Beware concentration (so-called)

Alexander vs. the ‘mainstream’ – part 3(a)

In the last post we saw Alexander’s list of fixed ideas that need to be eradicated before a student can learn his work. One of the items on that list is our subject for today.

…fixed ideas in regard to the necessity for concentration, if success is to attend the efforts of pupil and teacher;

When reading what Alexander wrote on the subject of “concentration”, we need to bear in mind that the different passages on this subject may not be talking about the same phenomenon. In fact, I believe he identified at least three different processes associated with the word “concentration”. 

One type he referred to as “so-called concentration”, which is what he said most of us do when we believe we are concentrating. 

Then there is the dictionary definition of the word, which I suppose we could call “Webster’s concentration”. In Alexander’s experience, these two types almost always go together — like the proverbial horse and carriage — and he wasn’t a fan of either of them.

Then there is a process of which he did approve and which he labelled “true concentration”.

I think it will make most sense to start with “so-called concentration” before going on to the others because this discussion is going to shed light on some of the issues we have already covered.

It might also shed some light on the fundamental question of why Alexander Technique exists at all.

So-called concentration

In Man’s Supreme Inheritance, first published in 1910, Alexander wrote a deeply insightful critique of the process known as “concentration”, in which he revealed human behaviour in its full absurdity.

If, at this point, the reader feels inclined to analyse these habits and to set about a control of them, I will give him one word of preliminary advice, “Beware of so-called concentration.”

This advice is so pertinent to the whole principle that it is worth while to elaborate it.

Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Mouritz 1996, p.63

Those of us who grew up watching BBC costume dramas will take that last sentence in our stride. However, when introducing Alexander’s writings to a 21st century audience, it is often helpful to translate his Victorian/Edwardian English usage into modern English. Especially because, in a world where a T-shirt can be “awesome” and a bag of chips can be “obscenely good”, it can be difficult for many of us to get our heads around good old-fashioned British understatement.

So, for example, the statement: “This advice is so pertinent to the whole principle that it is worth while to elaborate it” would roughly translate as: “this is like massive and I’m sooo gonna talk about it for the next three pages.” 

Ask any one you know to concentrate his mind on a subject — anything will do — a place, a person, or a thing. If your friend is willing to play the game and earnestly endeavours to concentrate his mind, he will probably knit his forehead, tense his muscles, clench his hands, and either close his eyes or stare fixedly at some point in the room. As a result his mind is very fully occupied with this unusual condition of the body which can only be maintained by repeated orders from the objective mind. 

I love that phrase: “an unusual condition of the body which can only be maintained by repeated orders from the objective mind”. Remember it — it’s going to become very important later. 

But I digress. Why is this unusual condition of the body so problematic?

In short, your friend, though he may not know it, is not using his mind for the consideration of the subject you have given him to concentrate upon, but for the consideration of an unusual bodily condition which he calls “concentration”. 

You can’t have it both ways

There it is folks, “so-called concentration” in all its glory. Alexander is describing a series of movements that you can observe people making, which they associate with the process of “concentration”.

All of those movements are brought about through muscular activity. Every one of those muscular actions is brought about by messages from the brain to the motors concerned. Those messages are sent out according to pre-existing or newly formed strategies based on your concepts, preferences, assumptions etc. 

The more movement you are making, the more of your brain is devoted to planning, directing and maintaining those movements, and the less brain power you have left for actually concentrating on the subject you’ve been given.

More importantly, none of those movements has anything whatsoever to do with concentrating.

I’m pretty sure that concentration takes place, like most mental processes, inside your head. You don’t think with your neck muscles. So, the burning question is why on earth would we perform all kinds of gymnastics in order to do a process that should be entirely mental? 

Alexander’s next statement contains a clue.

This is true also of the attitude of attention required for children in schools…

It’s easy to miss what Alexander just did. This little gem is almost hidden in the middle of the paragraph, and it’s not even a complete sentence, but it opens a very interesting can of worms indeed. Two cans, actually.

Education, again.

When you were at school, how many times were you told to sit up and pay attention? Or, even worse, to sit up straight and pay attention. It certainly happened to me many times, and oh how I wish I’d had access to Alexander’s ideas back then. 

Do you see that when a teacher says: “sit up and pay attention” or something similar, they are demanding exactly the same conflicting actions that we see in so-called concentration? 

We have been given two competing goals: goal A is to give our full attention to what the teacher is saying, goal B is to perform a kind of dance, to strike a pose in order to look as if we are giving our full attention. These two goals are in conflict.

There is only one reasonable response to an instruction like that: “Well, which do you want? Do you want me to put my attention on maintaining an artificial and energy sapping posture, or do you want me to put my attention on what you’re trying to teach us?”

(On second thoughts, It’s probably best that I didn’t have access to Alexander back then — I’m not sure my teachers would have considered this kind of response reasonable.)

I’m sure regular readers will recognise where this is going. Once again, we have been trained “from our earliest days” to behave in these bizarre, artificial, superficial, unreasoned ways. 

We have been taught, directly or indirectly, that a certain pose, a certain look, is associated with “paying attention” just as we have been taught, directly or indirectly, that a certain pose is associated with “concentrating”. 

In other words, if we looked as if we were paying attention, the teacher was happy. Therefore, we learned to adopt that look when asked to pay attention. At some point we began to associate that unusual condition of the body with the act of paying attention (and the same goes for “concentration”).

It gets worse. According to Alexander this behaviour is not just associated with “concentration”, it has become identified as “concentration”.

In short, your friend, though he may not know it, is not using his mind for the consideration of the subject you have given him to concentrate upon, but for the consideration of an unusual bodily condition which he calls “concentration.”

This condition, this movement behaviour, which is serving no useful purpose whatsoever, can actually become labelled as “concentration”.

In fact, if you prevent someone from making those unnecessary movements, sometimes they will say that you are stopping them from concentrating. How mental is that?

Wherefore art thou, Alexander Technique?

This brings me to the second can of worms.

If we do this kind of thing when we “concentrate”, and we also do it when we “pay attention”, are there other activities during which we create an unusual condition of the body which can only be maintained by repeated orders from the objective mind?

Once you get tired of Alexander’s concentration game, try asking your (very patient) friend to “relax” and watch what happens. You will almost certainly get a series of completely unnecessary physical actions that the individual has learned to associate with the instruction to “relax”. (Perhaps we should call this: “so-called relaxation”)

But wait! Does that mean there might be many activities in which we do all kinds of interesting behaviours that have nothing whatsoever to do with the task in hand? 

What if it’s all of them?

Is it possible that, in everything we do, we are not just performing the task in hand — not just walking, running or washing the car — but we are also putting effort into an unusual condition of the body, which we associate with performing that task?

Is it possible? You bet it is. 

A large part of my job, as an Alexander Technique teacher is to help people let go of all those unnecessary movement behaviours until they are just walking, just running or just washing the car. Or, indeed, just concentrating. This leaves the student free to get on with his or her life without being restricted by all that other nonsense. I highly recommend it.

So much for so-called

So, it turns out that “so-called concentration” is not concentration at all, but a prime example of the kind of unnecessary muscular activity that we impose on ourselves, that interferes with everything else we want to do.

Incidentally, once you run out of friends who are willing to play Alexander’s game, try paying some attention to what you yourself do when you “concentrate”. Are you just thinking about something or are you also doing something?

Next time, we will look at the dictionary definition of concentration and find out why Alexander thought it was a “disastrous and narrowing concept”.

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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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