The primacy of thinking

A personal note.

It has been a while since I published my last post and I would like you to know why.

The Alexander world — at least, the part of the Alexander world that I inhabit — has been shaken by the sudden, incomprehensible loss of an extraordinary man.

My teacher, my mentor, my guide through the deep dark forest of mind-altering principles and concepts that is Alexander’s work, Donald L. Weed, D.C. died unexpectedly at the end of March.

An extraordinarily gifted teacher, he created a unique approach to teaching Alexander’s work, the Interactive Teaching Method (ITM), and a training program to train teachers in this new approach.

Though there are some who, for various reasons, could not accept Don’s views and who rejected his teaching, his contribution to the understanding and future development of Alexander’s work cannot be ignored.

A person of note.

Don took a radical stance towards Alexander’s work (where “radical” is meant in its literal sense of “proceeding from the root or origin”). 

Don’s work, just like Alexander’s, began with a question. The question he began with was: “What if Alexander was right?”

This may seem a peculiar question to ask among students (and teachers) of Alexander Technique, but it was actually quite revolutionary in the late ‘70s. You see, at that time, almost nobody was reading Alexander’s books — they weren’t even in print.

Don Weed read the books. 

He read them using the skills of text analysis that he had learned as an actor, director, and writer. In other words, the same skills that Alexander would have used when he was writing. Don spent years copying out and diagramming more than 800 pages of Alexandrian wisdom and subjecting it all to the tests of logic and consistency.

He was also in a position, as a doctor of chiropractic, to apply scientific rigour to his study. He was able to correct physiologic errors and make allowances for the limited medical knowledge of Alexander’s time.

He analysed every last little bit of Alexander’s work to a depth that few, if any, can match.

If you have been following my posts, you will be in little doubt about my opinion of Mr Alexander’s writings. My excitement at and enthusiasm for the ideas to be found in those books is entirely down to the training I received from Don, as is any joy, interest or enlightenment you may have found in these pages.

But this is not the place for an obituary. This is a place for exploring ideas. So, today I am going to look at one of the most important concepts from Weed. I have already alluded to it in earlier posts. It is even in the title of one of Don’s most influential books.

What You Think is What You Get

Those seven words tell you everything you need to know about Don, the ITM, and Alexander’s work according to the ITM.

They are not radical, or particularly original. They merely describe a simple truth about the way human beings operate. Here’s the simplified version:

If you raise your arm, or make any other movement, that body part moves because there are muscles attached to it in various places and at various angles and those muscles are contracting. So far, so good. I don’t think that’s going to be a stretch for anyone.

The question is, why do those muscles contract? They contract because a set of messages are sent from your brain, down through the nerves that attach to those muscles, which cause them to contract. 

Those messages go out in that sequence because you have a plan in place for raising your arm, and you have that particular plan because you have a definite concept of what raising your arm means and how it should look and feel. 

All of those activities: conceiving of the movement, designing the movement, planning and executing the movement are some form of mental activity. In other words: your movement is caused by thinking.

This is just basic physiology. This is how your body works. You don’t have to take my word for it, you can look it up.

But what happens when we look at Alexander’s work in light of this fact?

Well, the first thing that happens is we realise that Alexander understood this principle perfectly well. There are many examples in these posts, and plenty more to come.

More importantly, taking this concept to heart will determine how we go about teaching.

The practical outcome

In his most recent book, Reach Your Dreams, Don uses the example of someone playing a violin to illustrate the consequences of this idea for the teaching of Alexander’s work. 

[Note: the “primary desire to feel right in the gaining of our ends” is a topic that both Weed and Alexander had plenty to say about. See particularly the chapter called: “The golfer who couldn’t keep his eyes on the ball” from Alexander’s The Use of The Self]

If thinking in a characteristic and familiar way creates characteristic movements which, in turn, create characteristic and familiar feelings, that over time come to feel right, then it is the combination of these feelings and movements with our primary desire to feel right in the gaining of our ends that locks us into a prison of the past from which we find it nearly impossible to escape.

