Thinking about how we think, generally and during Alexander work.
It was suggested to me that:
“…the function of the mind is to think, think about something.”
This seems a bit hard on animals, who also have minds, but who presumably don’t have the capacity to “think about” matters in the way we do. Nor would I call the ability to string a series of thoughts together an unmitigated blessing.
Most of my time is spent “thinking about” things that have little or nothing to do with what is going on around me. This dulls my appreciation of life to a considerable extent. On those rare occasions when I stop “thinking about” anything, I become more rather than less conscious.
This raises the question of how useful “thinking about” things is in an Alexandrian context. The connection I have always made between the Technique and Eastern approaches like Zen Buddhism was that both emphasised the need to be in the present. The Technique may do so more obliquely; but without this as a prior requirement, inhibition and direction would be impossible.
The problem is that whereas the Eastern ideal requires a stillness of mind that suggests an absence of thought, the writings of Alexander specify we should be thinking in a very specific way.
I was initially confused by this, before coming to the conclusion that the sort of thinking required to apply the principles of the Technique to life had to specifically exclude “thinking about” those principles, or indeed, anything else, at the time of application. Otherwise, we would find ourselves anywhere but the present moment.
“Thinking about” something involves a complex series of imaginative processes that takes us away from where we are; “thinking of” it, by contrast, can include one or more of these same processes, but in conjunction rather than succession, allowing us to remain present. If, for example, we “think of” our front door, an image of it is all we are likely to be aware of; but as soon as we “think about” it, we may remember it lets in draughts, needs painting, squeaks on being opened, and is the entrance to a house we haven’t finished paying for.
This applies in much the same way to thinking “of”, as opposed to “about”, our neck, head and back.
Over the years, I’ve found the discipline involved in applying the Technique to life has as much to do with stopping “thinking about” things in order to be present as remembering, when present, to inhibit and direct. In fact, for a while now, I’ve harboured the suspicion that, by stopping thinking about whatever it is that prevents me paying attention, a form of inhibition and direction will have already taken place.
“Thinking about” things is both villain and saviour: the original cause of poor use, it lies behind all human achievement. Very little gets done by simply “thinking of” things. Unfortunately, Alexander’s belief that we could solve the problems of civilisation by attending to both means and end fails to take into account the difficulty involved when the majority of ends have to be “thought about” (often deeply) in order to be achieved.
The only way out of this impasse would be if we were able to think “of” one thing, at the same time as thinking “about” another, while remaining equally conscious of both. A simple example might be “thinking of” my head going forward and up, while “thinking about” my mortgage repayments. For my part, I can’t do this.
My conclusion is that “thinking about” things is not so much a function as a habit; it is incompatible with the application of the Technique; we over indulge in it at our peril; but that without it civilisation would grind to a halt.
I have often wondered about Alexander “attending to the means-whereby” while writing his books; and I assumed that either he didn’t, or else, if he did, he had an ability that few of us share.
Maybe I am being unduly pessimistic. After all, I can only know for sure how I think, which is that when I write anything original that requires a degree of reflective thought, I am unable to attend to my use at the same time.
Years ago, I made a list of activities I believed could be done “with attention to the means-whereby” and those that I thought couldn’t.
Predominantly physical activity – running, for example – whose intricacies had already been learned, tended to be in the first list; with predominantly mental activities – such as reading – which require imagination, in the second. I reckoned half my life was Alexanderable; but that it was probably the half that needed it least.
I imagine that “thinking of” and “thinking about” things are familiar patterns of behaviour to most people. What isn’t familiar is their conjunction; and what wasn’t familiar to me before learning the Technique was the conjunction of “thinking of” what I was doing with “thinking of” the way I was doing it. For me, that was the new, unfamiliar way of thinking Alexander and others described.
“Thinking of” one thing and “thinking about” another, however, I found, and find, impossible. It’s like trying to listen to two conversations at once. To me, thinking about something requires an imaginative shift that takes me away from myself, preventing me thinking of, or about, anything else. Simply put, thinking at more than one remove from reality takes me away from that reality.
So what happens if, to use my original example, I’m thinking of my head going forward and up when the thought of mortgage repayments floats into my mind?
Initially, my attention to the means-whereby needn’t be displaced by this new thought, since I am able to “think of” both ideas at the same time; but as soon as I consider or “think about” the mortgage repayment issue, anticipation and speculation based on remembered facts and figures flood in, and attention to the means-whereby goes out of the window.
As I said, I have heard people imply they thought it was possible for this anticipation and speculation to occur while still managing to attend to the means-whereby. I’d certainly like to know how.
It has also been pointed out that Alexander used his hands while chatting, etc, and that some form of thought would have been required to use the hands well, not to mention the thought required to talk at the same time.
Although special skills are obviously necessary, I don’t think the use of the hands is that different to any other predominantly physical activity. Once learned, it becomes largely subconscious, or hovers at the edge of consciousness, unless we chose to have it at centre stage. Some awareness is required, certainly, in order to think “of” what we are doing; but thinking “about” how the hands are being used, or what they are being used for, is likely to take us away from attending to our own use, and therefore detract from the quality of our hands – not to mention detracting from the line in chat.
Years back, when I taught evening classes, I used to see if I could attend to my use while talking; and the answer was, yes – so long as I didn’t think about what I was saying. That’s not as crazy as it sounds. So long as I talked “off the top of my head”, I was okay. As soon as I delved deeper and started “thinking about” the words I might use, I lost all sense of myself.
To reiterate, “thinking of” the use of the hands and “thinking of” whatever is being talked about can be done concurrently. However, should we need to think “about” the use of the hands, associated chat would be the first casualty. Conversely, should the flow of talk stumble, and the subject matter need to be thought “about”, for a time the hands would have to operate automatically.
The best way of describing what I mean is to use an analogy. Car driving straddles the lists I referred to earlier. It is a complex process that has to be learned consciously and then becomes semi automatic. Generally, if we are driving in easy traffic on known roads to a destination we are familiar with, we can get there while thinking about other things during the journey. There’s neither need to think “about” nor even to think “of” driving. Attending to the means-whereby would be relatively easy.
If, however, the traffic conditions are busy, or we are searching for the right road, or we have only a hazy idea of where we are going, thinking “about” or even “of” anything other than the task at hand is likely to prove impossible. We need to think exclusively of driving and of where we are going; occasionally interspersed with thoughts about how we are going to get there. Attending to the means-whereby is not a realistic option.