Body learning*

The saying “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”, is often incorrectly attributed to Buddha. Regardless of who first coined the phrase, I find it a wise saying, and applicable to myself as a student of body learning.

Recently over a period of days it’s wisdom floated up into my consciousness. A aha moment as I was practicing the Zen art of washing up!. I’m not making fun of such philosophies. I do believe there is much to be gained spiritually from doing seemingly mundane chores, especially if whilst doing them we remain mindful of body use. I don’t always feel so reverential towards my dirty crockery, this particular episode of enlightenment came soon after a ‘top up’ Alexander Technique Lesson.

I was first introduced to the Alexander Technique many years ago after recurrent attacks of debilitating and painful back spasm. At that time my focus was primarily on relieving pain, I did not complete the recommended course of 12 weekly sessions. The student was not ready. In more recent years I did take the full, one-to-one course. I now see my current teacher, Grant Ragsdale, just a few times a year. and often when I am ill at ease with self or external events. I saw Grant this week for a ‘top-up’, on this occasion ……the student was ready.

I don’t consider myself a particularly good pupil, or example of effective body use. I easily slip back into poor use, hunching shoulders or slumping my spine, thereby compressing my chest. and constricting my breathing. Maintaining poise is an ideal but I look forward to being ‘topped up’, applying the principles more fully, and with gratitude well in to later life. Having a lesson always frees me up, although immediately after I might feel disoriented, as if I’m in a different body and head space. A lifetime of poor use is hard to undo.

Habitual misuse can be the result of  defending ourselves from perceived, or actual physical and emotional threats. In addition circumstance might mean we constantly act out of harmony with our feelings, by so doing we risk cutting our thought off from feeling, I do, and that’s why reminders are necessary. I find the Alexander Technique lessons serves as a reminder.

That the physical and emotional influences, we experience during childhood impact on our health and well-being can hardly be disputed. If our physiological inheritance is sound, and we are lucky to observe from “significant others”, effective use of emotions and body, our general resilience can be enhanced. We therefore have a better chance of withstanding the many ordinary, and extraordinary life events we humans face. If our role models in childhood did not allow us to mirror a useful sense of self, it makes inroads on our later resilience, it’s then that our emotional balance figures large in bodily tension. It is easy to see how when under stress this can be the tipping point for mental distress. Should this happen and our distress becomes pathologised, medicalised,  the body’s signals along with our voice may get quietened.

The modern Western lifestyle itself can place an additional strain on useful functioning of the body. Within our relationships ‘mirroring ‘ occurs and it ‘s common to imitate dominant physical and emotional traits. Gang culture demonstrates this well, when a particular body stance or swagger signifies membership. Climate too has an influence on the way we use our body. In cultures and climates where less restrictive clothing, and all year round outdoor activitities, allow for freer posture, good use is evident. Inhabitants of developing countries where material disadvantage, and where the oppression of civil unrest is common, nonetheless manage to maintain erect posture well in to old age. We in the West seem less fortunate, our bodies telling the tale of our mind/body split when under stress.

Often times a mental or physical breakdown, though very traumatic, can also be a chance to see what’s up,**  through it we may become more  aware of our misuse and untenable lifestyle. Awareness is a step toward undoing poor use.The Alexander Technique is a means whereby we can have a go at undoing poor habits. Remaining mindful of the Alexander Tachnique principles is not a cure all. The Alexander Technique as Grant tells us in the following video is about psycho-physical unity.  Like most things if you don’t take heed of your body’s signals there will be times faulty body/mind connections might trouble you.

As Grant has explained the ideal way to learn the lesson is in a one-to-one session, and this incurs a fee (concessions may be available).Group lessons are a viable alternative and a cheaper introduction. Grant Ragsdale and his colleague Maureen White offer both methods of learning at the Swarthmore Education Centre. New group sessions commence on Monday 29th September at 3.30p.m.to 5p.m. and on Tuesday 30th September at 6p.m.-7.30p.m., and continue for eight weeks. Swarthmore group sessions are subsidised for some income groups, therefore concessions are available.

