Glimpses from an apprenticeship in Physical Alchemy
This is an idiosyncratic tale concerning my strange apprenticeship with [DW] in Physical Alchemy. By necessity the exposition is personal and experiential. If the reader is searching for a study guide or the Physical Alchemy ‘101’ ye shall not find’eth it here. You may, however, get a few laughs and a glimpse or two of the auspicious art that is Physical Alchemy.
As a young man attending University I had copious amounts of free time. Studying only enough to pass the exams whilst otherwise devoting myself to private studies and physical training. Reading and trolling through internet forums. Feeling opinionated and knowledgeable (“I study medicine, you know”). For the most part wasting my life.
By chance I came across the Stretch Therapy forums.
As my main research subjects were physical training and stretching it became a natural place to ‘hang out’ online. Most of the forum activity was generated from Australia as this is where Stretch Therapy originates. From those early exchanges on the forum I was aware that this was a nexus point of interesting research – taking place in a far away land on the other side of the globe. The strange ‘Great Southern Land’. This brew of information sharing, practical tinkering and research was something I sorely wanted to be a part of.
Nearing graduation from medical school I had become thoroughly disenchanted with the prospect of working as a doctor and the education I had undertaken. Something else was calling my name, but what precisely I did not know.. I went to a Stretch Therapy (ST) workshop in York where I met Kit, master flâneur and creator of ST. The net effect of the workshop experience and the ‘coffee shop conversations’ had with this elder statesman of physical culture was that I began sense an outline of a different way of living. In the long email correspondence that followed I somehow convinced Kit and his partner Olivia that I could come and live with them for at time; and learn the finer points of ST. A week after graduation from Medicine, struck with wanderlust, I packed my bags and set out for Australia.
At this time I had had a few short exchanges with Dave online and very much liked his explanations and ideas on the forum where he was a moderator and highly active member. One particular response, before I had even fully decided to travel to Australia to see Kit, was Dave jokingly posting about how a particular physical problem would more likely resolve if the doctor prescribed: ‘A blowjob, a joint and a calf massage – and to quit your shitty life-wasting job!’. Reading this after recently studying diagnostics in my degree was so hilariously funny I vowed to would meet this eccentric character one day, if only to have a beer with him and joke around.
One of my first meetings with Dave ( a.k.a [DW] )was at a ST gathering held by Kit and Olivia at their wonderful home-studio in Greenwell Point. The ‘Young Master’ as Kit calls him, [DW],was in a sorry state indeed. Some days earlier he had managed to reasonably severely impinged his Sciatic nerve. A normally vibrant gait pattern reduced to painful hobbling with zero plantar flexion capacity on the left leg. The young alchemist was clearly in great discomfort. Much of what I remember from the meeting and group talk was the background hum of “aaaauuumotherfuckerwwww!!?” – DW receiving bodywork from Cherie. The juxtaposition of what I learned physically and otherwise much later with this initial temporarily crippled Dave is quite amusing, in retrospect (as he also agrees).
Later in the evening DW had returned to a slightly higher level of function. Bodywork, wine and valium seemingly a potent synergistic medicine. Standing together and observing K’s bookshelf; drinking ‘the blood of the grape’ (as he is fond of saying), talking with the hum of conversation from the main room in the background- It had the flavour of re-occurrence. As if we had already known each other a long time and had many conversations already. The discussion itself darted all over the place, through many interesting realms – much more than stretching alone. It was a very intriguing and fun conversation. And a sign of things to come.
At the same time, I was left with the distinct impression that I was being observed.
Soon I had more pressing matters to tend to. My stay with Kit and Olivia was coming to an end. After 30 years of service in Canberra they needed rest, recovery and privacy. Running a thriving business with a full workshop schedule is energetically demanding. A third person entering into that equation was too much to ask. I learned a great deal during my stay and would not have been where I am today without it. At the same time I did not conduct myself as well I would have liked. This period was essential for me getting settled in a strange new place and I can only feel gratitude for all the help and kindness.
