Integrating the work: 21 Days of Perceptual Practice

The body is always thinking something through.

Perhaps it’s a distant memory evoked by sound or scent, a recollection unexpectedly rushed back to the surface, an experience that was always there to be remembered. Perhaps a tension or trauma, an awkward muscularity, a silent communication along tendons and nerves to refer it elsewhere – until the site and the source of the experience have radically dissociated, and the focus of the entire body has shifted.

Perhaps it’s the self-understanding that’s revealed through habitual gestures and postures, those moments when our bodies determine our next action before we’ve made that conscious decision. Perhaps a latent technique, a forgotten skill that’s just about ready to surface, right when it’s needed most.

Or perhaps it’s that complex set of phenomena we normally associate with thinking: words and images in the mind that follow some recognisably logical or associative path, able to be refocused and reintegrated at will, ready to solve a problem or generate something new.

But how conscious is that integration? What are we associating and dissociating at any given moment? What is the body thinking through?

 

21 Days of Perceptual Practice

In August I experienced David Young’s 21 Days of Perceptual Practice: a series of exercises guided by David’s voice sent daily to a global group of fifty diverse practitioners. Months later, I am still integrating the work.

Every day for twenty-one days, a new audio file arrived in our closed WhatsApp group, each following a similar compositional frame. Drawing on Alexander Technique and a compelling set of artistic and philosophical works, David invited us to stop, lie on the floor, and be guided through reflections and exercises that engaged our entire bodies.

David’s choice of audio-only was a sensitive one, given the Zoom glut we’d all been facing: the reconfiguration of our homes into that awkward, always-on experience, our private realm commandeered. We needed our sense of home reframed, our personal space restored. At around fifteen minutes, each session was the optimal listening length for focusing our reflections as well as our commitments to action. And oh my was I ready for both.

We confronted silence, nothingness, and what it means truly to pause, to stop; we sensed impulse, serendipity and chance; we explored relationships and interactions, love and war; we tested counter-factuals and counter-intuitives, what ifs and why nots; and we deepened our perception, of course, in all of its forms.

The experience was intimate – and challenging.

David’s deep insight, his patience, and indeed his mellifluous voice, had long come to mean a great deal to each of us. Across decades we had experienced his work in many different ways as a coach, social worker, composer, artistic director, and Alexander Technique practitioner. Across all of his disciplines, David’s work creates reconfigurations and realignments. His is a generosity that never ceases to evolve into new forms.

Fundamentally a composer, David reflected on that core aspect of his practice explicitly towards the end of 21 Days, and in doing so, invited each of us to compose our own reflective program, our own twenty-one days, perhaps for ourselves, perhaps to share.

I find that I am still reflecting, still integrating.

A practice of letting go

When I first embarked on an Alexander Technique practice with David, I remarked on the practice of letting go. On perceiving what I was still holding, the tensions and habits I could be guided to observe, to engage. After 21 Days, I’m thinking so differently about practice as integration, and integration as a complex phenomenon… one I’m just starting to approach understanding.

Because that integration is essential – for me, critical – and especially during COVID19. The great danger for me throughout this time has been my neural health. My brain condition has too many unknown parameters, and the virus has too many unknown neurological impacts. While I thrive on a multiplicity of inputs, the pandemic has enforced a complete displacement of my routine: no human presence, no travel, and no unexpected encounter, but instead, an intensification of that engagement – and all experienced through a single posture and a single interface, collapsing my home from space of respite to Zoom background. A disintegration.

Meanwhile, my body was responding rather quickly – faster than I could keep up. My brain patterns shifted, and I had to relearn how to recognise daily peaks and troughs of alertness and focus. My eyes underwent rapid adjustment, my glasses became unhelpful and I needed a new prescription. I found I needed new outlets for communicating in the various languages that compose my brain, as well as finding new physical routines, new exercise modes. And all the while, I was experiencing a career-peak period of intense stress, taking crisis calls at all hours in constant emergency response, while collaborating carefully, deliberatively, on industry cohesion and public advocacy.

There have been many moments when this period of isolation has seemed to me very much like a convalescence. When we’re recovering from major illness, or when we’re dealing with disability and chronic conditions, we are confronted by the need to commit extended time to self-care. This is an invitation that can be received with resentment, or with openness. Convalescence is generative, not resentful; it’s a slow integration that accepts the body as fallible and the present as contingent.

My own convalescence has needed to engage that multiplicity of neural needs with lots of different practices – writing, drawing, walking, cooking, exercise, dancing, as well as music, talks, shows and podcasts in three or four languages, to maintain that integration. To keep the body thinking.

Integrating the work

A couple of mornings a week I join an online yoga class at 7:00am and our instructor, that dynamo Colleen Kavanagh, takes care to create moments where she invites us to “integrate the work”.

We also speak of “integrating the work” as performers, as audience members, as dancers, as composers, as makers and artists. We have an experience that moves us, and we find conscious and unconscious ways to take it into our practice. The body reconfigures, and then we respond, and then the body reconfigures, and so we keep thinking it through.

Integrity is recursive, reflexive, dialectical. Active. A communing with the body.

Integration isn’t a singularity but a momentary unity. It’s the sensation that all unity is momentary – not just temporary, but of the moment, called into existence just now, and sustained through language or posture.

And yet, integration is also lasting. It creates a legacy in the body. It allows that disciplined holding of tension to distribute across the body, strengthening and toning. It deepens our perception.

David’s extraordinary capacity to integrate a range of practice modes into generative composition is one of his unique strengths. I find myself reflecting on 21 Days at different times of day, and in a variety of modes, because David’s challenges have aligned the various ways in which my body thinks. That generosity, in all of its evolutions, opens the heart.

And that is a beautiful gift.

 

 

IMAGE: David Young.