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


Not Flamenco

I know close to nothing about flamenco. Like many other people, I've seen bits and bobs of it on the Internet or in the movies; I've heard flamenco-inspired guitar playing, recorded and live; and I've play-acted my ignorant version of flamenco for fun, stomping my feet and clapping as I twirl around the room. But this blog post isn't about my scant knowledge of flamenco, or even about flamenco, period. It's about a voyage we all take in our lives. It starts in innocence, passes through crippling self-consciousness, and ends (for some of us) in mastery.

As young kids we dwelled in experience and sensation, not spending much psychic energy on discernment  (anything goes into the mouth!) and only occasionally on judgment (hunger not good!). Our minds were free from constraints, preconceived ideas, "shoulds" and "musts." And we were so, so very adept at learning! We learned our "mother tongue" like we learned breathing and walking--without intellectual calculation, playfully, easily, joyfully.

The toddler below is learning his "mother dance" of flamenco through a process of observation, imitation, and improvisation. He already has the spirit of it, the energy of it, the flamenco-ness of it. He "embodies flamenco."

Talented children can take this native ease very far. The young fellow in the next clip embodies his native flamenco with terrific virtuosity. He's called Juan Manuel Fernandez Montoya, better known as Farruquito. To my eyes, he's focused, centered, and "invisible," by which I mean he allows us to watch "the wonder of flamenco" without getting distracted by "the particular individual who here embodies flamenco." His dancing isn't about Farruquito; it's about flamenco--something much bigger than him. Flamenco itself seems to be about the paradox of holding energies tightly within, the better to propagate them in every direction. The young Farruquito "becomes" containment and propagation, and watching him "I contain and propagate, by proxy."

Farruquito will grow up and leave his child-prodigy years behind him. Tragedy will struck--real-life tragedy, in the form of a hit-and-run accident that landed Farruquito in jail; and existential tragedy, in the form of a loss of innocence, a loss of freedom . . . in short, a deep loss. The invisible dancer who let us "watch flamenco" becomes visible, and begs us to "watch him." It's not the same kind of show, and it doesn't have the same effect. Don't get me wrong; the adult Farruquito is very accomplished, and obviously he dances the flamenco a thousand times better than I dance it myself. But the clip below leaves me uncomfortable. In earlier times, Farruquito danced with a steady core that rendered him stable despite his gyrations, and watching him "I became stable, by proxy." Now Farruquito is making the periphery (arms, clothes, hair, surface) more important than the core, and watching him "I become unstable, by proxy."

Farruquito is the grandson of a masterly dancer: Antonio Montoya Flores, El Farruco. In movement and in expression, El Farruco does very, very little . . . and yet he lets us know how much he's capable of doing. It's as if his flamenco were completely internalized, "not needing to come out anymore." Containment has become "it," and propagation is now only latent. El Farruco has nothing to prove, and watching him dance "I myself have nothing to prove, by proxy." I find it very healing. Perhaps Farruquito will one day pass from self-consciousness to self-forgetting again.

There you have it: innocence, loss, mastery. As I said, it's not about flamenco.