Affording lessons can be an issue, at the time I first took a course of lessons, when as currently my income wasn’t huge I still made lessons a priority. I’ve paid for lessons by a combination of forgoing other priorities, or when a L.E.T.S, (Local Exchange and Trading scheme) was active in Leeds, paid in beads!…doing childcare, ironing, cleaning ovens, bookkeeping to accrue beads in the ‘bank’. There are stirrings of similar schemes starting again locally, (if you know of more please share the information).

Learning the Alexander principles has not cast a rosy glow over everything in my life, knowing them did not prevent me from having breakdown. My Alexander teacher at that time was accepting of my seemingly bizarre, unfolding story, having her alongside me accepting of my truth when at my worst, was in itself a stabilising, and calming influence. I am still often presented with troublesome and disquieting times, but I believe the Alexander Technique principles enable me to be more  ‘present’, more able to identify thoughts and feelings, and thus to reflect …why do I have this headache, feel tense, have ‘butterflies’,feel elated, high? …..it’s rarely just physical.

Sue Margaret

* ‘Body Learning’ by Michael Gelb.

An inspiring book about learning and applying  the Alexander Technique

** “Inward Bound” by Sam Keen.This book has helped me on many occasions of self doubt.

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‘Twas the night before Christmas

1982, Christmas Eve…….fully pregnant, calm…… thinking I had a week to go before delivery, then suddenly while cooking dinner I  got a clear sign that baby had different ideas, I was alone, not even sure the phone would work as I was in a developing country, there was no ambulance service anyway but I rang a friend, somehow I got to another friend who was a midwife,finally the baby was delivered in the early hours of Xmas day.

Throughout the pregnancy I was physically well, but I was anxious that I may experience the puerperal psychosis my mum had when she had my older brother, some women experience it with each pregnancy they have, in between pregnancies they remain free from ‘altered states’. I don’t remember the birth being painful but it was an overwhelmingly spiritual and physical journey, where I felt pushed into a different level of awareness, perhaps for some it is just hard to tie those realms together, we all experience pain in  different ways. The baby blues, which is very common often comes the day after delivery, for me I sobbed uncontrollably for a couple of hours, this and the much  later experience  at menopause has made me curious about the connection between sudden hormone change and mental wellbeing.

The journey home from hospital later in the day was the scarier experience, this little scrawny bundle totally dependant on me for everything……anyway we all survived and I had her at home for 16 years, always independent, that’s the age she decided to leave home. For the most part she has made her own path with little input from me, but when she has been on the scary boundaries of ‘night country’,* she has called home.

Although we will be separated by a large distance tomorrow on her 30th, I know that’s where my thoughts will be, ‘may God bless and keep you always’, darling…….Obi…., she would never forgive me for using her real name!

Su

* Sam Keen, American Philosopher calls this ‘the Dark Night of the Soul’

need someone to talk to?

Some years ago in a television documentary I watched David Smail, a former psychologist, speak about the nature of depression. David suggested that counselling or therapy might for some, be the only place they receive emotional comfort. I  found his acknowledgement of this comforting in itself as I’ve been drawn to the comfort talking therapy can bring. It has been a way of telling my story, at times I have felt ‘addicted’ to its comfort , David acknowledges this can be an outcome.

As a child there were times the adults who cared for me,  for a variety of reasons, were unavailable to me emotionally. In later life this led me in moments of distress for a quest to be heard. Though I mostly found sufficient resilience  to be my own  counsellor, listening to my inner voice, and this calmed me, at other times that voice became muffled, jumbled and distorted. On occasion this has transferred to my ability to do practical things, I got overwhelmed, confused, the simple tasks of daily life seemed very hard. During these times my experience of counselling or therapy has been predominantly helpful,  it has ‘held’ me, the process hasn’t always been comfortable or benign, there are many practitioners, former practitioners and clients of therapy/counselling who will attest to this.

