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?

Before and after

This was written in response to a fellow teacher who disagreed with my thoughts concerning the timing of inhibition in Alexander work. It includes a description of the dramatic results of my first (and, for the next year, only) lesson.

Reading over J’s very reasonable last post ("words, getting closer"), it would seem that our major area of disagreement concerns the point in time that students of the Technique step in to stop or refrain from sending messages to stiffen their necks, along with the relative effectiveness of their intervention. I simply don’t think there is such a clear-cut beginning and end to the majority of stimuli affecting our lives as he evidently does, nor that there is much qualitative difference in when we act.

The notion we receive and respond to stimuli in isolation, and that in some way it is too late to ‘step in’ between one reaction and another, makes little sense to me. Possibly, in the case of "dead lifting a barbell", where there is a clear beginning and end, without much space for anything else, we can behave like this; and in ‘formal’ Alexander work, it may be necessary to simulate ideal conditions; but most of the instances and events that fill my life don’t lend themselves to such an approach.

In this connection, J emphasised:

"’Counteracting’ or ‘undoing’ neck tension AFTER you have unconsciously engaged it is too late to make a new reaction to the original stimulus… The old pattern has already been launched, and attempts to modify the results, even if partially successful, are worthless compared to the ability to refrain from starting."

He also said:

"Certainly being able to notice that your are bracing your neck and ceasing to do so is a worthwhile skill to develop. BUT I don’t think you can reach this point without having gained some previous experience of what it feels like to react to stimuli WITHOUT such bracing."

I thought about this as I cycled five miles to play tennis the other day, wondering where stimulus and response could be said to begin and end. There were some fairly clear moments of potential ‘bracing’, from the gestation of the idea during lunch, while humping the bike out of the garden shed, when negotiating initial traffic; but once I was well on my way the gaps between the myriad stimuli coming at me from all sides (including, of course, the overriding aim of getting to my destination) and my reactions to them seemed seamless. Where was an Alexander student supposed to ‘step in’?

Although most of the time I was careering along in a state of blithe unconsciousness, whenever I ‘surfaced’, I became aware of a degree of interference. I accept that my ability to perceive what J calls "bracing" is partly (though not exclusively) the result of earlier Alexander work; but I don’t agree with him that stopping it after the fact is "too late", nor that this should be in any way dependant on having previously learned to "react to stimuli without such bracing". In fact, I should say the opposite was the case, with any facility we may have for preventing interference from starting depending largely on our skill at recognising and stopping it while it is going on.

The difficulty of ‘getting in before the event’ in an Alexandrian context seems little different to stopping off any other deep seated habit at its source. If, for example, our temper tends to get the better of us, it strikes me as churlish to refuse to curtail it mid-reaction on the grounds we should have prevented it surging up in the first place. Obviously, prevention is better; but that is more likely to come about after rather than before curtailment; and if it turns out we are angry, in the way that our necks are stiff, most of the time, our best bet must be to cease being so occasionally, then (hopefully) more and more often, before aspiring to not become so in the first place – whenever that might be.

In the light of this, I would take J’s statement:

"Certainly being able to notice that you are bracing your neck and ceasing to do so is a worthwhile skill to develop. BUT I don’t think you can reach this point without having gained some previous experience of what it feels like to react to stimuli WITHOUT such bracing."

And rephrase it, thus:

"Certainly being able to react to stimuli WITHOUT such bracing is a worthwhile skill to develop. BUT I don’t think you can reach this point without having gained some previous experience of what it feels like to notice that you are bracing your neck and ceasing to do so."

In another post, J made this additional point:

"Trying to follow the advice; ‘just don’t stiffen your neck, and stop doing it if you do,’ would be as absurd as hoping to learn the Technique from page 174-5."

My experience is that sensory appreciation of what we are doing is not so much faulty as hidden, and that we can become aware of it quickly and effortlessly, if our attention is appropriately drawn in that direction. I think this requires insight and cleverness on the part of the teacher, but not necessarily any manual contact. I’ve known it happen in students I’ve taught and often when it hasn’t happened I’ve felt it would have if I’d said or done something different.

As an example from my own past, I had my first Alexander lesson in the early eighties. Initially, the teacher started leading me through what I later recognised as the traditional lesson format; but after a short time she stopped, moved away, and asked me, with my arms hanging by my side, to pretend I was carrying two heavy buckets. Almost immediately, my shoulders dropped about six inches. As they did so, an immense sigh escaped me. I realised I had been holding my shoulders up around my ears, pushing my head forward to good effect, for what I later worked out must have been nearly two decades, all without knowing it.

This trait had begun when I was at school during the time it was fashionable to have long hair. The school disallowed hair to touch the collar at the nape of the neck so I had learned to pull my shoulders as far back and away from the rest of me as possible and push my head in the opposite direction. This was a conscious effort and took some doing but eventually it became habitual. My mother and later my wife used to comment on what they saw as my deformed upper torso and try and reshape me but I laughed them off. I couldn’t relate to what they were saying; nor could I see in the mirror what they saw. So far as I was concerned, I felt, looked and was normal. Yet, ten minutes into my first Alexander lesson, a teacher had enabled me to recognise how wrong I had been.

