The double-helix staircase

Look at this wonderful photo of a wonderful object. It’s the DNA Tower in Kings Park, Western Australia, celebrating life in the form of the double-spiral arrangement of our DNA structure. Some people would prefer to call this a “double-helix” staircase, considering that a spiral is two-dimensional and a helix, three-dimensional. But we won’t get bogged down in words. Instead, we’ll admire the object’s structure and construction, and we’ll respond to its symbolic power.

Two fellows stand atop the tower. To get there, they each took one of the helical paths that intertwine to make the double-helix staircase. Racing upward, they crossed paths at every landing, laughing and cursing, one trying to trip up the other. But they reached the summit safely, and now they are “in seventh heaven.” That’s the story I like telling, anyway.

Opposing energies live inside us. We can call them intuition and intellect, masculine and feminine principles, private and public behaviors, yin and yang . . . the list is long. Integration depends on these opposites getting along and complementing one another. The double-helix staircase stands as a symbol of the travel that each of us must undertake to achieve integration.

Intuition is free-ranging, uncontrolled, unhinged. The word “intellect” comes from “intelligence,” which comes from a root meaning “to choose.” Intuition creates, intellect edits; intuition expands your mind, intellect organizes your insights. Intuition rises up along one of the helices, while intellect rises up on the opposite one. They meet at the landing, and there “they make love.” Then, they resume their path upward, seemingly as separate entities but ever connected each to the other, thanks to the double helix.

Your private self is known to no one, but you. It’s made of dreams, memories, aspirations, hopes, pains, images, and a thousand facets that you polish by yourself—alone in the house, sometimes asleep, sometimes at the computer, sometimes in the company of other people and yet reserved and hidden. Your public self is seen, heard, touched, and smelled by the world at large. It’s the embodiment of communication, the root of which comes from “to share.” You stew private thoughts and insights for a while, then you make them public: you share them. Your private self rises up along one of the helices, while your private self rises up along the opposite one. But at the landing, they meet and interact; they help each other, they inform each other. Your private experiences feed your public ones, and vice-versa. It’s essential for everyone to know how to be alone, and to know how to be with others; to know “how to keep” and to know “how to share.”

I’m lying in bed in the afternoon, having idle thoughts, feeling sleepy . . . After a while I get up, shower and shave, put a clean shirt on, and go out to give a performance. Then I go back home, lie in bed, and digest the performance, whether I’m asleep or awake all night long. My private self is inevitably shaken, stirred, and stimulated by the public exposure. And my next public event will be inevitably informed by the shaken and stirred private self.

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At a studio space that I rent, I talk to myself, sing a few notes, test an idea regarding the voice or the breath or the vowels or . . . something. I weave a narrative about my vocal idea, then I stand in front of a camera and “talk and sing to the camera,” which is very different from talking and singing to myself. Later on, I edit whatever I recorded into a five-minute clip, and I’ll put it on the Internet, where total strangers will watch me and listen to me and respond to me in unfathomable ways. And I go back to the studio space and resume talking to myself, or pacing the room in silence, or just sitting in the semi-dark, by myself, alone, privately.

Or I practice the cello for hours or days on end, then I share a technique or insight with a student, then I write a few paragraphs about the insight. After many intermediate steps, I publish a book about it all. (“To publish” is “to make public.”) My book THE INTEGRATED STRING PLAYER will come out later in 2017, exposing my innermost feelings about the cello to the scrutiny of friends, colleagues, strangers, critics, and humanity at large. And the fact of going public with these innermost feelings will inform and guide my private experiences for years to come.

  • Intuition, intellect, intuition, intellect, forever climbing up and meeting at the landing.
  • Private, public, private, public, forever climbing up that double-helix staircase.
  • Solo, in a team, solo, in a team, forever climbing up and reinforcing each other.
  • Masculine, feminine, masculine, feminine, forever.
  • Yin, yang . . .

The idea, then, is to nourish each opposite and get them to collaborate. Put your shoes on -- and take your shoes off! -- and go climb up those stairs.

©2017, Pedro de Alcantara

 

 

 

 

Practice

Isn’t it strange that you can practice law, practice the piano, have a spiritual practice, and practice for your wedding?