Even more pressing matters presented themselves(!) To meet the requirements of my Visa three months of work in a rural area was required. Typically this involves picking a vast amount of fruit. The particular part of the country that I was in had no such work available – but they did have is oysters. A great many oysters. Oyster farming is not the glamorous affair it is made out to be (by people who have never done it). A more sane person would have quit and found work elsewhere. Did I mention the part about living in a camper-van for three months? Or staph infected shins from sandfly bites? Or the questioning of much of what had been my life up until this point. Inauspicious. But essential.
Like Dante I somehow made it through Purgatory, having paid my pound of flesh (from my ankles, it seemed).
Having just arrived in Sydney I was literally tending to my wounds. My shins were slowly healing, scars beginning to form. I was resisting Dave’s insistence that the stingray was my ‘spirit animal’ and that I need to get it inked over my sandfly bites for extra ‘alchemical points’. Rest, with sun and fresh air, was doing virtuous things to me. Sitting on porch with a very small laptop in one hand, coffee on the table -a book in the other hand – only occasionally having nightmarish flashbacks of hulling oysters. How quickly the winds of fate can change!
Dave had set me the first of my Herculean Labours: The painstaking transcription of the pencil notes from all the major physical alchemy tomes from his library into electronic form. Guessing my way through much of his mad alchemists’ handwriting and thusly producing a 200+ page reference of condensed material in preparation for “Project A” (Dave’s forthcoming book on the method).
It was my first glimpses into to the full scope of Physical Alchemy. What is on show publicly is but a tip of an iceberg. A number of times Dave confided to me that for him, seeing the ways in which his work is misinterpreted by those who ‘probably should’ know better was one of the higher forms of information available in the triangulation upon (as he cryptically said at the time) ‘certain patterns’. Later I understood what he meant by this and it irreparably changed my perception of a great many things.
[*] Beginning of an apprenticeship
From before I came to Sydney DW had been giving me reading ‘suggestions’, as I had asked for such. Even sending books in the mail. The teachings of G.I.Gurdjieff occupied a critical place in the initial reading and this instantly struck a chord with me. From these readings I began to ascertain the gravity and necessity of the work.
“ When a man begins to know himself a little he will see in himself many things that
are bound to horrify him. So long as a man is not horrified at himself he knows
nothing about himself.” Gurdjieff *
Gurdjieff was certainly ahead of his time. By a century at least, in my estimation. At the same time his cosmology is not without elements that are confusing and alienating to the modern reader versed in contemporary science. “Hydrogens” occupies a special place in his ‘alchemical’ cosmology. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink even our experiences all correspond to a ‘Hydrogen’ and a number (signifying the refinement of the matter-energy in question). The more rarified the experience, the higher the hydrogen. The more refined the material and impressions we can digest and accumulate into ourselves the greater our transmutational potential.
In our many ‘coffee shop conversations’ (quite literally; most of the time we were in the wonderous sporgasboard of cafes available in Sydney) we discussed, among many things: accumulation of higher hydrogens;the Dharma; martial arts; physical cultivation and strength training from different perspectives; dystopian peak-oil theories; bureaucracy; TAF-ness; anti-fragility and Thai food.
When discussing food, DW would invariably share his taxonomy of food: “Dip is a food group.”
(an actual page from one of Dave’s journals)
Then he would go onto explain his improved “alchemical” food pyramid: “You see, at the bottom is the usual: meat, vegetables, legumes and/or cereals given your dietary religiosity- this type of thing; the next tier up is shared by dip and things to put into the dip (2-3 servings a day); at the very top of the pyramid is the holy inner octave containing substances: wine, coffee, tea, cannabis and chocolate.”
I never got around to figuring out what hydrogen dip is. Probably virtuously elevated.
These peculiarities had an infectious quality. Certain words he uses have a way of creeping into your vocabulary at an alarming rate without you realising: Auspicious. Virtuous. Alchemical. Most people did not seem to notice the subtle subterfuge. After the ‘Repatterning Work’ article was published there was a very curious increase in the use of the word repatterning online -but a paucity of references.
