20. Wearing our Habits

One way to begin overcoming an unhelpful concern about getting things right is to enjoy getting them wrong.  It can begin with letting go of the way our past experience controls what we believe or accept as true.  One of the basic exercises which Rudolf Steiner gave for enlivening our inner life concerns developing openness to what goes against our expectations: “To declare in the face of some new experience: ‘I never heard of such a thing, I don’t believe it’ should make no sense at all to a pupil of the spirit.  Rather let him make the deliberate resolve, during a specific period of time, to let every thing or being he encounters tell him something new… [let him] be ready all the time for entirely new experiences; above all, to admit to himself the possibility that the new may contradict the old” (O S, p 250).  Michael Lipson, in his commentary on these exercises in Stairway of Surprise reviews the range of our prejudice, from “macro” issues of stereotyping people to the “micro-prejudices” of how we experience the world, the continuous acts of perception and thinking in which we unconsciously see the world through the established filter of our ways of seeing.  Prejudices are hardening, they prevent flexibility.  Our normal existence relies on our accumulated experience, on our developed powers of judgement, but we can benefit from the openness which helps us not to be determined by the past, by what we ‘know’ to be correct.  This exercise takes our power of thinking and brings its power into the act of perceiving.  The ‘opening’ is not a fixed state in itself: there is a saying in the Sufi tradition ‘What a piece of bread looks like depends on whether you are hungry’.

The concern in the Alexander Technique with preventing end-gaining (the focus on achieving the goal at the expense of the way there), embraces both action and perception.  Rush and routine are devitalising elements of both seeing and doing, and, mutually reinforce one another.  To rush we need routine, and through both we are unable to notice what is new.  It may seem as though I am wanting to abandon a sense of a world that is independent of our minds, but my emphasis is really on our possibilities of working our way into ‘truth’ via our experience.  Perception can be constrained by our memories and expectations: this is one way in which we maintain truth in experience.

It can also be kept open through our imagination.  An important implication of my wish to get through the fixed prejudices of our habitual way of seeing is that, as we suspend our prejudices, reorientate ourselves towards the activity of experiencing, we come closer to what we are experiencing.  We let go of our fixed perspective and so enter more fully into experience.  We are not so separate.  Letting go of habitual prejudices makes the whole need for habits less strong.  And these efforts at restructuring the way we experience need not lead us into a personal world of rootless fancies.  In beginning behind or beyond ordinary ways of thinking, in letting go of prejudices, I am being more faithful to the inherent nature of experience than when I separate out my self.  In ordinary experience there is no ‘me’ without something ‘other’ which I am recognising – as a part of my perceptual or thinking life, or as an element in my emotional, practical or moral life.

The word ‘habit’ comes from the idea of ‘having, holding’, a way of being or acting.  We know it as something external (dress, for example) or as something of the mind.  There is a fascinating archaic use in medicine in which the ‘habit’ of the body is the outer part of the body, but experienced from within – the outer reaches, or suburbs of the city of the body, a bit lost to central awareness and liable to harbour ill influences.  Just as the word comes to be used of plants and animals, to describe their characteristic modes of growth and appearance, and their natural tendencies, there arises a stronger sense, for the human being, of habits as acquired dispositions, acquired through repetition and established as fixed and involuntary.  John Locke is to my mind the philosopher of habit.  It is John Locke who is most influential in formulating the weak sense of self, of truth, of personal agency which underpins the modern sense of how and what we know.  The firm commitment to freedom of speech, political liberty, religious toleration which John Locke brought to the Western World all stem from a modesty, an asceticism, of knowing, a generalised uncertainty.  There is the underlying security of a God and a “state of nature” which sustain some basic assumptions about the world.  But these foundations are distant and silent.  John Locke is content to apply his reason to the practical tasks of life, to avoid speculation and to affirm that all we know comes from our experience which makes impressions on our mind as a seal will in wax.  We are born with a mind like a blank piece of paper.  Locke, as the spokesman for uncertainty, becomes the promoter of democracy, the social contract and the possible legitimacy of political revolution.  You can see too, perhaps, why habits, as acquired dispositions, come to have more prominence.  They express the malleability of the human being.  They connect him, in his own sphere of social action and responsibility, with the animals and plants, each with their habits.  They represent the modesty of mankind.

