Let’s not be afraid of being wrong!

“Trying to be right” takes many forms and some of them are extremely subtle. One such is the fear of being wrong, either in one’s own eyes or the eyes of others.

Knowing when we are right is not within our power. How, in fact, can I know anything at all?1

FM Alexander’s response to this question was, according to the Teaching Aphorisms:

“To know when we are wrong is all that we shall ever know in this world.”2

Being wrong can become our ally. Until we know in what way we are wrong we can’t change it:

“Like a good fellow, stop the things that are wrong first!”2

We need to learn to make friends with not so much “being wrong” in itself, but the recognition of it. Hence FM’s plea:

“Don’t come to me unless, when I tell you you are wrong, you make up your mind to smile and be pleased.”2

Maybe some things, like the leopard and his spots, can’t be changed; acceptance is needed. Acceptance, though, can be both a powerful spiritual process or a way of justifying either certain traits that one is not ready to take a long hard look at or, in other cases, a general laissez-fair attitude (which FM also cautions us against3).

Reinhold Niebuhr expressed it well:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”4

1. BBC Radio 4’s “A History of Ideas” recently broadcast a series of talks with this title, particularly referencing Bishop Berkley, Karl Popper, David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein. (See: BBC Radio 4 iPlayer [UK only].)
2. 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).
3. “…active, vigilant, and open-eyed to the evils which result from his old policy of laissez-faire.” Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander, Chapter VII Notes and Instances (response to question III). Published by Mouritz, London 1986.
4.The Serenity Prayer is the common name for a prayer authored by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer).

© 2015 John S Hunter

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Reflections on History & Development, #2: Lulie and Erika on The First Training Course

I’ve already written about the first Alexander training course in The First Training Course in 1931: a different perspective, but in this post I wish to look in more detail at some of the points made by Lulie Westfeldt in her book F.Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work1 ) For those who are unfamiliar with this book, I consider it essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the history and development of the Alexander Technique.

It is fascinating to read how Lulie’s attitude towards FM changed during the four years of the training course. What that says about Lulie and what that says about Alexander, the reader must decide for him or herself.

It was not until many years after I had first read that book, and many years after I first heard Erika Whitaker’s Annual Memorial Lecture (delivered to the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique in 1985) that I realised that, to quite a large extent, Erika was responding to much of what Lulie had written in her book.

Erika and Lulie were in different groups or factions at Ashley Place, but remained friends throughout and spent time together teaching at a girls school in the United States after their training course had finished.

The Macdonald/Westfeldt faction was certainly dominant and has seemingly won the battle for history; their version of what happened in the early 1930’s is now the conventional wisdom of how the Technique developed.

Then hereunder are some passages from both writers juxtaposed for comparison. The references to Lulie’s book are from the 1986 Centreline Press Edition. Erika’s lecture is sadly not currently in print.

It is interesting that Erika mostly defends Alexander here, although she certainly had her own critique of him, but one quite different from Lulie’s.

Lulie: p42 “One other thing that took place in this first series of lessons was an emotional scene…..Since I simply didn’t know what F.M. meant me to do, I wavered, hesitated and tried one possible alternative after the other. We had reached a total impasse. I got more and more frantic and he got more and more furious. Finally he burst out ‘You make me feel like a fool’. It surprised me that this should be his main concern and the cause of his anger.”

Erika: “…then one day there would be a slight stir in this quiet series of lessons, and if you were in the room next door you would suddenly hear FM say “You will do it, you will do it”, and this would mean that the pupil had suddenly got himself into a bit of end‑gaining trouble. And if the pupil then protested and said they didn’t intend to do it they were really in trouble and FM would say “Of course you intended to do it, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it”. So as I see it now FM chose the right moment to make a pupil aware of his reactions; probably he had changed the pupil’s condition subtly to a point where it was safe to make the pupil aware of his reactions.”

Lulie: p50: “…..we were like the élite  of all the earth. We admired F.M. uncritically and wholeheartedly, and he basked in our admiration……. We began to have grave doubts about the other human beings outside our orbit.”

