During my more than 30 years’ experience as a student, teacher, training course director, and colleague of other teachers of the Alexander Technique, my understanding of Alexander’s work and how it fits into my life has gained simplicity and clarity. His principles help form a foundation for everything—working with students, building a practice, working with colleagues, and living life.
I have received help and guidance from many practitioners of the Alexander Technique. However, my purpose in writing this article is to introduce the wisdom of people who had nothing to do with Alexander or his Technique, and yet who have arrived at similar conclusions. To anyone who has studied Alexander’s Technique, these principles—as articulated by Joe Hyams, Deepak Chopra, Robert F. Kennedy, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.—are likely to sound familiar.
Some time ago, I read a book by former Hollywood columnist Joe Hyams, a student of Bruce Lee. In Hyams’ book Zen in the Martial Arts, there is a remarkable passage relating to taking time and not being attached to results—so much a part of Alexander’s dedication to living within the means-whereby and non-end-gaining principles:
A young boy traveled across Japan to the school of a famous martial artist. When he arrived at the dojo, he was given an audience by the sensei.
“What do you wish from me?” the master asked.
“I wish to be your student and become the finest karateka in the land,” the boy replied. “How long must I study?”
“Ten years at least,” the master answered.
“Ten years is a long time,” said the boy. “What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?”
“Twenty years,” replied the master.
“Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?”
“Thirty years,” was the master’s reply.
“How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?” the boy asked.
“The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way.”1
The Art of Non-Doing
Early in my studies of the Technique, I was introduced to the concept of non-doing. It sounded like a good idea, so I went about practicing diligently to make sure I embraced the notion and made it a part of my life. I probably worked harder at non-doing than I would have if I had actually done “doing.” Now, that doesn’t make a lot of sense! But in my thinking at the time, I wasn’t able to come up with another way of going about it.
In Deepak Chopra’s book Buddha: The Story of Enlightenment, there is an entire section called “The Art of Non-Doing,” which seems to closely relate to the principles of the Alexander Technique. In this section, Chopra says:
You take to heart the message of non-self. You do everything possible to break the bonds of attachment that keep you trapped in the illusion that you are a separate self. Here your aim is to tiptoe out of the material world even as your body remains in it. Ordinary people are doing things all day, but in your heart you’ve turned your at tention to non-doing, as the Buddhists call it. Non-doing isn’t passivity but a state of openness to all possibilities.2
These last few words are crucial. Non-doing does not mean nothing doing. Once we accept that, we have the choice to not do, and we make ourselves available for anything—we may choose to do whatever we like. Chopra continues:
The process [non-doing] sounds frightening for one thing, because there’s no guarantee. Once you accomplish “ego death,” as it’s often called, what will be left? You might wind up enlightened, but you also might wind up a blank, a passive non-self with no interests or desires. People find the Buddhist path rigorous because you are asked to re-examine everything you think will get you ahead in life.3
If we compare non-doing from Alexander’s teachings to Chopra’s, we see there is little to distinguish between the two. Alexander’s principle of inhibition comes with faith that when we give up what we’re holding on to, we may not know what will remain. Once we decide to detach from the familiar, anything is possible.
When Chopra is asked, “So enlightenment is the same as having no desires?” he responds,
You have to understand “no desires” in a positive sense, as fulfillment. At the moment a musician is performing, there’s a state of no-desire because he feels fulfilled. At the moment you’re eating a wonderful meal, hunger is fulfilled. Buddha taught that there is a state, known as Nirvana, where desire is irrelevant. Everything desire is trying to achieve exists in Nirvana already. You don’t have to pursue one desire after another in a futile quest to end suffering.4
We may equate Buddha’s no desires with Alexander’s teaching of non-end-gaining—Alexander’s concern about our focus on an end (desire), with little or no attention paid to how it is we might get there (the means-whereby). Alexander viewed the condition of the world in his time as proof positive of our misdirected motivation.