I had that first lesson in London. Since I lived in Portugal, where there were no teachers, I wasn’t able to have another for more than a year. During the intervening months, I became increasingly conscious of what I was doing with my shoulders. Whenever I wasn’t thinking about them, they rose up and my head pushed forward. As soon as I did think about them, I became aware of an almighty tightening taking place. It staggered me I could be making so much effort without realising it. Each time I remembered, and thought of the ‘heavy buckets’, that effort ceased, my shoulders dropped, and my head righted itself. I used to see it happening in shop windows as I walked past. The pain of this release was extraordinary, like being strung up by meat hooks. I found it hard to believe simply stopping doing something should produce such torture.

By the end of that first year, the habit of jacking my shoulders up had more or less vanished, although vestiges remained. Throughout that time, I don’t remember ‘getting in before the event’ in the sense of ever finding myself in a balanced state and pre-empting the shoulder raising. Instead, I ‘undid’ it whenever I came across it, at first increasingly often, then with gradually decreasing frequency and amplitude, until eventually there was nothing to undo any more. Looking at old photographs at the time, I couldn’t believe how deformed I had been. My wife and mother remarked on the change and reminded me of how often they had chastised me in the past, to no avail.

The point of this story is not whether the single lesson I had or the approach I followed had anything much to do with the Alexander Technique, but to show that is is possible for an aspect of use that was deliberately conceived, became established, then became habitual, and that I was wholly unconscious of for many, many years – despite having it pointed out to me on numerous occasions – could suddenly become as obvious to me as it was to others; that the insight I gained was not only lasting but grew daily; and that my remedial approach had involved me saying ‘no’ while rather than before reacting to stimuli.

The notion that I might be doing other, similarly stupid things to myself without knowing about them made me determined to have more lessons as and when I could. I reasoned that if something so dramatic could be uncovered so swiftly, what wouldn’t happen if I had a full course? Something I particularly wanted to find out was what I was doing with my lower back, which often hurt. Unfortunately, though it was no less obvious, this took a lot longer (further lessons were with a ‘traditionalist’ in a different part of England), and it involved my training to become a teacher. It’s difficult now, looking back, to know whether I am justified in thinking if I had seen the right person at the right time what I later discovered might have been revealed much earlier.

My main worry concerns those who take a course of lessons in the Technique and decide not to go on to either become teachers or perpetual students. In other words, the vast majority. I remember my own confusion and disappointment at this stage of learning with my apparent lack of progress, particularly in inhibition. It was only after more lessons that I could count, and being present at two years of a three year training course, studying and thinking about the Technique many hours of the day, that my mortification at hardly ever ‘getting in before the event’ became gradually overshadowed by the dawning realisation I didn’t have to.

It was as if I had travelled full circle. It was only then, when I became comfortable again with the idea of ‘getting in’ whenever I remembered, that I allowed myself to stop doing with my neck and back what I had grown to believe I was always too far advanced in my reactions to usefully inhibit. This led to not only a massive reduction in interference, but, as a consequence of an expanding kinesthetic familiarity with what I was doing wrong, a gradually increasing ability not to start interfering in the first place, a dual endeavour I’m working on to this day.

Concerning my review of MSI

This touches on a number of issues that crop up elsewhere on these pages.

Thanks for writing, M. I never expected you to reply to my original letter since I only wrote because I wanted you to have the unedited version of my letter to STATnews. I’ve had faint twinges of conscience over the years that I may have been instrumental in stopping your ‘rethinking’ articles but I was outraged at the time in the same sort of way I am outraged by Jean Fishcer now. I’m not an apologist for Alexander – in fact, far from it – but if we start to play around with his actual words, however good our intentions, rather than our changing understanding of them, then we’re lost.

As I suggested in my review, I believe Alexander was wrong in his grasp of human consciousness; and I don’t think his Technique has the slightest hope of being adopted by society, other than in an incredibly watered down way by an extremely small cross section. That doesn’t mean society is necessarily at fault, other than in its emphasis on abstract thought at the expense of our awareness of ourselves, thus promoting division in the human condition, or psycho-physical disunity; and it doesn’t mean the Technique is a waste of time, since it does show those who are interested there is another way of behaving.

What that ‘way’ is is a matter for contention. Alexander saw conscious reason as something quite distinct from, and better than, primitive instinct, but I happen to believe they are one and the same. I think that by having lessons we should hope to become more rather than less like ‘savages’. In my view, far from being unconsciously driven, uncivilised people were more conscious than we can ever hope to be. But then, I think animals are conscious, too!

These are opinions and no doubt everyone has their own. Looking for definitions of the Technique, outside of Alexander’s own words, that at the same time represent the view of STAT, is tricky. Personally, I think your quest is doomed. When we consider the generation of teachers who knew and worked with Alexander, who not only read his books but helped him write them, and how their understanding of what the Technique was gradually became individualised, to the extent that not one of them agreed with another – MacDonald, Carrington, Barlow, Barstow, all at odds – it’s inconceivable to me that we’d get any sort of consensus today, other, that is, than the mealy-mouthed one in operation.

