Work on the self

This was written as a contribution for a projected issue of Direction magazine on the same subject.

The purpose of the Alexander Technique is to improve, at the same time as making more conscious, individual sensory appreciation, in order for the Primary Control – the relationship between our head, neck and back – to function more freely.

Although lessons from a teacher are the traditional means of bringing this about, Alexander never had any. He taught himself; and without necessarily suggesting we should do as he did, it certainly ought to be possible, as part of the learning process, for us to consolidate, or build on, benefits already gained during lessons.

How we might do this, and the way we perceive those benefits, depends largely on how we are taught. Insofar as learning the Technique hinges on our feeling kinesthetically wrong while receiving objective evidence to the contrary, Alexander’s way of working in front of mirrors is largely replicated by our ways of working with teachers. Through the provision of objective feedback, our initially false sensory impressions are gradually made more reliable.

This can only take place under artificial conditions, with our immediate ends in temporary abeyance. In everyday life, we can’t realistically abandon those ends, or doubt the veracity of our senses; but we can expect to progress, via lessons, from an original dependence on a kinesthesia that is largely hidden from us, and demonstrably faulty, to an increasingly conscious reliance on, as Alexander puts it, "a new sensory observation of the use of (our)selves".

That Alexander recognised a potential discrepancy between the need, during the learning process, for disassociation from the kinesthetic sense, and the desirability, in daily life, of association with it, is clear from his statement: "I wish it to be understood that throughout my writings I use the term conscious guidance and control to indicate primarily a plane to be reached rather than a method of reaching it".

This suggests he considered the formal procedure of working in front of mirrors, when he learned to disregard his kinesthesia in order to retrain it, and the various ways he devised for imparting the same principle to pupils, as distinct from, and a preparation for, the informal process of relying on that kinesthesia during everyday life while "thinking in activity".

For the average pupil, who only ever has a relatively short course of lessons, it may not matter how, or even whether, they are taught to work on their own (formally), so long as they are left with some (informal) awareness of what they are doing wrong, and some means of preventing it. Students and teachers, if they are to live up to their name, cannot afford to be so sanguine, however much they may feel their sensory appreciation has improved as a result of training.

In fact, the more that improvement can be attributed to the hands of others, the more they will need to know, once they are alone, how to consolidate and extend their understanding of themselves, if they are not to lose what they have gained. This is done largely informally, but in order to verify what is happening, an element of formal work would be necessary. If teachers prefer to rely for feedback on lessons from their peers, it will be at the expense of an incestuous dependence, however much insight may be gained, with what constitutes independent formal work becoming increasingly unclear the more rarely it is practised.

Any teacher who focuses exclusively on informal work runs the risk of their sensory appreciation regressing. This will begin innocuously enough, when something known to be wrong passes unnoticed so often it feels right; but the tendency, in a continued absence of objective feedback, will persist, particularly affecting those whose use has improved over the years, through hands-on work, without much conscious knowledge of how the changes came about.

It is unfortunate so few teachers openly acknowledge the importance of work on the self, or even recognise the phenomena exists. Although there is widespread willingness in the Alexander world to discuss different teaching approaches and styles, it is rare to find much in the way of explanation as to what lies behind them, still less how any degree of self-learning can be expected to take place.

The simple need is for teachers to be precise about what they themselves do, or whether they do anything at all; and not to assume the jargon they use necessarily means the same for others as it does for them. Difficult as it may seem to put any Alexander experience into words, the processes involved, if they are not to be thought haphazard, ought to be capable of being described.

To find out how teachers, students and pupils approached this subject, I devised a questionnaire. I realised it would be uncomfortable to complete, since it asked members of the Alexander community to put into words what they had so far, with the notable exception of Joe Armstrong, failed to touch on in their numerous articles, letters and books; but I still hoped I might discover a little of what they thought, and whether there was anything approaching a consensus of opinion on the subject.

