Book Review – Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James Doty

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Just finished reading “Into the Magic Shop – A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart” by James Doty, founder of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research. The book is a beautiful parable about overcoming adversity and the power of ancient meditation techniques to relax the body, tame the mind, open the heart and clarify intent. As cutting edge research is showing, these meditation practices enhance psychological and physical health (I’ll skip the science here, but it’s fascinating), and may give you the energy and inspiration to work for a better world.

Jame’s Doty’s “magic” is of course based in the Buddhist Tradition of Loving Kindness (Metta). I have a few blog posts (below) about the myriad ways that Metta is helpful when learning the Alexander Technique.

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Facebook is Selfing. Zen is No Self.

Wind Caves

Some thoughts on my return from Tassajara Zen Mountain Retreat. I was only at Tassajara for 3 days, but I stayed off Facebook from May 29th through today – June 24, a record for me who has posted daily updates since 2008.’

Without Facebook I felt the portals of my mind close. Remember Being John Malkovich? I was no longer leaping into other people’s heads, and even better, no one was leaping in to mine. It felt peaceful. Stable. Secure

My second day at Tassajara, hiking up to the Wind Caves, which are just that, caves sculpted by wind, through the richly scented chaparral and explosions of wildflowers, cresting the peak and looking west towards a hidden Pacific, I felt that melty feeling in the chest when the heart opens. All the anger, heat and constriction that I’ve been carrying for over a year, since the last election cycle, left, as did the pain of months of disciplined work, and the growing pile of interpersonal frustrations, regretted words and mistakes. All the disasters of birth, biology, society and history, for a brief moment, let up. What did the butterfly care? The wings in my chest spread. I breathed in the bright sky, the heat and the cool purple shadows of caves. I didn’t want to return – ever.

 

What does the butterfly care?

What happened on this Zen retreat? Nothing. I ate a lot. I wouldn’t ordinarily pair gastronomical excess with Buddhism, but Tassajara, which runs Greens Restaurant, has a long tradition of baking bread and gourmet vegetarian food. I ate everything with the desperation of lack. I thought, “When will I ever eat this well again? Yes! Please! I’ll have seconds.” My single-person cooking is limited to a routine of farmer’s market salads, steamed vegetables, lemon juice, tempeh, sweet potatoes and the like. But Tassajara is old-school vegetarian fare – their famous fresh baked breads, with no stinting on cheese, herbs or olive oil.

I hiked. I soaked forever in the hot springs. I took advantage of their complimentary supply of EO Lavender and Citrus Honey body lotions and shampoos. I jumped into the river. I cooled my head in the waterfall. I utilized the yoga room. While hiking, I ran into a well-known local author and tango dancer, and was invited back to a life of teetering heels and the mystique of suffering, desire and connection. I still haven’t managed to shake off the deep stillness of Tassajara, I can’t yet emerge from summer hibernation.

Three weeks of introvert recovery after 9 months of intensely peopled work. Pulling myself out of the cave hurts. Light is too bright. My still cool apartment, with its endless list of tiny and fascinating projects – pounding pesto with a mortar and pestle! – envelopes.

During these weeks, I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of the New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Lost Child. I read with fury, and annoyance. Without social media, there was no one but the reviewers from the New Yorker to compare opinions about this cast of beautifully rendered but unlikable characters. I made pasta and cooked with olive oil. I pretended I was Italian.

This time off Facebook has returned concentration. But without Facebook, I discovered that I have less motivation to write. Ideas remain locked inside my head, such as, the fascinating elbow injury that points out years of misconception, or the familiar pain of error, countered by the willful enthusiasm of my fool self. There’s no way of steering clear of trouble. Skillful action always seems like someone else’s good idea.

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

I jotted down a few notes from Tassajara:

Since the Self is multifaceted, how can we know ourselves? How can we judge others when we can never fully understand our own motivations?

(and yet, back in San Francisco, plugged back in to the news cycle, things are not so Zen. I no longer understand what it means to not judge)

Facebook is Selfing. Zen is No Self.

(but now that I am back in my life, I also see the benefits of Facebook – input, connection, community, albeit ethereal).

So much energy is expended trying to control what is uncontrollable. There’s relaxation when we accept that which we can’t control.

(but now that I am home, I wonder how this relaxation is paired with action for change)

Let there be love

The spine moves.
The head is part of the body.
Let the soft animal of the body love what it loves. (…wait, that’s Mary Oliver)
Let there be love (…wait, that’s a play I just saw by Kwei-Armah)
Be (…some dude named Buddha had something to say about that).