Having said that, I would infinitely prefer to see you putting forward resolutions trying to resolve this issue at STAT meetings than those ludicrous time wasters rabitting on incessantly about equal opportunities, ethics, prejudice, etc, as if any of these issues were of the slightest relevance when it comes to actually knowing what it is we are supposed to be teaching. But it’s useless, I’m afraid, asking me to whip up enthusiasm on this score. Just to show you how out of touch I am, it took me a morning to work out who Alex Scott was. I’ve no recollection of getting a letter from him, but I assume he is this new ‘business manager’ they’ve drafted in.

Of far more concern to me than clarifying a Society view of what the Technique is, is encouraging individual teachers – particularly those experienced enough to have come to a considered opinion – to set down in writing what they are actually doing when teaching and also, far more importantly, when not teaching. For me, the main point of the Technique is its ability to be passed on. The hands, if they don’t help this happen, are a hindrance. My fear – and expectation – is that the current emphasis on the use of the hands rather than the use of the self will continue, probably to the point where a pupil – if I can call them that – will not be expected to do much more during a lesson than passively submit to the manipulations, however subtle, of their teacher. If students behave this way too, and teachers themselves continue to have ‘lessons’, the whole thing will become increasingly incestuous.

My guess is the Technique will ultimately be – in fact, probably already is – seen as a subtle form of body therapy. Minority factions will emerge, and there will be ‘rump’ groupings emphasising its disciplinary nature, advocating ‘verbal ordering’, or ‘inhibition’ or even ‘positions of mechanical advantage’, whether during lessons or when alone; but the majority view – probably, from sheer weight of numbers, Carrington based – will prevail.

I see Alexander as a sort of bodyman’s Freud. The most important legacy Freud left was the notion that we can look inside ourselves for answers to why we are the way we are, and that we have the potential to change. Freud’s way of effecting change is largely discredited and for all practical purposes impossibly demanding in time and money. However, there are umpteen approaches using the same basic formula of looking into the unconscious: we can pick and chose at will. Alexander’s big insight was the extraordinary notion that we can look at the way we use ourselves, mentally as much as physically, and, if we are determined enough, change it. His way of doing this – again fairly profligate in terms of time and money – is only one way. Inhibition and direction – assuming we know what Alexander meant by the terms, and I seriously wonder if many teachers do – certainly isn’t the sole approach.

In fact, a great deal can be gained in terms of consciousness by becoming aware of our use with no reference whatsoever to the Technique. Even if a person’s physical use is abysmal, if they are ‘aware’ they are far better off than if their use is excellent but they are ‘absent’. Of course, ‘use’ isn’t only physical, and awareness and absence are difficult to quantify, but that hands-off work is the most important for me.

I don’t know if you would be interested in contributing to an issue of Direction I’m supposed to be editing that is due out around the time of the millennium, but I’m in need of serious writers interested in the subject of "Working on the Self". Basically, I want to encourage teachers to explain how they work on themselves in an Alexandrian sense, and how they pass this ability on; or, if they don’t work on themselves, or teach others how to, why they consider it unnecessary. What I want to get away from is the traditional homily of "saying no and giving directions", as if the question of how to do this is of no importance. To my knowledge, the only person who has specifically addressed the issue is Joe Armstrong. I find it pitiful that no other senior teacher has followed suit.

A questionnaire I devised

I got very few responses to this!


It might be best to read through all the questions before starting, since some overlap. It would also help if you could avoid using Alexander jargon in your replies; otherwise any conclusion drawn will be couched in the phrases we are all familiar and comfortable with but nevertheless interpret in very different ways. Since the purpose of this questionnaire is to uncover those differences, please use your own words, and be as specific as possible. If appropriate, answer later questions with reference to details already given.

1. Do you "work on yourself" at all?

2. How would you define the work you do?

3. Do you differentiate between "formal" and "informal" ways of working? If so, how?

4. Do you set aside specific periods of time for working on yourself? If so, how regularly and for how long?

5. Do you work on yourself during everyday activities? If so, how frequently, and are there certain times when this is impossible?

6. Do you use mirrors to facilitate working on yourself? If so, how?

7. Have you any more to say about how, specifically, you work on yourself?

8. How do you "inhibit"? What happens?

9. If the way you inhibit depends on what you are doing, can you explain how the procedure might differ?

10. How do you "direct"? What happens?

11. If you differentiate between "directing" and "ordering", how do you order? What happens?

12. Alexander said: "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". When you work on yourself, where do you consider you are in relation to this "plane"?

13. Which school of teaching – ie, Carrington, Barlow, Macdonald, Barstow, etc – has most influenced you?

14. What book, magazine or article about the Technique, apart from Alexander’s own writings, has most influenced you?

15. As a teacher, do you encourage pupils or students to work on themselves? If so, how do you expect them to do this; and how much importance do you attach to it?

16. As a student, were you taught to work on yourself? If so, how; and if you are a teacher, is this the way you work on yourself now?

17. As a pupil, were you advised to work on yourself? If so, what form did this advice take, and do you still follow it?

18. Overall, how important do you think working on yourself is?

19. If a pupil, or student, didn’t know how to work on themselves after a course of lessons, or training, would you take that as a sign of inadequate teaching?

