THE UNDIVIDED SELF by Ted Dimon.
The structure of this book, its thesis, its grammar and phrasing, its uncompromising nature and, it has to be said, its repetitiveness, all reminded me of the written work of FM Alexander. Such intense conviction, buried in such dense material, without much in the way of either illustration or diagram, are not what we have grown used to in recent years; but the unremitting weight of text does reflect the author’s conviction that the truth behind the Technique is not easily conveyed.
Unfortunately, since Ted Dimon’s approach is academic rather than populist, those most in need of this truth are least likely to find it through reading The Undivided Self. This book is not intended as a primer, and there is little possibility of it being widely read outside the immediate Alexander community. Even within that community, it seems more likely to gather dust on bookshelves than be mined for its veins of wisdom.
Ted Dimon begins his story with the homely account of his own introduction to the Technique. Having a back problem, he found the physical changes brought about by lessons immediately gratifying. At first, these changes happened unconsciously; then, in tandem with an awakening kinesthetic sensitivity, he gained a modicum of control over his reactions.
A problem arose, however, in connection with particularly stressful tasks, when he felt powerless, despite his best endeavours, to influence his use for the better. It was while observing the tenacious hold on his body still enjoyed by subconscious habit patterns, indissolubly linked to the mere idea of fulfilling an action, that Ted Dimon began to appreciate the true significance of consciousness in the way the Alexander Technique worked, and how profound the ramifications of changing the way he thought about doing something, rather than trying to do it differently, could be.
Dimon believes humans and most animals function largely subconsciously (by which he means habitually); but that consciousness is an attribute unique to our species, through which we can bring about change, both in our environment and within ourselves. He concedes that our subconscious processes are more likely than the average animal’s to become distorted, as a result of the peculiar stresses of civilised life; but holds that Alexander’s genius was in recognising we have the ability to rectify this, by raising those distortions to consciousness.
The bulk of The Undivided Self is taken up with exhortations to elevate in this way as much as possible that is currently subconscious. Here, Dimon makes a clear distinction between consciousness of our underlying intentions and awareness of their results. Repeatedly, he stresses that kinesthetic awareness, however accurate, and whatever the degree of control we gain over our muscular condition, is not enough to effect deep change; there must be an acknowledgement of what he calls ‘the total pattern of activity’.
Understanding what Dimon means by this is crucial, since it is the central tenet of his book. He believes that whatever stage we may have reached in recognising and ‘letting go’ of interference on a bodily level, it will be of no lasting avail if we have not developed our consciousness to the point where it is able to encompass our normally subconscious mental conceptions. He claims it is only when we enter a unified ‘state of mind and body’, where we are equally cognisant of both idea and action, that we become able to chose between following an habitual pattern of behaviour or acting non- habitually, however stressful the stimulus.
The problem for most people is likely to be one of recognition. Generally, acknowledgement of a physical reality, such as muscular imbalance, is more readily available to consciousness than recognition of what is causing it. It is relatively easy, as most Alexander students know, to learn to perceive, kinesthetically, the habit of pulling the head backwards and down; over time, it becomes the matter of a moment to stop doing this. It is far more problematic to recognise with equal facility the pattern of thought lying behind such a habit and discover how it might be restructured in order for similarly beneficial – and, Dimon claims, longer lasting – change to take place.
However much we as Alexander students may say we know our mental reaction to stimuli impacts on our muscular state, it is insidiously tempting to address that state directly – albeit through an indirect process – than to search for the intention behind the reaction.
It is precisely this search that Ted Dimon is insistent we must carry out, on a continuing basis. How we might do so remains a matter for ourselves. There are, frustratingly, no obvious guidelines. Asked to direct our attention to our bodies, we all have some notion of where in space they are; and knowing a location allows us to survey it better. Asked to direct attention to the internal processes with which we not only do this surveying but also formulate and carry out our underlying intentions – one result of which is the imperfect use being surveyed – it is hardly surprising we flounder.