Maybe it’s just a play on words. Or maybe the word “practice” itself is rich in meaning, and therefore useful to us. It comes to us from Greek, via Latin.

Greek praktikos "fit for action, fit for business; business-like, practical; active, effective, vigorous," from praktos "done; to be done," verbal adjective of prassein, prattein "to do, act, effect, accomplish."

To act, to accomplish; effective, vigorous. And “not theory.” Not in your head, not in a book, not a dogma, not dead. Practice must be a doing, even if you practice it in a Zen-like non-doing manner.

For our purposes, we’ll define it as something that you do regularly, in a committed and organized manner, leading to an increase in awareness and presence. It exists in a thousand forms, including the professional set of skills learned and performed with a particular frame of mind (to practice law), the creative set of skills borne of exercising specific gestures over weeks, months, and years (to practice the piano), and the quest for connection with the ineffable through prayer, meditation, song, and sacrifice (to have a spiritual practice).

How to practice practice, so to speak? Walking works beautifully for many people. Decide to walk every day—perhaps to and from work. Or perhaps as a break from work: a walk in the park, or pacing the rooftop terrace of your office building and thinking about life over a hundred rounds of a very short walk, back and forth, back and forth. Walking the dog is a practice.

You can get serious and take the Road to Santiago, the pilgrimage first established in the 9th century. Walk from somewhere in Western Europe all the way to Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain.

Or decide to walk barefoot, full-time or part-time. My friend John does it full-time, and he’s, like, oh man, so alive! Inspired by John, I started walking barefoot part-time three years ago. There have been whole days in which I stayed barefoot, including in winter, out in the rain, or riding public transportation. It’s an exercise in awareness and in not-worrying-about-what-people-would-say. And it happens to be extremely pleasurable.

Another practice is committing to a time and a place, and going there on a regular basis. It could be the street market every Sunday, for instance. Plan your meals, interact with the fruit sellers, watch people, taste fresh foods, enjoy life.

Or go to Starbucks frequently and use it as an office, for creative work or for office work. You can go to the same café many times in a row, or to a different café each time. Both have merits. The main thing is to go and be there, doing something again and again over weeks and months. You’ll meet people at your Starbucks office, make friends, become attached to the place and its neighborhood. And you’ll get your work done. How different is it from going to a corporate job and sitting in a cubicle looking at a computer screen? Perhaps it’s the same thing; or perhaps the cubicle can become the same thing—that is, a practice—provided that you find the attitude that transforms a constraint, imposed by circumstances, into a commitment you choose to make, with the result of your becoming alert and present.

Spiritual practice takes a thousand shapes. Here’s one: going to church every week, or perhaps most days, or perhaps every day, or perhaps twice a day. One of my devout friends calls the institution of the church a vessel for his spirituality.

My friend considers that there is no spirituality without a vessel. Dwelling in the vessel is a practice, whether the vessel is material (a building) or symbolic (a paradigm and an institution). Perhaps it’s the practice that matters, rather than the vessel. Or perhaps the vessel counts for something. All I know is that entering temples, cathedrals, chapels, and basilicas, in Paris and in my travels, is always transformative. I wonder what would happen if I did it every day, without exception.

A lifetime commitment to the church is, of course, a very formal and deep practice. Other spiritual practices are more informal. Some formalists pooh-pooh the informalists. But that's OK; the informalists pooh-pooh the pooh-pooh.

You can practice a simple exercise, returning to it often and over a span of years. In sports there are many such exercises: the golf swing, the free throw in basketball, the rope skipping of a boxer. Here’s a kind of warm-up stretch. Sit on the floor, with legs bent; bring the soles of your feet together, and hold your feet with your hands; try to lower your knees until they touch the floor; now lean your trunk forward. Do it once or twice, and it comes across as an uncomfortable and possibly useless exercise. But do this one stretch every day for twenty-five years, and you might discover all sorts of dimensions, to the exercise and to yourself as you respond to the exercise.

The form of your practice—yoga, Tai Chi, tango—might be very important . . . or not. After all, every form has its enlightened practitioners and its zombies. Shadow boxing could be as integrative as an ancestral martial art. Air guitar? You bet. “Star Wars” lightsaber play-acting? Of course. The main thing is to commit to the practice and to do it with all your heart.

