Think, Don’t Do?
Back in my early years of teaching at the Constructive Teaching Centre in London, I had a phone call from a young man who wanted to begin having lessons. During the call he said something that might perhaps make an AT teacher’s heart sink: “Although I’ve never had any lessons, I’ve read all four of Alexander’s books and I’ve been seriously practising it.” Why might that make a teacher’s heart sink? Well, you’ll see.
He arrived for his first lesson full of enthusiasm but empty of direction – a very collapsed person. We talked a bit and I put hands on and endeavoured to coax some up and widening to happen, asking him to inhibit and direct along with me. No result. Move to the table. Equally no discernible result. Collapsed standing, collapsed sitting, collapsed movement. I initiate some conversation about what he has gleaned from reading FM’s books: it emerges that the key point that impressed itself most upon him was that he must only think the directions and make no attempt at all to do them. “Oh that’s very good,” you might say, “he’s clearly understood a very important point.” “Yes, but his understanding seemed to be making it very difficult for him to go up,” I might reply!
So, by the time we were perhaps two thirds of the way through the lesson I decided on a gamble. “Look, I’d like to try an experiment if you’re willing to go along with it. I want you to simply sit up straight, and then we’ll see of we can reduce the effort you’re making to do that.” He complied, and very soon by helping him to undo effort and tension without going back into his habitual collapse we made rapid progress, and subsequent lessons went well.
Shortly after that first lesson I met Walter Carrington in the hallway of 18 Lansdowne Road and jokingly confessed that I’d committed an Alexander “sin” in the lesson I’d just given. I described to Walter how I’d resorted to the “sit up straight and then we’ll aim to reduce the effort” methodology. Walter laughed heartily and said “I’ve done the same thing myself before now, John. Sometimes any kind of up is a better starting point than no up at all.”
Why am I telling this story? Simply to illustrate that in the actual teaching process principles need to be applied with flexibility and consideration of where the pupil is at; how can we best enable this particular person gain something of the experience we are trying to communicate. That is surely a mark of good educational practice in any sphere. Also to illustrate what a tricky area this is: doing and non-doing.
In the Use of the Self F.M. gives us, tucked away in a footnote, his only written definition of what he means by “directing.” He writes: “When I use the words ‘direction’ and ‘directed’ with ‘use’ in such phrases as ‘direction of my use’ and ‘I directed the use’, etc, I wish to indicate the process involved in projecting messages from the brain to the mechanisms and in conducting the energy necessary to the use of these mechanisms.” (Orion edition, page 35.) No further explanation is given, but note the addition of “conducting the energy necessary… ” along with the projecting of messages. What can that mean?
If we look at this through the lens of the three categories of statement described in the previous post, subjective, objective, and pedagogical, it will help to clear up potential confusion. For example we can see the statement in Patrick Macdonald’s book The Alexander Technique As I See It, on page 68 of the Mouritz edition, that “I was much confused over this matter when A.R. Alexander, F.M.’s brother, remarked to me ‘Of course directions are doings, but they are very small. They are usually below the sense register.” If we set that alongside a statement I heard Walter Carrington make to his training course that he doesn’t want a student to “do” the directions, “not even a homeopathic amount”, they seem at first glance totally contradictory.
However, if we take A.R.’s comment as coming from an objective standpoint, then it’s true that what we call “going up” actually must involve some muscular activity, particularly in the spinal support musculature, as a spine without muscular aid cannot support itself. And what Walter Carrington is saying might be a very necessary pedagogical instruction to give to a very “overdoing” type of student, just as my “sit up straight” suggestion worked for a very collapsed student.
Slightly different, but in the same field of potential doing/non-doing confusion, is the question of “moving up” vs “going up”. Marj Barstow in the USA seems to have mostly spoken of moving up, while F.M. spoke of going up, and first generation teachers I knew in London would indicate that going up was something that would “do itself” when stimulated by the thought, yet “moving up” does suggest an actual movement. But again the seeming contradiction will fade if we appreciate that Marj is pointing to the fact that if you are somewhat slumped there does need to be a movement to bring you up to your full height, or full stature, to use F.M.’s word. Patrick Macdonald makes this clear on pages 69-70 of his book: “Of course in a badly slumped pupil the lengthening of the spine and the resultant upward movement of the head, while under a teacher’s manipulation, can be quite extensive, sometimes even adding inches to the pupil’s habitual height. This extension if the normal ‘physical’ kind. It is different to the tiny activity of direction giving, and should be subservient to it. ‘Physical’ movements like this need not be wrong. Indeed, they are required in the various activities of living, but always in conjunction with directions.”
How often in your daily life do you find yourself at somewhat less than your full stature? In my own case the answer would be very often! Then I need to follow the process described in an earlier blog post called The intention of upward direction. A process of learning to uncurl a slumped spine upwards while inhibiting any pulling down on the head and any gripping of the ribs by the back muscles in an effort to lift the trunk. And of course those inhibitions could equally well be considered as directions to the neck head and back – preventive orders! In this way I am “moving up” out of a slump, then I can continue to sustain the “going up” by continuing with non-doing directing, subjectively experiencing thinking but not doing, while objectively my thinking is having the effect of “conducting the energy necessary to the use of these mechanisms”