The boundary between being serious, doing things for one own amusement or doing things under the sway of some arcane law remained ever unclear. I suspect it was always a dynamic mix. Using words to have them increase in popularity with peers and strangers only to drop them again. Hating words like ‘holistic’, ‘conscious community’, ‘mindfulness’ and ‘evidence-based’ with a vengeance. Having a very particular and auspicious numerology and then abiding by these numbers when making important life decisions or (still important) gym-based set and reps in a given exercise. Vigorously resisting dichotomies – insisting on the ‘third force’ wherever and whenever it could be found. Dip as a food group. Higher hydrogens.
Using intuition for seemingly all decision making. This appears very all over the place and erratic when written down but the truth of the matter is Dave is one of the most integrated human beings I have met and with many less internal contradictions than most. He jokes around a lot, can jump back into the ‘enchanted perspective’ of a child (as he does with his daughter often) but is serious and clear when it is necessary. There is meaning to what he does and how he acts (even if this meaning is lost on many).
“Dave is a very serious man. He is also very very alchemical. I am not entirely sure what alchemical means. But he is definitely alchemical. “ (A friend who has never met DW.)
Any exposition of theory or attempt to clarify a point would invariably involve diagrams. The moleskine notebooks containing renditions and distillation of diagram upon diagram. Diagrams are very alchemical. And they have great utility. More than one of the critical junctures in my apprenticeship can be traced back to specific diagrams. After a great amount of strain I had fermented and digested a certain pattern sufficiently; then, over Korean coffee DW promptly shared how this fit into the greater fermentation diagram [book content].
Ok -so what is an apprenticeship?
Skill acquisition? Transmission of skill is involved. I certainly learned stretching exercises.
Knowledge gaining? Not so much; Dave did far more to whittle and slash away at inessential “knowledge” that I had accumulated than impart new data and information (which I already already had plenty of).
Resonance and observation? Yes; it is about seeing how a being of higher development than oneself conducts their behaviour. This is somehow transmitted. Events and talks occur at precisely the right moment to provoke certain lessons. Caffeine-lubricated metaphysical repatterning; likely. Auspicion by osmosis; perhaps. The beneficial and virtuous absorption of emitted Higher Hydrogens; unsure. The mechanism is unclear and it does not matter overly. What matters is that it slowly begins to seep into your own life. It takes on a peculiarity of its own.
I even had “homework”! Some less enjoyable than others but none in the same way that most of us has had homework before in high school.
For months on end I fasted from reading books. Instead I trained and did manual work.
As a connoisseur of overly ‘manly’ violent movies and television series I suddenly found myself watching romantic movies alone, eating chocolate. I aimed for 100 but only made it into the 20’es. The French ones took alot out of me. After a refractory period I will dive back in.
For 90 days straight I recorded small clips of me talking about anything I could say three (semi-)coherent sentences about. Then I put them on the Internet. To say that I was uncomfortable with this is an understatement.
I never went to Martin Place with a naked torso, nor did I make the sign “The Harmonious Body – ask me”. Maybe whence I return to Sydneytown. Dave had hundreds of humorous, absurd and potent ‘re-patterning’ ideas that would occur to him at any moment (and that he would write down with the little Moleskine notebook he always had with him). ‘’
I began giving myself strange tasks too. The most peculiar of which maybe learning to swear in Farsi (Persian). During the critical final phase of my apprenticeship, when the sands of my visa were running low, I found myself hanging around a number of Iranians, and not understanding their strange language it felt like an appropriate challenge. I set out by learning the inappropiate part of the vernacular; you really can find everything on youtube. I recommend this approach to any tongue. I would still struggle to order a meal but I learned the most vile, colourful and poetic insults. The best from any language that I know.
Mid way through the apprenticeship and starting to see glimpses of how his mind worked I coined the phrase Meta-Sly. [ Dave, I want it in the book ! ]
Coincidences started occurring. As I resumed my reading (as directed) I found an obscure reference to Gurdjieff hidden in a blogpost of an author of which I had been reading for years before knowing anything about Gurdjieff, and who I liked very much. I was so stunned to find this connection that I sent this author a short message praising his writing and asking whether he was referring to Gurdjieff.
