I wrote this during my last year of training to be a teacher. Most of it still makes sense to me more than a decade later.
I first became interested in the Alexander technique as a possible way of making greater sense out of ‘ordinary’ life. The idea of unity of mind and body while engaging in commonplace activities intrigued me. I anticipated from the outset learning a specific method that I could then ‘apply’ as and when I chose. When I started lessons and began reading more on the subject, I became confused about how I was supposed to do this. Only since joining a training course, and receiving considerably more tuition from experienced teachers than an average pupil could ever expect, have I begun to learn how to apply the Technique to my life. My reason for writing this article is to open the question of what intermediate stages it is necessary for a pupil to pass through before emerging with a recognisable method of applying the Technique to the ordinary activities of their own lives.
‘Inhibition’ was explained to me and I found the theory easy to understand. In practice, I perceived it as stopping whatever I was doing, both physically and mentally, in order to ‘give directions’.
Some study of the available literature seemed to me of value in understanding what was meant by this. As Wilfred Barlow said:
“He (Alexander) was asking for something completely novel from himself and also from his pupils: and the trouble was that he did not make very clear to them what it was that he wanted, so that innumerable versions – or none – of this part of his work began to appear.” (1)
I found that Alexander himself had stated, in connection with his use of the words ‘direction’ and ‘directed’:
“…I wish to indicate the process involved in projecting messages from the brain to the mechanisms and in conducting the energy necessary to the use of those mechanisms.” (2)
Although he was less than explicit when it came to the precise form such ‘messages. should take, my overall impression, gained at the time from his books, was that ‘directions’ or ‘orders’ were to be given verbally, in sequence, as he put it:
“…all together, one after the other.” (2)
I persevered with this, both during lessons and during my everyday activity. It seemed relatively simple, although rather odd: the main difficulty was remembering to stop and do it.
KEEPING THE DIRECTIONS GOING
Some time passed before it was pointed out to me that I shouldn’t be merely ‘giving directions’, but that I must endeavour to ‘keep them going’ during activity. Did this mean I was supposed to repeat these words indefinitely? I thought perhaps it did, and since I wasn’t able to establish, either on my own, from my teacher, or through my reading, what else to do – at least not in specific enough terms to carry out – I tried without much success to do this. Then, one day I came across a passage in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual where Alexander suggested, in connection with singing:
“…when once the necessary control has been gained, the pause required for inhibition and for giving the necessary orders will be only momentary.” (3)
How could a pause for something as pedantic as verbal ‘directions’, given in their proper sequence, be only momentary? Verbal ‘directions’ indubitably take time. Was this ‘necessary control’ that Alexander spoke of the key to being able to ‘keep the directions going’? I was beginning to suspect it could be neither possible nor desirable for me to repeat verbal ‘orders’ for any great length of time, whatever the activity. But how, otherwise, was I to proceed from ‘giving directions’ to being able to ‘keep’ them ‘going’? Then I discovered that Alexander had said, elsewhere:
“…if we are going to do, not a mechanical exercise, but something real that matters, you have to think out beforehand the means whereby you have to do it, and give the directions or orders for these means whereby, in the form of a wish, as it were, and keep that wish going all through the activity.” (4)
I decided that in order to do this I first needed to understand what ‘to think out’ actually meant. After some consideration I defined it as the actions of my mind in its representations of experience, past or potential, through ‘visual’, ‘verbal’ or ‘kinesthetic’ means.
I therefore had three main ways of mentally ‘representing’ such a ‘wish’. ‘Verbal thought’ I recognised as the words I had been saying to myself by way of ‘directions’. ‘Visual thought’ seemed to encompass the various images I could form in my mind’s eye of, or representative of, a neck ‘releasing’ and a head ‘leading’ and a spine ‘lengthening’ and a torso and set of shoulders ‘widening’. ‘Kinesthetic thought’ I came to consider as the imagined sensation, arising out of an accumulation of past experiences, of muscular ‘undoing’.