A turning point in the establishment of the Alexander Technique was the acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Medicine in December 1973 given by Nikolaas Tinbergen.  I will give you an extract from the speech before telling you more about Tinbergen.  He used almost half his address to speak about the Alexander Technique and the benefits he and his wife and one of his daughters had gained from it.  He describes the Alexander Technique as “based on exceptionally sophisticated observation, not only by means of vision but also to a surprising extent, by using the sense of touch.  It consists in essence of no more than a gentle, at first exploratory, and then corrective manipulation of the entire muscular system.  This starts with the head and neck, then very soon the shoulders are involved, and finally the pelvis, legs and feet, until the whole body is under scrutiny and treatment.  As in our own observation of children, the therapist is continually monitoring the body and adjusting the procedure all the time.  What is actually done varies from one patient to another, depending on what kind of misuse the diagnostic exploration reveals.  And naturally it affects different people in different ways”.  He talks of the method “teaching the body musculature to function differently” and he explores how we come to incorporate harmful habits into our awareness of ourselves.  What we do, even if damaging, will come to feel familiar and part of ourselves.  Nikolaas Tinbergen comments on the way in which we are continuously and unconsciously checking on the “correct performance of many movements” and this takes place “at various levels of integration, from single muscle units up to complex behaviour”.  We compare expectations with performance, but major distortions can go unnoticed.  “But what Alexander had discovered beyond this [that our functioning was affected by the changing internal state of expectation, etc] is that a life-long misuse… can make the entire system go wrong.  As a consequence reports that “all is correct” are received by the brain when in fact all is very wrong.  A person can feel at ease, for example, when slouching in front of a television set, when in fact he is grossly abusing his body”.

Nikolaas Tinbergen, who died in 1988, was a pioneer in the field of ethology, the study of animals as they behave in their natural environment.  Together with Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch he established this separate discipline of ethology.  He was a man fascinated by animal behaviour, a man who took science back into natural surroundings.  He loved common species, one of his classic studies being of the herring gull.  In one book, Curious Naturalists ( an apt self-description) he recalls receiving a letter from a ten year-old who describes a meeting with a gull who pecked at a red scab on her little sister’s knee.  You may recall the bright red markings on herring gulls’ beaks.  The 10 year-old correspondent had heard Nikolaas Tinbergen discuss gull behaviour on the radio and thought he would like to know about the incident “because she realised that this was a kind of experiment”.  I quote this phrase because Tinbergen, and ethologists in general, are working with a special sense of what an “experiment” is: he called them “natural experiments”.  They took place in nature, they depended on active, direct observation, patience, intuition, simple methods, an attitude of curiosity towards mystery.

Three things, which go together, were there waiting to come to the fore in such a man – an enthusiastic response to the Alexander Technique as a method and attitude, an appreciation of habit as an element in how we live, and a curiosity about how habits could be changed.  He could appreciate the human being as an organism living in its own environment, but his appreciation came out of curiosity, wonder and the interactive consciousness which could imagine change.  John Locke’s is a world of habit, of tolerance and moderation.  To get under the skin to reach habits, to work with habits, we will need more conviction, but with conviction comes the danger of dogma, of certainty.

Tinbergen’s work recalls the mood of experimentation promoted by Francis Bacon at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when experiments were experiences that we made or tried, not operations to test something, which we do or carry out.  Peter Medawar stresses this quality of Bacon’s optimistic inquiring, describing his impulse as “the idea that experience could be stretched in such a way as to make nature yield up information which we would otherwise have been unaware of (PR, p 335).  He captures this kind of experiment (our everyday use of the word) with the expression “I wonder what would happen if…” (PR, p 94), distinguishing it from other senses of the words – thoughts experiments relying on deduction, critical experiments which test hypotheses and demonstrative experiments designed to convince people of some truth or fact.  “I wonder what would happen if…” exposes, for Peter Medawar a basically optimistic and amoral spirit of inquiry.  He will have none of the pessimism about the increase of one kind of knowledge (scientific and technological discovery) outgrowing our ability to understand, to really know what we are doing or what we are dealing with.  “We might, of course, blow ourselves up or devise an unconditionally lethal virus, but we don’t have to.  Nothing of the kind is necessarily entailed by the growth of knowledge and understanding” (PR, p 334).  This is Peter Medawar, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on tissue transplantation.  He is absolutely committed to the increasing pace of the race, a race to know, which for him is a race “to make the world a better place”, and to “forsake the course is to die… a spiritual death” (PR, P 339).  Thirty five years ago Peter Medawar was aware of the dangerous impact of technology and the need for reasoned care of the environment but he is committed to the race which Bacon began.