And then there’s the practice of a creative skill, whether you do it professionally or for pleasure alone. A drawing a day, for instance—fast or slow, as you wish; take thirty seconds or thirty minutes. Choosing pencils, sharpening them, leafing through a sketchbook, translating the swirling images of a street corner into arm and hand gestures that make marks on paper . . . if you think about it, the act is by no means banal. It’s transformative in many ways. Do it steadily over days and months, and something will get reorganized inside yourself: the way you look at the world, the way you absorb and interpret information, the way you pay attention.

The practice is primary, the skill secondary; or, to put it differently, it’s only by practicing that you gain the skill. You might want to say, “But I don’t know how to draw!” Sure, sure. That’s why you practice, you dummkopf!

A smartphone and an Instagram account, and—hey, presto! You can practice photography. Publish crappy photos of pizza slices if that’s your thing. Or develop the art of perceiving, thinking, and deciding. Photography is the reason or excuse (or vessel) to open up your mind and heart.

Walking, going to the market, stopping at Starbucks, visiting a monument, taking photos with your smartphone . . . Is there any difference between practice and life?

Nah. Life is an Integrated Practice.

© 2016, Pedro de Alcantara

The Spinning Stool

On a recent trip to New York City, I visited the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Museum Design, up on Fifth Avenue along Central Park. The museum is a compact place featuring many delights for anyone interested in design, engineering, architecture, visual arts, communication, and information.

I started on the third (and top) floor, where I saw a temporary exhibition celebrating the creative accomplishments of Heatherwick Studio, a London-based design and architecture firm. Then I went to the second floor, the highlight of which was the Immersion Room, a sort of wraparound, room-size toolbox in which you can design and digitally display your own wallpaper. Then I descended to the first floor, where another temporary exhibition led you through a series of brilliant posters from decades past, showing you how poster artists use “principles of composition, perception and storytelling to convey ideas and construct experiences” (in the museum’s words).

By then I had already had any number of uplifting and enlightening experiences, but the basement remained to be explored. There I found a strange object, a cross between a stool and a spinning top made of hard plastic (or, to get technical, “rotationally molded polyethylene”). Created by those accomplished fellows from the Heatherwick Studio, this “spinning stool,” so to speak, is wobbly by design. You sit on it quite low, with your butt and most of your back cocooned against the stool’s inner curves. Then you lift your feet off the floor and . . . and the thing starts wobbling, with you in it. Meaning, YOU start wobbling in space, seemingly out of control, seemingly in danger of falling off and breaking your neck.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the famous five stages of loss and grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What’s interesting about these stages is how dynamic they are; they imply change, movement, and finally growth.

Riding the wobbly spinning stool, I felt myself passing through four stages. They weren’t similar to the actual stages of loss and grieving, but they were certainly dynamic—and, like the stages of loss and grieving, they involved strong emotions.

First stage: “I don’t wanna do this. It looks unsafe. I was never any good at sports. I’ll fall, people will laugh, everyone will know I’m a pathetic old fool.”

Second stage: “Okay, I’m doing it. How does it work? Wow, it’s so low. And if I take my feet off the floor . . .? Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod! Someone, stop this! Pleeease, let me out!”

Third stage: “Hey, it’s kinda nifty. It kinda feels nice. You can kinda control it with just a little sway of the hips. Hmmm . . .  groovy . . . hmmm . . . it reminds me of Woody Allen having sex with the Orb in ‘Sleeper’ . . . hmmm . . ."

“Hmmm . . . was it the Orb or the Orgasmatron? Hmmm . . .”

When I stood up from the Orgasmatron—I mean, the wobbly spinning stool—I noticed that my whole body felt loose and energized, as if I had just had a session with a skilful sacrocranial osteopath. In fact, the spinning stool had healed me from the feelings I had before I sat on it—my feelings of fear and inadequacy.

Fourth stage: “I love the spinning stool. Let me wobble again. I could wobble all day. I’m good at it, and it’s good to me! I’m so full of love I could kiss that guard standing by the door over there!”

