Last summer I was asked to contribute something in the way of an obituary for Marjory Barlow, the niece of FM Alexander who devoted a large part of her life to keeping alive the principles of his work.
Marjory used to say, "It is the most serious thing you can do, this work, but you mustn't take it seriously."
This is not simply an encouragement to dance gaily around playing silly buggers. It is a two-sided teaching. The first clause also should not be overlooked.
My first response to the request to write a piece about Marjory's life was that I wasn't the person to write it, that there were many better qualified people who learned from and worked with Marjory through many more phases of her life, who knew her better as a person than I did. At the same time, I felt that there might be something that I would like to try to say. For several months I left it at that. Then just before Christmas the editor in question reminded me that she was still waiting for me to submit something. So over Christmas I tried to put down in words as succinctly as possible the legacy that I felt Marjory had endeavored to pass on through the course of thirty or forty lessons she gave me in the final years of her life. I am glad that I was given this difficult challenge.
For one thing, whenever I have written anything for publication hitherto about Alexander's teaching, it has been difficult for me to look at Alexander work except through the lens of its relevance to sitting-zen -- my thing. But this time I tried my best not to do this. I just tried to crystallize my own understanding of what it was that Marjory herself encouraged me to practise, which was a definite way of working on the self.
I didn't originally intend what I wrote for publication on this blog, but I am going to publish it now, largely as a response to reading this morning Michael Thaler's latest posting on his blog ("Fatigue").
Michael's posts remind us what Master Dogen meant by comparing human life to a dewdrop on a blade of grass. To waste time on stupid discussion might be a sin. Michael's blog is a kick up the arse to perform the non-thinking somersault. That non-thinking somersault might begin by me totally giving up the idea of joining hands and bowing -- and yet joining hands and bowing.
In that spirit, I am going to publish below what I have written already, for a non-Buddhist Alexander audience. I have tried previously on this blog to clarify the connection I see between Marjory's teaching and the teaching of Fukan-zazengi. I am not going to get into that kind of discussion now. As Michael Thaler is sternly reminding us, post by post, life is too short.
The Marjory Barlow I knew, in her eighties, taught a way of working on the self that is so simple, and she taught it so simply, that it might be difficult even for a man who has been educated to misunderstand it.
Quoting the words of her uncle FM Alexander that “this work is the most mental thing there is,” Marjory encouraged me to practise for myself a definite discipline, which involved primarily the giving up of an idea.
When I visited Marjory at her flat at 4b Wadham Gardens in Swiss Cottage, for my first lesson with her, in the summer of 1997, she soon introduced me to one idea in particular: the idea of moving one leg with minimal disturbance to the rest of the organism. I had not gone with any intention of lying with legs bent on Marjory’s teaching table and from there stretching out a leg and putting the extended leg down on the table (or "couch" as Marjory called it). The idea of moving a leg, the idea that invariably put me wrong, came from Marjory herself. By focusing my attention on this idea, which was not my own idea, and not a very grand idea, she enabled me to see in a more detached way how troublesome an idea can be.
With the express intention of putting me wrong, Marjory planted in my head the idea of lifting and extending a leg. She knew very well that the idea of performing this movement before her all-noticing eye would tend to cause me to stiffen my neck, hold in my ribs, pull in my shoulders, and unduly fix various other joints.
While deliberately putting me wrong, Marjory did her best to persuade me that, in the field of working on the self, being wrong is the best friend we have got. “There is no such animal as being right,” she would say. And "To be prepared to be wrong is the golden key." Marjory encouraged me to give up the idea of ever being right.
“When you feel you are wrong,” she used to say, “give your orders and go into movement without a care in the world. Let it come out in the wash!”
By “giving orders” or “sending directions” or “ordering” Marjory meant coming back to the following words or some variation of them: Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the spine lengthen and back widen, while sending the knees [up to the ceiling]. Marjory often recalled that FM used to say: “Never let a day go by without coming back to those words.”