His reply was short, funny and wry: “Yes, G, thank you.”
Yes, Stretching; thank you. Repatterning Stretching to be more precise. It is the practical element, the nuts and bolts of the main Physical Alchemy syllabus currently operational. I had done extensive research beforehand. Read ‘the books’; attended workshops and done a moderate about of tinkering. But really it was a case of ‘You know nothing Jon Snow!’.
How do you make stretching work? It is certainly possible ‘to know’ all stretches by reading books about stretching and anatomy. But only after prolonged stretching – and perhaps more crucially – helping others stretch did this information come to life and became applicable for me.
Only late in my apprenticeship did I begin to build a capacity for seeing tension patterns (gross and subtle); of seeing how a stretch is ‘off’ and how to correct it. This comes down to experience. Of course having a basic understanding of anatomy certainly helped. There is no doubt about the invaluableness of this branch of science.
The paradoxical element of partner stretching is that it is possible to relax into very strong stretches. To repattern and soften the character armouring it is necessary to reach a moderately high level of intensity. For others this can be a very humorous to observe: when I am in this state it is often accompanied by bovine noises, reverting to my ancestral language or uncontrollable laughter. Often times all three in sequence.
In one of the last big alchemical stretching sessions (the 11th hour of my time in Australia) I finally managed get a grasp on one of the deeper aspect of the syllabus. I understood what the DW had been talking about all along with the difference between the already reified above the norm ‘Re-patterning Stretching’ and the more arcane ‘Alchemical Stretching’.
That this work lies far beyond repatterning stretching there is no doubt.
And that even people who are long term practitioners of various stretching and internal methods for the most part cannot see and are not aware of these differences that Dave teaches I saw clearly. They lack the qualities and so see only the physical form taking various shapes and thusly “know” it.
The occurrence was in a stretch of the hip flexor of moderate intensity with a vector through the front line. I was able to feel and work upon the soft tissues in the deep abdomen. ( mesenteric root perhaps; at least physically?) This was the first time that I could clearly feel this structure and more importantly the perception of the stretch was radically different. As if a whole separate dimension had opened up beneath my navel.
The breakthrough came at a price. My frequency of visits to the toilet in the 24 hours that followed increased greatly. I didn’t quite make it to the hallowed (in Dave’s cosmology) Nona-deuce – but I came close. Much to my and everyone else’s amusement. [DW] proclaimed this effect ‘pretty fucking virtuous’.
The after effects breached into meditation practice, strength training and stretching. Some ‘things’ that were there but not there were now very much online. As they say: “I was never the same again”.
[*] In dark times the eyes begin to see..
With the opening of powers in uncommon vision I began to see the predicament. Within my chosen fields of inquiry I saw the people I had been following for years with new eyes. Leaders, well respected and highly educated people all caught up in petty things. Bodies of work all without sufficient depth and virtue. Taleb has a useful insult for this kind of problem – ‘Intellectual Yet Idiot’. [DW] has another way of explaining this but it is contraband terminology as it appears in his book. The crux of the problem is domain dependence. Being adept in a narrow set circumstances, but falling apart within broader parameters.
“In working with human beings you are primarily dealing with their patterns. Any consideration of physical programming is secondary to this by a number of Astronomical Units.” (DW)
What I had progressively realised during my apprenticeship is that the disenchantment is all-encompassing. I had previously had my naive and cynical suspicions, flavoured by my filters and areas of enquiry at the time. Dave had ferried me across some dark waters and all of a sudden I turned back and saw. Fuck. Fuck! I saw something I could not have seen before. This perhaps is the essential element of apprenticeship. One of increasing sight.
I had come to Dave because I felt keenly something was wrong with the culture I grew up in and the world but I could not get its shape or measure. DW had said he could make me see it but had also warned me that there could be no going back – ‘what is seen canna be unseen’ (he may have even put on a Scottish accent when he said this).