20. What would you say the main practical difficulty is in working on yourself?

21. How do you think it is most easy to go wrong, or have a false impression of progress, when working on yourself?

22. In what ways do you think it is possible to advance more readily through working on yourself than through having lessons?

23. How important do you think the objective viewpoint normally provided by a teacher, and in Alexander’s case, provided by mirrors, is in enabling you to go from "the known to the unknown"?

24. Is any such objective viewpoint available to you when you work on yourself?

25. Without an objective viewpoint, how realistic do you think it is to change existing habits?

25. Would you say such change is the main purpose of working on yourself? If not, what do you think is?

If you feel I’ve missed out some vital question, or you haven’t enough room for your answers, or there is anything else you want to add, use the space below, or a seperate sheet.

About verbal ordering

An expression of some of my qualms.

Many thanks for your letter. I agree there’s little point producing a compressed version of your booklet; so I suggest we bury that idea. In the meantime, I’m happy to correspond with a view to something productive emerging.

One possibility that occurs to me is that I could "interview" you. Not a one-off event in which whatever you say is taken down verbatim, but a mutually agreed question and answer format that could be re-hashed until we were both happy with it.

The way ordering was taught to me, or the way I understood it, was that it was best done blind. In other words, although it could include paying attention to the parts of the body referred to by the orders, it was preferable if it didn’t; and any conscious intention for the body to change in the way the orders implied was better avoided.

The point of purely verbal ordering, as I understand it, is to help us avoid the tendency, when sending messages to the body, of attempting to carry out the intention implicit in those messages.

Such ordering – whether given as you describe in your article or as Patrick MacDonald suggests in his memorial lecture – appears to me to produce changes in use in two main ways:

1. By replacing the verbal chatter that would otherwise be going on in our heads.

2. By eliciting a conditioned response based on prior associations.

There is also the possibility that change occurs:

3. Through a direct link between the orders and the intelligence of the body.

What seems to happen in (1) is that whatever amount of misuse is present in a person as an on-going reflection of their interior dialogue, it will disappear, to be replaced by better use, once that dialogue stops.

This isn’t the result of the orders so much as the absence of what they replace. By stilling our mental chatter, the physical manifestations of it will cease. This is the basis of mantric meditation and requires no expertise, or even any experience, in the Technique to work.

In (2) a conditioned response depends on the gradual build up of repeated experiences, linked to the repetition of the orders, the point of which is for a pupil to become independent of their teacher. Although this may work for a while, since pupils are most likely to give orders when they in difficulty, a time will come when, far from producing a beneficial state linked to prior lessons, their efforts will result in a response based on the more recent, cumulative experiences of poor use present when ordering.

In other words, a secondary conditioning will be set up, eventually superceding the primary one. In circumstances where ordering is all a pupil knows, this downward learning spiral would only be rectifiable through recourse to further lessons.

I have to say (3) I don’t go along with Kitty Wielopolska’s view that any meaningful, Alexandrian change in use can be brought about by the direct, unconscious response of our bodies to their perception of what the orders mean.

I assume she’s talking about purely verbal orders, since it would be difficult, if not impossible, to pay attention to the body as a whole, or to those parts of it to which the orders refer, and not at the same time to be thinking – whether visually or kinesthetically – about what those orders mean, as well as wanting them to work in a particular way. Clearly, the presence of any such thought and its associated intention would get in the way of Kitty’s desire for the body to be "left to its own intelligence".

The problem is, where else could our unconscious hope to get a proper understanding – or any understanding – of what the orders mean if not from our conscious mind? The unconscious, in order to translate the orders into improved use, would have to interpret them as Alexander intended, and could hardly do this unaided.

A seperate point I would like to make is that purely verbal ordering seems to me to exclude the possibility of anything but the most superficial inhibition. My understanding of inhibition is that it is dependant on a sensitivity towards existing conditions, and specifically towards the possibility of the Primary Control being interfered with, that is incompatible with the largely unmediated, undirected, inattentive and unintentional nature of verbal orders.

My conclusion is that ordering, in an Alexander context, is invaluable for stilling the mind, and for any initial learning, or later remembering, of the directions; but limiting and potentially damaging for anyone with a commitment to understanding how to apply the Technique to their lives.

I hope that goes some way to explaining what I meant. I don’t expect you to agree with me, and I look forward to hearing where you think I’ve gone wrong; but I do have a question for you too, if you have the time and space to answer it. I’d like to know what place or provision in your scheme of things for working on yourself there is for:

a. What Alexander called "the critical moment".

b. Objective feedback. By this, I mean the confirmation Alexander received from mirrors, and we receive from teachers, that what feels right is in fact wrong.

By the way, hypnosis suggests the unconscious mind takes the meaning of words literally. There are stories of implanted suggestions going wrong, such as the person, yearning after personal "growth", who found her face sprouting warts. My own experience of listening to a tape of my voice, during self-hypnosis, exhorting me to go with the "flow", left me waking on successive nights with a bleeding nose I had difficulty staunching.