Erika: “I began to feel that 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. And I began to want to be with friends who knew nothing about the Alexander work, who did interesting things and I wanted to find out what else was going on in the world.”

Lulie: p50-51: “Anthony Ludovici2   … was going to write a book about the work: Miss Lawrence3 , the former head of the Froebel Institute, was planning to buy a house and start an Alexander school for small children…
…another opportunity that seemed most promising was the interest of an American foundation…
…F.M. had a way of killing an opportunity, although in the beginning he apparently accepted it and rejoiced in it.”

Erika: “ When (his well-wishers) decided to help him and wanted to set up schools or institutions, any sort of organisation to keep his work going, he was flattered by the periodic attention from these well-wishers and enjoyed it for a while, but then he realised that he was being pushed in the opposite direction to what he believed in, and he refused to be fenced in, and withdrew. Naturally, those many good friends were often puzzled and sometimes offended.”

Lulie: p56: “There were frequent periods in the training course when F.M. was extremely bored….It was a shock to discover that F.M. could get bored teaching – especially teaching us, the future custodians of his work.”

Lulie: p56: “You simply did not get what you needed when you asked him. The answer didn’t meet the question and often mystified you further. If questions were pressed, he would get irritated and behave as though he felt himself persecuted.”

Lulie: P57: “…he was not interested in training. He did not believe anyone could get it.”

Lulie: P59: “I began to see that the fault lay with FM rather than with myself.”

Erika: “Some students complained that FM didn’t explain enough, or that he kept things back, or worse, that FM seemed sometimes a bit bored with his students. Now when we come to explaining, I remember Eliza Doolittle’s plea in ‘My Fair Lady’: “Don’t expline, show me!” Well, FM showed us, day in day out, with his hands, gave us new experiences; as we changed. So it seems now that FM would say he was showing us. That he was bored, I can now understand much better! We couldn’t see the wood for the trees, because we were end‑gaining like all students.”

Erika: “And I began to see more clearly why FM had resisted all attempts to categorise our progress and had such problems answering questions that seemed to him irrelevant and strange, since he put his working principles plainly before us. It was a case of the Chinese saying: ‘There are answers to questions that are never asked'”.

1. F. Matthias Alexander: the Man and his Work, Lulie Westfeldt, p 135. Published in 1986 by Centerline Press, California. First published in 1964. Currently in print published by Mouritz; (back to text).

2. Anthony M. Ludovici (1882 – 1971) (see Wikipedia) went ahead and wrote his book about the Alexander Technique entitled “Health and Education through Self-Mastery”: Published by Watts & Co (UK): 1933; (back to text).

3. Esther Ella Lawrence (1862–1944) was a well-known figure in Education having been involved for many years in establishing in London the work of the German Educationalist and founder of the Kindergarten system Friedrich Froebel (see Wikipedia). According to Lulie Miss Lawrence went as far as buying a property for her planned Alexander school, but FM withdrew from the project at some point and the house was later sold. Earlier (in 1926) Miss Lawrence had sent Margaret Goldie, then one of her young teacher-trainees at Froebel College, to have lessons with Alexander; (back to text).

© 2015 John S Hunter

Traps, Pitfalls and Culs-de-sac #2: Sensation Junkies

Each of the first-generation teachers gave to the Alexander work a particular emphasis, based perhaps on a particular need – or a strong interest – in themselves which was related to just such an aspect or aspects.

Many of the second generation teachers tended to particularly focus on those aspects mastered by their own teachers and then, by a kind of psycho-physical synecdoche, took that for the whole.

It is a consequence of our discipline’s somewhat tribal history and development that many teachers today find it difficult to exchange on more than a superficial level with someone from another lineage.

I will in another post (Systems, Schools and So-called Styles) attempt to explore some of the reasons why these difficulties exist, but here I want to look at some of the problems which I have observed which, though different in many ways, have a common source; an over-emphasis of the sensory side of Alexander work.

