There seem to be two basic ways of focusing attention; they’re described in Dr. Timothy Cacciatore’s paper called Science and Alexander, published in an edition of Direction Journal. Tim describes two attentional systems, one he calls the monitoring attentional system, and the other the focal attentional system, and he writes “The two aforementioned attentional systems differ in the amount of information that each can process simultaneously. The focal attentional system is limited in this capacity; selectively focusing on one task degrades the performance of others.” FM was experientially aware of this. Somewhere in either one of the books or some recorded conversation, I’ve lost track of where, he’s reported as talking about people going shooting, hunting pheasants, or whatever they did, grouse, or whatever. He hung out with upper class English people who did that kind of thing, and he says that the novice out there is holding his shotgun and waiting, a bird might fly up from anywhere in the field of vision in front of him from the undergrowth, and the novice is anxiously looking at different sections of the sky and the undergrowth in turn, going from that to that to that to that back to that to that and checking, is there a bird there, no, is there a bird there, and suddenly a bird flies up and the novice grabs the trigger and misses. But the expert just stands there holding the gun with an overall expansive broad peripheral vision sense of the whole field in front of him, rather than anxiously scanning sections of it one at a time. That’s the kind of attention that is most helpful for learning and practising the Alexander Technique.
You see, if as you stand or sit there I said to you, “now I really want you to notice what’s happening in your left ankle. Just really put your attention there and see if you can really be in that left ankle, get every bit of information about what’s happening there.” Now that’s the narrowing in on one part of the overall field and it’s not helpful for Alexander work. But if you come back to the whole room, here you are with your feet on the floor, the ceiling above you, the space around you, the window there, you’re breathing, your ribs are moving, there are sounds, there’s light in the room. That’s what Frank Pierce Jones called a unified field of attention or awareness, which also of course links well with Buddhist mindfulness and Advaita non-duality practices, and within that overall field, I wonder if there’s any sensation reaching you from your left ankle. So here you are in the overall field of which the left ankle is just one small part. And it’s that kind of thing: within that field, are you getting any information about somewhere where you might be gripping a little too much? Are you getting any information about whether you could shift your balance in any way that would help you to go up? You’re asking within the whole field is there any useful information coming to me? That is the way to approach it rather than, oh, what can I feel in my neck, in my hips, in my knees.
Student: So what I’m always aware of, it’s kind of always in the background, tensing right here (my upper back) stopping the up. So knowing that and not wanting to dwell on it, do I just take it in the big picture?
JN: Are you feeling that right now?
Student: I feel it pretty much all the time.
JN: OK, connect to the ground and experiment a little bit. See what might happen if you slightly shifted your balance a little forward, or a little back. Are you breathing, are you still aware of the space of the room? Ask the shoulders gently to widen, let the ribs move all the way through the back and sides, right up into the armpits, connect to the floor again, check that you’re not gripping the front of the ankles and quietly asked the back and sides of the neck to lighten up. Perhaps, with inhibition and direction, rotate a little, at the ankles or just the thorax. And then I would say, now if at this point that doesn’t make any difference and you still feel a little stuck there, go take a walk – don’t just stand there any longer trying to change it. Ask for some undoing while doing something else and moving. If that little process, 10, 20 or 30 seconds, didn’t help don’t just endlessly stand still and try to direct. Take a walk. That’s the great secret of everything. From a British upbringing I ought to be saying make a cup of tea, but my equivalent these days is just take a walk. 🙂