I asked how people worked on themselves; and whether, and in what way, they used mirrors. I wondered how they inhibited, and if they differentiated between directing and ordering. I wanted to know whether teachers encouraged pupils or students to work on their own; and if this encouragement was considered adequate.

It would have been interesting to discover the practical difficulties encountered; how it was easiest to go wrong, or have a false impression of progress; whether it seemed possible to advance more readily alone than through having lessons.

Most of all, I would have liked to know how much importance was attached to the objective viewpoint normally provided by a teacher, and in Alexander’s case, by mirrors, in enabling someone to go from "the known to the unknown"; and whether it was thought this feedback was otherwise available.

I sent out enough questionnaires to have had something approaching a representative sample had they all been returned, but few were. I don’t consider this lack of response a failure; in a way, it is the most eloquent reply I could have had. It suggests, not that the questions were unanswerable, but that even fewer people than I had thought were able, or willing, to answer them.

In the absence of any new understanding, I reconsidered my own short history of working on myself. Prior to training, I had no real idea this was possible, never mind desirable. I had heard of inhibition and direction, and thought I understood them, as concepts; but I was more concerned with the aftermath of lessons, which were given in relative silence, and how I could maintain their effect, than with how I might recreate it for myself.

My training course was unusual in that it involved long periods set aside for work on the self. Trainees were advised to do what Alexander did, though it was understood we should find out what that was for ourselves. In the simplest terms, I learned to give myself a stimulus to move but to refuse to respond to it, to then order or direct, and finally to move. I carried on in this vein for about a year, until it dawned on me, following a re-reading of The Use of the Self, that I was failing to do what Alexander suggested.

Not only was I relying on mirrors, when I used them at all, for little more than preening purposes, I was glossing over the "critical moment" Alexander took pains to emphasise had made the difference between success and failure. I now saw, while working on myself, I had to be prepared, whatever I might initially have decided, to abandon my original plan, and do something else, or nothing, instead.

The problem was, I seemed to divine in advance what this would be, finding myself, time and again, going through the wearying charade of dreaming up a stimulus, refusing to respond to it, giving directions, and finally "reconsidering", only to discover, in a sort of belated, knee-jerk way, that I had either lost track of what was going on, had already moved, or had long ago decided to stay where I was.

Just as problematic as where and how I directed my attention was the difficulty I had in remembering with any constancy to direct it at all. Sometimes, I would catch myself, after setting out on a procedure designed to last a matter of seconds, emerging fifteen minutes later from a long, drawn out fantasy, to almost immediately, as I negotiated my way back to the present, begin wondering how long it was till the coffee break.

Without exaggeration, out of all the hours set aside on the training course for the purpose of working on myself, I must have wasted four fifths daydreaming, while still assiduously going through the motions of standing, sitting, or raising an arm.

Luckily, what I eventually found, and still find, far more interesting than a formal approach that even now, when I try it, seems more soporific than liberating, is the informal business of living with a sensed awareness of, and reliance on, current conditions. From that angle, the Alexander Technique is every bit as exciting as I had always hoped, but could never be quite sure, and frequently doubted until well into my training course, it would turn out to be.

The drawback was, this seemed to become mine not as a result of any diligence I had shown at formal work, nor of all the lessons I had received over the years, but as the seemingly accidental offshoot of having to learn to pay attention to myself while teaching. To my surprise, I discovered the background awareness I was left with, once I became committed to noticing what I was doing as well as the way I was doing it, far from being the poor relation of the "method" I had thought I was being taught, was itself the elusive "plane to be reached".

It wasn’t that I didn’t know this was supposed to happen – in theory, at any rate. The awareness Alexander talked of as being the basis of conscious guidance and control seemed to me when I first read about the Technique, and still does seem, paramount; yet it took me an inordinately long time to experience. This was partly because I anticipated something falling from heaven, or else having to be cultivated by myself; but when it was as obvious as learning to pay attention, all I really needed was to be told where and how to direct it.