The huge amount of hands-on work which takes place in training courses can, of course, be transforming. There is, however, a flip-side to this, which is that a student’s nervous system becomes accustomed to certain sensory experiences, and sensory experiences are, like many other repeated activities of a pleasant – or even unpleasant – nature, addictive.

Alexander warned us about this in a little known passage in MSI (See Equilibrium: Mind, Body and the Thing about Feelings).

Here are some of the more common traps that one might fall into:

  • The “up-junkie”; i.e. someone who is end-gaining for direction, always seeking the experience of “going up” for its own sake – with a corresponding over-stimulation of the nervous system
  • The “release-junkie”; endlessly looking for excuses to lie down and do nothing in the hope that some muscular tension may be released
  • The Alexandroid Mark 1: who attempts to inhibit by blocking the flow of vitality in the body and suppressing natural impulses (see Spontaneity). This is usually brought about by trying to feel oneself being very still.
  • The Alexandroid Mark 2: who attempts to hold onto “good use” by feeling oneself in a certain posture or tonal state.

Most of the above can be recognised by a certain glazed look which appears in the eyes, together with one or another kind of fixity of body (see £10,000 chest).

Of course in time many people are able to let go of these imposed controlling mechanisms, but to what extent they might be avoided in the first place is certainly a question worthy of consideration.

“Control should be in process, not superimposed.”1  F M Alexander

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).

© 2015 John S Hunter

Patrick Macdonald: #5, “It’s Just Happening”, Lewes, 1990

Patrick Macdonald did not, in those later years, speak very much when teaching, but he knew the moment when a few words could help to either induce helpful self-questioning or make something clear.

I recall two such incidents which took place during my last period of study with him.

I was working on one of my colleagues. Mr Macdonald was watching and reminding me with a gesture of his thumb to “take her up!”. Then something shifted; that recognisable change in state occurred in which everything begins to flow. Mr Macdonald leant over towards me, looked me in the eyes and said, very simply and very directly in a quiet but firm voice– as if confiding something both important and personal:

“That’s right! Never mind about her! You look after yourself!”

Then the moment was over. He changed, stood back again and in his usual voice said,

“Go on then, take her up! Your job is to take her up.”

But I wasn’t fooled. Something that I had already at certain moments tasted was now understood; that experience will always stay with me.

In my last lesson with him I remember asking him, when I felt myself moving freely in and out of the chair,

“Who is doing this, Mr Macdonald? You or me?”

“Who do you think is doing it?” he replied.

“I don’t know”, I said.

A minute or so later, when something had really got out of the way and a finer energy was flowing, he asked:

“Who is doing it now?”

“Nobody is doing it,” I replied. “It’s just happening.”

“That’s right,” he said. “It’s just happening.”

And again, at that moment – something was understood.

© John Hunter 2015

Reflections on History & Development, #1: Trees & Fruit, Alexander’s early influences

F. Matthias Alexander was one of those rare human beings: an innovator in the field of human potential. His research was always practical and experiential. At a time when psychology was moving more and more into the realm of the unconscious, Alexander was exploring consciousness, in particular at the level of the interrelationship between the physical and the mental aspects of human functioning.

What he discovered is that as humanity evolved we developed our intellectual capacities more quickly than our physical and sensory capacities, and this resulted in a parting of the ways, a dualism. In a properly integrated human being there is a constant two-way flow between mind and body; intention flowing into activity modulated by feedback.