Two Japanese women entered the room while I was enjoying my spin. One of them sat cautiously on another stool. It wobbled a little bit, and she panicked big time. She let out a heartbreaking yelp, and her friend helped her get off the stool. That was it for the two of them. Let’s get the heck out of this spinning room! Sayonara, Cooper-Hewitt!

I felt for them.

We all have our blocks, our fears, our habits and compensations, our pains, our preconceived ideas . . . our hatreds. A new tool (or a person or an idea) enters our lives. Our first perception of the tool is that it’s a threat, a danger, a horror. Then we employ the tool with our habitual fears, we respond awkwardly to the situation, and the tool seemingly confirms our perception of its dangers: it hurts us, it humiliates us, it . . . it makes us wobble uncontrollably.

When handling the tool (or person or idea) that carries potential solutions to our problems, we tend to get stuck in the first stage, where we’re so deeply triggered by our habits that we don’t even see the tool. Instead, we see in it a projection of our fears.

And yet, this tool (or person or idea) happens to be the solution to our problems; it heals our fears and dissipates our hurts, and it makes us feel really, really good.

Let’s call the four stages fear, exploration, practice, and love. The passage from one to the other requires courage and determination. Along the way, there are many possibilities for things to go not to your liking—that is, for things to go wrong according to your subjective assessment, perhaps so wrong that you’ll feel justified in quitting. But if you stick it out . . . you’ll want to kiss the guard.

Symbolically speaking, of course.

Or literally speaking. It’s your call!

The Void

The Void

An excerpt from my work-in-progress The Integrated Writer

Your little child is running outside. She trips, falls, hits her face against a stone step, hurts herself badly. After a few seconds of suffocated silence, she starts screaming. She may have broken her jaw.

What do you do?

Some years ago I witnessed this very scenario. I was at Les Halles, a busy shopping mall in the heart of Paris. Inside the complex there’s a small courtyard, with stone steps leading to a terrace. The girl was about two years old. She was running at full tilt with unbound excitement, and when she rushed onto the steps she fell face down, hitting her jaw on the stone. The sound her jaw made against the stone was horrifying and indescribable.

Her father was standing right next to her. Immediately after she fell, he exclaimed, loudly enough for all to hear: “I told you not to run like that!”

We can’t know for sure what was going on through his mind. Is he that much of an insensitive father, a control freak, a monstrous disciplinarian? Perhaps; there certainly exist guys like that. Was he concerned with other people’s assessment of his ability to “educate” his child? It’s possible, but we can’t know for sure. Was he just freaking out, and voicing the dread that his beloved daughter was badly hurt? That’s possible, too.

We can’t know any of that. But we can be almost sure that his reaction did nothing to solve the problem at hand, and most likely aggravated it.

Before we deal too harshly with this hapless parent, let’s accept that when faced with many of life’s problems, big and small, we all have the potential to act pretty much the way he did. We want the problem to disappear. We want the problem never to have existed. We want to blame other people for the problem. Or we find fault with ourselves, even when we are blameless. We feel angry, frustrated, and afraid. And we don’t want those emotions to stay inside us. We vent. We rant and rave. Or we act and do something.

More often than not, this makes the problem worse. Conflicts escalate. Our ability to think through the problem and its possible solutions gets clouded. The problem itself escapes us; we lose sight of what the problem actually is.

And that becomes the problem.

The father of my example put himself in a state. As long as he stayed there, he’d be unable to do anything constructive to solve that other, more pressing, problem: his endangered child, overwhelmed and helpless.

The father’s first duty toward her daughter (and in truth also toward himself) is to do nothing that aggravates the problem. And to make sure he doesn’t aggravate the problem, he must do nothing, period—perhaps for a microsecond, perhaps longer. The void (that is, doing nothing) provides room for all good things in the world to come in; but once the void is filled with something, all other possibilities are excluded, at least until room is made for them by the creation of another void. And the void is preferable to anything negative or destructive that occupies it.

The father does absolutely nothing for a moment that may be extremely short. During the moment of doing nothing, he gets a grip on himself; check his fear, his desire to act out on the fear, his impulse to have his child be the recipient of his fear. And then he picks up his child and calls for the ambulance.

Let’s open a parenthesis and look at a less urgent situation.