Marjory herself never seemed to tire of coming back to those words. She always spoke each order as if she were hearing it for the first time.
“Free your neck!” she said and then, if her eagle eyes or long slender fingers sensed that I was doing something in the effort to free my neck, she would let me know. “Head forward.... and UP!” she said, as if she really meant each word, and again, whenever necessary, “No! You’re doing it!” She exhorted me not to do anything but “to release the neck, to let the head go forward... and UP, to let the back lengthen... and WIDEN, releasing the hips and sending the knees up to the ceiling.” Marjory’s exhortations to release would tend to bring into play my old assumption that the process of coming undone, like any other change I wished to bring about, must depend on at least a bit of doing on my part. So, while presenting me with a strong stimulus to try to do something, Marjory at the same time encouraged me really and truly to give up the idea of doing anything. She encouraged me to totally give up the idea of being able to do an undoing.
“Again, free the neck. You can’t do it. Let the neck be free to let the head come out -- that’s where it wants to go. Let the spine lengthen, releasing along its whole extent. As the spine lengthens, the back WIDENS. FM used to say, ‘Get a bit of lengthening and then a bit of widening and then a bit more lengthening, and so on.’ We all go mad on the lengthening. The widening is every bit as important.”
“Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and UP, to let the back lengthen and WIDEN. And watch you don’t tighten your wrists. FM used to say, ‘Chase tension all around the body and it ends up in the wrists.’”
“Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen, releasing right up into the armpit -- that is where a lot of trouble starts.”
“Neck free; head FORWARD and UP; spine to LENGTHEN, back to WIDEN; sending the left knee up to the ceiling, and sending the right knee up to the ceiling, as you move your right leg!”
This last instruction, to move the leg, was delivered in a kind of climactic way as if it were the one thing that at that moment Marjory wanted most in the world -- just to see her pupil making a good job of lifting the foot and stretching out the leg. But lesson by lesson, not because Marjory ever spelled it out for me, but because she patiently allowed me to work it out for myself, I came to understand that what Marjory really wanted to see was not a leg movement per se, but rather evidence of a more complete giving up of the idea of moving the leg. The more deeply and completely I gave up the idea of moving the leg, it gradually transpired, the better Marjory liked it.
Really to give up the idea of moving the leg was not simply a matter of saying the word “No” to myself. It felt to me like a conscious regression towards an almost infantile state of utter helplessness, free of any idea of being right, or any idea of doing the Alexander directions, or any idea of making a movement. The deeper the regression into this state, the freer I became to move the leg, or not move it -- and, incidentally, the clearer the birdsong became outside Marjory’s window.
When eventually I did move the leg, but not before, Marjory would often say: “That’s it. It always pays to wait!” The praise came after the movement. The mental discipline of working on the self, for Marjory, evidently, was never a purely mental game. There had to be a real intention to move, and this intention had to be manifested, sooner or preferably later, in an actual bodily movement.
The definite way of working that Marjory taught me, in a nutshell, was, while lying on my back with my knees bent, totally to give up the idea of moving a leg... and yet move the leg.
Recently while browsing Lulie Westfeldt’s book, in the final chapter I came upon this passage:
"Alexander now asked himself, where did the trouble start? He went over very carefully in his mind what actually happened and decided that he had no control over what he did with his body once the idea of speaking had come into his head. It was the idea that caused the trouble and brought about a reversion to the old pattern in spite of all his intentions and desires. He then decided that the idea of speaking and the body pattern he had always used when speaking must be inseparably fused, and that to eliminate the old faulty pattern he would have to eliminate the idea of speaking. His problem was to get rid of the idea of speaking and yet speak!”
Yes. That was it. That was just the problem Marjory invited and encouraged me to address. She spelled out with beautiful clarity and simplicity how to practise giving up the idea of being right, giving up the idea of doing anything in the way of ordering, and giving up the idea of moving a leg -- and yet moving the leg.