We might think that by knowing, consciously, the essential parameters of Alexandrian orders, our unconscious could hardly misinterpret them; but I knew what I meant by going with the "flow", and it had nothing to do with streams of blood. I find it difficult to imagine how my unconscious might interpret a phrase like "back widen" if, as Kitty suggests, my conscious gives it no help; but I see no reason why it should be in accordance with Alexander’s understanding.

Another letter concerning LearningMethods

This formed part of my correspondance with David Gorman, after he left – under a certain amount of pressure – the AlexTech forum.

Hello David,

Thanks for your response to what I wrote. I don’t think our points of view are that far apart; it’s more how we describe things. Certainly, I would agree I tend to theorise while you look at an issue from a more practical angle. Given that, I see no reason to argue, except possibly over whether we can or can’t ‘know’ something unconsciously. Oh, and the relative ease of being in the present. Thrashing these questions out would be interesting, but they’re a bit of a side issue.

What really interests me in what you’re doing is how far it seems even from the ‘purest’ Alexander Technique. The more I consider it, the less I understand those people mailing into the debate who felt you were somehow repackaging and calling something else what they considered they were already teaching.

The use or non-use of the hands is a key issue; but if that was the only difference between what you do and what they do (and you used to do) it might only mean you had discovered a new method for achieving what Alexander originally did for himself in front of mirrors. That in itself would be formidable. Unfortunately (you might think, fortunately) that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The crux of the matter is the thorny question of the Primary Control. (I only give it capital letters because Alexander did). I remember from your Alexander Review articles (particularly the last one, I think) you had ambivalent feelings about what this meant; but I don’t believe there can be very much doubt that an Alexander teacher who doesn’t subscribe to a belief in the ‘directions’, in the order in which they are traditionally given (whether preventative, as in inhibition, or otherwise), is not teaching the Technique so much as ‘use’.

Teaching use is great. It’s what I’ve always assumed Alexander teachers who don’t go along with the Primary Control get satisfaction from doing; but what you’re up to is even further away from this sort of teaching – light years, really – than the real Alexander Technique.

One of the contributors to the debate made a lot of the space Alexander devoted in his books to the nature of the thought processes ("conception") preceding an action.

However, although Alexander may have maintained that thought was primary, and only through changing it would general use change, he advocated such a precise form of ‘preferred thought’ along with such a specific idea of ‘improved use’, his approach really stands alone. Either it is followed to the letter or it isn’t being followed at all.

What you appear to be doing is initially similar in that you encourage a student, at the moment of their habitual response to a stimulus, to recognise not only the nature of their thoughts but more importantly that by changing – or stopping – them, other, usually physical change occurs.

Obviously, from your viewpoint as an experienced (if no longer practising) Alexander teacher you would be able to recognise any similarities between the changes in use that may happen as a result of LearningMethods and those that result from the application of the Technique; but you have emphasised that you are not looking for anything particular but rely instead on people changing in ways that are appropriate for them and that you can’t possibly know in advance.

I assume therefore that you don’t think the underlying wisdom that ‘puts us right’ is the same as Alexander’s Primary Control. This is the major difference (besides hands on or off) between what you do and what Alexander teachers do. They (at least as I understand how most people teach the ‘pure’ Technique) are looking for specific physical changes in a specific order (neck free, etc.) brought about through a specific change in the student’s thought process. Your approach is more open ended in that you appear to be accepting whatever physical change might come about through a student’s self examination of, and self-experimentation with, their habitual patterns of thinking.

Last night, musing over the way you have explained what it is you are teaching, I had a sense of, not exactly deja vu, but…I don’t know if you are familiar with Cognitive Therapy? I bought a book on it years ago by David Burns – I think I was training at the time – and was impressed by what I saw as similarities between his approach and what I was struggling to make sense of in my Alexander work.

His main – only, really – contention is that the way a person is feeling (emotionally) at any one moment is entirely dependant on the way they are thinking. He has a variety of examples of habitual ways in which we tend to think, almost all of which lead to our feeling bad. (His book is called "Feeling Good".) So long as a particular stream of thought (including variations on the same theme) continues, so the feelings persists. He emphasis that the thoughts are not so much unconscious as simply failing to be recognised, similar in nature to our habitual surroundings: always present but barely noticed.

I had a personal example of this recently when my neighbour cut into our side of the hedge in a way I didn’t like. I felt sick to the stomach out of all proportion to what had happened. My thoughts were actually very apparent, although I was unwilling to recognise them, centring as they did not on the hedge so much as my unwillingness to confront him on the issue.

So, the question I would like to ask you is, do you believe our emotional feelings are inextricably linked (and may even be physiologically identical) to our physical sense of ourselves and therefore our use? If so, assuming I had followed the procedures outlined in Burns’ book for changing my thought processes to something more objectively appropriate, and had felt emotionally better as a result – I used to do this and it did work although it demanded constant vigilance – could I reasonably expect similar sorts of changes in use to those you are recognising in the people you work with to come about at the same time?

