Thursday, December 28, 2006

Anyone for Non-Thinking?

In the effort to clarify what the words HISHIRYO, “non-thinking,” might mean, I am going to relate an episode that probably won’t mean anything to you, but it continues to mean a lot to me.

In the summer holidays of 1997, fully two years into my Alexander teacher training, I went for a lesson with FM Alexander’s niece Marjory Barlow. By then, at the age of 82, Marjory had been devoting herself to her uncle’s work for 65 years.

In the car on the way down to London, I had been listening to a recording of a lecture by Marjory. It was a lecture I had attended, the first time I saw Majory in person, in my home town of Birmingham in July 1995. Thirty years previously, in 1965, Marjory had delivered another FM Alexander Memorial Lecture -- the one that is reproduced in full on my Alexander blog and web-page ( This lecture in 1995 was more informal; it’s theme was: Thinking.

I parked my car outside Marjory’s flat in Hampstead, rang the buzzer and walked up the three flights of stairs to her teaching room. On the way up, I passed a large framed photograph, taken by Linda McCartney, of Marjory sitting very upright in a chair.

On entering Marjory’s teaching room I stood in preparation for the usual starting activity of an Alexander lesson -- “chair work.” This involves a pupil being guided by a teacher to lengthen in stature while bending the knees. The pupil thus ends up being seated in a chair, without the pupil having had to think of sitting down as an end to be gained.

After an opening pleasantry or two, with me remaining standing, Marjory began the process which she called “ordering.”

With one hand on the back of my neck and the other in front, Marjory feistily intoned: “Free your neck; head forward and up....” And then, to my surprise: “No, no. You’re doing it.”

Not aware that I was doing anything, I tried again, going back to the process of thinking as I understood it.

“Again, let the neck be free, to let the head go.... No, no. You’re doing it.”

And so we carried on. After several minutes standing like this, I was literally sweating with anxiety. It seemed to me that Marjory was not being at all helpful, just repeatedly giving me the same stimulus and letting me know that my response was wrong. I might have been inclined to think that there was something wrong with her teaching method -- except that I knew she was the most senior Alexander teacher on the face of the planet. I was in a proper pickle.

In the 1995 lecture which I had listened to in the car, one of the things Marjory had said about Thinking was this:

“We’re bringing the brain and the nervous system into communication with the rest of the body through a conscious process. We’re doing it deliberately. We’re choosing to do it. FM used to say that it’s very like wishing or wanting something. If you’re going on a picnic you say you hope it’ll be fine tomorrow. Well, there ain’t a darn thing you can do to make it be fine. But that is what this process of ordering is. It’s wanting. Wanting something.”

Like a drowning man clutching for a straw, I remembered this part of Majory’s lecture. OK, I reasoned, nothing else is working. I will try thinking in the manner of a child wishing for nice weather to go on a picnic (as opposed to my usual habit of feeling myself to be a kind of heroic macho explorer, defying all adversity). I’m sure as hell that this isn’t going to work. But I will give it a try.

“YES!” Marjory cried. “That’s it!”

This may have been the beginning of the beginning of me suspecting what “non-thinking” might really mean.

What I had thought of as thinking, until then, was not what Alexander meant by thinking but was a subtle variety of what I had been relying on my whole life up to then -- i.e. feeling. Two years training as an Alexander teacher had greatly increased my subtlety. In fact, I had become quite an expert at deceiving myself and others that I knew what Alexander thinking was. (I am still rather good at this form of deception.) But I didn’t fool Marjory, not for a second. Marjory knew. From the moment I walked through her door, Marjory had me sussed.

Following this episode, I had a long series of forty or so lessons with Marjory, until she left her flat in Hampstead to go and live with her son in Dulwich.

An essential part of those lessons was always the same: Marjory would present to me, though not always using the same words, the stimulus of the Alexander orders. For example:

“We want every joint in the body to open up.”

“Neck free. Head forward and up. Spine to lengthen. Back to widen. Widen across the upper part of the arms as you widen the back. Send the knees away from the hips.”

And my main job, in response to the stimulus of those orders, was NOT TO DO them.

Think them, yes, by all means. But do not do them. And remember what FM used to say: “When you think you’re thinking you’re feeling, when you think you’re feeling you’re doing.”

Even after two years of full-time Alexander training, with one-to-one hands-on guidance most days, I still hadn’t begun to understand, before this lesson with Marjory, what Alexander might have meant by “thinking.” Do I expect other Zazen practitioners to begin to understand, just by reading what I write? No, I don’t. But in the minds of maybe one or two people reading this, a tiny seed of great doubt may be sown. And that tiny seed might cause somebody, following in my footsteps, to become a total loser. I’m not talking about losing £12,000 or so. I’m talking about something that costs much more than that.

But, let me tell you: it’s worth it. Oh yes.

My situation might not look so favourable, and much of the time it doesn’t feel so favourable. But I wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world.

Yesterday I visited a good friend, who told me that, to him, I appeared not to be happy, to be troubled, in my Zazen practice. It was the honest feedback of a true friend. At the same time, my friend’s observation, and my initial worried response to it, might have been just another case of doubting the real dragon.

Today I have sat for an hour, half an hour, and another half an hour, with effort, feeling and thinking, without truly being caught by the still state. But next week I am going to France, where I will be.


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