Monday, January 14, 2008

One Breath After Another -- News of Michael's Progress

On the post of last Tuesday, supposing that Michael Thaler ( might have popped his clogs already, I invited tributes or non-tributes to Michael.

Last night Bill said...
Well, for starters, he's still with us, albeit barely (I saw him Thursday). Certainly not up to blogging..

Anonymous said...

Please let Michael know that all us anonymous blog commenters are still out here wishing him well!

Thanks :-)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Non-Tribute to Michael Thaler (Abdication of Responsibilities)

Michael Thaler has not posted on his blog since Thursday 03 January, and has not moderated any comments since that time. One senses that his learning of the backward step, in this world, has reached its conclusion.

Michael appreciated what I wrote, and the appreciation was mutual. Michael had a certain ability -- albeit still underdeveloped -- to see through the superficial. He had the will, at least, to look at life with the lens cap off. When I became discouraged with this blogging experiment, Michael encouraged me, on line and off line to carry on with it. One Foot in Front of the Other was what he preached and what he practiced. By no means a quitter. A man of integrity.

Ideas come and go that I ought to publish a photo of Michael, make some kind of internet shrine and perform some kind of internet ceremony -- maybe a sound recording of NEGAWAKUWA KONO KUDO O MOTTE AMANEKU ISSAI NI OYOBOSHI, WARERA TO SHUJO TO MINA TOMO NI BUTSUDO O JOZEN KOTO O, "May the merit of this [this commentary on Fukan-zazengi; this morning's sitting; this wayfarer's effort] spread far and wide, so that we and living beings may all realize together the truth of Buddha."

But no, I don't need to do that. Ceremonies for the dead and suchlike are not my job. Leave that to professional Soto Zen monks and others in the world of showbizz.

My job is not to burn incense, not to scatter petals or holy water. It is never my duty to behave as self or others expect. Anybody who that doesn't suit can fuck off my blog and do what Michael himself wanted to do in the end -- join a "Zen Buddhist community." In spite of his will to look at life with the lens cap off, I wonder if Michael saw through the inherent lie of Soto Zen in the end, or not. To be honest, I think not. In that sense, it was a shame he didn't devote himself more wholeheartedly to sitting-zen practice itself, while he still could.

There is no need for ceremonies, prostrations, talk of three treasures, and all the rest of it. The real task is only one, and when it is allowed to do so it continues to observe itself, four times a day, through births, through sickness, through aging, and through death -- and not for the sake of comforting any living person or bringing honour to any dead one.

Having said all the above, if there is anything anybody would like to write in appreciation of Michael Thaler, please feel free to add your own twopennyworth here.

I invite you to give up all idea of saying anything appropriate. Please, if you wish to say something, follow my example of not saying anything at all appropriate. And yet say something.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Samadhi for the Birds

Not yet knowing stillness in movement

A buzzard floats like a buzzard.

Stillness in stillness

Does not move a withered old tree.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Time to Cut the Crap


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.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Intellectually Giving Up vs Really Giving Up

Between New Year's Eve and New Year's Day we have a family tradition of "two-year sitting-zen." We sit together for fifteen minutes or so from about ten to midnight to about five past. Even if our sons don't sit at all from New Year to New Year, most years they like to keep this family tradition going.

This New Year's Eve I went to bed at 11.30 pm complaining that I didn't feel up to it. But after a quarter of an hour lying down, I came downstairs, fortified myself with a sip of calvados, and the four of us sat as usual. This little experience seemed to corroborate the principle that, just in giving up an idea of doing something, one can become more free to do it.

New Year's Day was mainly spent in bed -- I seem to have got flu. Today, January 2nd, my wife and I, together with two friends, were supposed to be going to France to practice a sitting-retreat together.

Not wanting to let the others down, I kept telling myself: give up the idea of going; give up the idea of going. In the background, I thought that if I really gave up the idea of going, I might find the strength just to get in the car and go.

To go or not to go? Unable to sleep, I got up around 5 am and sat for about ten minutes, and then went back to bed, with the idea still going round in my throbbing head: give up the idea of going, give up the idea of going... and then, maybe, just go!

But it wasn't any good. My body had its own agenda. By noon, it was too late to go, and so I really had given up the idea of going. I puked up a few times, sat for about fifteen minutes, and spent the afternoon asleep.

Having got up again just now and managed to sit for 40 minutes, the lesson I seem to have been taught, again, is the difference between intellectually giving up ideas of the "my will be done" variety, and really giving up those ideas.

I if had really and truly given up the idea of going, not after it was already too late to go but, say, when I was fretting in bed last night, might my body have beaten off the virus earlier, thereby enabling me to go?

I don't know the answer to that question. What I do see, with renewed clarity, is the fraudulence inherent in my preaching to others on this blog the idea of giving up an idea. Who am I fooling?

If we really and truly gave up the idea of becoming buddha, as Master Dogen instructs in Fukan-zazengi, who knows what natural miracles might happen? But for a bodhisattva was has established bodhicitta, the intellectual idea of enlightenment, to really and truly give up that idea may be no easy thing.