We take roller coaster riders and watch horror movies and smoke dope just so we can lose our balance, our sense of habitual safety. We like it, as long as we know our balance will be restored. Children do the same thing: they turn and turn and turn until they’re so dizzy they fall on the ground, laughing all the while. A child might trip and fall accidentally, in the playground or at the beach. She might decide the fall is no big deal. She’ll get up and resume her running, as happy as only a child knows how to be. Or she might ponder the situation for a brief moment. While pondering it, she hears her mother’s voice: “Ohmigod! Are you okay? Are you okay?” The mother certainly behaves as if she herself thinks the child is in danger. The child hears it, loud and clear: “Mommy is upset. That can only mean one thing: a bad thing has just happened. I . . . I did a bad thing. I’m hurt. I’ll be punished. Bwaaaah!”

Your fear? Yes, your child reacts to it.

Anger? You bet.

Scorn and mockery? Yep.

Well-meaning concern? Of course. The child reacts to every emotion. And a parent’s well-meaning concern is a potential burden for the child to carry. I think the parent serves the child best by a tender attitude that says, “I’ll help you if you want my help. I’ll leave you alone if you want to be left alone. Cry if you want to, suppress your crying if you want to. I’ll wait for you until you’re ready.” This is different from saying, “Cry, baby, cry.” Or “Don’t cry, baby, you’re all right.”

Now we go back to our example of a child badly hurt.

Who is the ideal ambulance driver? Someone cool and collected, in full possession of his driving skills, his sense of direction, his capacity to ask for a police escort or warn an ER of his impending arrival. The ambulance driver is neutral, alert, and intelligent.

Let’s say you get your daughter to the hospital. Let’s say she has fractured her jaw and needs facial surgery. Throughout the entire ordeal—accident, ER, surgery, intensive care, recovery at home—the child reacts to your thoughts and emotions. Your duty, then, is to put yourself in the ambulance-driver state: neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child hurts? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child is in intensive care? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child arrives home with her mouth wired shut? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent, at her service in whatever capacity she requires you to be.

The human potential for self-regeneration is remarkable. I used to see a doctor who would hear my complaints, then say, “Call me again in three months if it persists.” Often the complaints dissipated, and I wouldn’t need to call the doctor back. Time helps; attitudes and their energies help, too. If you keep focusing on the problem, you’ll think “accident, pain, fear, danger, hurt, frustration, anger, guilt.” This very thought spins negative and unhealthy energies. To solve the problem, then, you have to stop thinking of it, and turn your attention instead to the solution: the intermediate steps, the indirect procedures, the side trips and tangents that eventually lead to the problem’s dissolution.

You’re going to entertain the child, keep her company, give her small gifts. But if she wants to be left alone, you’ll do that, too. She has her own powers of self-regeneration, and by doing too much for her you may be sabotaging her recovery. It’s no good to keep telling her, “You’re strong, you’ll recover; you’re strong, you’ll recover.” If she’s strong, she doesn’t need to be told it; if she needs to be told it, she isn’t strong; if you keep telling her she’s strong, she’ll suss out that you’re saying, “You’re not strong enough to recover without my telling you again and again that you’re strong.” And she’ll behave accordingly.

Give her time, space, the possibility of her taking initiatives even if some of her initiatives carry risks and dangers—as do all initiatives, without exception. Haven’t you been telling the child how she strong she is? Let her be.

The solution for every problem in your life starts with your doing nothing—every last problem, including stage fright, writer’s block, a twisted ankle, a troubled sibling, an exam, a lawsuit, anything. Within yourself, create a void: a neutral, alert, and intelligent state in which you’ll be able to stop focusing on the problem and start focusing on the solution. And don’t wait until you have a problem. Embody the void, now and always. Thanks to you, many potential problems will be preventively “voided.”

©2015, Pedro de Alcantara

"I don't know, but I have a pretty neck"

In November, 2013, I gave a two-day workshop at the Trossingen music school in Germany, thanks to an invitation from Prof. Wolfgang Guggenberger. One of the participants, the young trumpeter Fynn Müller, wrote the article below for the music school's magazine.

