Concentration (true)

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

In recent posts, we have been looking more closely at the concept of concentration and the “unusual condition of the body” that almost everyone adopts when they think they’re concentrating.

We also looked at some of the reasons why Alexander objected to concentration even if it was done properly.

It’s now time to look at his alternative, which I have found it to be a very useful concept indeed.

The normal child at play

Early in Alexander’s second book, there is a rather lovely footnote. He is coming to the end of his seven-page argument claiming that concentration cannot cure mind-wandering and he slips in, like a teaser, this description of what he might mean by “true concentration”.

For the moment I wish merely to point out that I am not here objecting to concentration in the sense which implies a number of things going on, moving at the same time and converging on a common consequence, a form of concentration which is present in … the normal child at play and the competent artisan or artist engrossed in his work, and which simply implies a condition of co-ordination.

Constructive Conscious Control of The Individual, Mouritz 2012, p.45 f.n.

So, one characteristic of this process of which Alexander approves is that it is present both in the normal child at play and the artisan or artist engrossed in his work.

I love the way Alexander put these things together. The kind of mental processes that are effective and successful in carpentry, calligraphy, cooking or clarinet playing, are of the same kind as in “a normal child at play”. 

Oh yes they are.  Hell yes.  Amen.

Why is it, do you suppose, that you never have to tell a child to concentrate on its Lego? It’s the same reason that somebody tinkering with a classic car will be completely oblivious to the sun going down. Neither a five-year-old with Lego nor a fifty-year-old with a classic car to restore want to hear anything about bedtime.

In both cases, “concentration” is irrelevant. The concept has no meaning and serves no purpose. Their minds are fully engaged in what they are doing and, whatever we call this process, I think we can agree that it comes easily. One might even suggest that it’s natural, if not downright normal.

I also love the image of “a number of things going on, moving at the same time and converging on a common consequence”. Now we’re in business. Now we can start to see a whole different mental skill being put forward.

An expansionist policy

Do you remember Alexander’s illustration of a golf lesson from last time, and how he argued that concentrating on one instruction meant ignoring, at least to some extent, all the others?

We had a list of things that the golfer must have somewhere in his field of attention: the grip, the stance, the shoulder movement, the hips, the follow-through, and I’m sure an actual golfer could add to the list. “Concentration” will oppose this goal. 

In order to make a good stroke a golfer must have “a number of things going on, moving at the same time and converging on a common consequence”. This is entirely different. This involves expanding your mind and widening your attention, not narrowing it.

Back in 1910, in his first book, Alexander used another phrase that I think sums up this approach rather well. “Taking up every occupation with the whole mind.”

It would be very easy to see this as just another way of saying “concentration”, but it’s actually a very different idea. 

When I am “concentrating”, some part of my mind is working to block out distractions and unwanted ideas. Which means that part of my mind is actually trying to silence another part. But when I take up a task with my whole mind, particularly in the disciplined way that Alexander is suggesting, that effort becomes unnecessary. 

If I fill up my mind with useful thoughts, there will be no need to empty it of useless ones.

Conscious projection of orders

In the chapter called “Concentration and the Sustained (Continuous) Projection of Orders”, Alexander got into the nitty-gritty of this new mental discipline. Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid some Alexandrian jargon here, but nothing too esoteric.

In the following passages Alexander talks about “orders” and “projecting orders”. In this context, “orders” simply refers to the commands you give yourself when you tell yourself to do something.

For example, if you started learning to play piano, you would have to deliberately tell each finger when and how to move. Same thing with golf, or anything else you do, for that matter.

Also, don’t be phased by the use of the word: “evolution”. In this slightly antiquated usage of the word, it has nothing to do with natural selection, but simply refers to a process that you are carrying out, or a series of actions like, for example, Alexander’s favourite illustration: swinging a golf club.

Co-ordinated use of the different parts [of the body] during any evolution calls for the continuous, conscious projection of orders to the different parts involved…

Constructive Conscious Control of The Individual, Mouritz 2016, p.213

In other words, there are different movements of different body parts that all have to come together in a coordinated fashion, leading to a particular outcome (converging on a common consequence).