I discovered that these three ‘modes’ of thought’ rarely existed in isolation from each other. ‘Verbal thought’ might lead to ‘visual thought’, or vice versa; either could then be followed by ‘kinesthetic thought’; and so on. I recognised how a similar stream of mental activity – words, pictures, imagined sensations – was almost continuous in my daily life. I eventually realised I had probably been ‘directing – involuntarily – in the visual and kinesthetic ‘modes’, for some time, but that until recently I had remained oblivious to all but my intended use of words.
This changed my understanding of how ‘directions’ could be ‘given’ and allowed me more conscious flexibility in my attempts at ‘keeping them going’ during activity. There were still far too many times, however, when ‘thinking’ the ‘directions’ in this way seemed to interfere with whatever I was simultaneously trying to ‘do’, and I felt I needed an alternative, less distracting way of staying attentive to what Alexander termed the ‘means-whereby’ while getting on with the actual experience of ‘living’.
After a further period of investigation, I discovered that the ‘intention’ that lay behind the ‘wish’ that Alexander talked of could apparently remain extant even after the ‘formulation of thought’ which established that ‘wish’ had faded away. It was this residual ‘sense of direction’ that I subsequently learned to employ while ‘keeping my directions going’ during diverse activities. As Alexander put it, it was a question of:
“…merely framing and holding this desire in mind…” (5)
Outside of Alexander work, I appear to go through much the same abstract process whenever I experience a lasting impression or ‘sense’ of something without continuing to reflect on it. An example would be a visit to the shops. On the way, I might remind myself where I am going, either verbally (“I’ll go to Tesco, then Safeway…and I mustn’t forget the flour”) through internal pictures (the route to be taken, the cheese counter, the checkout point) or with a variety of associated sensations (an anticipated jostling in the aisles, the remembered warmth of underfloor heating). But during the moments when I’m not actively ‘thinking’, but am simply walking along the pavement, taking in the surroundings, I still ‘know’ I am ‘going to the shops’.
In this instance, as in virtually every other, an ‘intention’ is created and maintained by ‘thought’. Such an intention only remains constant until another thought countermands it; but it doesn’t necessarily need continuity of the original thought, or constant repetition of similarly-minded thoughts, in order to survive. It seemed to me, that in Alexander work, if my intention, or ‘desire’ had been adequately thought out, or ‘framed’ it could remain a pervasive influence on my behaviour, independent of any continuous verbal or visual or kinesthetic formulation, for as long as I ‘held it in mind’. Once it had lapsed, it might require a fresh infusion of ‘thought’ in order to be recaptured, just as it might, at any stage, require extending or redefining in a similar fashion.
THINKING IN ACTIVITY
Despite having learned – to some extent – how to ‘keep my directions going’, I still wasn’t satisfied that I was able to ‘apply’ the Technique to my life in any meaningful fashion. There seemed too little connection between what I was doing with my mind and what I may or may not have been doing with my body. Perhaps this hankering after ‘psycho-physical unity’ was what prompted me to wonder, over a further period of time, whether the nature of my attachment to ‘mental directions’ was somehow preventing me from allowing much of the ‘muscular undoing’ that they were designed to bring about to actually take place.
I eventually decided that if I was going to learn to recognise some of the ways I was interfering with my functioning, I needed to do more than simply ‘keep the directions going’. Such an approach may have had its uses, but I could hardly expect it to facilitate the delicate balancing task that I was beginning to suspect was implied by the phrase ‘thinking in activity’.
Rather than “stopping whatever I was doing, both physically and mentally, in order to ‘give directions'”, the process of ‘thinking in activity’ seemed one of continuously ‘wishing’ for certain conditions while at the same time becoming as aware as possible of any interference in letting these conditions come about. As I investigated further, and experimented with organising and maintaining varying degrees of ‘awareness of self’ concurrently with a separately constituted ‘sense of direction’, I found myself developing an increasing ability to remain ‘in the present moment’ – a state that I had long known as theoretically essential for ‘applying’ the Technique, but which I had never before understood how to enter voluntarily.
