Thursday, February 02, 2006

Practising Detachment

Practising Detachment
A short introduction to the F.M. Alexander technique for Buddhist practitioners

Practice of Detachment in AT

"The fact to be faced is that the human self was robbed of much of its inheritance when the separation implied by the conception of the organism as 'spirit,' 'mind' and 'body' was accepted as a working principle, for it left unbridged the gap between the 'subconscious' and the conscious. I venture to assert that if the gap is to be bridged, it will be by means of a knowledge, gained through practical experience, which will enable us to inhibit our instinctive, 'subconscious' reaction to a given stimulus, and to hold it inhibited while initiating a conscious direction, guidance, and control of the use of the self that was previously unfamiliar. I suggest that only those who become capable of translating into practice what is involved in the procedure just described can justly claim to have experienced detachment in the basic sense."

F.M. Alexander, 1946 The Universal Constant In Living

Practice of Detachment in Zazen

In Buddhist sitting practice, called zazen in Japanese, the given stimulus is the instruction to sit upright. The formal instructions for zazen laid down by the founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan, Zen Master Dogen (1200-1254), centre upon the command "Just sit upright. Do not lean to the left, incline to the right, slump forward, or arch backward."

For most of us, the instinctive reaction to this stimulus is to stiffen up or to brace, fixing the joints and holding the breath in the process. The more clearly we see it, the more possible it may be to inhibit this reaction, along with the false attempts at self-organization which are its offshoots.

To initiate a conscious direction of the use of the self that was previously unfamiliar may involve the wish to sit upright without fixing, keeping all the joints as open and free as possible, beginning with the sub-occipital joint where the head sits on top of the spinal column.

This process requires trust, because it entails opening up to the unknown, abandoning the false security of holding and fixing. Again, it requires clarity, especially in regard to habitual responses to the stimulus "Just sit upright."

The Secret Is in the Preparation

An ideal way to develop this clarity and trust, and hence an ideal way to prepare for zazen, is to practice Alexander's procedure of inhibition and direction in sitting and standing, under the guidance of an AT teacher. Having experienced how conscious inhibition and direction make for a freer use of the self in rising from a chair, thereafter, to counter any tendency to stiffen in zazen, we can simply think of sitting 'as if to stand.'

The secret is not in the movement of standing but in the readiness to stand. "The readiness is all." Therefore, even with legs crossed in lotus, it may help to think of being able to pivot freely, 'all in one piece,' on the sitting bones so that the head being released forward and up, against the back lengthening and widening, could lead us up into standing.

Learning Clarity in the Moment

Alexander arrived at "the only place, and the only moment in time, where change could begin, or where he could have any control over the habitual patterns of misuse which were dominating every-thing he attempted to do. This place, or this moment in time, was the instant that a stimulus to activity reached his consciousness."

Marjory Barlow, 1965 F.M.A. Memorial Lecture

The stimulus "Just sit upright" tends to trigger a stiffening reaction which, if practiced, becomes a habit that feels familiar and right. As we endeavor moment by moment to shed this habit and to transcend this feeling, the clarity of our consciousness of stimulus and response is greatly enhanced by freedom from ulterior motives or extraneous wishes --­ "People that haven't any fish to fry, they see it all right."

Learning to Trust New Means

"In learning the Technique, the pupil must learn to stop doing, to leave himself in the hands of the teacher, neither tensing nor relaxing. Further, any emotional involve-ment in trying to learn what to do, or in what is going on, should be avoided. The best results are gained when a pupil can dissociate himself from what is happening, as if standing on one side watching someone else being taught.

Alexander named the opposite of this kind of behavior 'end-gaining,' i.e. the desire to bring about the end in view however wrong the means might be. He demon-strated that the quality of means employed brings about the kind of end arrived at, and that poor means invariably bring about a mediocre end. He showed that if a new kind of result was wanted, a new set of means would have to be used."