If a teacher fails to articulate a role for a pupil to play other than responding to their hands, that pupil’s understanding of inhibition and direction will be limited to a kinesthetic memory. Such memories epitomised my early experience of the Technique. The converse is also true, when undue emphasis on giving orders or directions at the expense of the kinesthetic observation on which inhibition ultimately depends, can lead to cerebral isolation. This is what I later suffered from.

Long after the average pupil, not faced with the prospect of having to consider their use for professional purposes, not even if they were as steeped as I was in the intricacies of Alexander’s procedure for learning to do so, would have called it a day, I finally woke up!

I didn’t want my pupils to follow the route I had. It seemed important that they shouldn’t equate carrying out a mental procedure in order to produce a changed physical state, or even their later enjoyment of that state – rather than the experience of an existing state differently – with conscious guidance and control.

Despite this, I still believed I needed to be able to work on myself in a formal way, especially after leaving the training course, if I was to maintain, and possibly improve, the standards I had become used to. I felt it would be unrealistic to expect to subsist for the rest of my life on the work of the previous three years. I also wanted to be able to advise my pupils, even after a fraction of the number of lessons I had had, how they might become independent.

The trouble was, any of the more usual ways put forward as useful for the purposes of formal work ignore the fact that unless a teacher is present, or mirrors are being used knowledgeably, existing sensory appreciation will have to be relied on. Since it is on the discrepancy between what we feel is happening and what is verifiably the case that such work depends, following these procedures is more likely to strengthen existing habits than change them.

Reliable feedback is the basis of inhibition. In formal work it cannot be sensory based, since that is what we are trying to change. For pupils, it is tactile, or verbal, depending on the emphasis of the teacher. For Alexander, feedback was visual, as it needs to be for anyone wanting to work as he did.

Ideally, we would all know how to use mirrors properly, just as we could, presumably, learn to use live images through camcorders as a modern day replacement for them; but until someone describes in detail how they do this, and how they have personally benefited from it, and it is shown to be a transferable skill, we should treat the possibility of doing what Alexander did as something of a pipe dream.

Floor or wall work might seem to provide, in their undeniably flat surfaces, some sort of verification of what is going on; but this is still highly subjective, depending as it does on individual sensory appreciation. Moreover, although directing or ordering may go some way to compensating for the lack of objective feedback, if there is limited awareness of the need to inhibit, and to continue inhibiting, whatever end is in mind, during what Alexander called the "critical moment", and at the same time keep all other available options open, even the best laid procedure will become stereotyped.

The more simplistic types of formal work, where orders or directions are repeated without reference to any particular end, seem to be little more than affirmations of "the known". Used as a specific formula designed to produce a conditioned response, they largely ignore inhibition and place little or no importance on the question of freedom of choice.

I imagine most teachers, if they do formal work at all, fall short of doing it as effectively as Alexander did, and end up formulating their own idiosyncratic procedures to follow. Because these aren’t what Alexander specified doesn’t invalidate them, but teachers ought to know, at the very least, whether what they are doing does, or doesn’t, reveal the shortcomings of their existing sensory appreciation, largely by addressing the question of the "critical moment"; and if it doesn’t, try and account for its usefulness.

My belief is we need to share whatever ways we have devised of working on ourselves that take into account the fact most of us find Alexander’s own formal approach too onerous.

It is worth remembering that the relationship between the head, neck and back Alexander saw in his mirrors was not some ideal figuration dreamed up by him but was what he came to recognise, in himself and throughout nature, as the fundament of good use. In other words, if we didn’t get in the way of such a relationship, it would exist, and as soon as we stop interfering, will do so again, by default.

The way Alexander encouraged its re-emergence was through training himself to respond to circumstances while consciously avoiding misuse. This is not to say there are not other ways of achieving the same thing.

