The Alexander Technique - my first 30 years

The Alexander Technique - my first 30 years


December 6, 2016

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by George I. Lister

I am writing as a celebration of my 30 years’ experience as a student, teacher, training course director, colleague and collaborator of the Alexander Technique. As time goes on, my understanding of Alexander’s work and how it fits in my life has gained both simplicity and clarity. I believe there are a few of his principles which help form a foundation for everything – working with students, building a practice, working with colleagues, living life.

During my years of study and teaching, I have received help and guidance from many wonderful practitioners of the Technique.  But my purpose in writing is to introduce the wisdom of people who had nothing to do with the Alexander Technique, and arrived at the same or similar conclusions. To anyone who has spent even a small bit of time studying the Technique, these principles are likely to sound familiar. It is the sources that are profound.

The Means Whereby

Some time ago, I read a book by former Hollywood columnist Joe Hyams - student of Bruce Lee and longtime husband of the actress Elke Sommer. In “Zen in the Martial Arts”, resides a remarkable verse 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”, principle:

Try Softer

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.”

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 actually “did”. 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 going about it.

In Deepak Chopra’s book “Buddha”, there is an entire section “The Art of Non Doing,” which seems to closely relate closely to the principles of the Alexander Technique. In this section Chopra recalls:

“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 attention to non-doing, as the Buddhists call it. Non- doing isn’t passivity but a state of openness to all possibilities.”

These last few words are critical. Through my studies and teaching of the Alexander Technique, I have come to believe that “non doing” does not mean nothing doing. Once we accept that we have the choice to not do, we make ourselves available for anything. We seem to find our way into not doing what we don’t really need.  

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……..”

If we consider “non-doing,” as we understand it from Alexander’s teachings, 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 even though we don’t know what will now be available, we are putting aside familiarity and re considering (reexamining) the possibilities. 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.”

We may equate Buddah’s “no desires” with Alexander’s teaching of non end gaining – Alexander’s concern about our focus on the end (desire), with little or no attention as to how it is we might get there (the means whereby). Alexander viewed the condition of the world at the time as proof positive of our misdirected motivation.

And as Chopra writes – “The process of shifting your consciousness takes time. This is an evolution, not a revolution”. Alexander states in The Use Of The Self to anyone trying to live by the “means whereby” principle – “Go ahead, but remember that time is the essence of the contract”.

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 may 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, this may be the one and only place where we can actually 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.”

The last of my many lessons with Walter Carrington was in July, 2005 on the day of the failed bombings in London. The city was on high alert as the successful attack a short while before had created a sense of urgent diligence. My lesson was scheduled early in the day and I made it from East London to Walter’s home and teaching studio just before the event and the shutting of the London Underground. My wife Sally was not so lucky, and had been 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 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 a stroke, 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?”, and "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”. 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”.

In our teaching, we need to carefully challenge these ideas. 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.

Walter continues “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”.

The night Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy spoke of the event to a mostly black audience in Indianapolis. He was warned by the mayor of the city, Richard Lugar), to not go to this 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 termed the “Greatest speech ever”. His quote in conclusion was “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”. Indianapolis was one of very few cities that night that did not suffer riots and looting.

Some years ago, Kennedy’s youngest 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”, organized a small book which he called “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 - “The Act of Living”.

Kennedy said “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.”

A quote from 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”.

More Kennedy – “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.”

In my own struggles to find my way, I have found a salvation of sorts in my willingness to give up destinies that I took for granted were mine to achieve.  I realize in moments of clarity that by remaining present and thoughtful, I am accountable for the direction my life has taken. I have not understood this alone; but have availed myself inspirational friends, family and teachers, who more than anything, have not discouraged me from finding my own path – stumbling at times though that may be. What Hyams quoted as “Try Softer”, Chopra wrote as the “Act of Non-Doing”, and Alexander, Carrington and Kennedy termed “The Act of Living”, have become a motivation that only I can keep the journey going, only I can be ultimately responsible for my life. Dewey stated that …..”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.”


The Northern California Center for The Alexander Technique
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