. I pretended I knew what I was doing. I did my best. I learned as I went along. On the job training. American style I guess.

When in class, no matter how advanced you are, take that class as if you were a beginner. When teaching, no matter how much of a beginner you are, practice as if you were a master. Cheng-man Ching.

Five. I graduated from graduate school, and sent my resume to two hundred schools. I received a hundred and ninety-eight rejections. But I landed a half time job teaching movement for actors at Rutgers University, and a half time job at Temple University, also working with actors. At Rutgers I taught two classes five mornings a week, thirty in one class, fifteen in the other. Three afternoons a week I taught a three-hour class for ten students. I did this for six years. I used my hands a lot. I was still studying with Marj seven weeks a year.

So I say to you, somehow, find a way to use your hands a lot. Keep your Alexander mind, eye, heart and hands in shape. Love, persistence, and practice are most important. Talent is not that important.

Six. Martha and I decided to adopt our first child and quite irrationally, at the same time, I quit all my jobs, and decided I was going to start my own school. I told my Dad and asked him if he thought I was crazy. He said I wasn’t at all. He said, “You will have to succeed, and you will succeed.” And I did. In part, thanks to him.

I don’t know who you are, but someday I hope some of you will begin an Alexander School, that someday you will also train teachers. Maybe your school will even be an Alliance school. It’s possible. I had no idea when we started our little Alexander School in Philadelphia, comprised of six courageous people, (what a great class – Meade Andrews, Rob and Zoana Gepner-Muller, Glenna Batson, Cynthia Mauney, and Jan Baty).  That we’d now have four schools, one in the USA, in Germany and two in Japan.

Here’s the point. Starting an Alexander school is as much about building community as it is about passing on the work. It’s nigh on impossible to become a great Alexander teacher without the support of an Alexander community. Many of those who became Alexander’s best teachers hung out with him after they graduated, just like some graduates do here. Marj Barstow, upon graduating, assisted and co-taught up and down the northeast coast of America with A.R. Alexander for 8 years in America. Forty years later, I did exactly the same thing with Marj for eight years, up and down the northeast coast. So hang around your teachers for a while. And someday, if the spirit moves you, go and build an Alexander community somewhere, somehow, and if it feels right, stay connected to this one too.

Eight. The Alexander Alliance didn’t just grow by itself. I promoted it. I advocated for it continually. I still do. In the beginning I was a monomaniac. Now I am not, but I love the school with all my heart. I taught everywhere I could possibly teach. I did small workshops, large workshops. I still do. I told everyone about the school.

I was always at work on a brochure for the Alexander Alliance, or for the Annual East Coast Residential Course in The Alexander Technique that Michael Frederick and I co-directed for 20 years. Religiously, every year, I started from scratch, and wrote a new definition of the technique. It was always changing for me. I was continually searching for images that spoke to me of Alexander’s work, images from ancient Greek sculpture, from nature, from athletics, from Japanese Bushido traditions, from Michelangelo or Bernini. Eventually, I found Tada “Anchan” Akihiro, and he began photographically catching the beauty of Alexander’s work and of our school.

Students are not mysteriously going to find you and end up knocking on your door. You are going to have to go out and get them. You’re going to have to socialize and mingle. You have to schmooze. You have to take an interest in them, and then they might become interested in you. You have to like people. You have to express your values and your sense of beauty through your publicity. You want to draw the people toward you who resonate with who you are. You want to express yourself through the work, and you want the work to express itself through you. You have to live the work; the work has to live within you. People will see that, they’ll feel that. You have to believe in yourself and in your work. You have to be fearless.

Be willing to travel. Be willing to go to where people are, and invite them to where you are. There is some truth to the saying, “You can’t be a prophet in your own city.” Even Jesus couldn’t do it. If you travel somewhere people see you as a little special. If they travel to you, they see you as a little special. That’s human nature.

Eight. Everything was going well. The Alliance was growing. I was being asked to teach in lots of countries. And then, when I was looking the other way, I ran into a brick wall. My mom died. My dad died. My kids went off to college. My marriage ended. I left the Philadelphia school, at that time, the parent school of the Alliance. I sold the house I had loved and lived in for 20 years, moved to New Mexico, drove up into the mountains, and entered purgatory, my personal bardo.

William Stafford writes:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain to them about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

I almost lost my thread. A day came when I decided to end the Alexander Alliance. I had run my course. I was in Germany. A retreat had just ended. Astrid was there, and when she heard of my decision, she said that I did not have the right to do that. She said that the Alliance was not just about me. That other people needed the school. I took hold again of my thread, of my lifeline. And here we are.

Remember, no matter how hard it gets, if this is a thread you are following, don’t let go of it, no matter what. Just keep moving through what you have to move through.

With the help of a lot of people, I resurfaced. I see the light of day as I have never seen it before.

In the words of Goethe, That which thy fathers, (and mothers),  have bequeathed unto you, learn it anew if thou wouldith possess it.

Graduates. Well done. Congratulations.

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