Translated and expanded version of the blogpost ‘Ikke-gjøre’. Intended for the advanced Alexander pupil, and for teachers.
‘Non-doing’ is one of the Alexander Technique principles. It's not a principle the average Alexander pupil needs to know about. But if you delve deeper into the technique, and if you read about the theory behind it, you can't avoid encountering the concept of ‘non-doing’.
Alexander seems to have heard about ‘non-doing’ from John Dewey. In the 1925 lecture ‘An Unrecognised Principle’ Alexander is quoted as having said: ‘When Professor Dewey read the MS [manuscript] of my last book, he came in to me one morning and said, “Alexander, I am delighted that you hit upon that wonderful principle of non-dong in your technique.” [...] He had just come back from China [...]’ (Alexander 1995, p. 147).
‘Non-doing’ stems from Eastern philosophy but what is its meaning in the context of the Alexander Technique?
‘Non-doing’ is often equated with ‘inhibition’, the decision not to respond to a stimulus. Non-doing and inhibition are related concepts but they are not the same.
Alexander writes in The Universal Constant in Living:
In my work we are concerned primarily with non-doing in the fundamental sense of what we should not do in the use of ourselves in our daily activities; in other words, with preventing that habitual misuse of the psycho-physical mechanisms which renders these activities a constant source of harm to the organism (Alexander 2000a, p. 99).
It is clear from this that ‘non-doing’ does not mean sitting absolutely still and not doing anything. According to Alexander it is about what we should not do in the use of ourselves ‘in our daily activities’, i.e. while we are in activity.
Alexander writes further about ‘putting into practice the idea of non-doing’ (ibid, p. 100). Non-doing is an idea, an attitude or an overall intention to be process-oriented. To follow the principle of non-doing entails that you are attending to the means-whereby and that you are using your ability to choose not to respond to a stimulus (inhibition): ‘... the idea of non-doing leads to the employment of indirect “means-whereby” of preventing [...] misdirection’, (ibid, p. 101).
But he can also be interpreted as saying that non-doing is the same as inhibition:
... [non-doing] is an act of inhibition which comes into play when, for instance, in response to a given stimulus, we refuse to give consent to certain activity, and thus prevent ourselves from sending those messages which would ordinarily bring about the habitual reaction resulting in the “doing” within the self of what we no longer wish to “do”. (ibid, p 101).
It is my opinion that ‘non-doing’ is best defined as an overarching concept, and ‘inhibition’ as a specific action.
There is an indication of this in one of Alexander's aphorisms: ‘Specific prevention is permissible only under conditions of non-doing, not of doing.’ (Alexander 2000b)
Here we see that non-doing also can be seen as a condition. It is a condition in which everything that can happen by itself, happens by itself. A condition in which nothing superfluous is taking place.
Patrick Macdonald regarded non-doing to be related to the process of sending directions: ‘The question of doing and non-doing, again in our special sense, is one that is intimately bound up with that of giving directions, and is one that has caused a great deal of confusion’.
But he continues by giving this simple definition: ‘The long and short of it is that we, as teachers, require that certain activities should, as we say “do themselves”. This we call non-doing.’ (Macdonald, p. 82)
‘“Non-doing” and “direction sending” are the life-blood of the Alexander Technique, though they are not of course the whole of IT’ (ibid, p. 86).
It follows that the putting into practice of the theory of non-doing where the manner of use of the self is concerned is a fundamental experience, and is the most valuable experience to be gained by those who wish to learn to prevent themselves from harmful 'doing' in carrying out activities outside themselves (Alexander 2000a, p. 101).
‘Non-doing’ is what you attain by following the process of ‘inhibition’ and ‘direction’, by focusing on ‘the means-whereby’.
But perhaps there is a shortcut?
In her book ‘How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live’ (or ‘the book with the difficult title’ which I tend to call it), Missy Vineyard describes how she experimented with not reacting to a stimulus. For example, she would lie in semi-supine (active rest) and practice having an intention to lift the leg but at the same time decide not to do it; or she would sit in a chair, framing in her mind the intention to stand up, but refraining from reacting to the wish. Alexander made similar experiments when trying to get rid of bad habits related to the use of his voice. (Binkley, p. 104)
Vineyard then goes a step further and explores the possibility of thinking more generally. One day feeling stressed at the thought of having to teach a new pupil, she says to herself, ‘I'm not teaching today’. In this way she was able to change her condition and the stress subsided. One night she had difficulties sleeping by the thought of a busy schedule the following day, she was thinking: ‘I do not have anything to do tomorrow’ (Vineyard 2007, p. 122).
It is debatable whether this is a constructive response to a challenge, or if it is self-deception. Choosing to totally refrain from activity can however make one aware of any unnecessary or disproportionate reactions that are subconsciously elicited. The mere thought of an activity, especially if it is one we dislike, can cause a lot of ‘doing’ that is not at all helpful in fulfilling the task. If we decide to do absolutely nothing, we can then go on and choose to do something differently.
But Vineyard goes even one step further. In an interview with Robert Rickover she recounted a stressful car journey. While driving she said to herself, ‘I'm not driving’. (Robert Rickover publishes interviews on the Alexander Technique on bodylearningcast.com. The interview in question is unfortunately no longer to be found on the site).
Vineyard is saying to herself that she is not performing the action she is actually performing. Again, it is debatable whether this amounts to self-deception, but there is no doubt that it could have an effect. The brain is easily fooled. Saying to yourself that you are not performing the action you are performing can allow you slightly more distance to the situation, and make room for reduction of unwanted reactions.
