Saturday, December 3, 2011

Individual Use of the Self (2): Ian

I’m Mike’s brother, a teacher of swimming and the Alexander Technique. I’m not a sitting-zen practitioner.

I’m essentially lazy, not an explorer, a digger, a seeker of truth. More than twenty years ago, when I was 19, I had some experience of the Dogen Sangha, briefly living with a group of Tokyo westerners studying under Gudo Nishijima. I didn’t feel I belonged there and never wanted to sign up to a life following the Buddha’s teaching. One thing I’ve always been clear about in my own mind is that I wouldn’t give up the desire to be with a woman. So I have no real interest in Nanda’s struggle with that.

But, on the advice of my brother (MC), I did start having Alexander Technique lessons in my mid-twenties and something about this felt suitable for me. Looking back, I don’t think I had the sense or self-awareness at that time to see that I really needed the AT. I went for lessons wanting to find out how to be right, perhaps even wanting confirmation that I already was! Many kicks up the backside later the penny started to drop.

The Alexander Technique, with its roots in the performing arts, perhaps engenders the feeling that there’s room just to be oneself. I am beginning to understand from MC’s translation of Ashvaghosha that following the Buddha is the same. But something has kept me going with the Alexander Technique, and stopped me from sitting. Having said that, maybe there’s too much room for interpretation in the AT world of what one can be and the discipline of daily sitting practice, as MC recommends it, would be good for all AT teachers. But with the Alexander Technique I like the fact that there is nothing to conform to, that it’s always a matter of individual choice - I can end-gain if I want to!

This isn’t to say I’m ruling out the possibility of sitting-zen practice. If anything, the translation and the blog inspire me to sit. But apart from odd periods of sitting, I can’t claim to be a practitioner. I do practise the AT though (that is, I devote some time to it each day, often with my hands on a pupil) and on a daily basis explore the meaning of the words: I’d like my neck to be free so that my head goes forward and up, out of my body, so that my back lengthens and widens and my knees go forward and away from each other.

But as I don’t sit, or follow the Buddha, how can I answer this question about accomplishment of the work that has to be done in order to make the teaching of the four noble truths one's own?

What attracts me to the translation and the comments is this: the possibility of change through work on yourself as an individual.

The translation and blog have helped me because they encourage me in my quest for forward movement, albeit imperceptibly slow, with the Alexander Technique. Yes, change is very gradual, and possibly imperceptible, like the growth of a tree. But there are moments where there’s ‘a bit of nothing’ among all the fixing and doing. Perhaps very slowly a new direction is emerging. And my understanding of these experiences, though not the experiences themselves, come largely from MC.

Here are a few gems from the blog, which I’ve jotted down in my diary in 2011.

‘Being wrong is the best friend you’ve got.’ Marjory Barlow, quoted often.

In sitting, there is the ‘possibility of transcending the vestibular system, for which purpose the vestibular system has in the the first place to be still, quiet, undisturbed.’ MC 14th June

‘Keep coming back to those words. They will take you where you want to go’ MB (quoted 6th July)

On 26th August (As an example of how my understanding of AT experiences are informed by MC) I noted after giving an AT lesson that I ‘worked to do less.. small desires.. not trying to feel anything. Not trying to achieve the end. She floated out of chair and said it was a lovely experience.’

Negative feedback is the principle upon which a thermostat functions to prevent a central heating system from creating too much heat. It is a truly excellent principle, a preventive principle. MC (16th September)

Tomatis recognized that the ear is the primary route whereby the brain and nervous system receive nourishment from the environment. MC (October)

Paul Madaule describes the ear as a battery that energises the brain. (October)

Sometimes MC mentions me as someone who applies AT to swimming and gives a brief description of my modus operandi. I look at it and think, yes, this is how I would like to be working and it gives me new inspiration. For example, there was something (I can’t find it) about helping people get rid of their misconception that to overcome fear of water they are required to do something.

I find that when teaching the AT, I can’t go too far wrong if I remember Marjory Barlow’s clear message, as remembered by MC. Something like, Say no to your reaction, give your directions and go into movement without a care in the world - let it come out in the wash.

