lørdag 27. oktober 2018

Thinking, not doing

This is a translated and slightly rewritten version of the blog post Tenke ikke gjøre in Norwegian. 

The Alexander Technique is about using your awareness in such a way that you avoid dis-coordinating yourself, thereby facilitating easy and efficient movement. Sometimes a little bit of awareness of the length of your body is sufficient to prevent any tendency for dis-coordination, sometimes even just stop trying too hard. At other times, you must think more actively.

The 'directions', the mental messages we use in the Alexander Technique, often expressed as: let the neck be free, let your head go forward and up, let your back lengthen and widen, etc., can be seen as intention for movement. The purpose of these directions is primarily preventive. We want to avoid tightening our necks, pulling our heads backwards and downwards, shortening and narrowing our backs. This is based on the simple fact that any discoordination of the musculoskeletal system will manifest as reduction of length, either by muscular compression or by collapse, (or both). 

We could formulate the directions differently. We could formulate them as explicitly preventive, saying that we wish to not pull the head back and down, to not shorten and narrow the back. In his classic book, The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick Macdonald labelled this way of wording the directions as 'negative directions' (Macdonald 1989, p 76, 2015, p 68). Formulating the directions as a positive wish for expansion is more common, and is maybe, in some situations, more effective.

In a previous blog post I compared giving directions to thinking about something, saying that it was as easy as thinking about a banana. (Thanks to teacher Fran Engel for the inspiration). Perhaps I should have written that it's like wanting to have a banana. Having a wish for something is different from just thinking about something. Understanding this difference is vital for understanding the Alexander Technique principle of 'giving directions.'

Giving directions means having a wish for movement, but it's a movement you can not do, a movement that you by all means must not try to do. Trying to do the movement defeats its purpose since it is meant to be preventive. The purpose is to avoid something.

Alexander's brother, AR (Albert Redden) was also a teacher of the technique He once said to a student:
Of course, Directions are doings, but they are very small. They are usually below the sense register (Macdonald 1989, 76, 2015, p. 68).
In a way he was right. Just imagining movement is sufficient to start the movement process. At this initial level it is maybe artificial to distinguish between wanting to do something and actually performing the act. But this also means that it is completely unnecessary to do anything more than wishing for movement. Something will happen.

AR appears to have been a practical person and a good teacher. I think he said what he said to explain to a bewildered student that the directions should be given with some intensity, that they should be a wish for something and not just a thought about something. Unfortunately, the quote from AR has been used as an excuse to do something more than just thinking the directions. 

Sometimes, in certain situations, we must do more than just thinking. For example, if you have ended up in a slump, you must do an active physical movement to come up out of the slump. Just thinking the directions could maybe improve your situation in that position, to some degree, but you'll never get out of the slump without actual movement. This movement is not the directions, even if they go quite literally in the same direction. It's a physical movement like anybody else you do, a movement you perform with direction.

When we are thinking the Alexander Technique directions, something will happen. Most of what happens, if not all, will be below what we can sense directly. The directions are thoughts, and we can't feel our thoughts. What we can do is experience the effect of the directions indirectly by observing the change in the quality of our movements. 

Because we want something to change, it is very tempting to do something to feel the change directly. We want immediate confirmation. Especially for beginners, it's tempting to do something physically to get the satisfaction of (perceived) success. But even experienced teachers (including myself) can begin to do more than just thinking, completely unaware that they are doing anything more than only thinking. Just as what we would like to happen normally is below our sense level, the unintended bad habit of 'doing' can be equally invisible to us. 

When directions become doings, they always lead to bad habits and increasing problems. They become dead ends. To put it bluntly: they are the road to hell. That road is, as we know, paved with good intentions. 
Although we are looking for changes that can be measured physically, we must not forget that the Alexander Technique is a mental technique. As Alexander said:
You think that the Alexander Technique is physical; I tell you that it is the most mental thing that has been discovered (Carrington 1994, p19).

 So please don't try to do anything.

Related blog posts
Tenke, ikke gjøre (Norwegian)
Tenk på en banan (Norwegian)

Carrington, Walter. 1994. Thinking Aloud. Mournum Time Press.
Macdonald, Patrick, 1989. The Alexander Technique As I See It. Rahula Books.
Macdonald, Patrick. (1989) 2015. The Alexander Technique As I See It. Mouritz.

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