How easy or hard or even possible is it for us to pay attention to the means-whereby?

Over the years, I’ve heard recurrent talk about how we might attend to all manner of things, including our use, at the same time; and how, conversely, we can concentrate on one thing, until we are aware of little else.

I suppose most of us would agree that the first state is what we are seeking; while the second is what we wish to avoid.

I remember making a list once of daily activities I believed it was possible to carry out while ‘attending’ to use; and a list where it seemed downright impossible.

The first list contained already learned, well rehearsed, predominantly ‘physical’ activities, such as walking, housework, gardening, bike riding, driving in light traffic, familiar sport or dance, reading known material aloud, making inconsequential small talk, etc.

The point where it became more difficult to attend to use during such ‘first list’ activities was when they required a certain amount of ‘ongoing modification’ from the norm I was used to, such as driving in severe traffic conditions, using dangerous tools in house or garden, talking in public on a difficult subject, trying something different during sport or recreation, etc.

The second list was made up partly of those ‘physical’ activities that required a greater degree of presence of mind to be accomplished; but predominantly it consisted of ‘mental’ activities, such as reading, writing, planning, listening, understanding different points of view, daydreaming – in effect, all forms of ‘speculative’ thinking.

My two lists obviously coincide during the times we are carrying out a relatively simple activity – such as sitting or walking – while engaged in something more complex – such as reconsidering what we did yesterday. This is both a ‘first list’ activity (sitting) and a ‘second list’ activity (speculative thinking) that effectively prevents ‘attention to use’.

It seems the activities that allow us to pay Alexandrian attention are limited to those we are sufficiently familiar with to not have to ‘watch out for ourselves’; whereas, during activities that require so much of us there is nothing left to speculate with, or during such speculation itself, this is impossible. It is as if we have an ‘allowance’ of attention that can be spread or narrowed, depending on circumstances, but that can only ‘take in’ so much.

Personal examples of this might include my inability to listen to two conversations simultaneously; the fact that when driving in ‘easy traffic’, I can follow the action of a talking book, or think of my neck and head, or consider my life, but that when traffic conditions change for the worse, I can’t; the extraordinary way in which watching TV, reading a novel, writing an email, or thinking about the past or future, simply cannot be done while paying conscious attention to anything else whatsoever.

I wonder how much this is an individual trait; and if it is general, how much it can be changed? Somewhere in his writings, Alexander alludes to the ability to do several things at once; and I have heard others suggesting something similar. However, although ‘thinking of’ more than one thing at a time is easily done, I have yet to meet anyone, in the ordinary line of events, who can consciously ‘think about’ one thing, while ‘thinking of’ something else; still less ‘think about’ two different things at the same time.

The conclusion I originally came to was that it was unrealistic to expect Alexander students to be able to ‘attend to use’ during any but ‘first list’ activities; and that it was as well to know that trying to apply the Technique to ‘second list’ activities was unlikely to be successful, might be counterproductive, and could even be dangerous.

What I’ve discovered since hasn’t invalidated my belief so much as confused it. I start from the premise that whenever I am ‘unconsciously’ engaged in a ‘first list’ activity, I am invariably ‘thinking about’ something else at the same time. Additionally, most ‘second list’ activities are dedicated to such thinking; so this ‘thinking about’ is going on the majority of my waking life.

It now seems to me that during such ‘first list’ activities, rather than try to supplant my thinking with ‘attention to use’, I could simply stop it altogether. What that brings about is a state of being incorporating a more complete consciousness of me as a whole than I appear to experience during deliberate ‘Alexandrian’ attentiveness. Precisely how I ‘stop thinking’ is another matter.

As for ‘second list’ activities, I now make a distinction between those that require ‘single mindedness’ of both body and mind to be carried out

– such as, say, galloping through a forest on horseback – and those requiring ‘split mindedness’ – such as, listening to, taking notes on and endeavouring to understand, a complex lecture.

In the latter, poor use (in its fullest sense) seems inevitable. I simply cannot carry these sorts of task out without completely abnegating myself to unconscious control. In the former, a state similar to that obtained when ceasing mental chatter during ‘first list’ activities appears to prevail, but by necessity, rather than choice. There is an acute awareness of self, including use, that excludes deliberate attention being paid to any particular part of that self – including the neck, head, and back.

For a while now, I’ve suspected that the thinking that goes on so much of our time is the original and prime cause of poor use; and that during its absence – which, for most people, probably amounts to minutes a day at most – good use is the likely consequence.

This is because, during ‘speculative’ thinking, we become temporarily blind to what is going on, in and around us, including what we are doing to ourselves. The more regularly and enthusiastically we speculate, the more we ignore what our senses are telling us. Eventually, what would once have been an easily recognised and heeded warning to ‘stop’, falls below the threshold of awareness.

Simply put, thinking ‘about’ other things obscures us to what is going on. To remedy this by ‘paying attention’ to what we are doing with our necks and heads, rather than stopping the thinking that prevented us from knowing what that was in the first place, strikes me as somewhat superfluous.

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