DIRECTING AND ORDERING: A Discussion of working on Yourself by Joe Armstrong.
Joe Armstrong deserves the thanks of the Alexander community for his willingness to consider the almost taboo question of how teachers work on themselves.
This knowledge is important. However much anyone might change as a result of lessons, if the Technique is to live up to its promise, they ought to know how to maintain whatever benefits they receive, and hopefully extend them in the future, through readily understandable means.
Unfortunately, Joe’s story is likely to be typical of many teachers, who despite having had the equivalent of several hundred lessons, find they are unable to progress on their own, or even stay their ground, and so resort to another teacher’s hands for further guidance. Anybody who has read the available Alexander literature could be forgiven for finding such dependence risible.
Directing non-verbally during everyday life was Joe’s initial understanding of what working on himself meant. In his booklet, he calls this Procedure 2, and in conjunction with inhibition, recommends it as the raison d’etre of the Technique. However, he admits to eventually finding, several years after training, that no amount of such thinking produced the type of changes he had got used to from lessons, or prevented the return of habits he thought he had long overcome.
Even though his early teachers had warned him against it, Joe decided to experiment with what he calls verbal ordering. As a result of this he experienced changes he believes could only otherwise have been obtained through skilled hands. His suggestion is that if we want to become independent of other teachers, and yet still maintain and improve our use, we should regularly spend twenty minutes, in a position or condition of relative inactivity, slowly and silently repeating Alexander’s original word-phrases. He calls this Procedure 1.
Most of us will be familiar with a variant of Procedure 2; many may think it is all there is to know. Procedure 1 is more problematic. Giving orders in this way seems on the surface to be a form of meditation, where the unhurried repetition of a string of words could be expected to blank out both thought and its physiological counterpart, producing the benefits of a calm and integrated mind and body. At the same time, it should elicit a conditioned response; though whether this would necessarily be based on the cumulative effect of ordering during past lessons rather than during subsequent periods of disequilibrium, is a moot point.
One question that springs to mind is the importance, or otherwise, of the words. Alexander is supposed to have said any nonsense would serve his purpose. Meditators have differing views on this subject. Certainly, with straightforward conditioning, when something from the past becomes recaptured by the use of key words in the present, the actual meaning of those words is irrelevant.
However, Joe suggests that by ordering we could be tapping into the wisdom of our unconscious on a far deeper level than straightforward conditioning can reach, and in a much more specific way than during meditation. The implication is that Alexander’s phrases, both because of their inherent meaning and the added significance they gain as a result of lessons, act on the primary control directly.
Joe emphasises that the effectiveness of this depends on the dissociation of the orders from whatever we might think they represent or hope they will achieve, and from our consciousness of the parts of us to which they refer. If this is the case, it may go some way to explaining why Procedure 2, despite years of application, should have failed to produce satisfactory results for him, since the intention behind non-verbal directing is largely conditional on an awareness of, and therefore close association with, the same sensory mechanism it is attempting to change.
This is as it should be. Unity, or full association, is what Procedure 2 represents. It is Alexander’s "plane to be reached"; whereas Procedure 1 appears to be Joe’s "method of reaching it". However, the process he describes hardly seems an adequate substitute for lessons, since it fails to address, other than incidentally, the question of inhibition.
A more appropriate way of filling the same twenty minutes might be to follow the instructions set out in The Use of the Self. Learning to work on ourselves in the way Alexander did, at the juncture between stimulus and response, rather than with what is, for all its undoubted benefits, hardly more than a series of affirmations, must be a worthwhile goal for anyone desiring a measure of autonomy. Whether ordering or directing would best help facilitate this, remains debatable.
Having re-discovered what he believes it means to work on himself, Joe freely acknowledges it is neither what he originally thought, nor what he was taught. It is so refreshing to read something by a teacher of the Technique querying what goes on during lessons and training courses that disagreeing with anything Joe says seems almost querulous. Hopefully, those who don’t feel this way will be sufficiently enthused after reading his booklet to explain why. If more people were prepared to describe the way they, as individuals, approach this issue, it would be to everyone’s benefit.