Are You Doing Your Art?

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I never planned on being an Alexander Technique teacher (neither did FM Alexander; he started out as an actor). I was going to be a writer, which was where I had aptitude, where there was flow and promise, facility and praise. But at a certain point in my health crisis, the pain relief and tremendous healing I found from the Alexander Technique seemed more real, and certainly more important, than my previously held career plan.

From the beginning of my training, however, it was unclear whether I would be any good at this. I wasn’t an airy modern dancer like some of my classmates, or a classically trained musician who had been receiving feedback on their body and technique for years. I was a middling athlete who liked to exercise so his brain didn’t explode. Also, my arms and neck were riddled with tension and these are the parts of the body which are supposed to communicate ease and freedom to the student.

Now that I’ve been a meditator for almost two decades and an Alexander teacher for about half that time, I’ve come to think that virtuosity or, more specifically, waiting to develop virtuosity is overrated. Like the sorting hat at Hogwarts, we (or others) quickly try to classify ourselves as good at this and not that. A natural! Or hopeless.

John Steinbeck is someone we think of as a virtuoso, yet he apparently never felt so virtuosic. His seal, which he used in stationary and inside the covers of his books, is a picture of a pig trying to fly: the “Pigasus.” According to his wife, Elaine Steinbeck, he was mischievously riffing on the Pegasus, an elegant and powerful flying horse. She said, “He never would have been so vain or presumptuous as to use the winged horse as his symbol; the little pig said that man must try to attain the heavens even though his equipment be meager. Man must aspire though he be earth-bound.”

But that’s not how the industry of health and spirituality often present their models. It’s common in brochures and on websites to see attractive people sitting cross-legged (in spandex, naturally) on the beach, looking smug as if they finally shed all that previously weighed them down. They transformed into the Pegasus and took flight from earthly concerns. Please.

It doesn’t really matter whether you’re good at the Alexander Technique or yoga or meditation. In a crazy way that I definitely shouldn’t be saying out loud, it doesn’t really matter whether I’m amazing at it either (of course, professional standards are important). What matters, in this context, is that the student learns or receives what they need in the moment, not whether I possess unparalleled mastery of the technique (I don’t). You can read about lots of teachers who got tripped up on their own prowess and talents. Their skill stopped serving others; instead, their display of skill served their own ego.

What matters is whether you’re engaged in whatever process benefits your life. Don’t wait for applause from others. And don’t wait for the track ahead of you to be greased and smooth. Take your mixed feelings, your hesitations, and see if there’s room in your heart for that, too.

Can you be a mother who is struggling? Can you be an ill person who’s really scared? Hardship isn’t disqualifying. It’s the mark of being honest.

* * *

We always have a choice in situations where we struggle: to either place the stories about ourselves at the center of this challenge — I suck, right? — or, we can sideline the existential questions for now, the intractable problem of me. Instead we can ask,

What does my body say right now?

What is called for in the situation?

So many people quit beneficial practices or relationships because they don’t feel good at them. It doesn’t come easy and they take the adversity personally. The setbacks or the slow crawl of progress confirm some dark suspicion about themselves.

A friend of mine was once talking to a visual artist about some intense feelings of indecision and self-doubt. The artist listened, and said, “Are you doing your art?”

It didn’t matter whether my friend was excelling, going to be famous or successful, or even headed in the right direction. It’s not that his indecision or self-doubt shouldn’t be acknowledged. The question is just a way of cutting through our neurotic labyrinths, of returning to our healthy processes. We are always waiting to turn into the Pegasus. Or, we’ve concluded we never will, so why bother? Instead, we could embrace the “Pigasus.” Waddle on, my friend!

We can, periodically, let go of the result of whatever we’re struggling with. It doesn’t have to be strictly art, of course, but any process that has a lot of hope and fear attached to it: healing, a business venture, or a relationship. Stop trying to divine the outcome or squint at the horizon. That’s not your art.

John Steinbeck didn’t know he would become John Steinbeck. He made the most of his ‘meager equipment’ (ha!). We worry so much if we are any good at all. Let history decide. Just keep doing your art.

Meditation + Alexander Technique teacher. Author of “Don’t Get Better,” forthcoming guide to sanity, humor, and wisdom during illness.

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