We are literally fish swimming in an ocean of disenchantment. And as the common proverb goes, fish are supposedly unaware of the water due to its all-pervading nature in their reality. So, thusly, are we unaware of our own disenchantment and its threads running through every aspect of our culture. It is simply ’ the way things are’…
Sitting in a very nice Thai ‘Street Food’ restaurant in Chatswood, DW and I were discussing the recent US Presidential election (which was exceedingly rare as [DW] almost never discussed politics of any sort). There was an atmosphere of palpable unease. Everyone on edge. I was recounting how the surprising outcome had been predicted by the archdruid’(John Michael Greer) . Both DW and I had read this author independent of each other years beforehand.
Business as usual may be broken. Our time may have a growing amount of uncertainty. But that hitherto unknown plasticity has an upside. DW admonished me: “If Trump can win the white house, many things are possible for those who can do”.
[*] Coming Together
The apprenticeship ended in much different place from where it started – back where I began! The inaugural Physical Alchemy tour of Europe. It had come full circle. It humored me greatly being with DW in Europe.
I knew beforehand that it would be an experience. During my stay in Australia I had slowly been sharing words, phrases and insights from my native tongue (‘Denmarkian’ as DW calls it). They were invariably butchered as DW struggled with the impossible vowels. I do not think the attempts can be captured with the phonetic alphabet. Whence we found ourselves in Germany DW took to that challenge as well – one word is forever imprinted in my memory. The German word for 5 -Fünf. The renditions were endless: Fonf, fyyyynf, fenf, fönf, Fjonf … The manic exaggerated use of the musculature of the face during those attempts left me in tears. Particularly the time [DW] put on the persona of his stretching mentor Kit and tried the pronunciation.
I discovered even more of his seemingly unending antics. Apparently there is a special taxonomy of buildings, too: ‘I am Australian, you see, so anything that is more than 300 years old and has 3 stone blocks standing on top of each other is considered ‘a castle’ – by his ‘alchemical’ definition. DW: (elated – looking at some shitty ruins in St Anne’s Park in Dublin that was graffitied with Irish sigilry such as ‘*heart* bag of cans’) “Look – a castle!”
FB: (open disbelief) “It is not a fucking castle!!”
He ignored me and starting taking photos of his newly found “castle”.
Just when you think you have understood someone you are proven wrong in the most absurd of ways. I was standing dumbfounded staring at DW, questioning him. We were walking the molotov strewn streets of Paris (yes people were throwing molotov cocktails on Bastille Day) we had taken a wrong turn and now had to go back:
FB: “Let us just walk back the way we came.”
DW: “No, I never walk back the way I came from.”
FB: “… all this time we have known each other you have avoided this?”.
DW: “Yes. I also never walk in straight lines. And when I double back I always add a circle, figure-8 or take a different route. You haven’t noticed?!”. [Sheepish Silence].
We had walked hundreds (if not thousands) of kilometers together … and then to learn that we had been avoiding walking back the way we came, or in straight lines, the whole time. It is good to be surprised – even if you are speechless in the moment.
The point of my apprenticeship was not to become a carbon copy. Even a gilded alchemical one. The goal was to see for myself to learn and test the principles. To become self-educating and begin my own line of research from the vantage point of this new mode of perception.
“If you force the apprentice to ‘franchise’ or copy by rote your style you have not taught them via apprenticeship. There must be an enkindling. They can be shown to the door and helped through somewhat but they must walk their own path on the other side. If they can see (compass), and have some principles (map) they can and must find their own path through the forest (create their own art).”– [DW]
After the completion of the apprenticeship I formally joined Physical Alchemy. As Craig had done before me. Thus making us a trifecta which is numerologically auspicious. What and how I teach is necessarily different from both Dave and Craig, which is as it should be. The deeper way is the same. We can do more by coming together. The times are dire and there is a great deal of work to be done.
For one Physical Alchemy needs a headquarters.
Preferably ‘a real fucking castle’.
*) In Search of the Miraculous, Arkana Edition, p. 218 – P.D. Ouspensky. Ouspensky is quoting Gurdjieff.