If giving orders is linked to the good use experienced during lessons, in real life it is almost always linked to poor use. This is because we are seldom prompted to give orders in daily life other than during ‘bad’ moments. Is there a danger here?
Whenever I read about the power and effectiveness of directing, I suspect its importance is being overemphasised at the expense of inhibition.
Most of us can readily imagine, as children, sending messages to pull our heads backwards and down in response to a variety of stimuli. It isn’t hard to see how we might not always have stopped sending every last trace as each separate stimulus abated. Over the years, this would have grown into a permanent instruction on a subconscious level not only to maintain a residual tightness in our necks but to increase it incrementally at every opportunity.
In Alexander terms, this is our legacy. As students, when we give directions to lengthen and widen, their effectiveness depends on the prior inhibition of our acquired tendency to shorten and narrow. Unfortunately, we tend to act as if these processes were one and the same; but direction has to remain apart from our kinesthetic sense, whereas inhibition depends on it.
I generally explain my thoughts on this by asking any willing listener to tighten his or her neck. They usually agree the effect produced comes from messages sent by the brain to the musculature, and that to maintain such a state those messages have to continue being sent. I then ask them to �think� of their neck releasing, while continuing to send messages to tighten it. There is rarely much sense of releasing reported. Finally I ask them, instead of thinking of their neck releasing, to stop sending – first some and then all – of the original messages to tighten it. Gradually, their necks release.
These messages are conscious and deliberate. Had they been subconscious and habitual – as they are in most of us – the ability to stop sending them and release the associated tension in the neck would be dependant on raising that tension to awareness. Thinking of the neck releasing, while continuing to send unchecked subconscious messages for it to tighten, is not the answer.
In order for deep and lasting change to occur, we have to refer to the distinguishing characteristics of these subconscious messages, which are the kinesthetic effect they have on us. There is no way we can withhold consent for their despatch other than through our perception of their non-arrival. Inhibiting in response to a stimulus prevents the onset of customary tension; in situations where we have already responded, it will be experienced as a release of existing tension.
Directions are given to aid and abet this process. While we are able to inhibit those messages to shorten and narrow whose effect we are aware of, any further desire to lengthen and widen must stay aloof from the kinesthetic sense that might otherwise try and carry this out directly. Our hope and expectation is that a consciously projected wish – no more than a cerebral formulation – will displace some contradictory subconscious messages and prevent them being sent, thereby enabling us to become kinesthetically aware of their non-arrival. Again, this will be experienced as an absence or release of customary tension.
As each strata of previously hidden instruction to shorten and narrow makes its presence (or, more accurately, absense) known, we have the opportunity for further inhibition; and as its hold on us weakens – always assuming we continue directing – more messages from a subconscious repository we can assume to be bottomless become unearthed. In this way, inhibition and direction work hand in hand.
One of the particular dangers of verbal ordering, at least as it was taught to me, is its disassociation from this reciprocal process. A decision not to respond to a stimulus in an habitual way but instead to intone a series of sub-vocal phrases, with little reference to what those phrases mean or to the parts of the body to which they refer, hardly allows for the inhibition of contradictory subconscious messages that prevent (or at least severely hinder) them from being carried out, other than in a purely Pavlovian way.��
There is another danger here. It lies in our human tendency to apply the Technique more assiduously during bad times than good. When functioning well, we are likely to become blas� about the means-whereby; only while operating below par do we pay particular attention to inhibition and direction.�
Any new student who has had a series of lessons where they have been encouraged to give orders while their teacher has worked with them should have at their disposal a conditioned response of lengthening and widening linked to the repetition of those same orders outside the teaching room. Initially, this may work, despite the lack of meaningful inhibition. Over time, however, with verbal ordering likely to be resorted to increasingly when a student finds him or her self in a poor way – that is to say, actively shortening and narrowing, but with little understanding of how to inhibit this – a secondary conditioning will become established, based on how they are then.
The risk is of this secondary, ‘pulling-down’ conditioning growing at the expense of, and eventually superceding, the initial, ‘going-up’ model, leading to a deepening spiral of poorer use. The inevitable result would be the perception that ordering no longer worked, or had a detrimental effect, followed by a return to lessons, or else cessation of all interest in the Technique.
This may happen with non-verbal directing, too, if we approach it with insufficient attention. Personally, I find it only too easy to give directions without doing much more than going through the motions. Unfortunately, it seems that any process designed to alter an existing situation, if it is followed by rote, runs the risk of anchoring us more firmly to what we want to change. I suspect this phenomenon could account for many of the difficulties encountered during training.
The conclusions I have come to are that verbal ordering, at best, is a useful reminder of where we want to go, but is no different to any other form of affirmation, and could become a liability; and that directing without inhibiting is little more than a specialised form of positive thinking.
While there is nothing wrong with such approaches as prescriptions for change, even transformation, in our lives, inhibition, potentially at each and ever moment, remains the key to progress in the Technique. It is inhibition, assisted by direction, that helps reawaken the dormant links between our bodies and our minds.
Putting this into practice is a tall order, and I can’t say I live up to it; but that’s mainly because I forget to inhibit rather than because inhibition is particularly difficult. Arguably, a far greater challenge to students of the Technique than discovering how to apply its principles is learning to recognise and maintain the individual awareness of current conditions on which any success in carrying them out depends.
Judging from the available literature, inhibition is not something many teachers like to consider, even though they presumably spend large amounts of time instructing others in the skill. This is a shame, since everyone has a unique viewpoint, which it would help for others to know. As Alexander work grows, and grows away from its source, it becomes increasingly important for individuals to be clear, not so much about what it is or how it works, but how they make it happen for them.
The creative power of thought is a fascinating subject, central to Alexander work but going far beyond ‘directing’ in scope and application. I have always marvelled at how whatever is running through our minds at any one moment affects not only our bodies but our entire appreciation of life. What is odd, though, is how little control we have over this, how our automatic reaction to events determines the way we live rather than any preferences we may think we have.
This is where conscious control comes in; but I would love to know how to make it easier to exert. It isn’t difficult to understand why inhibition and direction should be hardest to apply when they are most needed. After all, however inappropriate our subconscious reactions may seem now, they were laid down by us in good faith at testing moments of the past. Nevertheless, it would be illuminating to discover what evolutionary purpose was served by making undeniably obsolete habit patterns not merely resistant to change but antipathical to health and therefore, presumably, survival.