Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chairwork

After a posting by Franis Engel on the google AlexTech list about "Decision-making Tires Out Your Brain?" (click Heading to go to google group with full email history) - I commented that they did not make any allowance for joy, enthusiasm in their study. Which led me to reflect on the pedagogy of teaching AT which asks the students to pick the activity, rather than invite them to get in and out of the chair for the duration of the lesson (unless some tablework is thrown in of course). So I wrote this comment:

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Again I think this issue illustrates Marj's genius as a teacher - she saw that tapping into the joy of her students ("You always move better with a smile") was less "exhausting" and instead had them gleefully making new choices because of the clear and present benefits that would come to their chosen passion. Fatigue does come - of course - but there is MUCH MORE stamina available for the work.

It's another convincing argument - for me - for AT teachers to give up this relentless obsession of getting in and out of a chair, which to me gets more and more ridiculous as I get more experience in the pedagogy of harnessing a student's interest to the process of making new choices. I don't mean to insult people, but I really do think it's such a waste doing 60~100% of only chair work all the time. These days, my average would be around 2~3%.

I predict the day will come when this is the norm in our profession, and I intend to be one of the key instigators of this transformation of our profession. It's time to give up the tired old pedagogical methods of Alexander's heyday, and come into the 21st century.

Finally, scientific research is giving us some solid reasons to make this change!

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...which provoked a response in defense of "chairwork" so I felt I needed to clarify what I meant by responding with this:

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I do regret that you may feel "belittled" by my comments. It is clear from your email that your work with people in the chair has integrity, purpose and effectiveness - I don't dispute the efficacy of using chairwork to teach Alexander's principles. Of course it works - Alexander spread his entire work doing just that. I would be a fool to try to argue against it as a valid methodology of teaching this work. My point is not so much against chairwork, as it is for other possibilities.

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Once upon a time there were four woman - granny, mother and a friend watching daughter cutting off the sides of a beef to put it in the oven. "Why are you doing that?" the friend asked the daughter, who replied "Oh, that's what my Mum always did." So the friend turned to the mother and asked her "Why did you cut off the sides of the beef?" And Mum replied: "Because that's what my mother always did." So finally the friend turns to the grandmother and asks her "Why did you cut off the sides of the beef?" To which the grandmother replies: "Oh I had to. The oven we had was too small to fit it."

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If you had the Olympic team of judo - would you train them all in chairwork? And if so - why? Do you believe you can't do everything you wrote below by simply exploring the specific co-ordinations these men and woman are occupied with every day in their judo practice? I know a group of actors who were "taught" the Alexander Technique and every session they were all told to lie in semi-supine and... well, I wasn't there so I don't know what was done. But it basically gives me the creeps when I hear stories like that.

Frankly I believe that a lot of teachers continue with chairwork not because of any powerful pedagogical arguments in its favour, but simply because they don't know what else to do. Faced with a professional opera singer, my guess is that many teachers would shy away from a rigourous analysis of the specific activities and needs of that person while singing, for the simple reason is that they were not trained with the ability to do so. It's the percentage thing that troubles me, not the actual fact of chairwork.

It's fine to do chairwork, and yes - it can be powerful and effective. If it works for you, go ahead. But I doubt I could have built a thriving business in Japan on the back of chairwork. And anecdotally, it seems there are a lot of other folks in the Alexander community finding it hard these days to make a living and I have to ask - why is that? Could it be that our pedagogical approach leaves some people a little mystified and lacking confidence to practise on their own? Or do they just get bored after awhile?

I don't know is the truth. If you want to understand my position better, I wrote about it in the Lugano Congress Papers "Teaching Technology" and the previous Oxford Congress Papers in "A Tale of Two Pedagogies". It is something I have been considering since I first trained as an Alexander teacher in the 1970's, and challenged the then prevailing notion that this work can not be taught in groups. Oh really? Who said that? Your grandmother?

I hope you can understand my point - I have every respect for you as a colleague, my only wish is to develop our ideas of teaching method. In my opinion, they are due for a overhaul.

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And that is that for another week!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Success Vision

So, I did make it after all.

Last night I began teaching another of my slightly "out there" experiments in teaching: the Success Vision Course - using Alexander's discoveries to generate temporal awareness so that we can, moment by moment, make the choices that guide us towards the successful vision we generate of our future. This is a uniquely human capacity.

I wonder if Betsy the cow begins every morning with a highly developed temporally conceived plan for the day? "Oh, first I'll go down to the bottom meadow and get some of that tall grass before bloody Alfred eats it all, then I'll head off to the creek for a chat with Phyllis (unless she's overslept again the wretched old cow) and… oh yes! Now I remember: I have an appointment with Mad Fred at the North side gate at lunch-time.."

