What do you have to do to do?

The other “do”

Alexander’s work is full of apparent contradictions. It drove me nuts when I started lessons — I was convinced my teacher had told me one thing and then, after I had made some progress, told me something else entirely.

One of the most important mental skills to learn in this work is the art and craft of making ever finer distinctions, especially between ideas that seem to be similar. 

For instance: having spent an awful lot of lesson time trying to convince my students to stop, rather than “do” something, having spoken at great length about the importance of not “doing”, pretty soon I am likely to ask: “what do you have to do to stand up?” Or something very similar.

How is this not a contradiction? We might be operating at a different level, or at a different point in the procedure, or using the word “do” in a particular way. In this case, the question: “what do you have to do to stand up?” is actually designed to help develop a particular and very important mental discipline.

There’s more to life than poise

When we begin Alexander Technique lessons, the focus is almost certainly going to be on how we “use” ourselves — the relationship of our heads with our bodies, economy of movement and stopping unnecessary activity. (See: what is primary control and devoted to “doing”

These are vital skills that we can continue to work on for a lifetime with increasing benefit, but they are not the whole story. 

For instance, what if someone were to carry out a task with their head beautifully poised in relation to their body, with extraordinarily efficient and effective movement, and no unnecessary muscular activity anywhere, but their plan of action – the method by which they carry out that task – is completely inappropriate? 

Perfect execution of a plan that sucks will probably produce a result that sucks. 

Fortunately, the skills and disciplines we learn in Alexander lessons can be applied anywhere, to any activity we perform. They can help us make increasingly clear decisions about what we want and the most reasonable way to achieve it.

Alexander’s work can help you to bring the most effective way of using yourself to bear on the most effective means of achieving your goals.

Which brings us, sooner or later, to questions like: 

  • “What do you need to do to stand up?”
  • “What do you need to do to dig a hole?”
  • What do you need to do to play the piano?”

If the Alexander teacher has asked this question at just the right moment, the responses can be very enlightening.

Sometimes, we will simply learn that the student doesn’t have a clue how to go about the activity in question. Sometimes, we will find that the student has very clear, strict, and totally barmy rules about how to do it. 

Since we don’t ask ourselves this question in normal life, we go on acting on unrecognised (and often barmy) rules and wonder why things aren’t going so well.

This raises two questions: 

  1. where do these default plans and strict rules come from, and
  2. what can I do about it? 

Existing protocols

According to the late great Dr. Don Weed, the source of most of our day-to-day strategies and plans, or “protocols”, for doing everything we do is the past.

If I am going to perform any activity, I must create a protocol for carrying out that activity. One of the sources I can always call upon are the old protocols I have stored within me. The trouble with this, of course, is that by responding with past protocols I am more likely than not going to be distancing myself from where I presently am and what is actually going on now. If I respond with past protocols, at least some part of me will be responding to what went on before: the “conditions past” rather than the “conditions present”. 

What You Think is What You Get, ITM publications 2003, p.108

If you think about it, this could be true of almost everything we do.

When I scratch an itch, I do so according to some kind of protocol filed away in the depths of my mind, labelled “scratching an itch”. We don’t, as a rule, take a moment to analyse the current itch and reason out the most effective way of scratching it. We just scratch. Which means we must be using pre-existing protocols. 

My question to you is, when did you work out how to do all these things? When did you figure out how to stand? When did you work out your protocol for walking, running, scratching, eating and drinking? My guess is you had designed strategies for all of these activities by the time you were three.

In other words, you are quite possibly living your day-to-day life using strategies that were invented by a toddler.

Strategies of a 3-year-old

Okay, so you probably tweaked your procedures a couple of times along the way. Maybe you adopted a certain shape to your walk because you are a huge Bruce Lee fan. Or maybe those dance lessons made you rethink the way your foot lands. But the basic movement strategies were already in place.

