Devoted to doing

Alexander vs. the mainstream, part 2.

Last time, I began exploring the theme of mainstream ideas that stand in the way of the general acceptance of Alexander’s work. 

It was true for Alexander and it’s still true for us today that we have to fight our corner in the face of persistent, compelling, widely accepted mainstream ideas, even if those ideas just don’t hold water when you look at them closely. Our biggest challenge initially is simply to get people to look at them closely.

Some years ago, I was working with a fitness instructor — a professional teacher of physical exercise with many years of experience. There was a particular movement that he found difficult and sometimes painful, which we worked on specifically for a couple of lessons. 

It was clear to me that the movement he wanted to make was being interfered with by other movements he was making with opposing muscle groups, so my job was pretty simple — persuade him to stop the interference. As soon as he stopped those opposing movements, he was able to make the desired movement with ease.

Job done. Easy peasy. Bob’s your uncle. QED.

What could possibly go wrong?

The following week, this student came to his lesson after consulting a sports physiologist. She had diagnosed his problem as weakness in some of his flexor muscles and had given him exercises to strengthen them.

My student went off to do his exercises and I never saw him again. Apparently, the fact that his problem had completely disappeared during our previous meeting did not make an impression.

Trust me, he is not alone. I’m reasonably certain that many Alexander Technique teachers reading this will have had similar experiences.

At some level this is deeply frustrating, and sometimes, to use the vernacular, it does my head in. We’re talking about trained professionals here, some of them with far more letters after their names than I’ll ever have after mine. 

Why is it that even having had the direct experience that stopping excess muscular activity can eliminate their problem, people still fall back on conventional solutions like exercises and forget about the wonderful thing that just happened?

Don’t just sit there, do something!

Well, let’s look again at the choices my student was facing. 

Option 1) I had just begun the process of introducing him to a new way of thinking that would, over time and in a general way, build up in him a mental discipline that would enable him to prevent the poorly directed muscular actions that might get in his way and limit all of his movement options, including the specific movement that was giving him trouble.

Option 2) The sports physiologist had given him some exercises to do.

Be honest, which would you choose?

I can tell you that most people choose number 2 every time. Option 2 has “conventional approach” written all over it. Option 2 fits our mindset, it is “mainstream”, and, above all, it involves doing something

And there are few things that have been drilled into us so deeply and so consistently for so long as the “do something” mindset.

Problematic preconceptions

Alexander considered this mindset to be a pretty serious obstacle to learning his work. 

In his second book he lists some of the fixed ideas that almost all students have when they begin lessons – preconceptions that he says absolutely must be eradicated before there can be any hope of progress. You will notice that one of these items is emphasised (the italics are Alexander’s).

Certain of these fixed ideas are encountered in the case of almost every pupil; fixed ideas, for example, as to what constitutes the right and what the wrong method of going to work as a pupil; fixed ideas in regard to the necessity for concentration, if success is to attend the efforts of pupil and teacher; also a fixed belief … that, if a pupil is corrected for a defect, he should be taught to do something in order to correct it, instead of being taught, as a first principle, how to prevent … the wrong thing from being done.  

Constructive Conscious Control of The Individual, Mouritz 2012, p.116

Alexander’s experience, just like mine, was that almost every pupil believes he/she should be taught to do something to correct a fault, and any process that doesn’t teach them to do something should be treated with suspicion.

If you have read the question that begins, you will remember that the first step in understanding Alexander’s work is to accept that there are certain problems that we make for ourselves and, having accepted responsibility for making those problems, we realise that the solution is simply to stop making them. It’s the beginning of Alexander’s story and it’s the first thing I tell my students.

Yet no matter how sincerely my students tell me that they understand and believe in this idea that they just need to stop doing the thing that’s causing their problem, they continue to try to do something to correct it.

Alexander suggests a reason for this:

This is not surprising, as it is probable that all his former teachers will have instilled into him from his earliest days the idea that when something is wrong, he must do something to try and get it right. 

ibid, p.117

According to Alexander, this is how we’ve been educated. This paradigm of “something is wrong, I must do something to fix it” is about as mainstream a concept as you are likely to find. It is “received wisdom”, to such an extent that most of us don’t even realise we have received it. In terms of a favourite modern analogy: it has become our default setting.

To do, or not to do, that is the question

The thing is, this model is not always a disaster. If that were true then nobody would do it. Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, the “do something” model is actually the correct model.

If you have a deep cut you need to get some stitches, if you have been bitten by a snake you need antivenin, if you have a subluxated lumbar vertebra then you need a chiropractic adjustment. If there is a grinding noise coming from your car, you need to do something about it and quickly.

So, not only have we been trained to think this way since our earliest days, we also have reasons to believe that it works. 

Until suddenly it doesn’t.

When we run into the category of problem that is self-generated, caused by excess muscular activity, brought about by the haphazard way in which we direct ourselves in activity, based on erroneous concepts, ideas and beliefs that we hold dear, then the “do something” model is a very poor choice indeed.

Hence Alexander’s insistence that eradicating this idea is a top priority for a teacher of his work. Despite our best efforts, though, that lifetime of training remains a powerful obstacle. 

It is not enough just to explain to someone that if they stop doing the thing that’s causing a problem then they won’t have a problem.

It is not enough to give them the direct experience of their problem disappearing when they successfully stop doing that thing. 

Even after many such experiences, the compulsion to “do” remains.

Maybe I’m particularly slow or dense, but even after doing this work for over 20 years, if I notice a restriction in myself, or some stiffness, my first impulse is still to start doing something to deal with it. I still have to make a deliberate choice not to respond to that urge right away. 

I have no doubts about the success I’ve enjoyed through this work, but my experience is that I still have to assume command in those moments, otherwise my early training kicks in and I start “doing”. 

At which point I usually have a good laugh at myself and start again.

Don’t just do something, sit there!

In some meditative paths and spiritual traditions, it is said that the highest expression of the true Self is that part of us with which we say “no” to ourselves. I’m not suggesting that Alexander Technique will lead to spiritual enlightenment, but this practice, this exercise of saying “no” to yourself is the very foundation of his process.

In some ways, this is one of the functions an Alexander lesson serves — giving the student the opportunity to practise saying “no” to something they really want to do.

It’s almost as if this process were a skill requiring practice, and that the more you practised the better you would get. Yes, you do have to assume command. Yes, you do have to make a conscious effort to respond in a useful way rather than the usual way. But it’s worth it. 

With practice, over time, it gets easier and quicker to exercise that choice. The more you exercise that choice, the more control you will be able to demonstrate over your mind and body. The more you exercise that choice, the more able will you be to make appropriate choices in the present moment, rather than just acting out of old programming. 

So, even if you’re not an Alexander student right now, it might be worth taking a moment before diving into your next problem. Say no to that urge, and just ask whether this is a problem that requires you to do something, or a problem that requires you to stop something.

If you enjoy reading these posts, please feel free to share using the buttons below. Thank you for helping to spread the word.

By Simon Gore

Simon teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol, England, and is a course coordinator for the ITM teacher training programme.

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