Admittedly, the nature of both our emotional feelings and our physical sense of ourselves will depend – they obviously already depend – so critically on the precise formation of our thoughts that the way in which we are encouraged to change them will have a huge bearing on results. Just as Alexander teachers specify an almost religious (sometimes even military) adherence to a specific form of thought, so David Burns tends to emphasise a sensible, realistic, objective outlook on life for turning the tables on what he sees as excessive ‘negative’ thinking.

I don’t know in what directions if any you may or may not guide your students’ thoughts, but I guess this – or any other LearningMethod teacher’s influence – will be reflected in their use, if not their emotional state, too.

All the best,


A letter to Wade Alexander concerning spirituality and the Alexander Technique

I read Wade Alexander’s article with some interest since I was one of the original contributors to the Mark Arnold inspired debate he mentions in STATNews concerning mind/body unity.

I emphasised at that time what I considered the inseparability of mind and body; but although I haven’t changed my views, I don’t think I would use the same terms now.

Whether this world is a dream or not it is the world we live in and it was the world Alexander addressed. In it, body and brain are so obviously part and parcel of the same thing there is universal agreement they constitute a unity. There can be absolutely no distinction between them: when one dies, so does the other.

Confusion lies in the words we use to describe what animates us. For many, the possibility exists that something immaterial, variously called mind or soul, inhabits and drives the body, leaving it when it dies. Science dismisses this, denying all idea of a soul, but talks about the mind, while clearly meaning an adjunct of the brain.

I see no discrepancy between either belief and psycho-physical unity in our known world. What Alexander taught was simply that the activity of the brain could not happen independently of the activity of the remainder of the body.

As to what underlay this activity, he hardly speculated, barely commenting in his books on the make-up of the consciousness whose control he sought, still less the possibility of it becoming liberated after death. He spoke of the mind as if it was synonymous with the brain, and rarely mentioned the soul.

Alexander’s view, limited to what was directly observable, may have failed to consider what if any part of us survives death (and, some would say, precedes birth); but since it doesn’t specifically exclude the possibility, I wouldn’t accept that his Technique is "antithetical" to dualism, so much as indifferent to its claims.

Of course, how any aspect of us might exist independently of our bodies is still as much a mystery as how it could presently be accomodated by them. Evidently, Wade Alexander thinks the answer lies in the teachings of ACIM; but I’m not so sure.

I believe the truth is knowable, on an approachable level, and that it needn’t involve God, or Jesus. If science is correct, and there is neither soul nor separate mind, consciousness is a brain activity and ‘we’ die with our bodies. If, on the other hand, we are immortal, immaterial beings, whose consciousness pervades our frames much as water does a sponge, although this may depart readily enough when the time is right, until then it remains an inseperable part of an undeniable psycho-physical whole.


Nicholas Brockbank.

Part of a letter expressing the desire for more precision in explaining Alexander work

A snippet from my past. I can’t even remember who I was writing to.

I have a lot of trouble with the whole notion that although there isn’t supposed to be a "right" way of working, we’ve still got to be on our guard against getting it "wrong"; yet nobody really knows what "wrong" is. I went to a five day workshop on "zero-balancing", which is a hands-on approach based on acupuncture, osteopathy and Rolfing! It’s suprisingly vigorous, in fact rather heavy handed, but the effects are of a delicate nature, and the explanation – the rationale behind it all – is wonderfully clear.

They work structurally but actually address the energy body, which they believe lies within the skeletal system. This seems a bit cranky, I know. Anyway, they (or we, since within five minutes we were all working with a confidence it would have taken about ten years to achieve in an Alexander training school) put hands on and make "an essential connection" with the client. "Assessment" is then carried out on "foundation joints", which are basically joints with little or no independant movement: ie, the sacro ileac joint and most of the vertebra. "Fulcrums" are then applied, which is a traction like process that is held for several seconds and "allows the possibility of change". During those seconds the energy body is supposed to have a chance of reintegrating itself with the physical structure.

I realised when the bloke in charge described the Alexander Technique, in passing, as a "pure energy approach", and at that precise moment virtually everyone else in the room, hearing the word "Alexander", sat up on their haunches, visibly stiffening, how little we really know about what we are doing; and how out of synch our reputation for "posture" is with our concept of "direction". In fact, how much of what happens during Alexander work is undocumented, unexplained and, possibly, accidental.

Anyway, I came away convinced we need to be more precise in our explanations – especially to ourselves – of what we’re doing.

I’m planning to put an advert in STATnews asking teachers to describe how they "work on themselves" (anonymously) for an article or booklet I’ll write: this is the crux of Alexander work; "working on each other" is all very well, but someone, somewhere along the line, has got to be hoisting themselves up by their own bootstraps, and I can’t believe everyone does it Adam’s way.

I visited a sports therapist recently for an old tennis injury and after I had removed my shirt he suggested I had a serious postural problem with a pronounced dowager’s hump and obviously taut trapezius muscle. I tried not to be too shaken by this and was pleasantly suprised five minutes into the remedial massage to hear him say my trapezius was actually in better tone than any he had worked on. I only hoped he was similarly misguided about my dowager’s hump.

