Written by Richard Forrest.
Mostly, our thinking – our purposeful, energised thinking, that is – tends to centre on particular things. This manner of thinking is fostered in us at school, at university, and in many forms of vocational training.
In the Alexander Technique training we are encouraged to change our thinking. At the same time it is made clear that the changed thinking we are after does not involve thinking “about things”. For example, in giving our orders for the primary control we are not expected to visualize the freeing neck, etc. So changing the thinking means changing the manner of thought.
The Alexander Technique student becomes aware that the quality of brain activity, the manner of thinking, is a key factor which distinguishes good work from less effective work in class. If in the early stages of the training this may to a large extent be a matter which the student recognises as an intellectual concept, it becomes increasingly plain as a fact as the training proceeds.
What are the characteristics of this re-education in thinking?
One important characteristic is an avoidance of concentration. Many people would regard concentration as being almost synonymous with purposeful thinking, but to Alexander the idea of concentration was associated with end-gaining. In CCC (Constructive Conscious Control), he called it a disastrous conception. Concentration he says is commonly seen as the remedy for the mind-wandering that results from the end-gaining principle in education, but this is a misguided perception. In MSI (Man’s Supreme Inheritance), Alexander wrote of the perceived need for concentration as being one of the bundle of fixed ideas that are encountered in the case of almost every pupil, one of the major causes of difficulty standing in the way of re-education.
Concentration is an effortful activity. The effort entails an enforced delimiting of the powers of the brain: a significant part of the brainpower is devoted to the process of concentration itself, whereas what we want to do is to exercise those powers to the full extent in relation to the real subject-matter. When discussing concentration in MSI Alexander drew the analogy of attempting to straighten one’s arm and bend it at the same time: the effort involved frustrates both activities, setting up a state of civil war within the organism. The effort one way has precisely the effect of frustrating progress in the desired way. It is a mental habit to think that this effort is necessary. It accompanies the notion that it is not possible to think about more than one thing at the same time. Alexander described this notion as a delusion. In CCC he used the example of the person who rises from a chair to greet a friend, then engaging in a half-hour conversation – a process involving the continuation of several thought processes at once – to expose the delusion. The recognition of our ability to think about several things at once is fundamental to a change in thinking.
In ‘The Alexander Technique As I See It’, Macdonald says of concentration that it means separating a point from its surroundings. Behind this comment there is again the concept that thought can encompass several strands, or faculties, at one and the same time. His jotting entitled The Unholy Trinity – concentration, feeling and relaxation – also highlighted the common perception that effort is necessary, and desirable. The pupil, on being told not to close her eyes, says: “If I don’t close my eyes I can’t concentrate”, and the teacher says: “I don’t want you to try to concentrate”. The pupil says: “ But if I don’t concentrate I can’t feel what is happening”, and then goes on to talk about relaxing – and Macdonald calls this a wonderful conglomeration of wrong ideas.
There is a distinction to be drawn between concentration and attention. Here is not meant attention as in the schoolteacher’s command “Pay attention”: that is to create a resistance to prevent other thoughts from seeping in. In MSI (Man’s Supreme Inheritance), Alexander said this dissociates (i.e. separates) the brain rather than compacting (i.e. fully engaging) it. This again could be viewed as a form of concentration, a narrowing of the mind down to a point rather then encouraging the totality of the mind.
Attention means rather the quality of being wholly attentive. This should be a releasing process. The key contrast is between the narrowing of concentration and the releasing of attentiveness. Alexander said that we must cultivate the deliberate habit of taking up every occupation with the whole mind…bringing into play every faculty of the attention (MSI). By definition, this is not concentration, where the faculties are diverted to the process of concentration.
Suppose, then, we accept that a state or quality of attention is desirable. How does it arise?
The Indian teacher Krishnamurti, who had a similar view of concentration and attention to Alexander’s, considered that total attention cannot be achieved by practice. This is because practice is itself akin to concentration. Alexander however targeted his approach on the mental habit of thinking that effort is necessary. Eradicate that, he maintained, and what was difficult will become easy. The habit of thinking in this particular way is an instance of the brain working in a groove, sliding along a familiar well-worn path: if the brain can be lifted out of the groove, the groove soon fills. By use – quite possibly meaning practice in this context (in MSI) as well as manner of use – we can develop this power of lifting the brain out of its groove.
If we look at what Alexander says about the means of lifting the mind out of the groove and what Krishnamurti says about practice, we can see some unity in their different approaches.
For Alexander it is the wish, the conscious desire to do a thing or think a thing, which results in adequate performance. The best work cannot be done under conditions which necessitate the artificially arduous effort of keeping the mind on a subject which one does not wholeheartedly want. What is required, he says, is a living desire to carry through each action to a successful accomplishment, and it is that desire which necessitates bringing into play every faculty of the attention.
