We are at the zoo.Three generations: a two-year old, a 30-something, and a 60-year-old. In rapt attention at the glass enclosure wall, we watch two tiger cubs tumbling over each other in the morning sunshine. The moment shimmers with beauty and our amazement. And then the two-year-old says, ‘But I want to see the apes!’ His mama responds, “Yes, we will, but we are here now, with the tigers.’
What a vignette for an illustration of end-gaining, a term Mr. Alexander used to describe the habit of striving to arrive at the end-goal, get to the next place, satisfy our desires and wishes, complete our task. In attempting to arrive at the ‘end,’ we lose ourselves and the present moment.
This end-gaining habit starts early in life. Of course. We are born with a mind, and a healthy toddler has an active one. And so begins the life-long learning of mind/body integration. My body is here; my mind is there. Now what?
Follow the coaching of this child’s mother, and you will be on your way. Acknowledge that, yes, you would like to be done, you would prefer to be at the next place, you are getting just a little bit ahead of yourself. And then, notice where your body is in that very moment, and return to NOW.
That’s a primary practiceof the Alexander Technique, so useful for the arts, for self-care, for the living of life itself. It also comes in handy at the zoo—
‘Part of my difficultyis that I am always trying to be right. I must stop this trying to be right, for immediately when I try to be right, I do things wrong (i.e., in the old way that feels right). I must cease this trying to be right.’
That’s Goddard Binkley,in The Expanding Self, a memoir of Binkley’s Alexander Technique training. His journal entry continues:
‘Inhibit this tendency(to try and to be right) and I shall then be free to project the guiding orders, that is to direct my neck to be free, and my head to go forward and up. Moreover, if I can inhibit this tendency, which is so overwhelming, to try and be right, I can then allow nature to assert itself.’
Yes. That. What he said. Quit with the trying. That’s all this Alexander Technique teacher has to say. Just stop with trying so hard. Often the trying has produced the physical tensions and misuse, and merely stopping will be enough to restore ease and poise.
Truth-telling. Not enough of that in this present political age. Since I’m not in control of our society’s unleashed lying habits, I’m proposing to start here:
Be honest with myself.
Hmmm. As in, a long, hard look in the mirror? What I see there these days is my mortality.
You too can stare death in the face with a read of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and OtherLessons From the Crematory, by Caitlin Doughty. It is not for the squeamish or faint-of-heart, but I found it to be bracing and yes, refreshing. Death is acknowledged. No lies. No subterfuge.
My Alexander Technique teaching studio has two skeletons in daily use, along with multiple anatomy tomes. Some students are uncomfortable with considering the bones beneath their flesh, and a bit of light-hearted cajoling is required for a engaged lesson of curiosity about the body and its structure.
Facing the truth of death and decay is to embrace living. In a death-denying and truth-negating culture, this can be a radical practice. Let’s begin with some courageous honesty all around, and who knows, we could be contributing to a new cultural norm; telling the truth!
In Alexander McCall Smith’s MyItalian Bulldozer, Paul is driving his rental machinery through the Italian countryside, and this happens:
‘…he felt as if he were suddenly lighter, able, if he wished, to float upwards and look down on the track, the trees, the farmhouse, the cluttered yard. It was a form of intoxication, a relief from self, a feeling of a sort to accompany being picked up by the wind and effortlessly borne away to a place that it alone decided.’
McCall Smith has aptly described the experience of release from downward pull. Students new to the Alexander Technique invariably use some version of the word ‘light’ to define their altered use of self.
And if you are seeking a light and heart-warming read, look no further. He has written several series; my two favorites are: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, set in Botswana with Mma Precious Ramotswe, and The Sunday Philosophy Book Club, featuring Isabel Dalhousie of Edinburgh, Scotland.
Worthington Presbyterian Church vocalists are meeting every Thursday night this month, preparing summer season solos and receiving coaching from me and from colleague, Sharon Stohrer. Talk about lifelong learning! Here are women, several of them in their mature years, continuing to make beautiful music as they hone the craft of singing.
They are an inspiration to this singer of 60 years. To inspire is to ‘infuse an animating, quickening, or exalting influence into.’ To inspire also means ‘to inhale’; ‘to take air intothe lungs.’ Isak Dinesen wrote this about her Ngong farm in Africa:
‘The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air….Up in this high air, you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart.’*
The sound we produce rides the breath. Soundwaves require air. It’s what they travel on. And each full and good inspiration has in it the potential to inspire as the lyrics and melodies reach the ear of the listener.
May you breathe, and yes, sing, with ‘lightness of heart’ this first week of summer—–
Humid, sunny, no breeze, no water, no hat. A horse-fly repeatedly dive-bombs, then burrows into my hair with an angry buzz. Waving walking poles at it, I whack myself in the head. Good Lord. Did I mention 7 ticks on my person? S-E-V-E-N.
Trudging up the final crest, a litany of complaints was in rehearsal, performance scheduled for an audience of one (my husband). With gaze fixed glumly on the ground, I happen upon a pair of tiger swallowtails. Returned to the present moment by astonishing and surprising beauty, I stop in my tracks.
And you know what comes next. This stopping of whatever you are doing Mr. Alexander termed ‘Inhibition’. Having stopped usual habits (i.e.–trudging, mental rehearsals, downward pull compressing my spine, etc.), I then have the opportunity for something else. Usually something much better.
Please note: optimal conditions are not required for choosing optimal Use. In other words, you can, in the most unpleasant of circumstances, stop and receive whatever is right in front of you. This provides greater ease and comfort in the physical body, and a lightness of mind as well.
That performance of complaints? Never happened. The swallowtails stole the show.
Glory be.It’s a fine morning on the hill. Bird chorus was a cacophony, and early. Sighted a Baltimore Oriole! A flash of brilliant orange and there he was, singing in a meadow bush. On lifting from his perch, he flew straight toward me, veering off to land in the nearest oak. Oh, my.
To enhance your birding experience, add some Alexander Technique thinking. Begin by simply noting and observing your usual patterns of use. Mine: 1. In the excitement of a closer view, I plop the binocs right up against my face, blurring my vision. 2. In a mis-directed attempt to obtain the best look, I scrunch down into the binocs, often not noticing this until my neck begins to hurt. 3. Arms get pulled tightly in toward torso in an effort to keep the binocs steady.
Next, having observed Habits (patterns of Use), ask yourself the question, ‘What if?’ ‘What if I didn’t ram the binocs against my face?’ The body’s inherent wisdom asserts itself when we get out of its way. We get to find out what the body would like to do instead. Instead of plopping, ramming, scrunching, pulling, there is now the option of lightness, lengthening, widening; all choices that make for more comfortable birding in a happier body.