All those different body parts have to move in a certain way, in a certain sequence. Which means somebody has to tell those body parts what to do and when. In other words, somebody has to direct all that action; to send the “orders”.

So far, so good, but now it gets interesting. Alexander is going to add one more key ingredient into the mix.

…the primary order concerned with the guidance and control of the primary part of the act being continued whilst the orders connected with the secondary part of the movement are projected, and so on, however many orders are required (the number of these depending upon the demands of the processes concerned with a particular movement).

ibid p.213

Alltogethersimultaneouslyatthesametime

It’s not just a case of telling one part of you to do one thing and another part to do another. He says we must continue to send the first “order” as we send the second, and third, etc. In other words, all those “orders” must be given at the same time.

This is not merely a mental exercise to boost your brain power. According to Alexander it is essential for optimum coordination.

In order to direct your various body parts in a harmonious, interrelated constellation of movements, you will have to widen your field of attention to include all of the different elements involved. 

Summing up this argument, Alexander describes a kind of domino effect, or line of causation from conception of the act to execution of the act in a coordinated fashion.

The projection of continued, conscious orders … calls for a broad, reasoning attitude, so that the subject has not only a clear conception of the orders essential (…) for the correct performance of a particular movement, but he can also project these orders in their right relationship one to another, the co-ordinated series of orders resulting in a co-ordinated use of the organism.

ibid p.213

In order to have effective, coordinated activity, you need to send effective, coordinated orders, in various combinations and sequences.

In order to send coordinated orders in the appropriate combinations and sequences you need to have, somewhere in your consciousness, a clear conception of the whole of the activity and the combinations of orders that will bring it about.

Seriously? Is that even possible?

You may be thinking that Alexander is asking a lot, maybe even asking the impossible, but there are two reasons why this process might not be as big a challenge as it seems. 

The first reason is that you do this anyway. It’s actually how the human brain works all the time, but we don’t pay it much attention because we aren’t usually making a deliberate conscious effort to make it happen. 

For example, did you ever have a conversation with someone while walking down the road?

Did you fall over when you started speaking?

Why not? How did your legs keep moving? And not only moving, but making adjustments, veering around other people and lamp-posts, or even climbing steps, for goodness sake. 

You must have been sending all of those orders for all of those different actions all at the same time. The only difference here is that Alexander is asking us to make it a deliberately developed skill, which we can apply consistently and consciously to everything we do.

The second reason this may not be quite as big an ask as it might seem is that if you can learn how to do this, everything else you do will go more quickly and easily, particularly when it comes to learning a new skill.

Your golf lesson, your driving lesson and your drum lesson, will all go more quickly and easily. Which brings me to my own drum students.

Fill your mind

I may have mentioned that I used to be a professional drummer. In those days, like many pro musicians, I was giving instrumental lessons both privately and in several schools and colleges. 

When I started training to be an Alexander Technique teacher my music tuition changed dramatically, and one of the most important changes I made was to ditch the concept of concentration.

The more I understood Alexander’s ideas about thinking, learning and directing the mind, the more I was able to develop an entirely different approach to instrumental teaching.

I soon began to find ways to encourage my students to expand their attention, instead of narrowing it. To practise encompassing more ideas simultaneously, rather than trying to focus their minds on one thing. I even started asking for “the opposite of concentration”.

In my drum lessons, students learn one basic idea or skill, and then expand their field of attention to include a second basic idea simultaneously with the first. Then we add a third. I continue to work on expanding their attention in this way until they look as though their heads are full. And after a rest, we do it again.

I can’t tell you how much more effective my teaching became once I started to teach expansion instead of narrowing of attention. 

It also became more interesting. 

Also, much more fun.

So, next time you set out to learn a new skill, don’t concentrate. Take up the task with your whole mind and see what happens.

See if you can understand all the individual elements of the task, and expand your attention to include each one of them, in their sequence and relationship to each other.

Here’s a thought: next time you go to do something familiar — a chore that would normally bore you senseless — take up the task with your whole mind and see what happens. You might get a surprise.

It was true for me and for my students, it was true for Mr Alexander, and I’m willing to bet it could be true for you: if you fill your head with useful thoughts, there will be no need to empty it of useless ones.


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.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: