When he wrote “The final belief is to believe in fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it's fiction and that you believe in it willingly,” the poet Wallace Stevens was saying that everyone needs to invent goals worth pursuing. So did Voltaire's mistress, the Marquise du Chatelet, who stated that, “To be happy, one must be susceptible to illusions, for it is to illusions that we owe the majority of our pleasures. Unhappy is the one who has lost them.” And then there is Meryl Streep, speaking of her role as Florence Foster Jenkins, the tone-deaf opera diva wannabe, by saying, “There is a fine line between delusion and courage.”
To pursue a discipline is to cultivate a fearless vulnerability, a capacity for openness without defensiveness. After an injury of any sort has caused us to lose our nerve to one extent or another, we can learn to restore the deficit by projecting ourselves back into expansiveness. And by so doing, we can deepen our understanding of our temperament and character. Following a discipline can put us through experiences that induce humility without humiliation. It can remind us that there is something beyond us, that everything is a process, and that the outcome is not the point.
Our craft can become an organizing principle of our lives and a major aspect of our identity and of how we spend our time, but this does not depend on how skilled we become. This is where the Alexander Technique comes in, because what matters is how, not what, we do – how we deepen our experience through commitment and how we handle the risk of failure that any passion demands. It is about engaging with a structure and learning to do something better and more elegantly. It is about finding a way in to an examined life, through which we can come to know things we didn't know we knew and become present to ourselves.
To do this we have to take on a task that is inherently difficult, very likely something unlike what we have previously learned to do and have become good at. Many of us may have come to a point in our lives where we are looking for a change – as the aphorism has it, for a long and happy life we should do something well for the first 60 years and something completely different for the next 30. It is necessary that this new avocation be something at which, through practice fueled by self-motivation, we can improve. And this involves failing repeatedly under the eye of a good teacher.
This requires personal instruction because the process depends in the end on the warmth of relationship to be found in the purposeful company of a teacher who exemplifies the qualities you would choose for yourself. And the best discipline for this purpose is one that requires sustained application in order to reveal itself slowly. Staying with it and working to get there are the means by which we can change into who we really want to be. We are in it together with our teacher, participating equally in philosophy and praxis.
At whatever age we initially encounter it, a passion has no expiration date. Our first dramatic contact with it can alter and enliven our life and work and ignite a creative desire for mastery. Under the influence of this sustained drive for excellence, we are impelled to work extremely hard toward growth. To be engaged in this way is to be fully absorbed in this life project and actively participating in something that has captured our focus. And, ironically, our personality is most affirmed when we disappear into the task.
Whatever the medium, the result is recognizably a self-portrait. We work on ourselves through the work on our craft - the product is always a by-product. The medium is immaterial, because it is the engagement itself that counts, and it is the coherence and authenticity that the viewer reacts to. The craftsman represents something bigger than himself, and the viewer in turn becomes larger with him and through him.
By emphasizing the process underlying the art, we can explore what we really intend by seeing what happens when we do not make it happen. Transcending considerations of product in this way permits expression of the unconscious impulse. To cultivate this practice in the context of any discipline is to facilitate carrying it over into life in general. Such spontaneity is the true product of such a process intended to free the self.