On the understanding we are born with a Primary Control that operates freely, any initial interference must begin as a conscious choice, when we will have decided, for whatever reason, to suppress an otherwise unconscious reaction. Once this has been repeated sufficiently often, it will become subconscious, or habitual. By degrees, we will reach the stage where most of our behaviour is subconsciously based. This acts as a powerful constraint on the free functioning of the Primary Control; but because the interference is largely outside awareness, we can do little about it.

Alexander’s answer was that "the conscious mind must be quickened". This is the purpose of lessons and of all formal work, as it is of the informal capacity for thinking in activity it fosters. The question needing to be asked is whether whatever we do in the name of the Technique satisfies this by increasing the reliability of our sensory awareness and encouraging consciousness of it in the face of circumstances.

One interesting way of working is through spontaneous movement, also known as co-ex, or consciousness expansion. This is a time honoured practice that traditionally takes place in small groups and has many adherents in diverse cultures worldwide. Although the guidelines, such as they are, differ slightly, depending on where they have evolved, the essence is the same: everyone in the group allows movement to occur, and if desired, sound to emerge, that is not consciously chosen.

Spontaneous movement is fairly easy to recognise from within once the initial hurdle has been cleared that tells you it should look or feel a particular way. Its trademark is its effortlessness and unexpectedness. Almost always, it is not the sort of movement, or sound, an individual would allow themselves to make at any other time, whether in company or alone. That is the key point. Movement and sound that we unconsciously want and need to make in order to keep ourselves healthy – and that may on that basis be presumed to be inextricably linked to our Primary Control – is usually held in check because it is perceived as unseemly.

The constant, daily checking of such impulses happens on a subconscious level, and is so well established we barely notice it. If we are to allow spontaneous movement to occur, it will be through the auspices of our conscious mind. We are then, in effect, stopping our habitual, subconscious tendency to interfere, thereby allowing the unconscious to function more freely. It may not feel like Alexandrian inhibition and direction, still less conscious guidance and control, but the principle is the same.

Spontaneous movement, repeated sufficiently often, on a regular basis, is profoundly rewarding, both on its own merits and as an adjunct to informal Alexander work. I hesitate to call it a formal activity in its own right – even though, through it, kinesthetic reliability can be assumed to increase, as the subconscious hold on the unconscious is gradually lessened – because it depends on existing sensory appreciation to guide us.

No objective feedback as to whether what we think is happening is happening is possible since learning to recognise spontaneous movement can only occur, and be verified, internally. There are no predetermined, or correct, or even desirable, movements to be made; every individual has a unique repertoire, depending entirely on themselves. There is, however, more than adequate scope for "reconsideration" as each and every movement is continually being evaluated for its spontaneity at what, in effect, constitutes a continuous "critical moment".

One of the difficulties in Alexander work is that of maintaining a conscious correlation between mind and body. This seems to be encouraged through the practice of spontaneous movement. Although it is possible to daydream while still moving move more or less freely, the nature of spontaneity tends to draw the body and mind into a synchrony that makes this unlikely. I recommend the procedure, without in any way suggesting it is more appropriate for anyone than what they already do. What they do do, and why they do it, is what would be so interesting to know.

The real work, of course, remains what it always was: the informal process of being present, inhibiting and directing, in the moment. This is something anyone can do, whatever the state of their sensory appreciation. Admittedly, an individual’s available options, in terms of how they might respond to stimuli, will be limited by the degree to which their kinesthesia is at fault; but even if they have only had a few lessons, once they have learned to "remember to inhibit", they will in many ways be in as strong a position as, if not a stronger one than, their teacher, because they will be far less indebted to the hands of others; and if they persevere, they should find their kinesthesia becoming more reliable, their use improving, and their consciousness expanding, independently of any additional formal work.

This is because long-term attentiveness to the means-whereby is bound to restore some of what a lifetime of inattentiveness put wrong. It is to our ability to function automatically that we must attribute the phenomena of faulty sensory appreciation; and the less reliant we are, or have been, on others to undo some of the damage done, the more likely we will be to make progress alone. This approach may not get us as far along the way, but our control of the process will be much greater.

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