It is because what is suggested in this book is so difficult to pin down that so few of us like emphasising it. The notion that we are truly indivisible, that our musculature is an exact reflection of our mental state, but that that mental state is to our physical state what Alexander believed the head was to the rest of the body – in other words, primary – is widely accepted within our profession. This isn’t an insight new to Ted Dimon; we all spend a lot of time talking about it. The problems arise when we try to put the idea into practice.
It would be regrettable if we were to think we had only ourselves, or our teachers, to blame for the deficient way we approach the Technique. One of our troubles is, what we do in teaching is so undeniably physical, with our use of the hands and our reliance on tables, that we rarely pay much attention to the finer points of our mental state. We espouse conscious control and think, naturally enough, that control over the retracting head is synonymous with reining in its less easily recognised cause; but fail to see how many of us have become contented body workers; which is not the discipline Alexander developed.
An alternative reason for our falling short may be that that discipline is incompatible with modern life. It is not hard to agree with Ted Dimon that humans have evolved a complex subconscious mechanism for dealing with the majority of tasks while leaving a more superficial part of ourselves free to get on and do other things. This is what enables us to think, in the abstract way animals can’t; and what allows us to build and maintain increasingly complex societies.
Unfortunately, Dimon’s solution to the resulting ills of use – that of raising as much as possible that is subconscious to a conscious level – raises the question of what we can reasonably expect to bring our attention to bear on at any one time. Of particular importance is whether such a procedure will jeopardise our ability to think about what we are not doing – in other words, to reflect – since it is on this unique skill that all human progress depends.
The trouble is, consciousness is not the same thing as the conscious mind. In many ways, the two are polar opposites. Ted Dimon may believe animals and children are little different from adult humans, in that they function largely subconsciously; but in the absence of our self-conscious veneer, beneath which any such repository of habits must lie, it seems more correct to say that all sentient beings are born in a state of full consciousness, from where adult humans, and growing children, are at various stages of alienation.
Such alienation is an essential feature of the human condition. Its result is the conscious mind, which is what marks us apart from other creatures; but our ability to reason, analyse or work out, is not part of the original consciousness common to us all. Paradoxically, the process of inhibition and direction, through which we hope to attain greater access to this state, depends – as civilisation does – on the same reasoning ability that took us from it in the first place.
The key question is, how much of Dimon’s ‘total pattern of activity’, which he accepts became largely subconscious in humans in order that we could be free to think, abstractly and reflexively, as we made our way in the world, can be allowed back to consciousness without it impacting on that freedom.
The answer may well explain why the Alexander Technique has become primarily a body oriented discipline. It is simply too hard for us to keep a grip on our place in the world without relying increasingly, rather than decreasingly, on our subconscious ability to handle the bulk of the work. The maintenance of society and civilisation depends on our being able to think for extended periods of time exclusively about subjects removed from the present. The less we continue delegating to our subconscious, the less we will be able to do this. Doing less abstract thinking would, of course, have useful repercussions, besides increasing consciousness and improving use; but it runs directly counter to much that we hold dear.
Reading The Undivided Self brings home how easy it is to believe we are conscious when we are not, and how difficult it is to become conscious without leaving behind the ego that feels it should simultaneously be bolstered by the process. It also reaffirms the possibility that animals, who often appear to act without reflection, if not mindlessly, may be already basking in the state we so feebly aspire to. Far from being in the vanguard, it is perhaps more appropriate to view ourselves as having fallen from their heights. What is particularly mortifying, knowing it is only conscious thought that prevents our enjoyment of full consciousness, is the realisation that without it would be unable to call ourselves human.
Selflessly, Ted Dimon has taken it upon himself to update, extend and amplify Alexander’s core beliefs and put them into the most modern context imaginable – the control of stress – without one iota of dilution. Sadly, the end result only serves to emphasise the fundamental impossibility of those core beliefs being realistically taken up by the modern world. That doesn’t make the Technique defunct; although it may not be the next evolutionary step, it is uniquely useful, remedially.