Values, Boundaries and the Sacred Mountain: an Appreciation of Life on the Fringe

"God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone"
Yeats, a prayer for old age

Where do you place your work as an Alexander Technique teacher in relation to the rest of society? It’s a question which lies at the heart of many of the recurring political disagreements that come up between teachers and groups of teachers, but it is often not stated so explicitly, and the complexity and motivations it stirs up are not always acknowledged.

Of course when people disagree the argument frequently doesn’t have as much to do with what is said on the surface as we might like to think. Conflict on matters of procedure and practicality tend to be rooted in pretty fundamental personal and emotional differences in the way we see and process the world and what is important to us; this is as true of questions about where the Alexander Technique is headed, and what is wrong or right with it, as it is about anything.

Many of these questions are in some way to do with how we, as AT teachers, should relate to cultural institutions and respond to various social pressures. Some of us may tend (for either positive or dysfunctional reasons, or both) towards a preference for taking an ‘outsider’ position. For others, a tendency towards a greater level of cultural conformity may come from a genuine wish to reach out — or it may be that our wish to fit in is so comfortably validated by mainstream discourse that we don’t spot it for the conditioned personal preference that it actually is. Like any shared, culturally sanctioned position, the majority view may seem so inevitable and ‘right’ that we don’t feel a need to question our adherence to it too much, or to acknowledge the depth and complexity of our true motivations for doing so.

But in any case, this question about the AT in relation to society has always seemed worth exploring to me, and as we all have a position of one sort or another, I’ll begin by nailing my own colours to the mast (fairly firmly) and saying that, so far as I’m concerned, I’m definitely on the ‘outsider’ end of the spectrum. I believe that as AT teachers we have more to offer society when we maintain a certain amount of distance from mainstream cultural institutions and value systems. It feels comfortable for me to adopt this position. It suits my priorities, temperament, and preferred way of being in the world. But there are also more rational reasons for adopting it which may be worth something, and may be at least partially right: reasons such as a wish for breadth of vision, an acknowledgment of and respect for qualities, and an appreciation for boundaries.

In arguing about the purpose, origin, meaning, and direction of the ‘profession’ it seems to me that Alexander teachers often subtly impoverish what we do, and that this happens in two ways: firstly we may try and reduce the scope of the work by defining it too much in terms of where it started from, while overlooking that it is also a living, evolving and complex tradition which many people have enriched and added to. Secondly we may become too focussed on the AT as a distinct practice, and lose sight of its place within the broader context in which it certainly belongs. Notwithstanding our concern with ‘reason’ (which has generally been quite a strong force in the Technique compared to some comparable disciplines) the Technique seems to me to lie clearly within the broader stream of thought, experiment and practice which has arisen in the West to meet needs which were once met by Christianity (please bear with me!).

Most of us know that, though the AT may start as a search for a cure for a bad back, taken far enough it can end in a very different and much more liminal place. The practice is capable of bringing us into contact with ourselves in the moment — both as individuals and in relationship — and hence with a much deeper existential and phenomenological appreciation of living and being human than we may otherwise experience. Beyond this it can open up into that space where the limited, personal self lets go and something different, less personal, and in some ways more wise, starts to operate. So there is a conflict between the practice as usually described and the reality of the practice and where it ends as lived. In effect, the practices known broadly as the Alexander Technique open up into areas of experience which would once have been clearly seen as belonging in the realm of the sacred

Of course it is old-fashioned to use this word, and within the postivist-materialist paradigm of the times it’s a word which has no meaning anyway. If everything is either matter or energy (which is not true, but not an argument I have space to pursue here) and these can, in theory, be absolutely defined by measurement, then there is no place left for qualities which, by definition, cannot be measured — only experienced. Hence a mountain which may be known to many as somewhere with distinct and irreplaceable qualities of feeling, energy and affect may come to be seen as mere square mileage to be used for recreation, or bulldozed for profit or utility as others see fit. On this basis it becomes hard to defend specific things (or even claim they meaningfully exist) because the ultimate end of the positivist-materialist line of argument is that everything is essentially (i.e in essence) the same. It follows that nothing is special, nothing has intrinsic value, except in so far as it serves human needs, which themselves can only ultimately be defined in similarly meaningless terms. 