These were my thoughts after an epic Reiki session from my friend Jordana del Feld

For a brief amount of time, I dabbled in Reiki. Reiki seemed like the Alexander Technique, minus the technique. Reiki does not demand 3 years of daily training to certify as a teacher. Reiki is not concerned with movement. And Reiki does not teach people a reliable means for changing habits.

But it does offer energy flow without any ego manipulation. Isn’t that the essence of Alexander’s and the Tao’s principal of non-doing?

Everyone intuitively knows about flow state. We’ve all been lucky enough to have fleeting experiences of effortless action. But we forget that flow is our birthright. We forget that it is always available—if we get out of the way.

When I put my hands on my students, I don’t intend to ‘do’ anything to them. I am helping them learn how they can prevent pain, constriction and heaviness. How does this work? I think students get the hallmark Alexander Technique sensations of lightness and ease through resonance. That is, if I am sufficiently free, my flow will be catchy and they will catch the current of their own flow.

Still, I need my students to do more than to catch my flow. During the the lesson, they’re moving: sitting, walking, or reciting Hamlet. I’m an educator, not a therapist. I’m giving my students the means to find freedom without my help. So I ask them to imagine space here and to notice a habit there, to become conscious of the intersection between thoughts, emotions and body states, and to direct energy. I teach them techniques that they can practice on their own. The trick is to spark their awareness enough that the body transforms, but not so much that they are micro-managing alignment details.

Sometimes I think that technique is a ruse. All that’s needed is to let every opinion about bio-mechanics, habit, gravity and direction dissolve into the bliss of dancing molecules and love. There’s no need to reach for knowledge. Effortless (but not passive) absorption is effective and valid. Experience has taught me that our bones know what to do. It’s our personality (composed of our habit and ego), that forces them into uncomfortable configurations.

The Alexander Technique works indirectly to release energy flow in action. Students learn techniques to recognize and prevent limiting habits, and thus get out of the way of their own life force.  But the root of transformation is compassion, connection and love. Out of this, positive change is self-generating, the way a seed germinates and eventually reaches for the sun.

Poet Galway Kinnell said it best, Saint Francis and the Sow

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

the eleven benefits of loving kindness meditation

  1. You will sleep easily
  2. You will wake easily
  3. You will have pleasant dreams
  4. People will love you
  5. Devas (gods or angels) and animals will love you
  6. Devas will protect you
  7. External dangers, such as poisons, weapons, and fire, will not harm you
  8. Your face will be radiant
  9. Your mind will be serene
  10. You will die unconfused
  11. You will be re-born in happy realms

This is big stuff, regardless of whether you believe in angels or reincarnation.

Having good sleep, pleasant dreams, a radiant face and a serene mind, all sound pretty great to me.

Scientific research into the benefits of loving kindness (Metta) practice shore up at least a few of these claims. Researchers have found that regular loving kindness meditation can:

    • Lower stress — self perceived, behavioral and physiological.
    • Enhance immunity
    • Increase behaviors that enhance social connectedness.
    • Increase happiness

Here’s a decent popular science article with links to studies: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kripalu/loving-kindness-meditation_b_3961300.html

I’d be curious to know about the effects of loving kindness practices on sleep.

Maybe someday I’ll get back into the lab and study the effects of Metta practice on neck tension, breath, and posture.

 

Metta Meditation & Alexander Technique

Invariably, at some point during the semester, one of my MFA acting students shows up in an Alexander Technique tutorial and says, “I need to learn to meditate.”

I can’t argue with them.

It wasn’t until I learned Metta (Loving kindness)Meditation  that I developed sufficient self-compassion to look at my habits without falling into an unproductive state of shame.

It wasn’t until I began watching my thoughts in Vipassana (Insight) meditation that I gained an inkling into what it might mean to, “not do, not try, not care.”

Meditation gives me the skill to work with my thoughts. Alexander Technique takes these processes to the next step, and looks at the embodiment of thought – but that’s another essay.

For now, I want to talk about how Metta meditation can help you free your neck and expand your body.

Here’s the Metta practice:

May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm
May I be peaceful and happy
May I be healthy and strong
May I be at ease with the conditions of my life

Traditionally you direct these thoughts to yourself, then a mentor or benefactor, then a dear friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person, and then the circle can be expanded out to all beings everywhere.

Metta creates the inner climate that allows the neck muscles to release – although please note this is my idea, and has nothing to do with traditional Alexander Technique teachings.

The Metta phrases and the Alexander Technique directions can reinforce each other when thought one after the other. For example:

Metta (M): May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm
Alexander Technique (AT): Allow my neck to be free

Isn’t neck tension the first thing that happens when we feel threatened? A free neck is almost synonymous with safety.

