Doing on a Non-Doing Foundation
Extract from a work in progress about Alexander teacher training to be published eventually by Mouritz.
In FM Alexander’s final book, The Universal Constant in Living, there is an important section headed Withholding Action or Non-Doing. Here is a quote from it:
“It is a curious anomaly that acceptance of the theory and practice of non-doing should be comparatively easy in attempts to help the self in external activities, but so difﬁcult in similar attempts connected with internal activities. Such help involves a form of non-doing which must not be confused with passivity, and which is fundamental because it prevents the self from doing itself harm by misdirection of energy and uncontrolled reaction; it 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.” 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. Such prevention is the form of non-doing which is essential to the changing of bad habits and to the control of human reaction.”
The Universal Constant in Living by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 2000, London), page 99-102.
When Goddard Binkley, in his diary of lessons with FM and subsequent teacher training The Expanding Self (STATBooks 1993) ponders the subject of doing and non-doing he gives the following explanation::
“Lest we get the wrong idea it is not doing in itself, that is wrong, needless to say. The idea is not to become a passive, inert lump of humanity. On the contrary, the idea is to become an active, free, poised, live human being.
“It is a question, in other words, of transforming doing-which-interferes with the working-integrity of the self into doing-in-accordance with the working-integrity of the self. In order to achieve this, it is necessary, essential, to stop doing and to stop all idea of doing (inhibition) for a time. For only by stopping can one succeed in registering the experiences that lead to the transformation to doing-in-accordance (volition) with the working-integrity of the self.”
The Expanded Self page 96
Both these explanations in their different ways seem to me to encompass two overlapping aspects of non-doing. One is the pure stopping: choosing not to rush into action; choosing, when faced with a problem not to rush into fixing it; in the context of learning the Alexander Technique, choosing not to try to do anything to make the directions happen. The second is how to carry this over into activity without losing the benefits of improved use gained by stopping and letting a teacher guide you in your early lessons. What Goddard calls “doing-in-accordance with the working integrity of the self”. That is rather a cumbersome phrase so let’s try to unpack it.
Consider this practical example. You are standing in front of some object at home, a vase, a package, or a bowl that you’re going to pick up and move to some other part of the room. So you stand there inhibiting rushing into action. Doing nothing except that you are standing and breathing. Even the fact that you’re standing means there is some muscle tone in those muscles maintaining relative straightness of your legs and uprightness of your spine, your neck, head and back, plus of course the musculature involved in breathing. It may be only a small amount of muscular effort that’s required since one of the advantages of human fully upright posture is that very little muscular energy is required to support ourselves, but very little is not nothing. From an Alexander perspective we could say that we’d like you to be going up rather than pulling down or collapsing; that is, encouraging just the appropriate level of muscle tone in just the right places to support your skeletal structure at its optimum height and breadth to assert its own intrinsic springiness for all the organ systems inside you, including your respiratory system. This is a delicate synergy because too much muscular effort, or effort in the wrong places, will compress and distort your skeletal structure in the effort of lifting it to full uprightness and maintaining it there. An example of what FM in the above quote calls “misdirection of energy”. So if you are indeed simply standing there going up, exhibiting an optimum synergy of postural support and breathing, we could say this is your base line of non-doing in the sense of not misdirecting energy in ways that would be harmful to you from an Alexander point of view. You are not interfering with the working integrity of the self.
But then if you bring your hands up and place them on either side of the object you want to move, the vase, package or bowl, you’re adding further muscular energy and have to check that this additional energy is not misdirected. Did you, for example, pull forward in the middle of the torso and therefore narrow your back when raising your arms? Or pull your head back and your neck forward? If you have inhibited that kind of interference with your overall use as you put hands on the object, you are demonstrating Goddard Binkley’s “doing-in-accordance with the working integrity of the self” or what I would call “doing on a non-doing foundation”. When you then go on to lift the object you are adding a requirement for further muscular energy, increased muscular tone, in yourself, and again we want to ensure that this extra energy requirement does not interfere with your optimal postural support and breathing. In simple Alexander turns, that it does not cause you to tighten your neck, pull your head back and down, shorten and narrow your back thereby restricting thoracic mobility for breathing, or stiffen your legs. All of those misuses would be an example of misdirection of energy. But at this point you are undoubtedly “doing” something since you are lifting the object in front of you.
Consider now the situation if you’re practising being an Alexander teacher. You might be bringing your hands up onto the back and front of a student. At this point in Alexander jargon, we might say that you, in the role of Alexander teacher, are putting your hands on Jane playing the role of Alexander student, but you are not doing anything. You are merely going to give your directions: neck, head, back, knees etc., along with those essential directions from the hands on the back of the chair practice of widening through the shoulders, directing the elbows out and down, keeping the hands up and together etc, while making contact with Jane. But to say you’re not doing anything is not, of course, again, strictly accurate. Quite apart from the muscular energy that’s required to maintain you just standing there upright, you brought your hands in an upward direction and then moved them towards each other in order to bring them together onto the person in front of you. That required muscular energy, and some of that muscular energy must continue in order to keep your hands up and in contact with Jane. So continuous muscular energy has to be generated to keep your hands in place on the back and front of your student in this Alexander teaching situation.