Patrick MacDonald, The Alexander Technique As I See It

Learning to Let It Happen

"Non-doing is, above all, an attitude of mind. It's a wish. It's a decision to leave everything alone and see what goes on, see what happens. Your breathing and your circulation and your postural mechanisms are all working and taking over. The organism is functioning in its automatic way, and you are doing nothing. If you're going to succeed in doing nothing, you must exercise control over your thinking processes. You must really wish to do nothing. If you're thinking anxious, worried thoughts, if you're thinking exciting thoughts that are irrelevant to the situation at hand, you stir up responses in your body that are not consistent with doing nothing. It's not a matter of just not moving--that can lead to fixing or freezing--it's a matter of really leaving yourself alone and letting everything just happen and take over.

This is what we're aiming at in an Alexander lesson, and if we're wise, and we understand, it's also what we aim at in our own practice of non-doing. It is something that requires practice. Like most other things in life, it isn't some-thing that you can achieve by simply wishing to do so, by just thinking, 'Well, I will now leave myself alone and not do anything.' Unfortunately, it doesn't work out like that. The whole process requires a lot of practice, and a lot of observation. Out of this process a tremendous lot of experience is to be gained..."

Walter Carrington, Thinking Aloud


Blogger MikeDoe said...

"If you're going to succeed in doing nothing, you must exercise control over your thinking processes. You must really wish to do nothing"

Not a thought "I want to NOT DO". A wish. A desire. Not 'thinking'. More subtle. Deeper. Simpler. More 'natural'.

Thursday, February 02, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

"This work is an exercise in finding out what thinking is"

"None of you knows how to think."

-- FM Alexander, aphorisms.

"Sitting still, think the state of not-thinking."

-- Zen Master Dogen, Zazengi

Thursday, February 02, 2006  
Blogger Friend said...

watching thought arise, exist and pass away is not thinking, right?

Thursday, February 02, 2006  
Blogger axel said...


I'm glad you're sharing this.

I've been wondering about something. I feel that perhaps I shouldn't be wondering at all about it. However...

After a few years of Zazen practice, I have had a few moments in which it all feels 'just right'. There seems to be no effort of any sort. Of course, the moment I observe this the bubble pops and I go back to 'doing something for things to remain right'.

I feel tempted to think that those moments are 'allowing'. However, a more skeptical me throws in the idea that perhaps I've just forced my posture into something that's become a habbit and that's why it feels right.

Any thoughts?

Friday, February 03, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, addenda, for your very pertinent question.

When you are watching thoughts arise, exist, et cetera, there are two addendas (addendae?) -- the addenda who is watching and the addenda who is thinking. So, no, your state at that time is not the state of not-thinking. It is the state of thinking something.

In his original version of Fukan-zazengi, Master Dogen wrote, "When a thought arises, just wake up."

In his later version, he alluded to the famous words of Master Yakusan: "Think the state of not-thinking."

I don't think Master Dogen's method of Zazen had changed over the years. So we have to understand the essential sameness of these two instructions.

What does it mean to wake up? What does it mean to think the state of not-thinking?

In Alexander work, thinking is an essential part of the process of waking up. But one can't find out what Alexander meant by "thinking" over the internet. Alexander work is an exercise in finding out what Alexander meant by thinking.

It was when I expressed the above to Gudo Nishijima that he became convinced that I was on a non-Buddhist path, and he has acted on the basis of that conviction. But his conviction was and is totally wrong.

In the words of Alexander that I quoted in this post, "thinking" corresponds to "initiating a conscious direction, guidance, and control of the use of the self that was previously unfamiliar."

In Alexander work, the "upright" of "upright sitting" is not a position; it is a direction, or an orientation. A position can be done. But a direction cannot be done. To initiate a conscious direction of the use of the self requires an effort of volition, in short, thinking.

It is this kind of effort, this kind of thinking, which is so often visibly lacking in vipassana meditation. Vipassana practitioners so often slump.

At the other extreme, Zazen practitioners often make unconscious effort to "do" the uprightness as a posture. This is the approach recommended by Gudo Nishijima, Brad Warner, et cetera.

It is in the middle way, that the subtle skill exists.

Friday, February 03, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Axel.

Impossible for me to answer your question, except to say that the doubt you express rings a bell with my own experience -- true rightness does not generally recognize itself!

It does sound like maybe what you are describing is, before self-consciousness bursts the bubble, fleeting moments of true allowing.