Chopra also writes, “The process of shifting your consciousness takes time. This is an evolution, not a revolution.”5 In The Use of the Self, Alexander states to anyone trying to live by the means-whereby principle, “Go ahead, but remember that time is the essence of the contract.”6
The Act of Living
We don’t usually think of living as an act—we just get on with life. We have intentions, goals, successes—and failures—as we travel along, usually making plans to wind up in certain places. When we’re young, we dream of what we’ll do when we are old. When we’re old, we think back longingly on what we might have done to wind up in what we think of as a better place. Along the way, we may miss considering our presence—our time that we presently occupy—and how we may make the most out of the moment. Ultimately, the present may be the only situation in which we can exercise control.
In the preface to the new edition of The Use of the Self, Alexander writes
To those who are advocating individual right and individual endeavor in the world today, I venture to suggest that as a training for the realization of these commendable ideals, no more fundamental experience is available than that which comes to the person who, with or without a teacher, will patiently devote the time to learning to apply the technique in the act of living.7
The last of my lessons with Walter Carrington was in July 2005 on the day of the failed bombings in London. The city was on high alert because the successful attack a couple of weeks prior had created a sense of urgent diligence.
My lesson was scheduled early in the day, and I made it from London’s East End to Walter’s home and teaching studio in Holland Park just before the crisis arose, including the shutting of the London Underground. My wife, Sally, was not so lucky and was held up by the closing down of the transit system. While I was waiting for Walter to finish with his previous student, the school received a call from Sally’s family saying that she had been caught in the chaos and was not sure whether she would make it on time to her first and only lesson with Walter.
I was anxious for Sally’s well-being, and I was impressed with the grace with which Walter, 90 years old and recently recovered from an illness, organized a later time for Sally’s lesson. Nor will I forget what he said when we began our lesson—he reminded me that I could do my best only if I gave myself the opportunity to be present and at ease. He asked, “Where are you? Where do you want to be? How do you wish to get there?”
In the talk “The Act of Living,” from the anthology with the same title, Walter reminds us that in teaching the Alexander Technique, “You do come up against people who have the egotism to believe that things are of their doing.”8 He contends that we have been trained in this way from our early education: “You’ve got to do it. You mustn’t just dream and think about it; you’ve got to get out there and do it. That sort of attitude leads to the egotistic belief in the end that everything depends on their doing.”9
In our teaching, we need to challenge these ideas carefully. In his brilliant introduction to The Use of the Self, John Dewey mentioned that even using all his intellect, he could not adjust his thinking to follow Alexander’s simplest instructions. While he said it was a humiliating experience, he seemed to say so with a touch of humor—a perfect antidote.10
As Alexander pointed out, people can unnecessarily complicate the act of living. We don’t usually speak of the act of living. You’re alive, and you live. But the idea that living is an act, that living is something that we undertake, that goes on, helps you realize that you’d better set about living it and see what’s involved in living it.11
The night that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated (April 4, 1968), Robert F. Kennedy spoke of the event to a mostly black audience in a ghetto section of Indianapolis, Indiana, after he had been warned by the mayor of the city, Richard Lugar, not to go into that neighborhood. Kennedy put together a few notes on the way and spoke from the back of a flatbed trailer. His short speech that night has been determined by many to be one of the greatest speeches ever given. Kennedy concluded with: “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: ‘to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.’”12 Indianapolis was one of the few cities that night that did not suffer riots and looting.
Some years later, Kennedy’s son, Max, in an attempt to “put together the various pieces—the letters, the statements, the recordings, the pictures, the thoughts—to render his father’s life,”13 organized a small book, calling it Make Gentle the Life of This World: The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy. This book has been a constant companion and has accompanied me on journeys all over the United States and Europe, has been nearly drowned in a backpack-water leak while hiking in the Sierra Nevada, and has done what Max Kennedy intended—brought his father to life.