Now that muscular energy has to be generated in such a way that it fulfils several conditions:
- As we’ve established already this ongoing generation of muscular energy must not interfere with your own use, it must not compromise your own postural support and breathing.
- In relation to your student the energy has to be appropriate, neither too much nor too little. Too much would mean unpleasantly squeezing the person between your hands or unconsciously trying to lift them up in the attempt to keep your own hands up. Too little and your hands start to drop down or drift away from your student, losing contact. That muscular energy has to be aimed in the most effective or appropriate direction or directions. In other words, it has to maintain the hands in contact with your student, neither pulling upwards nor dropping downwards, neither drifting outwards nor squeezing unpleasantly together nor pushing sideways, the hands connected to each other through the student while the elbows release out and down and the shoulders apart. That is the muscular energy going in the appropriate, efficient directions for your hands to make good contact with your student.
Or we could simply say bringing your hands together onto someone or something without squeezing yourself. How do you use yourself in this situation? How do you use your hands to operate on the world outside of you without, at the opposite end of your arms where they connect to your shoulders, without squeezing and compromising yourself? Can you grasp an object in the world outside without gripping and squeezing yourself? This is the essence of the hands on the back of the chair practice and the reason FM said it was fundamental to using your hands as an Alexander teacher.
At this point we would say you, in your role as Alexander teacher, are putting your hands on Jane, your fictitious student, in a non-doing way. In training teachers, helping trainees to achieve a good level of this is quite a long and difficult process, but essential. If a trainee teacher can reach this level they are learning how their own use is a fundamental instrument in guiding and helping their student. They are learning how that kind of non-doing contact establishes what I would now call a two-way communication channel between teacher and student. Two-way because that open, elastic contact coming from the openness of the teacher’s whole body, lets sensory information about the student’s pattern of use flow back to the teacher from the contact of their hands on the student, while at the same time the relative elastic openness of the teacher’s total pattern of use flows into to the student’s nervous system, enhancing their sense of themselves and setting up the possibility of the student’s use being encouraged towards some of that openness, enhancing their own ability to direct themself. This is why there is, rightly, such an emphasis on non-doing in the use of the hands in Alexander teacher training. Being able to establish that two-way communication channel is fundamental to hands-on teaching and must underlie everything else. Note also that it is not achieved by simply letting the hands be limp and floppy – no one could say that Walter Carrington, Dilys Carrington, or Peggy Williams (my main teachers), or Marjory Barlow or Elizabeth Walker or Margaret Goldie, had limp hands but nor did their hands give the sense that you were being forcibly manipulated. The continually generated muscular energy in the teacher that maintains their lively uprightness flows on through the teacher’s arms and hands, giving an open but energised quality that comes from the overall use pattern. As we shall see later in the detailed week by week programme, in the realm of Alexander teaching it could be said picturesquely that the hands are the ambassadors of the back!
However, this is not the whole story, even though some trainings do not seem to get beyond this. After all, as soon as you go to move your student in some way, perhaps in and out of a chair, or to lift and move some part of their body, you are doing something more and therefore generating more muscular energy, as in my first example of lifting and moving an object in your home. In doing this you must also take care to be satisfying the two conditions outlined above so that while performing this extra action you do not lose that vital two-way communication channel. And further beyond that, if you were lucky enough to be around first generation teachers like Walter, Dilys, Peggy, Elizabeth Walker etc. it was soon obvious that they were also at times using their hands more actively to coax you into better use along with the verbal instructions of how to direct yourself. I had many conversations with them about this, particularly with Walter, and they would say things like “Well, when you become more able to feel what’s happening in your student you will find your hands seem to know what to do to help the student.” Or as Walter also put it, “I can feel where and how my student is pulling themself down and I can use my hands to help them stop doing that to themselves.”
Within this higher level of influencing a student it remains essential that the two-way channel of communication remains open so that the teacher is getting constant feedback of the effect of their hands on the student’s use, and the student is continually receiving the subtle message from the teacher’s overall pattern of use that any change needs to be a change of their whole system, not just the part the teacher’s hands are contacting. For this reason I’ve chosen to use the phrase doing on a non-doing foundation to describe this level of activity by the teacher. “Doing” because it is more active than simply a teacher putting their hands on a student and directing, without trying to do anything more to help the student. “On a non-doing foundation” because underlying it all is an adherence to the aim of the teacher not to do anything in a way that interferes with their own good use – not squeezing themself in the attempt to help the student.