It always amazes me that people don’t talk more about the crucial role of ‘remembering’ in Alexander work.
When I first read about the Technique, I thought the task of learning it would depend largely on application. After I had had some lessons, I still thought this, but I had become confused about what, exactly, was being ‘applied’. I felt okay about that, since a certain amount of confusion seemed part and parcel of the learning process.
We call the work we do, ‘attending to use’; and it can mean giving directions, or refraining from stiffening the neck, in a host of different ways. In other spheres of life, of course, ‘application’ of a discipline could mean anything from smiling in the face of adversity to taking care not to tread on insects.
Although the nature of ‘attention to use’ interests me, what intrigues me more is how we remember that we are following any discipline at all: what keeps us on track.
In my case, it was only after a considerable number of lessons that I realised the major requirement, in practical terms, was not how well I was able to ‘apply’ the Technique, but how often I remembered to do so.
We tend to forget, especially if we are busy as teachers, that each lesson we give is a reminder to ‘attend’. For our students, this is also the case; but whereas we may have many such reminders during an average week, they will only have one or two. Eventually, the time will come when they stop lessons, and are left with no external reminders at all.
How do they manage?
Remembering cuts both ways. If someone I’m close to is ill, I have difficulty forgetting about them. If I have a large tax bill, its repercussions are hard to ignore. In cases like these, what I ‘remember’ is not my conscious choice.
If I deliberately don a purple top hat and stroll around town with it on, I have little difficulty ‘remembering’ – in fact, I’m unable to forget – I have this weird appendage on my head. If I wear it for days on end, eventually I’ll lose consciousness of it being anything out of the ordinary.
In a sense, every Alexander student is asking him or herself to walk around with just such a top hat on, in the form of a constant, conscious attention to their use; but not to get so familiar with this, that they forget.
Whatever we want to ‘remember’ it seems to require, first and foremost, the act of ‘being present’.
‘Being present’ can mean different things to different people
In the early days of my interest in the Technique, I believed ‘being present’ was something that would come automatically as a result of a number of lessons. When it didn’t, I started looking around for devices to help me. I first bought a knitting counter – a small numbered cog that slips onto a knitting needle and can be turned to keep the knitter on track – and hung it round my neck. My reasoning was, each time I ‘remembered’ myself, and then went on to inhibit and direct, I would turn the dial. I reckoned that if I ‘remembered’ ten times the first day, that might stimulate me to remember more often the next day, and so on. What actually happened was, after a few days of increasing scores, a plateau was reached, along with a sort of blindness to the counter’s presence; whereupon my score tumbled as quickly as it had risen.
It was the purple top hat syndrome! I got too used to wearing it.
I followed this with purchases of a tally counter – much easier to click on – and a golfer’s wrist counter. Both suffered much the same fate. They were carried around or worn for varying periods of time, diligently, and then forgotten about.
Part of the trouble seemed to be that these devices required me to start the ball rolling; and when it stopped rolling – whether through boredom, bloody mindedness, or disinterest – I didn’t seem to have the wherewithal to start it up again.
I then thought that if I set my ordinary wrist watch alarm to beep every hour, I could reckon on at least 12 moments a day when I would be guaranteed to ‘remember’. This worked quite well; but it soon resulted in me hearing the bleep, stopping it sounding, and then saying to myself I would ‘attend to my use’ in a moment, when I had a bit of free time. Needless to say, the next thing I knew, the next hourly bleep was sounding .
Or, instead, I ‘attended’ in a very quick, slipshod fashion. I originally thought this was fine. Peripheral attention, is, I believe, of the essence; but there is a degree beyond which ‘peripheral’ becomes ‘distant’, to the point of invisibility; and I got slacker and slacker in recognising this.
What I needed, I decided, was a random alarm device, that I carried around and that sounded or vibrated at different intervals. I located a computer based ‘random alert’ program, but I found this didn’t work for the simple reason that whenever I am working at a keyboard, ‘remembering’ anything other than what I am doing is, frankly, impossible. Seeing and hearing a random alarm, I would kill it with the same alacrity I might a mosquito.
I had already tried reminder cards propped up in various parts of my house. Then, a knot in a handkerchief; the handkerchief carried in a different pocket; my wrist watch worn on a different arm, so every time I noticed these anomalies, they stimulated me to ‘remember’ myself.
All of these approaches worked, up to a point; but, invariably, familiarity meant I soon forgot about them again.
Eventually, I settled into a routine of accepting I would ‘remember’, as and when I did; that I would do my best; and that I shouldn’t expect miracles but rather normality.
Recently, I’ve been wondering what ‘normal’ is in this area. We start from absolute zero. Not, necessarily, as children, but certainly as adults, we begin with a brand new awareness of desiring to change an existing situation. So far as the Technique is concerned, we start the game the very first time we ‘remember’ to inhibit and direct. This then becomes either something dismissed, after a number of attempts, as a waste of time; or else a life sentence.
I wonder, as I have wondered at intervals over the years, how much ‘remembering’ constitutes progress; and how little remembering might mean regression. I know, personally, the ability to ‘remember’ fluctuates tremendously, from ‘remembering’ frequently, through the day, to ‘remembering’ hardly at all, for weeks on end.
I’m unsure this is an area that should be left to chance. Alexander talked of “Conscious constructive control of the individual”. I understand “constructive control” as being ‘what’ we apply to ourselves and our lives. It is the ‘way’ we ‘attend to our use’. In order to do this attending, we need to be “conscious”. A person is simply not conscious unless they have ‘remembered’ to be. To remain conscious for any length of time, they need to continually remember. Being conscious, whether for its own sake, or in order to ‘attend’ to something, effectively means self-remembering.
I believe Frank Pierce Jones suggested that if we were able to acquire a device that would alert us each time we pulled our heads back and down, although it might seem initially to be the answer to our prayers, very soon we would get irritated by it and turn it off.
My own experience would seem to bear this out; but I wonder if such a device could be used, not in an ‘always on’ or ‘always off’ fashion, but occasionally, judiciously, so as to bring about an increasing awareness of current conditions, without alienating our desire to know more.
Certainly, there are any number of areas of my life, besides application of the Technique, where I would welcome improvement in my capacity for ‘remembering’. What I’ve outlined above may seem laughable and even trite and unimportant – as if devices rather than will power were the answer – but I think it might pay us all to consider how we ‘remember’ to change our mode of reaction, how often we ‘remember’, and how we might learn to ‘remember’ more readily. I would love to hear how others address this issue; or even if they address it at all.
I have a fond memory of my training course director bringing into class a letter he had received from someone at an Australian university researching the application and effectiveness of Alexander work. The letter asked heaps of detailed, academic questions; the last of which was “What is the single most important aspect of the Alexander Technique?”
The director told us he planned to write back with the single word, ‘Remembering’.