Taking Refuge in the Body

One thing about wakefulness is that there is no arrival; you’re never done. Wakefulness is a willingness to endlessly investigate, and that’s where the intimacy grows. – Koshin Paley Ellison, Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up

Thirty years ago sometime this week, I had my first Alexander lesson. As part of a much longer piece I am writing about my three decades with the work, I’ve been considering how the Alexander Technique is a place of refuge. “Refuge” is a Buddhist term that can mean different things to different people, but essentially it points to how the practice of present moment awareness provides a resting place, an unhooking from our conditioned way of being, a return to center, a renewal of wholeness. It’s akin to the notion of “sanctuary,” in the sense of abiding in a sacred space and being protected there.

As a practitioner of Vipassana meditation, I am still at the beginning of my understanding of Refuge. As an Alexander teacher and lifelong student, I have daily experiences of what I can legitimately call “taking refuge,” and for that I feel boundlessly grateful. The dictionary defines refuge as a place of safety and protection, and “anything to which one has recourse for aid, relief, or escape.”

Aid. Relief. Escape. I’ll come back to that third one in a bit, but let’s start with how knowing the Alexander Technique is an Aid that brings Relief. Many people decide to take AT lessons because of a recurring problem that other approaches haven’t been able to fully or reliably solve, and in so choosing Alexander Technique, they are already seeking a point of refuge. As they learn, what they learn is how their neck/back/breathing/balance/anxiety/attention/you-name-it issues are part of their whole way of being, the local within the global. Thus, the chef whose knees are stiff and painful from constant standing in the kitchen learns that changing how they use their arms (specifically their elbows) eases their knee problems. The writer with such terrible neck pain that she cannot turn her head to one side finds that suddenly she can when she allows her pelvic floor to relax and her lower back to release. The public speaker with vocal difficulties explores how pausing and thinking differently in the moments just before speaking produces clearer, stronger sound with less effort and more ease.

The other night I came home rather tired after teaching an evening class and saw that the kitchen sink was full of dirty dishes. I also saw a whole lot of reactivity arising in me about this simple fact. Annoyance, blame, discouragement, disgust, self-pity – they all appeared in rapid succession. I was able to notice thoughts and the feelings around them, as they moved through me. I didn’t hold on to anything, I just stopped and looked at that sink and let the little internal storm pass. I thought, “Oh, look. The dishes need to be done. Does this need to be a problem? No.” At that point I could choose whether to do them before retiring or the next morning. I don’t like waking up to a messy kitchen, so I set about cleaning up.

That whole process – of stopping, attending to the resistance rising inside me, letting it pass, and making a choice – lasted about 30 seconds. This a banal example, but until I can become present for these everyday benign experiences, I won’t be as likely to meet more serious challenges, like conflicts with other humans, or my tendency to torture myself with the myth of perfectionism. I learned this process of stopping, attending, allowing, and then choosing from my Alexander lessons. And the process all took place in my body-mind. How did I know what emotions were arising? I felt them physically, even as I observed the thoughts that accompanied them. How was I able to stop in the first place? I remembered to. I literally stood still, brought attention to my feet and my breathing. I felt my jaw clench, and let it go. Thirty years of practice kicked in and supported my mindfulness, became my mindfulness in those moments.

An aid to help me not go bonkers with reactivity about a non-problem. What a relief! At another time I might have stewed all night with resentment or gone to bed feeling sorry for myself. (I know, I know, it sounds nutty – over dishes? But this is what we do to ourselves.) Having trained in the AT, I’m committed to total embodiment at all times, and over the years it has become easier for me to know how I’m operating and trust physical sensation as reliable feedback that points the way to clear seeing. So now I can recognize habit patterns of thinking and feeling, without getting caught in them as real or meaningful. This is the freedom that comes from studying the Alexander Technique.

Leaf with the word “refuge” above.

Leaf with the word “refuge” above.

Refuge = Aid, Relief, Escape. What about “escape”? In mindfulness practice (including the AT), we generally want to stop trying to escape from things and instead face them directly. Within this sense of Refuge, we can hold the idea of escape as stepping out of a vicious circle of unconscious resistance or habitual tension – the prison of fixed views. Back in the day, anyone being chased by the law could escape their pursuers and find refuge inside the boundaries of a church. In this way, our bodies are sanctuaries within which we can always find a way to escape the circular thinking we’ve become attached to, or the unconscious harmful ways we move. Paradoxically, we escape not by turning away but by looking directly at what we are thinking and doing.

This is simple, but it is not easy. It takes fierce determination. The quote above, from Koshin Paley Ellison, reminds us that our willingness to investigate is key. Later in the same chapter, he shares this:

There is an old Chinese story about carp and the origins of dragons. Carp are like salmon: they swim upstream by flinging themselves above the water. It’s an intense thing to see, the golden fish throwing its body with all of its might. The myth goes that the carp transforms into a dragon, but only if it throws its whole body up the waterfall and through the dragon’s gate at the end of the Yellow River. The dragon, of course, is a symbol of enlightenment – of complete wakefulness.

Sometimes. . .the beauty is in taking your whole body, using all your might, to just stop. Just stop. And once you’ve done that, truly feel what that’s like. Establishing trust in that feeling of peace is what allows us to take refuge, to commit totally to wakefulness in the midst of difficult moments. To me, that’s what taking refuge means: the decision that we’re going to live from a different kind of ground. Not the ground of “I’m right” or the ground of “you’re an asshole,” but the ground of intimacy.

But until we’re willing to have the courage and commitment to truly change the way we function, then “taking refuge” is just some idea. We need to be that golden carp. We might be scared, we might be afraid, and we are completely committed to waking up.   [Wholehearted, pp. 29-30]

What allows you to stop in the middle of your life and notice what’s happening?

What provides Aid and Relief for you? How can your body be a refuge?