Then I visited an acupuncturist for another stab at my hay fever. As I lay on my front in order to have the needles stuck in he prodded my spine and said my lack of lordosis and upper back curvature suggested I had had a serious back accident and must be in great pain. I do get twinges in my back, but generally it’s never felt better, and so I talked him into believing – or pretending to believe – that what he was viewing was an "Alexandered" body; and what he must be comparing it with was a standard made up of "normal" bodies, most of them with excessively pronounced curves. I hope I’m right.

I’ve now been on a horse ten times: five lessons, where I trailed along behind an instructor who told me to keep my heels down and imagine I was a tree; and five wild hacks with a friend where I’ve had my work cut out simply staying on. It is with a hollow laugh that I try and "apply" Alexandrian principles to riding: I haven’t got any spare attention for anything, what with my hands clenching the reins, my feet trying to stay in the stirrups, my groin quivering in anticipation of another ball crushing canter… Finally, I’ve realised that riding isn’t the passive process of sitting on a horse as it moves around that I fondly imagined it might be but the much more active one of moving with another living creature. I’m enjoying it, though: the sensation when you are moving – both physically and mentally – with the horse is marvellous.

Outline proposal for evening classes early in my teaching career

This was written a long time ago!


1: Become aware of unconscious harmful directions.

2: "Inhibiting" those.

3: Sending new useful directions.


"Primary control"

Definition of jargon.

"Inhibition" simply means stopping sending unconscious harmful directions.

Brochure of a dozen or so pages.

1: The brain is continuously employed giving directions to the body. This is going on usually unconsciously.

Thus: to stand, and to continue to stand, requires continuous directions (unconscious) from my brain to my body. If those directions were to cease, I would no longer be able to stand. If I decide to sit, the directions alter and cause my body to go through the process of sitting.

2: The Alexander Technique attempts to bring the nature of these unconscious directions to our conscious attention.

Thus: while standing, or sitting, or engaging in any activity, I will, if I consider the matter at all – which is unusual – almost certainly notice that some of my directions from my brain to my body are harmful. I may not notice the extent of this at first; but lessons are designed to teach you the nature of these harmful directions. These harmful directions folow a universal pattern. They are most evident in movement, particularly a movement that involves any sort of forceful propulsion, such as sitting down or getting out of a chair. The pattern is commonly known as "the startle pattern" and will be familiar to many people as a typical reaction of fear and suprise. The neck usually tightens, the head is drawn down towards the shoulders, the shoulders hunch, the small of the back tightens, the spine shortens overall, the ribcage and stomach tighten and the breathing becomes shallow or non-existant; often the buttocks tighten and the thighs are drawn towards the pelvis. This pattern, while familiar to most people as something which occurs in extreme cases, is actually evident in the majority on a perpetual basis.

3: Having become aware, to however limited an extent, of the harmful nature of these previously unconscious directions, the next step is to stop such directions from being sent.

Thus: if I become aware that I am stiffening my neck, I can stop doing it. As I release my neck, my head will automatically release in what we call a "forward and up direction" (explain) and then the spine will naturally lengthen. This process of becoming aware of harmful unconscious directions and stopping such directions from being sent is known as "inhibition".

4: Progress depends on having enough lessons to bring you a clear awareness of where you are going wrong. To take it further you will need to learn to replace those inhibited previously unconscious harmful directions with new beneficial conscious directions. The more assidiously and often you do this the more effectively the Alexander Technique will work for you.

5: What is the point of it? Many, many problems are due to these unconscious directions, formed long ago as habits, causing physical tensions that bring unwanted symptons.

[I get much more of a buzz out of explaining the Technique than demonstrating it. I don’t find it easy to demonstrate: how does one demonstrate an intellectual concept?

About Inhibition

This is a letter I wrote to a colleague.

Thanks for your letter. I’m sorry not to have been able to discuss inhibition, or much else, the two times I’ve visited; but I don’t think even if the entire morning was given over to talking it would do much more than scratch the surface.

I’ve been busy recently which explains why I haven’t got around to writing. When your letter arrived I jotted down a few points which I thought were relevant and I’ll try and explain them.

Incidentally, although I agree we don’t have to convince each other, there’s no doubt Alexander meant something pretty specific by ‘inhibition’. If he was around to award people marks out of ten for their understanding of the term I think there would be a low pass rate; so it’s as well to at least try and explain our different views.

It seems to me when you say inhibition is "primarily a mental activity" you are missing the point. Inhibition isn’t the leading up to or even the act of reaching a decision not to proceed in a certain way, but its implementation. In itself, it is no more mental than kicking a football.

You also say you confine your inhibition to the sending of "preventative messages" and that you don’t rely on kinesthetic feedback to initiate this because of worries over inaccurate feedback. I think you’re confusing inhibition with direction here. It is hardly enough merely ‘wishing’ or ‘desiring’ to stop something we are already doing.

The "manner of reaction to a stimulus" obviously means something very different to both of us. For me, it encompasses all resulting thought and action, including "the end", "the idea of the end", "the manner of use in achieving the end" and particularly "the conception of the manner of use in achieving the end". It doesn’t matter whether we are acting consciously or unconsciously, the net result will be made up of exactly the same components: a mental process with inescapable physical consequences that together form our ‘manner of reaction’.

