The Vault

Key Note Address

By Erika Whittaker


Well after that introduction! (Ed—Erika was introduced by Frank Ottiwell) Actually, during the time of my life that Frank was talking about I was by no means as isolated from my Alexander friends as it sounds. But I was always very much concerned about the future of Alexander's work, and I hoped to come to some sort of conclusion about what was the best approach to assure its survival in its truest sense.

Then sometime later when I was at Melbourne University and we were studying ancient creation myths, we came across the story of the first toothache. It was an Assyrian story and it showed you exactly how the gods felt in their creation problems. A worm had got into a tooth and was creating havoc and was creating problems. The worm demanded more teeth to feed on, and the gods thought about it. But they then decided that it was not at all a good idea, so they invented a herb which would kill the worm, and this herb, in the end when made into a concoction, was the cure for toothache. But the important thing was just simply never to make a brew and use it for your toothache, but you must always recite the origin of the herb, its creation relating to the problem, to make it truly efficacious.

I decided then that that was something we should think about in Alexander's work because—what was the origin of Alexander's work? He had a problem. He was losing his voice when he was reciting and this was very important for him. He wanted to be a reciter. He wanted to be an actor. And he did what we all do when we have a problem. We choose an expert to go to and we say to the expert, "I have a problem. What are you going to do about it?" Alexander did that too and it did not work. His various doctors could not help him with his problem, so then he decided to find out for himself. He asked himself the question: What was he doing with himself that was causing the problem? And this was a very momentous and unique occasion: if Alexander had not had that particular inspiration at that time we would not be meeting here today.

In such a situation, having decided it must have been something that he was doing, where did he go from there? With hindsight, of course, we know now what happened and we have seen it written about and we know pretty well the story. But put yourself in his place: you have got a problem, and you have decided that it must be due to something that you are doing yourself that is causing your voice to go. And so observation had to be his procedure for quite a long time; and in time—it took months, years—he reached a point of observation which was not influenced by past knowledge. It was a new kind of looking without previous memory. He was not deciding what he was looking for, and it is very important that we keep this whole process always in mind.

From there he gradually came to further stages of discoveries. He found patterns of habits. Habitual use moving in whenever he prepared to recite; and in time, he began to see that these patterns started with the head, neck and back relationship. He observed himself much longer and often discovered that he was not aware of what he was doing and even more often, was not doing what he thought he was doing. That should be for all of us a pretty familiar experience. And from there he came to the realisation that he was able to inhibit these patterns of habitual use from starting. The pattern did not take over and he was free to respond completely originally to the stimulus. You might say that perhaps at that stage he had reached a state of central intelligence, of consciousness. He was completely free to do as he chose and he described that very well in the Use of the Self, where he explained that he had got to a stage of inhibition and observation, that he could speak, or that he could not give consent to speak, or he could do something completely different. From there he worked out a series of directions which are a method, a means whereby, or whatever you want to call it, directing him into new experience.

Alexander in his lifetime of teaching, never ceased to try and supply the conditions for a pupil to experience this new and real observation, leading to the ability to be in charge of response to stimuli. He changed his way of teaching often, and I had noticed in the short time in which I knew him, that he was changing a great deal in his approach to pupils. I believe he experimented constantly, but on the whole he was thwarted by the average pupil's reluctance to take responsibility for him or herself. Pupils tended to enjoy the feeling of the change of conditions almost as a sort of treatment. His regular frustrated scoldings of the early days were, on the whole, to say to people, "You only see what you want to see.' As he grew older, he talked less in lessons; and if anybody saw him as a guru they were very disappointed. He expected people to stand on their own feet. He refused to be a guru, it was against the very nature of his work and principles. His regular admonition to us as students and later on when we were teaching was "Don't do what I do." When Frank Pierce Jones asked, "Where should I put my hands on a pupil?" A.R. said, "Put them where they are wanted." Both the Alexander brothers were saying the same thing—use your observation, not imitation. Each situation is unique for both teacher and pupil and must be as if for the first time. "You are going from the known to the unknown," was said very often. And here, I think, the word 'technique' is not appropriate. Alexander used it, but he used it in a more flexible way, and by now it has become a rather rigid label, something recognisable as a fixed format, and is relegated to the list of alternatives now in fashion. 'Technique' implies some measurable efficiency and some final achievement at a future date—something to strive for, something to master and ultimately to be judged by some higher authority. But how is such a process possible when you are concerned with a principle whose very nature goes against conformity and rigid authority?

Alexander has been gone now for 30 years, and I see a great danger of his work suffering the same fate as that of many other great original innovators in the history of the world. It is a pretty familiar pattern. Successors to the master tend to launch into interpretations, which in time cause arguments, dissensions, disagreements, splits into schools or sects; fragmentation leading to dogma, to tradition, and to fixation—a state of affairs I have seen described elsewhere as "a thicket of opinions and a conflict in words," and very often as "enslaved prejudice." These are strong words and they have been written about many of the great religions of the world, showing what has happened in the history of many of them. Given another 20 years or so, if Alexander came back to see how we were progressing, he might not find it easy to recognise what was happening. I know a good story on this about Moses:

When Moses was receiving the Laws on Mount Sinai, he was told by God that one day there was going to be a patriarch who was very famous for expounding the Laws—in about another thousand years or so. And when the time came, Moses was transported to the back of the hall and listened to the exposition of the great patriarch. He became more and more puzzled. He could not understand what it was all about—neither could he understand how the few simple words of the original message could turn into this flood of words which was now coming from the patriarch. A student fortunately spoke up and said, "Sir, on whose authority are you expounding these Laws?" and the patriarch replied, "We have it straight from Moses."

Now the Laws of Mount Sinai were simple. Alexander's work is simple. It is disastrously simple, but we don't like simple things. It is the way of our western education that makes us suspicious of achieving new knowledge without making tremendous efforts. This is drummed into us from our earliest days. Therefore, it is of vital importance that we remind ourselves constantly of those origins of Alexander's quest if his work is to survive in its true form. And, truly, we shall then find—according to another of his favourite quotations—"A lot of inspiration and rather less perspiration."


Erika Whittaker received her first Alexander lessons from her aunt, Ethel Webb, at the age of 8. She bagan lessons with Alexander at 17.

1931—Joined first teacher training course in London; 1936—Worked at Ashley under Alexander until the outbreak of WWII; 1971—Studied at Melbourne university: Comparative Religions of the ancient Middle East; Languages: Arabic, Sanskrit; 1984—Began Alexander teaching in Melbourne; 1985—Gave F. M. Alexander Memorial Lecture in London; 1988—Gave Keynote Address at Brighton Congress.

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