Sunday, December 31, 2006

An Example of Antagonistic Thinking

What I mean by antagonistic thinking is thinking that runs counter to what I feel I ought to do. The feeling of what I ought to do is based upon my body’s memory of what I habitually do. But through Alexander work I have been led, in fits and starts, to discover a kind of thinking that does not enslave me to what I feel I ought to do, but which rather is a liberating tendency.

In her book An Examined Life the master Alexander teacher Marjory Barlow gives an example of such liberation, through the process which she calls “ordering.”

Ordering means thinking the Alexander orders: e.g. to let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the spine lengthen and the back widen.

Marjory relates:

I used to get this terrible pain under my right shoulder blade if I’d been overworked. It used to come on in the night and I always did something to get away from it. One night I sort of woke up in the real sense and thought: “You’re crazy! You teach people if they’ve got a pain to stay with it and not do anything, and here you are running away!”

So I just lay there ordering and it became more and more acute until I could hardly bear it and it went away and I’ve never had it since.

* * *

Without a lot of experience in Alexander work, Marjory’s story won’t mean anything to you, and neither should it. But it just might sow a seed of doubt in your mind that the point I have been vainly making to Gudo all these years about thinking, is not empty, but real.

Gudo asks me on his blog, rhetorically, what this kind of thinking has got to do with Zazen. Ryunin asks me on this blog the same question, possibly with more doubt in his mind. Possibly, that is, with a more open mind.

I tried to answer Ryunin’s question in an article I wrote in 2001 titled “Practising Detachment: A Brief Introduction to the FM Alexander Technique for Buddhist Practitioners.” You can read it if you like on my webpage at

If I try again to answer now: What Marjory is describing, first of all, is the experience of feeling acute pain and not doing anything about it. Pain receptors were sending messages to her brain, stimulating her to do something. But she inhibited the desire to act on these sensory messages.

Isn’t this essentially how we are called on to respond as beginners, or during an intensive period of sitting, when our legs are on fire? We inhibit the desire to act on sensory messages, and instead just sit there, persevering in our practice. This is called, in Alexander jargon, “non-doing.” Non-doing in this gross sense simply means not doing, physically refraining from doing, what our feeling is telling us to do.

Marjory says that she just lay there, ordering. The principle of non-doing is implicit not only in the physical action of just laying there, but also in the mental action of ordering. Non-doing on this level means not doing the orders.

The orders are verbal representations of an intention, a wish, a thought. Not a feeling, a thought. Not what people generally understand as a thought, but nevertheless a thought, a wish, a clear intention. And only that -- not a feeling.

In Alexander terms the intention is verbalized for example as: I wish to allow the neck to be free, to allow the head to be released out of the body, to allow the back to lengthen and widen, sending the knees away from the hips.

But remember Alexander’s caution: “When you think you’re thinking, you’re feeling.”

In Zazen, then, what is the thought, the intention, the wish? Gudo might say that the wish is for the autonomic nervous system to come into balance. Or one could say that the wish is for the Buddha’s enlightenment to be reawakened here and now. Or that the wish is for a condition of effortless ease in upright sitting. However the wish is verbalized, the vital principle that Alexander has to offer us is this: Don’t try to realise it by doing what you feel you need to do to realise it. Just think it. Just wish it.

This is the vital principle not only of Alexander work but also, I submit, of Master Dogen’s Zazen.

If anybody has got a better explanation of why Master Dogen instructed us “Think that state beyond thinking,” I have yet to hear it.

People today pass over Master Dogen’s instruction because they don’t clearly understand the intention behind it.


Blogger MikeDoe said...

"People today pass over Master Dogen’s instruction because they don’t clearly understand the intention behind it."

All the evidence that you present consistently suggests that you do not. Actions speak where words mislead.

You are as attached to your viewpoint as Gudo is to his. You make the perfect couple.

Sunday, December 31, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

irony (3): incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play.

Irony can exist on many levels. So can understanding.

Mikedoe's comment nicely expresses a certain irony. But does he understand it?

Ultimately, what have I understood? I shall do my utmost to express it on my next post.

Monday, January 01, 2007  

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