In ‘The Art of Changing’, Glen Park takes up this theme and talks about the emotional content of thought. She considers that thoughts and emotions are inseperably bound up together, that the amount of thinking we do that is purely factual or logical is very little, unless we are working as mathematicians or scientists. She suggests that what gives thoughts their power is the emotional power behind them, and from that energy their efficacy for change, which is what Alexander discovered. Alexander, she says, equated direction with volition, and volition has a positive emotional content. So there is a wishing and willing involved in directing. And the wishing and willing has to be associated with a positive experience for us to want it and feel good about the directions – that we want them, and are confident about that. It is, she says, no use giving orders whilst you have an idea at the back of your brain of doing something.
This idea of positive experience – we might call it well-being – is shared by Krishnamurti. Total attention may not be acquired by practice, but he says it will arise spontaneously when there is around us an atmosphere of well-being, when we have the feeling of being secure and at ease, and aware of disinterested action. Awareness of disinterested action may be equated with non-doing and an avoidance of endgaining, as Krishnamurti also talks about the fear associated with the urge for success, a perception surely very close to Alexander’s.
The state of mind being described here is far removed from the conventional notion of thought. Krishnamurti talks about the conventional “thought” being a self-centred activity, “thinking” a process which has its source in the me – the self – and that in the perpetual examination and analysis of thoughts we are in effect end-gaining, or as he says, seeking a result. We need, he says, to go beyond thought of that kind. The Russian mystic Gurdjieff was arguably on similar lines when he spoke about our constantly identifying with what has at a given moment attracted our attention. Identifying he described as one of our most terrible foes.
Conventional thoughts will continue to arise while our attention is fully engaged – it is seldom that they don’t – but they will not be pursued, we will not identify with them. They will have freedom to flower and pass out of our minds. For Krishnamurti, the flowering of thought is the end of thought. That is the state of mind he describes as awareness.
I think of a quality of awareness of this kind as a hallmark of good Alexander work. It means taking in the surroundings while being aware of one’s self – one’s thoughts and feelings – the awareness including also the pupil. So this is an outward and an inward awareness. There are similarities with the concept of self-remembering in Gurdjieff’s teachings. Self-remembering is the third state of consciousness in the progression between sleep and objective consciousness. The chief obstacle to self-remembering is identifying.
Krishnamurti describes this dual awareness as a unitary process which brings about a total integration of human understanding. He seems to say that facets of the awareness are sequential, the outward awareness being primary – If you are really aware outwardly the inward awareness also begins to awaken – although I take this to be as much an expression of the quality of the desired awareness, as a perceptible progression within it.
Alexander used the term awareness in a rather particular way, as characterising the mental state in which reliable sensory appreciation ensures that any interference with co-ordinated use comes into the consciousness as soon as it occurs: this is what he calls the reliable plane of conscious activity. This state of awareness is developed during the processes of re-education and co-ordination on a general basis. It seems to me to have the same dual character – outward and inward – as already mentioned.
In Alexander work the primary control must always be primary, and the desired state of mental awareness will always have its physical concomitant. Reliable sensory appreciation, developed in re-education, is fundamental to the technique. And the primary control, when achieved, is of course a physical state of affairs – the neck is free to move, the head going forward and up etc. But it is equally a mental state, a quality. There is not a concerted action which causes the neck to be free, rather the free neck is associated in our minds with a sense of freedom, poise, balance – physical characteristics, certainly, but also mental freedom, alertness, attentiveness, awareness. This state is characterised by the broad reasoning attitude which allows the continuous projection of conscious orders. The brain is fully engaged, energised, and the physical freedom is the manifestation of that state – and also its barometer.
Accepting that, the complementary approaches, even though they deal only with mental states, may be found instructive nonetheless. What is being advocated is the giving of full outward attention without being absorbed in the external thing. The not being absorbed I take to be the accompanying self-awareness. This is a concept familiar in Alexander work, where our tendency to become absorbed in particular objects or matters, through end-gaining, fixing or even day-dreaming, is a persistent enemy of the primary control. So the idea of inward awareness accompanying, even resulting from, outward awareness can be helpful. It may encourage us to downplay the ego element.
This is almost putting another way the concept of “two-way looking” to be found in some writing on Zen Buddhism. In this, the awareness of self adopts the view from outside looking in, in preference to the more conventional egocentric view. We see ourselves, therefore, in an objective context.
An enhanced quality of awareness is ultimately what the Alexander Technique teacher may hope to encourage in the pupil. Gratifying it may be to have a pupil report “an elongated back”, or a sensation of “walking on air”, but the real prize is the pupil whose thinking is more energised as a result of a lesson.
Richard Forrest is a final-year student on Anthony Kingsley’s The Alexander Teacher Training School. 2004