9/17/2015 0 Comments
On Humility and Glacial Change: How Does Learning in the Alexander Technique Work?
The American educational philosopher John Dewey, though a rock star in his day, is little known to 20th century folk. However, his ideas of 'learning through experience' have had possibly the greatest impact on modern education of any 20th century theorist. Dewey was a great supporter of the Alexander Technique. He came to it as a possible solution for problems with his health, chronic pain, and difficult breathing. By the time he finished lessons, he not only found relief from these, but had discovered what he called an embodied philosophy--a way of taking his theory of direct experiential learning and making it a reality. He saw the process of learning how to let go of habitual tensions blocking new ways of doing things and progression from the "known to the unknown" as "learning how to learn"--a way to free oneself to move into greater and greater psycho-physical space and unlocked human potential.
In fact he claimed: "It (the Alexander Technique) bears the same relation to education that education itself bears to all other activities."*
However he also said: "I had the most humiliating experience of my life, intellectually speaking. For to find that one is unable to execute directions, including inhibitor ones, in doing such a seemingly simple act as to sit down, when one is using all the mental capacity which one prides himself upon possessing, is not an experience congenial to one's vanity"
This dichotomy of coming up against ones basic limitations in order to make progress on complicated activities is one experienced by virtually all Alexander Technique Students. With years of experience, I still sometimes dread the beginning of chair work--the simple, empty form of getting in and out of a chair to observe ones movement habits and work on letting go of unnecessary tension which Alexander considered most useful of his procedures. The thought that I might still not have control of my right leg--my perennial problem spot which has a mind of its own-- or how my pelvis relates to my lower backno matter how sophisticated I get at external skills such as interpreting Shakespeare's text or calculus(this second example is theoretical) is discouraging. But it is because it is so 'basic' that the work is so valuable--the way I 'use' myself has an effect on everything I do. In the end, the material we use to create our own lives is our selves--and every physical tension, every blank spot on our self knowledge, every missed connection with ourselves has an impact on the quality of that creation. It is this 'universal constant'--our relationship to or 'use of' ourselves--which every Alexander session seeks to improve--whether the end goal is physical wellness and relief, increased mastery of a skill, or more openness to the blessing of life.
It is because of this close connection--because the learning is done so near to us--that students are sometimes puzzled after a couple of lessons. "I understand the concepts intellectually, and I feel change during the lessons with your hands and that I move differently afterwards, but how do I apply the Technique for myself?" they ask. It is an excellent question, well worth clarification and discussion. There are ways to practice the work outside of lessons--procedures such as constructive rest, monkey, DART work, lunge, and others can help to carry forward work on your own. But the best application is mindfulness. The Alexander Technique is far from 'Technical'--a word we associate with mechanical skill. It is a growth of internal awareness through direct experience. In order to 'apply' the technique, no extra effort is needed--merely allowing your altered awareness, conceptually and kinaesthetic, to filter into your life is application. We crave ways to actively strive in our lives--work harder and everything will come to you. We have a hard time believing that letting go--allowing--ourselves to function naturally can be effective--we like to feel the effort. In the end, it is an ego issue--an issue of humility. A lot of faith is required to trust that one's basic self is enough. But it is.
Because change in AT is so subtle and close, I like to refer to it as 'Glacial Change'--only the tip of it is visible, However, an enormous amount goes on below the surface. And though a glacier moves slowly, whatever it moves over is changed irreversibly and profoundly.
Are you willing to let go of your habitual life and find out what it is that lies beneath?
*Quotations are taken from Dewey's introduction to Alexander's third book 'The Use of the Self'. Other quotation marks indicate terminology commonly used by Alexander himself and other teachers.
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Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.