I wonder. I can't get inside a cow's mind, but I doubt this kind of "plan" is driving Betsy's choices moment to moment. Yet it is possible for us to function this way - to think a thought (in the form of consciously created plans/visions) rather than have thoughts thinking me (in the form of reactions to environmental conditions). Successful people mostly make decisions quickly, but change their mind slowly; whereas unsuccessful people often find coming to a decision difficult, but are changing their mind all the time.

To use temporal awareness successfully, we do first need a plan. The plan does not have to be concrete - like the S.M.A.R.T. goal system (goggle it) - it can also be ontological: developing a state of patience, tolerance, generosity, enthusiasm etc. What is essential is the necessity of our recollection of the 'success vision' acting as a guide for the choices we make within the forever moving critical moment of the present…

If a man knows not what harbor he seeks,
any wind is the right wind.
-Seneca

The Vision Success course was partly inspired by an passage from Alexander's Universal Constant of Living where he wrote:

"The employment of inhibition calls for the exercise of memory and awareness—the former for remembering the procedures involved in the technique and the proper sequence in which they should be used, and the latter in the recognition of what is happening. In the process both potentialities are developed and the scope of the use of both gradually increased. Moreover the experiences thus gained not only help in developing and quickening the recalling and connecting memory, but cultivate what I shall call the motor-sensory-intellectual memory."

That is basically the foundation for the course. These two facilities—awareness and memory—operate in tandem to inform our choices moment by moment. Dear Betsy (the cow remember?) has wonderful awareness in terms of present time – animals are often admired by us for their capacity to be in the here and now – but I suspect possesses a very poor ability to learn and adapt by means of utilizing creative memory to inform the present.

From a totally different perspective, but basically alluding to the same ideas, is this extract from "Burnt Norton", the first of the "Four Quartets" by T. S. Elliot (interestingly written in 1943, much the same time Alexander was writing UCL quoted above):

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present. Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the page which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden.

I was told, back in the 70's, that this quote was inspired by Alexander's work. I can't remember who told me, and it surely is some kind of nonsense, but nonetheless I feel some kind of continuity between these two ideas, some deeper truth that all things are existing as possibilities, and will be if we are, and can never be what we are not.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tommy's Teaching

"I will never try to know you, I will forever try to see you."

Writing now after witnessing the final workshop of Tommy Thompson in Japan, and hugely impressed by the way Tommy has given a voice to Alexander's discoveries in a way that totally accords with the Buddhist view of Self – the lack of anything inherently existing from it's own side. In my comments below, I may be misrepresenting Tommy's viewpoint, so please hold the idea that these are my impressions of Tommy's ideas.

Tommy's view is that there is no "number one" as Marj often cajoled us: " 'Who is the most important person here?' The student? No. The Teacher? Yes." For Tommy, there is no number one person – there is a relationship, an interdependency between you and I which creates us from moment to moment in the "ongoing, forever moving present, which is the only place where change can happen."

Tommy uses his hands to "disperse your commitment to who you think you need to be" so your Self truthfully emerges moment to moment, depending on the conditions present. His version of inhibition revolves around this idea: we have an "identity" that we are "committed to". In Buddhist terms I consider this to be the concept of a fixed, inherently existing Self. That inside me there is a 'Jeremy' that I am committed to. This idea of a fixed 'Jeremy' (and that is all it is, an idea which is given life by tensional habits that interfere with the natural function of primary control) is merely a habituated summary of the person I think I need to be. In Tommy's terms (as I interpret it) this habituated identity is built on the false notion that I can not be who I am being in any moment, but instead must manufacture a person that I consider you need me to be. And the primary 'others' are my parents or primary care-takers, followed by peers, cultural customs, the lure of advertising and all the other influences that are telling me day and night who I need to be to realize happiness.

What a wonderful way of giving voice to Alexander's notion of Self. It neatly sidesteps the whole conversation of 'body' and 'mind'. It is interesting to note that although Alexander himself did talk about "psycho-physical" unity, so imbedding this duality in the creation of a new hyphenated word, he also insisted that there is only a "critical moment" into which our "use" of our "Self" enters moment by moment. This holistic way of considering the work morphs into a new language that Tommy devised to guide people into a new experience of who they consider themselves to be—by "dispersing their commitment to who they think they need to be" which is their habituated self.

However, a different kind of duality starts to emerge in that the "Self" is created not only by environmental conditions, but by vows, decisions, promises, intentions, goals and the like which abide within our consciousness of 'self'. These are not such material things, but they are real in the same way that thoughts are real. As Mother Teresa put it: "Love is not a feeling. Love is a decision." So who I am, emerging as I am moment to moment, is partly shaped by the "other" - which includes other people and environmental conditions – and partly shaped by these "ideas & promises". Are these in the same nature of "belief" as in "I know myself" or do they differ?