On the other hand, speaking for myself, I have learned that it is wise always to err on the side of skepticism!

So often I have gone to my Alexander teacher thinking "Now I've got it. Now I will show her what true allowing is." An hour later, having been told to stop trying to get my dirty paws on it, I would slink out of the teaching room, tail between my legs.

Friday, February 03, 2006  
Blogger Siren said...

Mike, thanks for this post. I particularly appreciate:

'In Alexander work, the "upright" of "upright sitting" is not a position; it is a direction, or an orientation. A position can be done. But a direction cannot be done. To initiate a conscious direction of the use of the self requires an effort of volition, in short, thinking.'

This hits the nail on the head for me. Being, living, non-doing, are dynamic- not fixed. Everything is in constant flux. I think so much body work taught (or not taught, really) before FM A, and then later with M. Feldenkrais, was all about finding *the* position. The *right* way. That mind-set is static. Dead. Lifeless. It limits possibility. Once you reach whatever 'it' is you are 'done' and then there is nowhere left to go. Stuckness happens.

I must wonder since Buddhism's heritage is Indian, and some yoga teachers absolutely do teach some of what you are talking about: being in an alive, dynamic state, that this teaching is inherent in Zen.

Ironically, in my experience, it has been that martial arts teachers (along with their Western task master twins, ballet teachers) lack serious insight into this dynamic quality of possibility. Pushing and forcing, creating an absolute right and wrongness, and thus squelching possibility and exploration, never accomplish anything.

Friday, February 03, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, siren. Apart from the fact that I know nothing of Yoga, it seems we are singing from the same hymn sheet.

It is as zero indicated in his comment yesterday: people would rather do some lower-order body-working thing that they can get hold of.

Not to do, but to allow--or, in other words, not to do but to think--is of a higher order altogether. As Marjory Barlow says, "It is a cut above bodywork."

To think the state of not-thinking.
To wake up.
What does it mean?

If I express it in my own words, it is not to do something, but rather to intend to allow what is unintentional.

How can the uninentional be intentionally allowed?

It is beyond our intention.

Friday, February 03, 2006  
Blogger Siren said...

"How can the uninentional be intentionally allowed?

It is beyond our intention."

'Beyond intention'. What a great phrase, eh? Nice.

Funny, the whole point of doing all those yoga 'poses' is to be able to sit comfortably in lotus to meditate and thus 'achieve' (not a good word), Samadhi. Of course, since committing to such a physical practice also produces really buff bodies, Westerners get caught up in that. So the old masters definitely knew sitting in lotus for extended periods was tough, so they created a process by which this could be done. Now, it seems, we are expected to go from coach-potato-cubicle inactive lifestyles to the zafu and even a 1/2 hour of that for some people can be excruciating.

Friday, February 03, 2006  
Blogger zero said...


Your post and comments much appreciated again. I feel compelled to try to answer your questions - from the perspective of my first post on the allower and the allowed.

What does it mean to wake up? And what does it mean to allow the unintentional? To begin with, what is our practice about? For me the answer has to do with what is being allowed, with what is expressed in the action of zazen, and in our daily lives. It has to do with creativity, the creativity of the universe, expressed through our humble beings. It’s about exhausting the stains of old habits and letting that creativity through – acting it out, expressing it, living it. In the words of poet David Whyte: “The whole of creation is waiting for you to take your place in it.” Or, in the words of the Dogen of the Dzogchen tradition, Longchenpa:

I, the creativity of the universe, pure and total presence,
am the real heart of all spiritual pursuits.
The three approaches with their three teachers
do not exist apart from this one definitive approach.
This is the level of the creative energy of the universe,
pure and total presence.
It is the source of all spiritual pursuits.

(The second sentence refers to the three stages in Gautama Buddha’s teaching career.)

So do we dare to take our place in creation? What does it entail? Which brings me to another poem, ”Wild Geese”, by Mary Oliver. Do we dare to love what we love? Do we dare to open our hearts? Do we dare to let ourselves be touched? Do we dare to be pierced by suffering, our own and that of the world? Do we dare to let our wild and tender hearts be unprotected and free, roaming beyond all intention? Can we say, with Eichu:

My eyes eavesdrop on their lashes!
I'm finished with the ordinary!
What use has halter, bridle
To one who's shaken off contrivance?