“But hang on a minute!” I hear you cry, “Most of these things just happen, don’t they? Haven’t we evolved to stand and walk upright, and to carry things?”

Up to a point, yes of course we have. But, as Alexander pointed out many times, human beings have moved beyond purely animal processes like natural selection and instinct. 

No creature on Earth has evolved to put on a sock. 

Natural selection did not produce an organism perfectly adapted to use a knife and fork, mow the lawn or sit at a desk and type. Natural selection takes many generations even to begin to have an effect. Our work and home environments can change dramatically in the blink of an eye. 

This means that practically everything we do day to day is a brand spanking new activity, which we have to learn. 

And the point Dr. Weed is making is that most of the strategies we use are strategies we learned a very long time ago. They may have been appropriate once upon a time, but how often do we check to see if they still are?

The means to a means

It should come as no surprise that Mr Alexander had a solution to the problem of “distancing myself from where I presently am”. In his book The Use of The Self, he wrote down the recipe, and it’s one of the few times he gave us simple, straight forward instructions on what to do.

In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.

The Use of The Self, Orion 1985, p.39

In this passage, Alexander is focused on the issue of “use”. He is developing a recipe for analysing, designing and directing his use of himself. But I’m sure you can see that the same recipe will help him analyse, design and direct his actions in the performance of any task. 

Therefore, I am going to generalise these three steps so that we can apply them to something practical.

It so happens I have been doing a lot of gardening lately and digging has been on my mind. So, what do you have to do to dig a hole?

Step one

Analyse the conditions present

In our hole-digging example, the conditions present would include the type of ground, the type of spade, and making sure the spade has a functioning handle. It would also include the relationship of your head with your body – that relationship is part of the conditions present.

Step two

Reason out an appropriate means by which you can achieve your goal.

This would include the most effective way to use the tool, and the most effective way to use yourself while you are using the tool.

The purpose here is not necessarily to come up with a new method of digging a hole (though let’s not rule out that possibility). There is a good chance that the spade-wielding recipe you come up with today will look remarkably similar to the one you came up with yesterday.

But that’s not the point.

By following this process, we step out of our familiar, routine way of going to work (past protocols) and bring our full attention into this present moment. This step on its own can change our relationship to the task, often in surprising and illuminating ways.

So, even if I have wielded a spade a hundred times before, when I pick it up today, I’m going to work out how to use it as if this were my first time.

That is so important and so central to Alexander’s work, and resisted so strongly by just about everyone, that I am going to say it again.

Even if I have wielded a spade a hundred times before, when I pick it up today, I’m going to work out how to use it as if this were my first time.

Step three

Project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.

We have touched on these technical terms before [see: concentration (true) ]. “Directions”, in this context are the “orders”, the commands you give yourself, when you direct yourself in activity.

The important word here, though, is “means”. The orders or directions I am giving myself are the ones that will bring about the means. 

I am absolutely not going to direct myself to dig a hole.

In other words, I have given thought to the relationship of my head to my body, reasoned out the most appropriate place to stand, the most appropriate way to hold the spade, the best way to move my arms and legs in order for the spade to do what I want it to do, etc. This is the “means”, the protocol, by which the hole will get dug. 

When I go into activity, I am going to fill my mind exclusively with these means, sparing no thought for the result.

If the means I have reasoned out are appropriate, and if my goal is achievable, if I faithfully carry out the means I have reasoned out, I cannot avoid success.

If, even for a second, I put my attention on the result, I will almost certainly get my “past protocols” leading to the same outcomes I always had in the past.

As I said, I may not come up with a radical new method of going to work, but my experience working with this process has always been that, over time, my relationship to the task changes in interesting and positive ways, and so do the results.

I recommend trying this with an activity you do regularly, maybe something you take for granted. 

Analyse the conditions present. Reason out, as if for the first time, an appropriate means by which you can achieve the task. Then put your attention exclusively on the means you have reasoned out. 

Let me know what happens.


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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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