The first section of this book is called “The Act of Living.” Robert Kennedy writes
You knew that what is given or granted can be taken away, that what is begged can be refused; but that what is earned is kept, that what is self-made is inalienable, that what you do for yourselves and for your children can never be taken away.14
He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes: “As life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.”15
Kennedy speaks further about taking action
We all struggle to transcend the cruelties and the follies of mankind. That struggle will not be won by standing aloof and pointing a finger; it will be won by action, by men who commit their every resource of mind and body to the education and improvement and help of their fellow man.16
In my struggles to find my way, I have found a salvation of sorts in my willingness to give up destinies that I had originally taken for granted were mine to achieve. I realize that by remaining present and thoughtful, I am accountable for the direction my life has taken.
The control we have gained of physical energies, heat, light, electricity, etc., without having first secured control of our use of ourselves is a perilous affair. Without control of our use of ourselves, our use of other things is blind; it may lead to anything.17
I have not understood my role on my own, but have availed myself of inspirational friends, family, and teachers. More than anything, they have not discouraged me from finding my path, even though at times I may have stumbled. What Hyams quoted in “Try Softer,” what Chopra wrote as “The Art of Non-Doing,” and what Alexander, Carrington, and Kennedy termed “the Act of Living” have become a reminder that only I can keep the journey going; only I can be ultimately responsible for my life.
20. Mientka, “iPosture.”
21. Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory.
22. Shira Offer, “The Ethiopian Community in Israel: Segregation
and the Creation of a Racial Cleavage,” Ethnic and Racial Studies
30, no. 3 (2007): 461–480, 10.1080/01419870701217514.
23. S. Bass, R. Daly, and D. Caine, “Intense Training in Elite
Female Athletes: Evidence of Reduced Growth and Delayed
Maturation?,” British Journal of Sports Medicine 36, no. 4
(2002): 310–310, doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.36.4.310-b.
24. Mientka, “iPosture.”
25. Chris Shilling, The Body and Social Theory, 2nd ed. (London:
Sage, 2003), 103, quoted in Debra Gimlin, “What is ‘Body
Work’? A Review of the Literature,” Sociology Compass 1, no.
1 (2007): 353–370, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00015.x.
Tami Bulmash (The Tel Aviv School for the Alexander Technique
[HERM], 2009) trained with Shaike and Linda Hermelin in Tel Aviv,
Israel. Her undergraduate and graduate degrees are rooted in the
behavioral sciences, which have helped inform her understanding of
human behavior. She has devoted the past 16 years to the study, research,
and teaching of the Alexander Technique. Tami is a member
of both AmSAT and STAT. She teaches the Technique in Tampa, Florida.
Visit her website and read her blogs at www.bodyandposture.com.
1. Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts (New York: Bantam Books,
2. Deepak Chopra, Buddah: A Story of Enlightenment (New York:
HarperCollins, 2008), 274.
3. Ibid. Brackets added by author.
4. Ibid., 275.
5. Ibid., 276.
6. F.M. Alexander, The Use of the Self (London: Guernsey Press
Co., Ltd; 1985), 2.
7. Ibid., 20.
8. Walter Carrington, The Act of Living (San Francisco: Mornum
Time Press, 1999), 149.
9. Ibid., 151.
10. John Dewey, “Introduction” in The Use of the Self (London:
Guernsey Press Co., Ltd; 1985), 10.
12. Robert F. Kennedy, “The Greatest Speech Ever—Robert F.
Kennedy Announcing the Death of Martin Luther King,” www.
youtube.com/watch?v=GoKzCff8Zbs. Speech given April 4,
1968, in Indianapolis, Indiana.
13. Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, Make Gentle the Life of This World:
The Vision of Robert F. Kennedy (San Diego, CA: Harcourt
Brace & Company, 1998), 3.
16. Ibid., 4.
17. John Dewey, “Introduction,” 10.
© 2018 George I. Lister. All rights reserved.