(M): May I be peaceful and happy
(AT): Allow my head to balance forward and up

Isn’t a poised head the physical expression of peace? I’m imagining a Buddha statue.

(M): May I be healthy and strong
(AT): Allow my back to lengthen and widen

Isn’t an open back that allows the free movement of breath and the decompression of organ systems the expression of “health?”

(M): May I be at ease with the conditions in my life
(AT): Allow my legs to release away from my hip joints, and my shoulders to expand to the sides

Isn’t physical expansion the gesture of ease?

You don’t need to say all the words in the Metta phrases. You can generate the feeling of Metta and project the Alexander Technique directions simultaneously. I encourage you to experiment.

There’s a bi-directional loop between body positions and emotions. We can create the feeling tone of safety, peace, health and ease, from the mind down and from the body up.

 

 

Albee’s The Zoo Story and Dharma Ocean

After work in Berkeley, I went for walk in the hills and listened to Reggie Ray’s Dharma Talk, “A Knock On The Door,” which is pretty awesome in and of itself, but even more so when I realized that Edward Albee’s play, The Zoo Story, which I saw yesterday at A.C.T.’s Sky Festival, is a perfect illustration of Reggie Ray’s perspective on Buddhism.

According to Dr. Ray, the reason for practicing Buddhism is to help people – which is accomplished in three totally simple but totally impossible steps.

Step one
Ray: We meditate to empty our minds of clutter.
Albee: In The Zoo Story, Peter sits on a bench in Central Park every weekend to get peace and quiet away from his wife, two daughters, two parakeets and bland middle class existence

Step 2
Ray: Once we are sufficiently empty, we attract suffering people.
Albee: Peter attracts the derelict Jerry.
Ray: Because we are ready, we respond to “the knock on our door” from the suffering people. Without question, we answer it and our compassion is expressed simply as having the space to let them in.
Albee: Peter, for whatever reason (boredom, curiosity, repressed homosexuality) responds to Jerry’s aggressive bids to engage. Peter has the “space” to let Jerry in.

Step 3
Ray: Because we are alert, we let the suffering people change us, even as our compassion transforms them. We do not require the experience to conform to our view of reality.
Albee: Jerry, in every way, shakes Peter out of his comfort/conformity zone. Peter is in a terrible state, but is perhaps truly awake to life for the first time. And Peter ends up granting Jerry’s wish, by “releasing” him from the suffering in his life.

Ok, enough of that. Reggie Ray is Buddhist Crack in my opinion.

“In Pali, mindfulness literally means to remember.” Joseph Goldstein.

Elyse Shafarman

I find this interesting, because all the practices that orient us towards more skillful living are easy. It’s not hard to become aware of the breath, or how the feet rest on the ground. It’s not hard to wish the neck to be free. It’s not hard to contemplate that all beings, like ourselves wish for happiness and peace. The difficulty lies in remembering in the heat of living.

That’s why all the daily moments when we remember to practice are so important. It’s as simple and as difficult as remembering to stop before opening a door, or responding to a text, or snapping at a loved one.

Once we remember that we can stop, we are on the road to greater freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

Alexander Technique Workshop for Teachers

 

Elyse Shafarman

Tommy Thompson taught a 2-day workshop for Alexander Technique Teachers.  Here are a few highlights – paraphrased  – I did my best to capture Tommy’s poetic flavor, but these are not exact quotes.

  • If we look for what’s right, if we assume the primary control is always working, then teaching becomes a much more peaceful process.
  • Put your hands on the potential of the person not the habit. Then Alexander Technique becomes a non-critical, non-judgmental, compassionate way of letting go of patterns of behavior that are not essential.
  • You have to be very careful walking through your life thinking you are wrong. Faulty sensory appreciation is useful, but you have to use it to help you.
  • When students ask what to do without your teacher’s hands to help them: “You can’t do it for yourself (yet), but you can learn how to notice what you are doing.”
  • Frank Pierce Jones maxim – Once you become aware of what you don’t want to do, you are already on your way to doing less of it.

A colleague commented, “I know that writing is only the tip of the experience, but what you write about the workshop makes me think of the Buddhist idea that our Buddha nature is always there, like the clear blue sky, but we don’t see it for the clouds (habits). Universal truths are just that, universal…”


  • Primary Control – The dynamic relationship between the head, neck and torso that organizes our movement and our alertness.
  • “Being Wrong” is common language in the Alexander Technique lexicon. It refers to the ways that our body sensations, which feels so true, can be inaccurate due to habit. For example if we have the habit of leaning backwards, being upright can feel like we are pitched forward.
  • Frank Pierce Jones pioneered scientific research in the Alexander Technique at Tufts University between 1949 and 1975.