When we inhibit, we set out to change something physical through an alteration in a mental state that is dominated by our intention to achieve a particular end. Let’s take as an example the phone ringing. We hear this – physically – and we want – mentally – to answer it; we decide – mentally – to move and begin heading – physically – towards the phone. All this happens unconsciously and in the blink of an eye. How do we inhibit?

The first step is to become conscious of our unconscious intention. To do this we need to become aware of the messages we are sending; these will inevitably be to gain our end while shortening and narrowing. It is important to understand that in order to become mentally aware of such messages – to actually recognise, rather than guess, we are sending them – we need to become kinesthetically aware of their consequences.

The second step involves stopping sending these messages. Just as it is only possible to know they exist by becoming aware of their effect, so it is impossible to stop sending them without receiving confirmation we have done so. The desire or wish to stop sending the messages, the hope that we have stopped them, is not enough.

Any attempt to proceed without referring to our kinesthetic sense is based on the common but I think mistaken idea that – as you express it – we should "inhibit any immediate reaction to kinesthetic feedback". (I assume you’re talking here about conscious kinesthetic feedback, experienced by someone who is neither having a formal lesson nor working alone with a mirror.) As I understand this, we should not be inhibiting whatever unconscious intererence we become aware of so much as any conscious desire to stop it. In other words, we should inhibit inhibition!

Can it really be the case, though, that having once become conscious, we should say ‘no’ to stopping what we sense ourselves doing wrong, and instead give ‘preventative directions’ in the hope they will nullify messages we are unwilling to recognise the effects of anyway?

The only too likely result is that our unconscious intention to shorten and narrow, which we have raised to consciousness but decided to ignore all physical signs of, will remain unchanged, because we will have little option but to also ignore its mental side – the two being indistinguishable; and all we will have achieved is a refusal to face up to misuse in the name of inhibition while paying lip-service to the notion of doing so by giving directions.

The major problem is one of recognition. It is easy to recognise poor use, kinesthetically; but how do we recognise the thoughts that cause it, especially in isolation? What, after all, are the distinguishing characteristics of messages to shorten and narrow, other than the effect they have on us? How can we withhold, and know we have withheld, consent for their despatch except through the realisation – inevitably kinesthetically perceived – of their non-arrival? Besides, what thoughts could we inhibit, if not those producing the results we didn’t trust? What other thoughts would we even know we were having?

Unconscious messages, raised to consciousness, neither become verbalised, nor – so far as they pertain to our use – recognisable in any way except through the kinesthetic sense. We can say ‘neck free’, or think about ‘lengthening’; but unless we let go, to the degree our level of learning allows, of whatever is preventing better use from happening, we will achieve little.

This ‘letting go’ isn’t a physical action. It is caused by, and remains dependant on, the mental decision to stop ‘holding on’. We rely on our kinesthetic sense to know, at any one time, whether and how much we need to do this.

You say: "Every action is preceded by a thought and every thought is followed by a corresponding action. In this sense the two are inseparable and every action is psycho-physical in nature. However, the part of this psycho-physical action which we are able to change is the thought and we can only to this by replacing it with another thought."

I don’t disagree; but I think it would be no easier to change the thought associated with poor use without acknowledging it kinesthetically than to bring about a change in that use without refering to the thoughts that caused it. However much we may think we recognise our unconscious intention to shorten and narrow, without accepting the validity of our kinesthetic experience of this, it cannot be the case. After all, why should we expect our cerebral acuity to be any more reliable than our sensory appreciation?

Whatever stage we are at in learning the Technique, we should assume our awareness of mental messages concerning use will exactly mirror our appreciation of their physical effect. It couldn’t be otherwise. This means that without kinesthetic aacceptance of what we are doing, we will be no nearer ‘guiding or controlling’ our actions than if we were functioning unconsciously.

As for "conscious guidance and control being a plane to be reached rather than a method of reaching it", I see this in simple terms. You say that "greater association with the body is achieved as the result of inhibition and direction", but I think of it as integral to the process. To my mind, "conscious guidance and control" depends on association with the body; and rather than being a "method of reaching" this, the dual procedure of inhibition and direction is itself "the plane to be reached".

This is one of the reasons I emphasise the importance of association with the kinesthetic sense. I have never considered the Technique a procedure that leads to a different state of being. In proper application, it is that state. If we are successfully inhibiting and directing, at any level of expertise, we are already ‘on the plane’. If we live in hope of reaching it, through the repetition of a particular procedure, we have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

Writing this note has certainly clarified one thing for me. I never properly realised how pivotal the kinesthetic sense was to our becoming conscious of previously unconscious messages sent from mind to body concerning use: how unintelligible, without reference to that sense, those messages would remain.

I look forward to hearing from you, trying to persuade me otherwise.

I’ve just re-read your letter and after puzzling for a moment over your conclusion that it is "the manner of (your) reaction which is the object of inhibition and not the reaction itself", found myself wanting to ask you how you distinguish between the two. How do you recognise what your manner of reaction is? What are its distinguishing characteristics? What makes it stand out from the maelstrom of activity going on when the phone rings and you begin to answer it?