Certainly Alexander was not, as perhaps some may have thought, a “blank sheet of paper” (but then if one thought about it how could he – or anybody – have been). Recent research is bringing to light a great deal of material about the period in which Alexander was developing his ideas and practice. What is clear from this research is that many of the principles and ideas used by Alexander can be found elsewhere (and some of them I will explore in these writings). To me that is not at all surprising. There have always been human beings who are interested in philosophy, health, self-improvement, posture, energy, mind and body, respiratory and vocal techniques, etc., etc. One has only to look at some of the most ancient texts – or other forms of transmission – to see that these questions constitute fundamental issues for human beings. When one starts along this path, one is not the first or the last to do so. It is a path of discovery shared by those human beings who have that particular interest, which might be termed “evolutionary”, in the exploration of the self. What one then finds along that path cannot in essence be very different from what others have found. We are not different in our functioning or our possibilities from our ancestors. If Alexander ‘borrowed’ or ‘stole’ from others, from what sources did these others in their turn draw, and similarly those before them and so on? What is important is that a human being has the potential to develop; some do and some don’t. The ideas are around us and can be found. The point then is to make something practical and useful for oneself in order to embody the ideas; very few achieve that. Alexander was such a person, and that it why so many of us are interested in him rather than the various ‘others’ who may have shared parts of his journey. That he found something of a different order is apparent to any sensitive person who has worked with or even been in the presence of those who were his pupils. A tree is judged by its fruit.

Although others may help to open the door into the ‘inner world’, once you are there you are on your own. Nobody can do the work of integrating your organism for you; and in just this lies the mystery (though this does not appeal to the scientific mind). ‘Non-doing’ or a “directed (integrated) state” are not things that anybody discovered or invented, they are states which can be entered into.

Certain ‘researchers’ into early influences are now trying to make a case that Alexander was at best a synthesiser and at worst a plagiarist of other peoples work.

I have to say that I find their arguments very weak, because there is no evidence that any of the people who might have influenced him, directly or indirectly, ever reached such a level of realisation as he did, otherwise there would be many more traces of their work. Where is the fruit of those trees?

I can’t help thinking that if some of those ‘researchers’ (not all) had ever spent half an hour in Margaret Goldie’s teaching room or had felt Patrick Macdonald’s hands on them for even ten minutes, they might understand that they are barking up the wrong tree altogether. But there again, perhaps they would not.

© John Hunter 2015

Lessons with Miss G: #11, Now I’m a Believer

“Now you are doing it again!” she said, with more than a little exasperation in her voice. She stepped back so that she could look at me and pronounce her verdict. “John, you are such an unbeliever!”

Well, that was not what I was expecting to hear. All sorts of reasons had been flooding through my head as to why it just wasn’t working: it was because I was doing or not doing this or that, or that she was doing or not doing this or that, but the idea that it could have anything at all to do with my beliefs – or lack of them – had never occurred to me …

And yet, she was absolutely right. Because I didn’t feel what I expected – had even been ‘trained’ – to feel when getting out of the chair, I didn’t believe it was possible. I was used to “keeping my back back”, but this was brought about with the help of a strong stimulus from the teacher who provided the opposition, thereby stimulating the “anti-gravity response”. But Goldie didn’t do that; she was not going to make it work for you, and if the usual signals and sensations were not there, then I didn’t believe something could happen.

So Alexander was right: “Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension”.1 I didn’t see this all at once: it was a gradual realisation, but one that was set in motion by that remark of Goldie’s.

Of all the “master teachers” I worked with, it was only with Goldie that I did not always feel wonderful during or after the lessons. Far from it! Sometimes it all felt very static and pointless. On more than one occasion I could not wait for the lesson to end, swearing to myself that this would definitely be the last time I would put myself through such an excruciating experience. She was, of course, picking up this “resistance” and would sometimes comment that I should not concern myself with whether or not I felt it was working, or give way to an inner criticism that she was “not up to scratch today”, but I should “just go on with the brain-work”. Then, perhaps several hours later the same day – and quite unexpectedly – some new discovery would emerge; a clarity of thought, a more vivid perception, or an unknown part of my spine would suddenly wake up. I was coming to understand that what she called “brain-work” was bringing about changes from the inside rather than through muscles or nerves. Another of Alexander’s aphorisms began to make sense:

“When the time comes that you can trust your feeling, you won’t want to use it.” 2