For me the AT work is primarily about direction, from the brain, of energy. From darkness and uselessness, you can get yourself going in a new direction and carry out an activity quietly. It is something you can always do and get others to do. You’re working to a principle rather than a feeling. ‘Be present to endgaining rather than endgaining to be present.’ ‘Stop doing the wrong thing, and the right thing does itself’, I am reminded of Alexander’s words and appreciate the emphasis on the Buddha’s teaching primarily not to do wrong.

MC brings colour to the translation of Ashvaghosha by understanding the verses from the viewpoint of one who knows about the human condition through practise of sitting-zen, teaching of AT, and work as a neuro developmental therapist. I often look at the two other translations and they don't seem so grounded in practice; the influence of Christianity possibly limits EHJ's understanding. The other two translations of Saundara-nanda would never have interested me. But if I’m honest I wouldn’t be interested in MC's translation either, if it wasn’t for his comments. There’s too much about kings and warriors, chariots and snakes. So all the more credit to MC for wading through the Sanskrit and attempting to dig out the real meaning, as a gift to lazy armchair followers like me.

I often glaze over and fail to give the translation the attention it deserves. MC has attempted to do the translation, as a daily job, according to the means whereby principle. All I have to do is sit and read it but I don’t often do so attending to that principle, especially as I usually read in the morning, before I’ve got myself going. I collapse over the computer with a coffee and if anything catches my attention it is MC’s new interpretations, trains of thought or notes on his personal experiences. So, as with so many things from my brother, my understanding is second hand. He does the work, he works it out, he bangs on until others get the point. And despite being a poor listener, I do listen to him.

So ...the Four Noble Truths

What are they?

From Wikipedia. A simple rendition of the Four Noble Truths is as follows:

1. Suffering does exist
2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the eightfold path.

From the translation, canto 16.

Suffering does exist.

The cause of suffering is faults which start with thirsting (redness and darkness, attachment, doing).... [Yep.]

There is the possibility of cutting out faults .....[This is where I think I am and will remain, increasingly aware of my faults and working to prevent them from getting the better of me. But Is there really the possibility of cutting them out?]

Cessation means peace and well being, rest, absence of redness and the taint of thirsting.....[I get glimpses of this in AT work.]

There is the possibility of an eternal refuge which is irremovable and noble, where there is total wellbeing, wanting little, with no fondness for worldy activity..... [I don’t know about that.]

So my friend, with regard to the many forms of becoming,

Know their causes to be [the faults] that start with thirsting

And cut out those [faults], if you wish to be freed from suffering;

For ending of the effect follows from eradication of the cause.

Again, the ending of suffering
follows from the disappearance of its cause.

Experience that reality for yourself as peace and well-being,

A place of rest, a cessation,
an absence of the red taint of thirsting,

An eternal refuge which is irremovable and noble,

Giving oneself to this path with its three divisions

And eight branches
-- this straightforward, irremovable, noble path --

One abandons the faults, which are the causes of suffering,

And comes to that step which is total well-being.

Attendant on it are constancy and straightness;

Modesty, attentiveness, and reclusiveness;

Wanting little, contentment,
and freedom from forming attachments;

No fondness for worldly activity, and forbearance.

The following two verses are useful.

So with regard to the truth of suffering,
see suffering as an illness;

With regard to the faults,
see the faults as the cause of the illness;

With regard to the truth of stopping,
see stopping as freedom from disease;

And with regard to the truth of a path,
see a path as a remedy.

Then comprehend that suffering is doing

And witness the faults moving it forward.

Realise its stopping as non-doing,

And know the path as a turning back.

I think I find myself at, and momentarily step on to, a new path but then set off again along the old, familiar one, fixing and holding my breath, pushing forward against the wind and through thick, slippery mud.

In the Alexander teaching room, I glimpse the truth of the noble truths. The overall aim, and effect, of the work for me personally seems to be the unblocking of energy. And the fact of the unblocked energy gives me hope re. the possibility of an energised life.

Faults including laziness, habits including fixing and breath-holding, modern life and a weak vestibular system..... all these things and lack of commitment... close the window of hope. But the more often it’s opened, the more easily it opens again.

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