What this diversion about experiments has to do with habits is really to do with channelling the very power of “I wonder what would happen if…”, the power which impels the race, channelling that act of stretching nature into the investigation of our own nature.  This will exploit that energy of change, of progress, of achievement which animates personal and social life – life as motion, desire, restlessness, anxiety.  This is itself a prevailing habit.  I believe it does need balancing, not with an overt moralising, but with a deeper kind of knowing.

In Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), the utopian island far away, the only export is the light of understanding, the light that enables us to do things.  I believe we need a light which really gets to what Bacon calls the “courses and the secret motions of things” and the kind of exploration of effort, motion, tranquillity which is attempted with the Alexander Technique – this is a stretching, a trying, an experimenting which is beginning in our person, in our I-experience, to find that deeper light.

In a series of lectures in 1916, The Riddle of Humanity, Rudolf Steiner introduces the subject of habits when he is trying to illustrate the ways in which mind and body relate, and to disavow the idea that materialism can only be combated by keeping the mind away from the body, the spirit away from matter.  He speaks first of memory.  A friend of mine has just returned from Japan and was there during the time of the opening and the fall, the fading, of the cherry blossom.  From her description the people experience a kind of communal dream, re-enacted each year as a process beyond the personal.  Rudolf Steiner contrasts such experiences with our need for individualised memory, memory that is our own property, memory bound to our living movements: “The shape of the physical body marks the boundary of these accompanying movements.  To a certain extent they are unable to pass beyond the limits of the skin”… and he goes on to say that memory “develops in response to the physical body’s forces of resistance” (Lecture XI).  He then goes on to speak about habits and that habits are another way in which we bring our I-consciousness out of a dreamy awareness into our defined bodily individuality, and leave go of the sense of being influenced from without: “acquiring the capacity to form habits is also intimately connected with the way humanity achieves inner freedom” (Lecture XI).

Habits come from repetition and from guided learning.  He describes the child’s path from imitation, coming under the direct influence of what is happening around us, to “the capacity to live in accordance with habits”.  Both memory and habit develop in the body – they are intrinsic elements of what it means to live physically as a human being.  Rudolf Steiner goes on to say how such active processes, as the growth of memory and the establishment of habits, really brings us into the business of how our ideas, our thinking, relate to objects, how we establish truth.  Again, the question is mind and matter meeting.  As memory and habits become our own property, then a sense, too, of responsibility for our thinking can grow: thoughts don’t just happen, and we can start to feel that they don’t just stay within our own orbit, they affect the world.  Rudolf Steiner puts it in these terms: “It is important to know that we are involved in the transition to an age when our thoughts will once more be inscribed directly into the universal world-substance.  This is being prepared.  But this time it will be the thoughts that we ourselves think, not thoughts that have been thought beforehand.  If one takes this into account, then a sense of responsibility for what we think can flow from it – responsibility for everything we do in the world of our thoughts” (Lecture XII).

If we see thinking in this light, then, Rudolf Steiner suggests, we will “need to learn to view all thinking as a kind of search.  At present, our consciousness is much too influenced by the feeling that every thought must be formulated immediately.  But the purpose of our ability to think is not to help us immediately complete each thought.  It is there so that we can seek out matters, pursuing the facts, putting them together and looking at them from all sides.  But people today like to formulate their thoughts quickly – do they not – in order to get them from their lips or down on paper as soon as possible.  But we are not given the ability to think in order to formulate thoughts with undue haste, but, rather, so that we can search.  Thinking is to be seen as a process that can remain for a long time at the stage of searching for a form.  One should postpone formulating thoughts until responsibility has been taken for the facts” (Lecture XII).

Habits help us to free ourselves, to become responsible, and to begin to explore out from ourselves, developing a searching awareness, which is not dreamy, nor dry and abstract, but which is alive and looking to find what is alive.  At the very simplest level the Alexander Technique is encouraging us to bring new thoughts into being, into taking responsibility for our thinking.  This is just the kind of attitude Nikolaas Tinbergen was putting into practice in order to enter into and understand the life of animals.  It is in part the spirit of Francis Bacon, but without his wish to accelerate, his determination to dictate and dominate nature.

In Nikolaas Tinbergen I sense a deep love for the natural world, a love which brings wonder and warmth.  I find it wholly appropriate that such a man, immersed in the habits of animals, should respond to the Alexander Technique with its deep acknowledgement of habits, their power and place, and its interest in ways to approach and change them.  To change a habit is part of that searching relationship to the life around us.  It is a process which is greatly helped by what people do together, by sustained, searching intercourse.  We can practice the Alexander Technique as individuals but its heart and inspiration belong in the simple meeting of student and student, and who takes the role of teacher is often not what one might expect.  I wonder what would happen if…

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