Just a thought...Thank you.

Friday, February 03, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, siren.

For me the really tough part of sitting in lotus for extended periods is not fixing.

It may be easier not to fix if I go for a walk, or maybe practice some chi-kung in the garden. But in a way, as someone who is committed to the way of Zazen, those other things can sometimes be a kind of dodging the issue.

The stimulus is just to sit still, and the challenge is to meet that stimulus without fixing.

When I get stuck, it is good to go for a walk or move about in the garden. But the stimulus I always come back to is how to sit still, without fixing.

Sunday, February 05, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero.

To be honest, I am not really grabbed by Eichu's poem. In my experience, I am easily prone to think that I have shaken off contrivance when in fact I haven't. The world is full of stiff-necked fools who think they are free -- even the Alexander world is no exception.

I remember a lesson I had a few years ago with a very experienced Alexander teacher. This was after doing my 3 years of teacher-training, and after having already received a lot of work from this particular teacher. I had taken a colleague along to meet her, and in the car on the way there I was full of sage advice to this friend. I tried to share with him the benefit of the insights I had gleaned so far. So we went in for the lesson, she put hands on me, and declared in exasperation, "It is all held! Everything is held!"

So there I was, exposed as a stiff-necked fool who thought he knew a thing or two about freedom.

If there are 4 lines that have really grabbed me in recent times, they are the 4 lines from Nagarjuna, on the back of Michael Luetchford's book on the MMK:

I pay homage to Gautama
To him who out of compassion
Taught the true Dharma
As the relinquishing of all views.

Sunday, February 05, 2006  
Blogger Gareth said...

[I'm sure I left a comment similar to this on another of your Blogs - but it disappeared. Strange.]

I've trained as an actor/director (like FM, I think?) and much of what you write resonates strongly with my work in this field.

This allowing you talk about is essential to an actor, while there are limits set and directions given - there is not something fixed to cling to.

I've practiced yoga as well, in the beginning just as part of my actor training - and siren’s words hold true for me as well.

I have always been interested in the parallels between actor training, and the process of allowing yourself to be a process, that's found in many eastern traditions.

From a theatrical perceptive the work of people like Keith Johnstone, and Kirsten Linklater may interest you - their work is very much about allowing, about process rather than product.

It is in directions similar to theirs I hope my work progresses, and I hope one day to be able to introduce these ideas to it seems you are beginning to.


Sunday, February 05, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Gareth.

Yes, FM trained in the dramatic arts, and it seems that he drew many of his early insights from this tradition -- as well as from horsemanship.

It is said that FM was deeply influenced by Shakeseare. "The readiness is all" from Hamlet was one of his favourite quotes.

Thank you for the pointers to KJ, KL, which I will look up in due course, as well as your own web page.

In return you might like to check out the webpage of a friend of mine who is an Alexander teacher and an actor/director, Trevor Allan Davies:

I wonder what it is that I am beginning to do. I don't know what allowing is, and don't know what Buddhism is. What I write comes more out of a confidence of knowing what allowing is not, what Buddhism is not.

"Clinging to something fixed," as you put it, cannot be allowing, and cannot be Buddhism, can it? I have done much too much of that over the years, and probably am still so doing on many levels of which I am not aware.

I like your expression "the process of allowing yourself to be a process." In other words, "a way of getting out of the way of the way."

Sunday, February 05, 2006  
Blogger Zen Unbound said...

Manual Trackback. This post is cited in Blogmandu, Roundup for Jan 29 - Feb 4.

Monday, February 06, 2006  
Blogger Gareth said...

Thanks for the reply Mike,

I'll take a look at that link, thank you. I don't know what you are beginning to do - I don't know where my explorations will lead either...out of the theatre I suspect, but who knows, the only way to find out is by continuing…

Not knowing is a good place to start from.

Clinging is the antithesis of Buddhism, and yet I do this every day - on external conditions, on things I imagine are real...many times, over and over again.

Getting out of the way, is a good expresion, one I've usde recently ;)

Best Wishes


Tuesday, February 07, 2006  

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