It was only at this late stage – two years on in the training course – that I began to find myself in conscious possession of the ‘useful tool’ for taking ‘into life’ that I had always hoped the Technique represented. Now, one year later, my abiding interest is in trying to ensure, whenever possible, that the inwardly directed attention involved in ‘thinking in activity’ is present, but not in such a way that it prevents me from experiencing (through one or more of the senses) my immediate environment. As Michael Gelb puts it:
“Attention in the Alexandrian sense involved a balanced awareness of oneself and surroundings with an easy emphasis on whatever is particularly relevant at the moment.” (6)
The problem is, of course, that such ‘balance’ and ‘ease’ is in itself unlikely to be come by easily. So when today’s teachers talk, as Alexander did, of a course of lessons, say, from twenty to forty, what do they mean to imply they can teach a pupil in that time? Alexander believed he could:
“Pass on in four weeks what it took (him) ten years to discover…) (5)
Would that have included the ‘control’ he spoke of as being ‘necessary’ for turning the somewhat lengthy process of ‘formal’ inhibition and direction into no more than a ‘momentary pause’? Such an ability presumably becomes more realisable the more one experiences what Alexander termed ‘the primary control’ working well; but how often is often enough for such experience to lead to a pupil being able to stay attentively aware of both ‘preferred means’ and ‘desired ends’ for any appreciable length of time?
Frank Pierce Jones said:
“To me it is an expansion of the field of consciousness (or of “attention” if you object to the term “consciousness”) in space and time so that you are taking in both yourself and your environment, both the present moment and the next. It is a unified field organised around the self as a centerô at the beginning it has a very simple system of organisation but it always takes in both the self (including the relation of the head to the trunk) and something in the environment.” (7)
For this “expansion of the field of consciousness” to be something a pupil might want to take the trouble to cultivate, it would surely help to know, early on, how important it is for applying the Technique, during lessons as in life. It appears, after all, to be virtually a pre-requisite for Alexander work in any but the most static situation. As Frank Pierce Jones put it:
“(it is this)…expanded field of consciousness (that) makes possible what Dewy called ‘thinking in activity’.” (7)
If the overall aim of the Technique is, in fact, to teach a pupil to ‘think in activity’ during everyday life, it would certainly be odd if it was not explained, throughout a course of lessons, how best to do this. Otherwise, confusion may result, as it apparently did for Nicholas Albery, as to what exactly is being taught:
“…I got fed up paying for hour-long sessions, just to be shown over and over again the same exercises, how to lie down, sit up, stand up and sit down.” (8)
Pupils are not always able to make the connections that may seem obvious to a teacher. While lessons certainly increased my sensory awareness of myself, and time spent attending to ‘directing’ resulted in a degree of understanding of the new conditions I wanted to establish generally; without the decision on my part to unify this, and use it to plan and enact the next move in life, my progress in learning to ‘think in activity’ was always going to proceed in a vacuum. And yet, in order to make that decision, in a situation where I believed I was learning a specific ‘methodology’ from a teacher, I think I needed to have it presented to me as an integral part of that teaching before I was even able to perceive it as an option. Walter Carrington points out:
“…there are a lot of highly educated and intelligent people who never make it to that point at all. they don’t want to and are willing to accept the experience without understanding or applying it. When people don’t want to understand or apply it, it’s very difficult in my experience to do much about it.” (9)
This is fair comment. And in such instances I suppose a pupil has no readily identifiable role to play. Whatever changes take place in them presumably occur without the active, chosen involvement of their conscious minds. But pupils who haven’t just come for the laying on of hands expect to be told, and if necessary, taught, how to use their brains in the particular way the subject demands. For this to happen, teachers presumably need to know not only how, specifically, they do want their pupils to think, but also how to get this across to them with a minimum of confusion. Communication between teacher and pupil is paramount, and it cannot seriously be left to ‘the hands’ to do all the talking.
