Walter Carrington. What can I say?

by David Gorman

I suppose the first thing is that those of us who trained with him and worked with him all knew him as Walter, and spoke to him as Walter. Not Mr. Carrington, not Sir, just plain old Walter. That's not to say that there wasn't respect there. I daresay, there was more respect for the man, not just because of his obvious knowledge and skill but also for his humility and sheer approachableness, than any outward forms of respect could ever have achieved.

When I first heard that Walter (aka Walter Hadrian Marshall Carrington) had died a few weeks ago, I thought, "But he was so young, how could he die". He wasn't of course. He was 90, after all. But it was a huge surprise to hear that he had passed away. I had rather expected him to go on forever. Of course, the Walter I expected to go on forever was not the flesh and blood man of four score and ten years, but the one whose influence continues in me, and that influence will live on forever.

I can tell you a few of my own personal recollections that maybe will give those of you who did not know him a better sense of the man.

Way back in 1978 or '79 when I was training with Walter, a bunch of us (Don Burton, Karen Wentworth, Frank Sheldon, Michael Frederick, and others, with me doing anatomy teaching since I wasn't a teacher yet) started to do weekend and week-long residential courses on the Alexander Technique. Sometimes those courses would include a morning or evening period of yoga or t'ai chi for people to bring their Alexander skills into application with a gentle physical activity. This 'deviation' from the traditional individual lessons was brought to the attention of several senior UK teachers and trainers who proceeded to call a Special General Meeting of STAT to decry our activities and toss us from the Society. I'll never forget Walter standing up in the meeting, calmly facing those who had been flinging a lot of personal innuendo laden with prejudice and misinformation, and saying words to the effect of, "We were all young teachers once and we made our own experiments. Alexander trusted us. Now it is time for us to recognize that these young teachers are doing the same. I know them [he trained most of us] and I trust them and we must let the work be carried on and explored by another generation".

I thought, "That's my guy. I'm glad I'm training with him".

Let me say that I'm not sure just what Walter thought of the explorations and directions that I personally carried on into during the decades after finishing his training because I did not have all that much contact with him from the mid-eighties onwards. But, I do know that it was largely because of this attitude of trust and his ability to bring out the best in people that I gained the freedom and grounding to go where I did, to think my own thoughts and to find out for myself.

In fact, without a doubt, at the time he believed in me more than I did. It was Walter who gave me the first opportunity to teach. This was after Don Burton had left to start his own training and the training course found itself without someone to teach anatomy. I was just in my first year of the training but was the only one there who had some background knowledge about human structure, so Walter asked me if I would take over the weekly lectures. I don't know why I said yes, because I was totally terrified, and in the beginning, I was a horribly self-conscious, stumbling teacher. But Walter's encouragement and steadfast praise gave me enough confidence to carry me over the hump until I discovered my own inner teacher.

I'm sure that everyone who trained with him knows how his 'unconditional' acceptance and the support of hearing him say, "that was smashing -- good work" (no matter what you'd just done) helped you to feel strong enough to get through that part of Alexander training when it all seems a mystery and it is all too easy to doubt your own ability to ever understand the work and master the skills.

In fact, Walter was a master of the art of indirect teaching. I remember one day when he was giving me a turn in the big room of the training and he said, "You know, David, I was thinking the other day about breathing" And then he proceeded to talk about breathing and function in a way that hit home to me and shed light on my own breathing problems. I not only understood something about breathing I had not known before, but my breathing was changed.

It was some years later when I was a junior teacher on his training course and saw him doing similar things with others, that I realized Walter had not happened to be "just thinking about breathing." He was purposely saying something personal of particular relevance to me but couching it in a general statement so I could take it in and think about it in a way that didn't get me focussing inwards or becoming self-conscious. Of course, it was all the more relevant to me and real because his hands were also showing me in my own breathing just what his words meant, but he would never have pointed that out. The lesson was powerfully changing without it having been a 'lesson'.