Jeffrey Masson, former analyst, in his book ‘Against Therapy’ reveals that he is one such renegade; Dr.Dorothy Rowe, former psychologist, said of therapy, something along the lines of, “all therapy works, but not all therapy works completely”. Ken Wilber and John Rowan view differing  therapies as working on different levels of consciousness, for example they consider seeing a transpersonal therapist could be inappropriate if you have little or no awareness of this level of perception, by level I didn’t understand it as a superior awareness,  just different to ‘everyday’ consciousness. Fancy and mystifying terms, and buzz words abound in the therapeutic community, just as much as they do in other circles, but woe betide if in some therapies you question the theory behind it. Depending on the skill or the orientation of the practitioner this might be interpreted as symptomatic of your ‘problems’.

I have both self referred and requested professional referral to all kinds of practitioners, mostly it aided me regain some calm and it has helped me to become more fully the person I wish to be, but at times I’ve found it almost abusive. It can be a space, either in one to one, or groups where a power imbalance exists and is misused.

My quest in finding “someone to talk to…..a new hiding place”..(Dylan), has involved sharing with friends, or even casual acquaintances along the way. It has helped as they listen to parts of my story, and I try in turn to listen to theirs. Having someone reasonably capable of ‘walking’ alongside you as you relate your story, either  in bite size pieces or big chunks can be reassuring, if that is a friend, someone you trust and who has the capacity, well and good. You may be fortunate to get a professional listener who views themselves as a ‘co-experimenter’, as some Personal Construct Psychologists describe their role, but even then these processes can unleash things that are hard to contain.

Someone advised me against the process some years ago as we had both read ‘Against Therapy’ and I was awaiting an appointment for a  therapy ‘suitability’ assessment. In part the course of therapy that followed, left me with an emotional whoosh of feelings and little way of stemming their flow. It was a ‘breakdown’ possibly a breakup/breakthrough of the then current untenable situation I was in just  prior to it. I  ‘fell into the hands of psychiatry’ with the resulting medication and electro-convulsive therapy. I’m sure the therapist did not expect that as an outcome, neither did I. Most likely I would align myself with the Post Psychiatry movement because similarly to them I think medication can help distressed people, but the commercial interests which are behind  it, makes an over reliance on it suspect.

I would not want my experience to discourage anyone from engaging with counselling/therapy if they are drawn to it. It can be a courageous step to discovering what your distress is about. Like many things it takes time to adjust to the process, but trusting your feelings about the counsellor or the theory they use is important, becoming informed about the different approaches can help, part of my recovery came from the wisdom I gleaned from books about the process, and also from song and poetry.

Stanislov Grof refers to some forms of apparent mental illness of ease as spiritual emergence, he does however distinguish between this and  spiritual emergency and what he terms ‘real’ mental illness……I’m not sure about these distinctions, though I would describe some aspects of my breakdown as spiritual.

Sam Keen refers to tapping into anger that has been turned inward ….inrage/depression once accessed, acknowledged and released becoming ….out rage, for a time a torrent or flood engulfing someone or anything  that  gets in it’s path, no matter how significant their role has been in the person’s life story., …..it.gushes muddied for some time……until the water runs clearer,….possibly channeled in a different way.

Despite my reservations,and experiences…….why am I willing to engage yet again ,with the process? I ‘ve had an appointment this week. Something happened recently which sent me into that confusing emotional spin, I made the appointment to tell another piece of my story, and because I’d had some  autonomy in choosing, where, when, how long, it might be, it seemed the safest place to test the water, for telling the next installment. The time gap between making the appointment and its arrival, had been space to regain some equilibrium and therefore I felt some apprehension about attending, ….should I cancel? Though nervous I kept the appointment. The waiting area was such a warm welcoming space, in it was an original black leaded fire range, complete with it’s oven! One of my family homes had a similar range……I felt relaxed with the memories it elicited of the family events enacted in the glow and warmth of the open coal fire….the ‘counselling’ went well, and I was given a choice of possible ways of working…..flexible follow ups with the same person seemed the most appealing on this occasion.

Writing a blog has also been partly therapeutic, another way of telling bits of my story and is my voice on wellbeing.

Sue Margaret

* details of the fireplace image by the National Trust