More than one thing at a time

This formed part of a discussion on inhibition and whether it was realistic to believe we could think of more than one thing at a time.

I suppose I write about the Technique to explain it to myself as much as others. Having said that, it’s nice to have people read what I’ve written. Thanks, J, and anyone else.

The conclusion I’ve reached is that life is not made up of ‘discrete’ activities, and that in anything other than artificial conditions, we have little choice when to apply the Technique – now!

So, although I agree with J’s points, 1 through 5, where I differ is in believing that the inhibition of interference (2) is equally well, possibly much better, and certainly more readily, learned after – or, as J pointed out, during – rather than before reacting. In fact, I would say if it isn’t, it won’t be learned at all, or only with enormous difficulty, because we’d always be waiting for the next opportunity.

J also poses the question of how we can know at any one time what is and what is not an appropriate degree of tension. The answer is, we can’t, other than by relying on our kinesthetic sense; but this is the case, with varying degrees of accuracy, whether we’ve had one lesson or a hundred. The fact of acting consciously is what makes the difference.

J suggests this:

"…means applying what you learned through the Technique, it is not really the Technique itself."

For me, though, the Technique is indistinguishable from its application; which is what I believe Alexander meant when he said:

"I wish it to be clearly 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.’

Consideration of this plane – how we reach it and what happens on it – is important because it is where ‘thinking in activity’ takes place. One particularly tricky aspect of this was expressed in a question from F back in January:

"It has been said that AT is about "thinking in activity". But how can you do that when your main activity is to think? I am a university lecturer. Every time I start working on a paper or preparing a lecture I try to be aware and send directions etc. However as soon as I get "concentrated" I completely forget about all that. I am only reminded about that again when my back hurts and/or I get tired and stop thinking clearly about the subject. Does anyone have practical tips on how apply the AT to intellectual work?"

This is a good question since ‘intellectual work’ is even less of a discrete activity than the prolonged ‘chair sitting’ that ordinarily accompanies it. C replied at some length at the time. Her explanation of thinking in activity, as a description of what most of us are probably trying to do, with varying degrees of success or failure, as often as we can, was spot on. It exemplified for me being ‘on’ the plane Alexander talked of. However, in the same post she’ implied we should be able to remain there while simultaneously carrying out one or more relatively complex tasks. I wasn’t so comfortable with this, since the sort of concentration (by which I mean the narrowing and focusing of attention) that Alexander so deplored because it denies us the possibility of attending to the means-whereby does seem to be a necessity for much creative work, including, I would have thought, preparing a lecture.

Clearly, a distinction can be made between the easy to fulfil, previously learned aspects of life like getting dressed, walking, eating, cleaning teeth, etc., during which it is easy for the mind to wander and, therefore, easy to rein it in for Alexandrian purposes; and those, like reading a book, sifting through ideas, or writing a note such as this on a computer, that seem to require all our available attention.

I should have thought preparing a lecture (though not necessarily giving one) was wholly incompatible with any other consciously mental activity taking place (including thinking in activity); and my suggestion to F would have been to spend as much of his time as he could manage that was not essentially intellectual – in other words, when he does all the things he already knows how to do so well that his mind is able to take a holiday – paying attention to his use, simply letting himself run on automatic when he’s got his nose to the wheel.

I would have said this because my conviction has always been that the sort of concentrated abstract thought that makes us human is what lies at the heart of misuse; but that we can no more do without it than we can cars or shopping trolleys; and that the answer is not to try and inhibit and direct while concentrating, but to stop thinking in the way that leads to a narrowing of attention as often as we can at all other times.

I suspect Alexander was either over optimistic or else deluded in believing the creative work of society, by which I mean the ratiocination that drives civilisation on, could take place other than by a narrowing of attention -‘ the concentration he abhorred. His ideal of the ever widening attention span was – and is – a wonderful ploy for living, if you haven’t got to get anything much done.

I realise this means that Alexander himself, in writing his books – in merely putting himself into the frame of mind necessary to hold onto the convoluted meaning of some of his sentences – cannot have been ‘thinking in activity’ at the same time. I don’t believe it would have been possible for anyone to travel as far inside themselves mentally as seems to me necessary to have written what Alexander did other than through an intense narrowing of attention.

Obviously, that’s mere speculation, and the fact that something’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. To this end, C proposed her novel exercise of writing one thing down while listening to and understanding something else being spoken out loud. I haven’t attempted this; but as many times as I’ve been to dinner parties (or other similar gatherings) I’ve found myself trying and failing to properly pay attention to two people at once. What usually happens is I strike up conversation with someone but then find my mind latching onto another, far more interesting conversation taking place across the room.

I find it impossible to attend to both conversations simultaneously. Either I have to be scrupulously polite, and ignore what is more interesting, or intolerably rude, and pay full attention to it, leaving my original companion in the lurch. The alternative of fluctuating between two conversations doesn’t seem to be an option for me as I invariably come to ground missing the crucial bit of one or giving the wrong response at the wrong time to the other.

I have similar problems listening to in-car audio tapes (stories rather than songs) when the slightest requirement for conscious brain activity due to road conditions finds me reaching for the pause button lest I miss a crucial passage. Having repeatedly tried and failed in these real life situations, I’m dubious about the benefits (or as well as having an aversion to the practice) of Caroline’s suggested exercise. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. Robert Monroe, an indefatigable out-of-the-body traveller (now deceased but apparently still reporting in from the next world!) claimed to be able to hold several conversations simultaneously – but only while out of his body.

To me, it does seem like a knack that would require our consciousness to be somewhat more spread out than the constraints of our physical condition allow. To use Frank Pierce Jones’ analogy of a spotlight whose intensity becomes greater or lesser depending on how concentrated its beam is, the more things we are attending to, the more diffuse the light would be on any one of them. That is to say, although F’s use might improve, as he sits at his desk searching for the right words, would his lecture be any good if he couldn’t find those words for the distraction of attending to his use?

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