CONSTRUCTIVE CONSCIOUS CONTROL
F.M.Alexander was in no doubt about what was being sought, overall:
“I wish it to be clearly understood that throughout my writings I use the term ‘conscious guidance and control’ to indicate primarily a plane to be reached rather than a method of reaching it.” (5)
This sentence meant nothing to me the first time I read it. Now, however, the implication seems inescapable. whereas ‘formal’ inhibition and direction, as set out in Chapter 1 of The Use of the Self may provide, as it did Alexander, a means of access to another ‘plane’, via the acquired ability to ‘keep those directions going’, being involved in the ‘informal’ process of ‘thinking in activity’ is to find that one is already on it. If such distinctions are valid, and perhaps more importantly, can be separately taught and learned, it seems unnecessary to leave the possibility of transition from one stage to the other to the vagaries of chance. some degree of ‘conscious control’ is presumably available at many ‘levels’ of ‘use’, and if undue adherence to ‘formal work’ gets in the way of its enjoyment than it might help a pupil to know. Just as it could aid both pupil and teacher, when such a ‘formal’ way of working is dismissed from the outset, to know if this omission aids, impedes, or worse, deludes, progress overall.
It is easy to confuse wanting progress with ‘end-gaining’; but inattention to the ‘means-whereby’ is as likely while reaching for a pencil as in climbing a mountain. At a certain point in learning the Technique, perhaps progress in being able to ‘think in activity’ could be facilitated by ‘inhibition’ being explained not as ‘stopping’, which all too often seems to mean ‘stiffening’, but as ‘remembering to become aware of ourselves’. As Alexander put it:
“…(inhibition) is largely a matter of that process of remembering which is involved in ‘thinking in activity’…” (5)
In another passage, he elaborated:
“If we become sensorily aware of doing a harmful thing to ourselves, we can cease doing it.” (5)
Such ‘informal’ inhibition, rather than suggesting stopping everything, out of a blanket refusal to respond with the ‘wrong’ thing, would mean ceasing to do what we recognise, at whatever level of sensory awareness we have reached, as ‘harmful’. The effectiveness of this would seem to depend primarily on our willingness, during everyday activity, to raise to consciousness as much about ourselves and our interference with the operation of ‘the primary control’ as we can.
Naturally, during early lessons, our sensory awareness may be so minimal, that for inhibition to be learned, it may have to be expressed as ‘not doing anything at all’ in response to a given stimulus. As our sensory appreciation improves, we will hopefully learn to ‘discern’ a measure of our own interference, so that whatever the activity, whenever we remember to attend to ‘the means-whereby’, the unreasoned or unconscious hold on our behaviour may be modified.
As a general rule, the more regularly we can give such attention in daily life, the less manifest that influence is likely to become. Due ‘attention’ in this respect would seem to be whatever is needed to establish and maintain our desired overall ‘sense of direction’, and to allow this to effect our sensory-based experience of ourselves in our environment.
‘Conscious control’ appears to me to rest primarily on this ability to ‘keep the directions going’ without losing track of whatever else is happening. Acquiring this ‘informal’ skill may depend on having done, and on continuing to do, a certain amount of ‘formal’ Alexander work. But whether or not this is the case, such work belongs by definition to the ‘learning process’ rather than to ‘real life’. And if ‘real life’ is ever to become the ‘learning’ environment at the same time as being the ‘living’ environment, pupils of the Alexander Technique will necessarily have to learn to work ‘informally’. As Alexander suggested:
“…no more fundamental experience is available than that which comes to a person who, with or without a teacher, will patiently devote the time to learning to apply the technique in the act of living.” (3)
(1) Wilfred Barlow – The Alexander Principle.
(2) FM Alexander – The Use of the Self.
(3) FM Alexander – Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual.
(4) The Alexander Review, vol 3, no 1 – The Bedford Lecture.
(5) FM Alexander – The Universal Constant in Living.
(6) Michael Gelb – Body Learning.
(7) Frank Pierce Jones – Body awareness in Action.
(8) Nicholas Albery – How to save the Body.
(9) Walter Carrington – On the Alexander Technique.