Yesterday I was pruning an old, tall hedge of sharp-spined hawthorn and prickly holly with a cordless electric hedge-trimmer, a heavy and awkward tool which I was using while up a ladder, reaching out over the wide top and twisting to trim the sides, the safety mechanism of the trimmer meaning I had to grip with both hands to maintain electric contact. A demanding job. I am the one using the tool and how I use it will affect how well the job is done and also how well the tool continues to be in good working order, without bent teeth which will no longer slide over each other, for example. My attention can so easily get caught up in the movements of the trimmer and in the progress of the job, and the wish to be finished, that I forget what I’m doing to myself, with how I am moving and using myself. This was one of F M Alexander’s fundamental discoveries: that it is worthwhile to be interested in what we are doing to and with ourselves as we go about our lives. But more than that, he discovered how our thinking and awareness work into, change, both the way we go about activity and our very structure. We are alive. I cannot think and thereby change the way the hedge trimmer works or looks but my conscious life can and does affect how I am and move. If my conscious life isn’t active in this way, then my unconscious life will take over in ways I won’t be able to influence.
A key phrase in the description of the Alexander Technique is “thinking in activity”. This is not a nod in the direction of multi-tasking, of cultivating a skill of doing lots of things, mental and physical, at the same time. It is a way of doing things which puts the emphasis, from the beginning, on how we are approaching a task. The hedge trimmer relies on its heavy battery, which will run out of charge in an hour or so. The conviction of the Alexander Technique is that where we give our attention, there too we will look for the energy and motivation to sustain the activity. Our thinking about how we do something (not about getting the job done in a quick or outwardly correct way), is how we make the deed really ours, and is the most likely way to ensure that it stays free, even carefree. Our self-consciousness will be there but if it can be directed towards simple, unaffected concern with beauty or grace or ease and comfort, it will be a help. What we do with the preparatory thinking of the Alexander Technique is, first, to think without actually moving or doing. This thinking is to do with our basic structure of head and back and limbs, but it is not static: it is thinking which uncovers or discovers movement in us, even as we stand or sit in relative stillness. We also build up thought upon thought, or thought within thought (about our structure and the movement in it) which also contributes to the sense of motion, life.
This is demanding and is enlivening and is preventing me getting lost in the job. It’s so easy not to notice the ladder digging into my thighs or the pain in my fingers, or the rainbow over the hill! The consciousness is directed to what and how you are doing something and can then flow into the action. As you become interested in how you are doing something, sometimes right down to details of arms and fingers, how they are moving and where they are going, the Alexander Technique keeps you focused in the here and now, in the thinking in activity, not going outside of yourself to instructions you are trying to follow or a goal you are desperate to score.