 

"I don't know, but I have a pretty neck"

An Alexander Technique Workshop with Pedro de Alcantara

A special workshop took place at the conservatory. At the invitation of the trumpet class, the internationally renowned author, Alexander teacher and cellist Pedro de Alcantara gave a seminar on the basics of the Alexander Technique.

We, the participants – in addition to the students of the trumpet class, our number included guests from the trombone and the percussion class – had little or no experience or previous knowledge. We thus brought excitement, curiosity and a small measure of skepticism to the weekend. The first day involved group and partner exercises without instruments. The objective was not only to understand the principles of the Alexander Technique but to learn and experience them with our own bodies: the connection between head, neck, shoulders, spine, pelvis and the resulting changes in our habits of movement.

For one exercise, we leaned against a wall with outstretched arms and fingers. Question: with which body part are we actually supporting ourselves? We began to sense that all body parts are connected: the finger is connected to the hand – the hand to the arm – the arm to the shoulder – the shoulder to the back – the back to the hips – the hips to the legs and the legs to the feet and the ground. All parts of this chain are connected and work together to keep us balanced and poised.

In another exercise, we were asked to apply light pressure with our hand to the lower back of our partner. The partner was instructed to resist the pressure and not to allow himself to be pushed away. His “resistance” should be neither stiff nor relaxed. The aim was to achieve a powerful yet flexible energy balance. Rather than concentrating solely on the strength in his arm, the “pusher” was able to practice executing the movement with his whole body. Exercises such as these help to develop our body awareness. And we can then use this new awareness to execute all kinds of procedures. When we move, if we focus our attention on connections throughout the whole body, the movement becomes more natural, more organic and more powerful. Through attentiveness and presence, we gain a new ease of movement.

But the Alexander Technique is about much more than “just” harmonious movements or mastering a complex sequence of motions. A human being is an inseparable alliance of body and mind; work on one cannot be separated from work on the other.

Why do we tense up when we play a difficult passage? Why do we indicate the stresses with our head when we speak a complex rhythm? Why does our body tension go awry when we feel frightened or insecure? Internal emotional states (e.g. fear, insecurity) nearly always have an external physical “echo” and vice versa. When we feel overwhelmed, we become restless, think negatively or feel paralyzed. The Alexander Technique teaches us to maintain internal and external “poise” in such situations, to observe our breathing (there were many exercises on this, too) and to stay mindful. As a result, our perception remains in the moment and we do not allow ourselves to be ruled by insecurity or fear. The disquiet, the fear are there but we are able to perceive them calmly without “losing our heads.” This helps us to cope with difficult situations and deal better with stress, such as pressure to perform and stage fright.

On the second day of the workshop, the participants had the chance to give a performance or play audition pieces or a study. Then they were able to work with Pedro de Alcantara on applying the principles of the Alexander Technique to the practical situation with their instrument. Many mental “side issues” came up that negatively affect our work irrespective of problems with playing technique: how do I deal with my mistakes? What effect do my thoughts and emotions have on my inner calm and concentration? A trumpeter misses the high “E flat” in the Haydn concerto – and curses.  The simple advice of Pedro de Alcantara is: “Don’t judge – perceive only.” Do not evaluate, do not classify with the labels “good” and “bad.” Perceive what is happening and do not deprive yourself of the power of clear thought by getting caught up in emotions. False, lacerating self-criticism, a reproachful inner judge can be damaging, too. Pedro de Alcantara’s “mantra” for such a situation is simple: “I don’t know / I can’t do – but I have a pretty neck!” This means: keep your outer and inner poise. A mistake or a failure does not make us “worse human beings” and our poised neck and head remind us of this. In this way, we gain the calmness, power and confidence to overcome our shortcomings.

Of course, experience of working on ourselves not only plays a role at the instrument. It affects our lives in general. The way we play our instrument (relaxed or tense, precise or imprecise, over-critical or superficial, etc.) reflects our personality. The Alexander Technique provides the opportunity to learn to deal with ourselves healthily – as musicians and people, in our physical movement and in our thoughts. In this respect, the course with Pedro de Alcantara was a considerable enrichment and an “integrated” course in the truest sense.               

-- Fynn Müller

Translated from the German by Annie Edwards

Photos by Pedro de Alcantara