1 Some references to belief and muscle tension.

  • “Do you know what we have found that belief is? A certain standard of muscle tension. That is all”. (The Bedford Lecture, in Articles and Lectures, p.174, Mouritz (1995))
  • I remember one morning his coming briskly into our classroom, looking very pleased with himself, and saying, ‘Belief is a matter of customary muscle tension.’
    ‘F.M.,’ I said, ‘don’t you mean that belief about what you can do with the body is a matter of customary muscle tension?’ The discussion was on. He kept talking while he worked. Finally at the end of the morning’s work F.M. said, ‘Yes, belief about what you can do with the body is a matter of customary muscle tension.’ Lulie Westfeldt, F. Matthias Alexander, The Man and his Work, Mouritz 1998, p.68
  • Was FM’ s aphorism that belief is a matter of muscle tension simply designed to shock people, or was there a more serious element behind it? He was perfectly serious about it, because he equated belief with fixation. In his experience a rigidity of mind corresponded to a rigidity of body. (Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, 1986, p.45f)

2 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).

© John Hunter 2015

Being with Erika and Miss G

Erika Whittaker and Margaret Goldie were really like chalk and cheese. In the early days, as young women, they did not get on too well. Goldie had, said Erika, somehow got into what she called the “inner circle” at Ashley place (by which she meant the Alexander family, plus Irene Tasker and Ethel Webb) and she did not mix very much with the other students.

According to Erika the children at the Little School were a little bit frightened of Goldie; one day when they were all being served with soup, none of them dared to start eating in case they had not “inhibited” enough. Then F.M. came in, sat down and said, “Eat, eat. It will get cold!”

“She had this way” Erika said, “of looking you up and down as if to say ‘what are you doing here?’, and one felt an icy chill. The other students were all a bit frightened of her.”

When, more than half a century later, they re-established contact, they formed a touching friendship. Erika, having found some strange things going on in the Alexander world after an absence of several decades, was very grateful to be able to talk to Goldie and be re-assured that she was not alone in her critique. While Erika was staying with me on one of her London visits she was invited to Goldie’s for lunch.  She came back delighted.

“We had smoked salmon, Stilton cheese and champagne; my favourites.”

Goldie also valued the contact with Erika. When I told her on a later occasion that Erika was coming again to London, she became quite emotional.

“Oh Erika!” she said. “When we were at Ashley Place she was always so light, so joyful and so free. Mr Alexander was always sending us off to go for a walk, saying we were too serious.

‘Why can’t you be more like Erika,’ he would say. ‘She understands.’

But we couldn’t. We didn’t know how.”

I only went to Miss Goldie’s house in Richmond once, and that was to take Erika to visit her. I dropped her off and went a few hours later to pick her up. I went in and spent half an hour or so together with these two old ladies who had influenced my understanding of Alexander’s work so much over the last twelve years. It was the only time I was to see them together and it was the last time I saw Goldie before she died.

Goldie was sitting at her little desk under her bookshelves, full of fascinating titles. You really got the sense that she was a thinker: someone who reflected on subjects which had concerned mankind throughout the ages. She looked very fragile and had bruises on her face after a recent fall, but with Erika’s clever and considerate questions and prompts, the conversation was lively and Goldie reminisced happily.

She told us the story of her first lessons, when she was having each day one from FM and one from AR. She said she loved her lessons with FM, but hated the ones with AR. In desperation she wrote to her father who was paying for the lessons, and said that she thought it was not right that he should be spending all this money when she was only benefiting from half of the lessons.  His response was that he was paying all this money so that she could learn to face and deal with any problem that life put in her path, and this was one of them.  Later, she said, she became great friends with AR.

Erika asked her, for my benefit really, how was it that FM could see and work with so many people in a day without seeming to get tired.

Goldie laughed. “It was because he wasn’t doing anything” she replied.

“A lot of young teachers nowadays” continued Erika (and by “young teachers” she meant more or less anyone under the age of seventy), “are very concerned about getting more pupils and trying to make FM’s work more popular. What’s your view about that?”

Goldie smiled and said. “It was never meant for everyone. It is meant for the few who wish to evolve.”

© John Hunter 2015