I do think there is something different between, say, a vow not to kill any living thing and a belief that there is no God. Both exist very thinly within my consciousness, but one is actionally directive in nature, the other more a basis for making decisions – a premise upon which to build a vow, rather than a promise to behave in a particular way.

Anyway, fascinating as this is to me, I am off the point. The idea I started out presenting as another kind of duality within this model is the distinction between "doing" and "being". Tommy says that "intention dominates our action when we move in the direction of the focus of our attention", and in so doing "leave where I am" or "sacrifice my being". This is Tommy's version of Marj's "I am number one." I do not need to leave where I am to follow the focus of my intention, I can preserve a quality of being while doing whatever I am doing. Whenever I do depart from this quality of being, I am "endgaining" as Alexander put it, or "letting the focus of my intention dominate my action", as Tommy puts it.

From this comes the idea of "attention" – Tommy is primarily interested in observing this, asking the question: how is the person's attention interfering with the efficiency of primary control? Tommy does not observe the "use of the self"—he remarked that that is only "periphery" to his interest—instead he observes the person's attention: what kind of relationship do they have to their intention/activity? This is of paramount importance, because we are always existing in relationship to someone or something else.

So from this evolved a whole series of exercises involving touch that totally reminded me of the days of my training in London, an approach I ultimately rejected as a training director for I think that it 'objectifies' the person I am working with. In this kind of relationship, my partner slowly ceases to be who they truly are, instead slowly becoming "a human being I am touching" – i.e. they are no longer really that human being (i.e. Yumiko, Nao, Ryo etc.) but instead they are the "person/body/thing" I am using to practise how I place my hands on another. Of course the trainees all love this approach – must people do. Only Shigeko (that I know of) got the same uncomfortable feeling that I always got back in the old days of my training.

Anyway, I am definitely in a minority is disliking this way of training teachers, and I am happy to let other teachers pursue it, providing I don't have to either be involved, or agree with them. After awhile the atmosphere of the workshop got a little spooky, with everyone going into this prolonged silence while they considered how they were using their hands in touching the other person. Innocent enough, and hard to see why I object to it, but basically everyone got out of touch with the real world that was all around them. There was an atmosphere of operating within this cocoon of ideas.

However, to argue against myself, I do think there is a need to understand the "technicalities" of teaching—including that of touch—but I would tend to introduce this exploration of touch as part of an ongoing lesson, rather than separate it out into its own activity. However, we do need to explore and know the component ideas that make the whole experience possible. An example of this is in knowing how a person is using themselves. While it is wonderful to look firstly for the infinite potentiality of our pupil so we are "being present to being in relation to something that is bigger than our desire", my question is: how do we see such a thing? Perhaps we don't, perhaps we do – I have no real answer to that. But I do know when it is not there, because I can see how a person's co-ordination is expressing their idea that has fear, ignorance and attachment within it. This is what I see, what I understand is the possibility available beyond that.

Tommy reminds us that we are working with that person's potentiality for becoming other than what they are currently committed to being – this is so much preferable than working with a person's "habit of use" in the negative sense. We don't work with the habit, we work with the potentiality – and I appreciated the reminder of a lesson once learnt that I was due to hear again!

However, I also know that (for me) what lets me understand a person has some kind of ignorance, irritation or obsession operating within them—and that is causing them a harm they do not want—is the detail of my observation of their "habitual" use. Often a tiny gesture or aberration has been my only clue to uncovering a profoundly deep idea that needs undoing for a person to move into a new idea of the possibility of their Self…

And perhaps my need to do this highlights one of the key differences of my own work: rather than give the experience, I seek to introduce an experiment within a person's thinking so that they can give themselves a new experience of who they are. Tommy uses his hands to support a person "dispersing their commitment to being who they think they need to be". Tommy's idea of inhibition involves this: withholding definition of who I am committed to being to allow in new information that informs the experience I am having of me. It is a truly wonderful approach, and helps me learn another way of communicating to a student in a situation that calls for it.

However, from my side, I am still curious to find the activity that doesn't let the old habit take place—that is chosen and thought out by the student, not constructed by the intervention of my hands. This experiment is set up before my hands touch. My touch is not there to open up choice, or to allow a person to accept information other than the information that their habit is committed to, although that can certainly happen; rather my hands are there to give confidence to their new choices, to support the possibility that a person is courageously asking of themselves. We are not waiting until the confidence or support is there, we are jumping over the cliff where habit is no longer living.

Anyway, Tommy's work has been fabulously stimulating, causing me to question and re-decide about fundamental aspects of my own work: to change some of my long held ideas, to confirm others and, most importantly, to continue to allow myself to receive new information of any kind in the exciting adventure I call life!

If he comes to a theatre near you – get some tickets!