This is not an anti-science article! I like science! I’m less keen when it fails to realise its limits, assumptions and contradictions (which is by no means all the time). In any event, living with this world view in the ascendent, there has been a general loss of a sense of the sacred, and consequently also of the profane (which depends on it) and of our responsibility to differentiate between such qualities and assign them their proper place. Because we are no longer fully sensitive to the import of different qualities — or may not even consciously recognise or acknowledge them, it is hard to keep different aspects of our culture and experience in a harmonious and boundaried relationship with each other. 

A healthy boundary, like a cell wall, is flexible enough to allow for expansion and contraction and to allow things in and out as appropriate — but it still clearly delineates distinct entities: on one side there is one kind of thing, on the other side there is another. A weak or non-existent boundary does not cause a productive meeting of opposites — it dissipates the energy of both poles. When you build a McDonalds on top of a sacred mountain you don’t get a holy McDonalds, you simply no longer have a sacred mountain! 

A sacred mountain is somewhere you visit with respect, and return from re-vitalised. You may take a stone with you for the cairn and leave it there, and you will hopefully come back with something for the world which is less tangible but no less valuable. We may be very moved by our time on the mountain and think “if only everywhere could by like this”. But one of the worst mistakes we can make is to try to make everywhere like the Mountain. The mountain’s value lies in its distinctness. It’s easy to observe that, when we forget this, it’s always the mountain which ends up being subsumed — it never seems to happen the other way round. Jesus ends up as the Church of England, but the Church is always strangely reluctant to overturn the tables of the money changers.

Now, let’s bring this back to the Alexander Technique. Where do we place ourselves and our relationship to the wider world? I think the work we do has implications which are far wider than fixing bad backs, or even getting people to be more constructively reasoned, conscious, thoughtful and healthy in their lives and activities. I see at as a practice which is essentially sacred in nature — not in any dogmatic sense, but in a true sense. I see the subtle or overt wish to ‘mainstream’ the work not as a positive attempt to simply bring what we do to a wider audience or to earn more money (always welcome of course!) but rather as a failure of imagination and vision, and as a sign that we don’t understand the necessity to differentiate between different orders of experience, and to hold appropriate boundaries between them.

None of this means it’s wrong to take the Technique boldly out into the world, or to make a living (God forbid!), or that it’s OK to retreat and try to live on the mountain, or that we should not engage with things as they are. Building a McDonalds at the base of the Sacred Mountain is another thing entirely to building one on top! Often the boundary between sacred and profane worlds is incredibly rich and interesting. But this richness depends on there being a clear boundary in the first place. To truly take the spirit of the mountain out into the world means doing so from the most authentic and radical place we can. It is from there, as the radical fringe in dialogue with the mainstream that, paradoxically, we make our greatest contribution to society. All healthy societies and groups have a fringe — it is not an aberration or mistake, or something you grow out of, it is an absolutely necessary challenge and check and source of growth without which no society can thrive or survive. 

When we forget or sideline the true depth of qualities our work embodies and no longer put them first we end up wasting time and energy chasing mainstream validation which never really materialises in a useful form, in the hope of getting funding for work opportunities which never realistically existed, under threat of imaginary sanctions from officialdom which fail to materialise. Slowly but surely we lose the edge which lies beneath the surface form, and which, though impossible to define or tie down, is also part of what the AT is. The magic becomes just a little bit dissipated. Forgetting what category the work truly belongs in we lose something which is not adequately replaced by the modest respectability it is traded for. Unexpectedly, less people are drawn to train as teachers. The mountain shrinks. Things are not as it was promised they would be. 

Like any point of view what I have written here is, of course, partial and incomplete. It is certainly too simple! But it is — in a nutshell — why, for the moment, this teacher at least is happy to live comfortably on the fringe. There’s a lot to be said for belonging, and there’s a lot to be said for going ones own way and remaining cheerfully and productively unaffiliated. Vive la différence! 

Marcus Sly