Most of us, when we are faced with this problem, try to solve it by changing the movement we make or the target for which we aim.

For instance, a violinist might find that some of her problems are coming from the fact that she raises her right shoulder while bowing. As a result, rather than trying to bow while raising her shoulder that way (which she has identified and labelled as the fault she is making), she tries to play the violin by holding her right shoulder down or by “relaxing” it so that she doesn’t raise it while playing.

Commendable as far as it goes, and, frankly, sometimes a strategy like this seems to work, if only for a little while.

But if I have portrayed the problem as it actually is and if the relationship between thinking and movement is a causal relationship, then wouldn’t it make more sense to attack the problem from the front-end, from the beginning of this chain of causation rather than trying to deal with the accumulation of end products?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to stop the problem from happening in the first place by stopping or preventing the thoughts or messages that cause her to raise her shoulder while bowing?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to establish a conscious yet indirect control over the thinking processes that are required to play the violin effectively and then let the body express in movement the thoughts over which you have indirect control?

This is precisely what an Alexander lesson is designed to accomplish: to create interactions in a learning context that explore and establish particular mental disciplines for the purpose of freeing ourselves from the tyranny of the past.

Reach Your Dreams, ITM publications 2012, p94

I’m sure you don’t need me to point out that it is not just violinists who may want to free themselves from “the tyranny of the past”. You could insert any activity you like. Or any person you like.

The simplest of lessons, the hardest of lessons

I remember my very first lesson for many reasons, but one of them is the moment when the teacher explained that: “thinking causes movement.” 

He then looked at me expectantly, as if he were waiting for me to look surprised or confused, or to protest somehow. I didn’t do any of those things because I had been involved in several movement disciplines in the past and I knew very well that our movements are the result of our thoughts.

Looking back, I now wonder whether this put me at a disadvantage. Believing that I already knew what he was talking about, I didn’t give that statement the attention it deserved. 

Thinking causes movement.

It is quite rare these days for me to encounter a student who does not understand the causal relationship between thinking and movement. I actually can’t remember the last time anyone argued with me when I explained it.

But the consequences of that idea still take time to fully understand, let alone experience.

It is not at all unusual for an experienced, or even advanced student to reach a new understanding during a lesson and suddenly exclaim: “OMG! It’s mental! It’s all mental!” (including yours truly, by the way).

It’s as if our “devotion to doing” (see post number 7) and the seemingly irresistible call of our familiar feelings prevents us from truly believing in the primacy of thinking. 

No matter how deep our understanding of the work, no matter how much evidence we have before us, our default setting still seems to be to “do” something in order to make a change, rather than going through the thinking processes that we know will help us.

It sometimes seems as though quite a large part of my teaching practice revolves around reminding students that it’s their thinking that has to change.

You know, it’s almost as if Alexander’s work were some kind of mental discipline…

The gift of constructive thinking

What Don Weed did for us was to put mental discipline front and centre. “Thinking technology” was a phrase he often used.

Every single step in his teaching process was designed to discover, to analyse and try to unravel the thinking that is the root cause of someone’s behaviour, in a safe and supportive learning environment.

Every teaching interaction was designed to invite the student to change an unhelpful way of thinking to a more constructive way of thinking.

When those teaching interactions were successful, the changes that individuals were able to make for themselves were often staggering. Physical changes and mental changes that enabled thousands of people to live fuller, more productive and happier lives (including yours truly, by the way).

But when you understand that, in the absence of injury or disease, the way we think really does determine almost everything about us, it actually makes complete sense that huge changes are possible with a ‘simple’ change of thought.

So, while you’re trying to figure out how to change an unhelpful movement behaviour (or any other kind of behaviour, for that matter), you might want to consider starting “at the front-end”, with your conception of that activity.

Seem reasonable?


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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.

1 comment

  1. Wonderful. Still can’t believe that we will never see him again… Thanks for sharing x

    Jacky Morgan rewildchew garden by garden 🐝

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