Rickover is using this way of ‘self-directing’ also in connection with the more traditional Alexander Technique directions. Instead of ‘let the neck be free’ he says, ‘I'm not tensing my neck’. This Rickover calls ‘negative directions’.
The term ‘negative directions’ is potentially misleading. The Alexander Technique ‘directions’ are already negative. The basic directions: ‘to let the neck be free, etc’ have a preventive purpose. Alexander himself used the expression ‘preventive orders’. One might just as well think of not tensing the neck. (See for instance Alexander 1996, p. 60, or Alexander 2004, p. 115).
The term ‘negative directions’ was already used by Patrick Macdonald in his influental book ‘The Alexander Technique As I See It’ as one of a number of interpretations of the term ‘direction’: ‘Negative Directions (i.e., do not stiffen your neck)’ (Macdonald 1989, p. 67).
I have myself from time to time pupils who much prefer to phrase the basic directions in the negative. I think it is a good idea for teachers to try this out with every pupil as a matter of routine. Even if the pupil does not find this way of thinking appealing to them, it does at least clarify the preventive nature of Alexander Technique directions. Since direction must precede action it would be natural to formulate it as an intention: ‘I'm not going to ...’, which then of course will be continued during the action.
What may give Rickover's version of the basic directions a tint of something new is the use of the -ing form of the present tense in English, which may stress the fact that you are not doing something you are actually doing. This will not necessarily have the same hue in other languages, like Norwegian, which doesn't have this way of expressing present tense. In Norwegian ‘I'm not going to ...’ will, on the other hand, be phrased ‘I will not ...’, which covers both future intention and what you are doing at this very moment.
A more appropriate name than ‘negative directions’ would be ‘non-doing directions’.
In this connection it is important to realise that the words are not the directions. The words are only labels. This fact is mentioned by several of the senior teachers interviewed in the newly published book ‘Living the Alexander Technique’. With experience, they were no longer thinking in words. Using different words does not mean that you have found a new way of directing. Most probably you have only found a new way of describing the process. Which, of course, in a teaching situation can be very valuable.
New ways to formulate the Alexander Technique directions are always a welcome addition to the teaching methods. But to tell yourself that you are not to tensing your neck when you can feel that you are actually doing it, might not always be wise. A fundamental aspect of the Alexander technique, and often formulated as a step in the process, is to ‘analyse the conditions of use present’ (Alexander 1985, p 39), to be aware of your situation as it is. This includes accepting the reality of the situation.
Saying to yourself that you are not tensing your neck may in some cases amount to denying reality. The Alexander Technique is based on the opposite. For a musician on his way out on stage, feeling the level of tension in body and neck increasing, ‘I'm not tensing my neck’, is hardly the most constructive way of thinking.
It is vitally important to realise the difference between telling yourself you are not doing something you are doing that you don't want to do (like stiffening the neck), and not doing something you are doing that you wish to be doing (like walking, talking, running etc.).
Having a pupil think of not tensing the neck may be like asking them to not think of a pink elephant. Thinking about not performing a normal activity is a different animal. The former is problematic, especially if the pupil is actually tensing the neck. The latter, which I would describe as the ‘true’ non-doing direction, still has the potential of self-deception or of leading to passivity, but can have some very interesting effects and are well worth trying out.
For example, you may imagine that you are not walking when you are out walking, or that or you are not cycling when riding a bike. Try it out and see what happens. It is quite possible that you will discover new aspects of the way you do things.
What might be called a variation of non-doing directions was described by Alexander Technique teacher John Appleton in another interview with Robert Rickover: Using Posture Release Imagery for Better Health (Appleton has developed visualisation exercises called Posture Release Imagery. This is maybe not strictly Alexander Technique, but something worth trying out if you have a preference for thinking visually).
Put briefly, the exercise suggested by Appleton is to imagine your body, or parts of your body, being in another position than they actually are. For instance, imagine that you are standing when you are sitting, that the legs are straight and that your feet are not on the floor, but much further down. Likewise, you can imagine that you are sitting when you are standing.
You can try out the same procedure with your arms, hands or head and neck. For example, try out what happens when you imagine that you have your arms hanging straight down when you are actually lifting them out to the sides.
You might be able to fool your brain into stop making unnecessary effort. In this way, the use of these ‘non-doing directions’ may bring you closer to what could be described as a state of non-doing.
I have myself occasionally used an extreme version of ‘non-doing direcitons’, perhaps inspired by Missy Vineyard. I've been thinking ‘I have no arms’. It has sometimes helped me to not tighten the shoulders. (Maybe I should market this as a new variant of the Alexander Technique-directions: ‘not-having directions’. Yes, maybe you'll even see it trademarked soon!)
Your imagination can help you. Use it! Just remember that most important and most difficult of all when learning the Alexander Technique, is to become aware of how things actually are and to accept it.
Although I have in certain circumstances found it helpful to imagine that I had no arms when my shoulders were tense, I nevertheless believe that in the long term it will benefit me more accepting my shoulders as they are. The important thing is, after all, to learn to use the arms in the best possible way. Non-doing is not doing nothing.
Related blog post:
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (1985). The Use of the Self. Victor Gollancz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (1995). Articles and Lectures. Mouritz
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (1996). Man's Supreme Inheritance. Mouritz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (2000a). Universal Constant in Living. Mouritz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (2000b). Aphorisms. Mouritz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. (2004). Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz.
Binkley, Goddard. (1993). The Expanding Self. STAT Books.
Macdonald, Patrick. (1989). The Alexander Technique As I See It. Rahula Books.
Rootberg, Ruth. (2015). Living the Alexander Technique. Off the Commons Books.
Vineyard, Missy. (2007). How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live. Marlowe and Company