The Walter I knew was always willing to look at new ideas and evidence and there was no question from any of us that he wouldn't take seriously. He kept up with the recent scientific research and its implications for the Alexander work, and he encouraged us all to think and pursue the truth of things, not just follow some already set-in-stone dogma. This openness led to many training course debates when students brought in newly-published papers by Benjamin Libet on how our human system seemed to make decisions and physical preparations in advance of our conscious choices or by T.D.M. Roberts on the neurophysiology of posture. Walter was always happy to join in the discussion and I saw the work and the training change as the implications of these discoveries sank in.

In that period (the late 1970's), this kind of stimulating atmosphere in the school attracted a lively bunch of learners who were inspired by Walter's openness and encouragement and impressed by his obvious skill. He was aided and abetted by a remarkable group of other regular teachers - Sydney Holland, Peggy Williams, Krii Ackers, Mary Holland, etc... It is interesting to me that this 'golden period' (as I now think of it) trained so many of the teachers who went on to start training courses of their own (Don Burton, Chris Stevens, Karen Wentworth, John Nicholls, Ray Evans, Ken Thompson, myself, Margaret Farrar, Robin Simmons, and others) and that so many of these people went off in their own directions developing ways of working and training courses that are very different from each other.

I can't speak much for what happened in the Carrington training in the last 20 years or so, since I was not around, but I know it changed greatly as many of those older skilled teachers left and as Walter took more of a back seat in the day-to-day running and teaching. I'll leave that for others who were there to describe.

However, at the time I was there, the special sessions with Walter each week where he took a group of three of us off into the back room to work with putting hands on each other were like little zen lessons. Never did he get into how we should place our hands or details of what to think or how to move. Instead he got us to stand beside someone and just come into contact with them. He spent the time, in a slow and calm manner, making sure we were comfortable and not trying to 'get it right'. There was no right and wrong way to do it and we always got feedback that we'd done OK.

Our only job was to 'take care of ourselves' and move when we wanted to without being concerned if the 'student' followed or not. It didn't take long to realize that when we didn't 'try' to get the student to move, they moved with us, and when we got into trying to getting it right or trying to repeat something it became horribly obvious that we'd start getting tense and the student would fail to respond.

Simple to the point of nothingness, these lessons stayed with me, imprinted as the literal meaning of 'non-doing' and 'responsive'. They showed us all clearly the utter pointlessness of manipulation or trying. However, it wasn't even the content of these sessions with Walter that affected and influenced me so much as it was his pedagogical approach -- supportive, patient, inviting questions, setting up the situation for us, then allowing us to discover in our own way and in our own experience what it meant.

No little ramble like this is really complete if it only picks out the good sides of someone. For all his niceness, Walter seemed very reluctant to confront anything head on. He was very English and proper in the best sense of the term. I've often wondered what his training would have been like if he had been more firm in putting his foot down with people, and certainly what some of the Alexander politics would have been like if Walter had thrown his weight in with issues that I knew he had opinions about. But, that was not his style. Nevertheless I saw him, again and again, come through in a crunch when needed.

I think everyone who worked with him was lulled time and again by his mild manner and easy-going temperament into underestimating him and his abilities until he would surprise us and shine forth with his immense knowledge and skill. Whatever faults he had, and I'm sure he had his share like all of us, they generally didn't interfere that much because his emphasis was not on himself, his knowledge and his beliefs, but on you and what you could do. I used to think that what he was showing us was the Alexander Technique, and it was that, but even more so he was showing us Walter.

Running into a great teacher is a great gift. Teachers like Walter illuminate for us a lot more than just a subject, they help us find ourselves. And that, as they say, is the gift that keeps on giving.

Copyright 2005 by David Gorman. All rights reserved.

David Gorman trained as an Alexander teacher with Walter Carrington from 1978 to 1980. He ran his own Alexander Technique teacher training course in London from 1988 to 1997. Over the years as his understanding changed so did his teaching and he has now developed his own work called LearningMethods

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