In 1982, John Cleese, the master comic, co-wrote a best-selling, wise and entertaining book, Families and How to Survive Them, which was followed ten years later by Life and How to Survive It. Both books had cartoons by Bud Handelsman to illustrate the text and John Cleese’s co-author in both cases was the psychiatrist Robin Skynner, a leading figure in the disciplines of group and family therapy. I love these books for their spirit of inquisitive tolerance, patient exploration. In 1964, Robin Skynner, already a qualified psychiatrist, contributed to a symposium of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique about the relationship of the work of Alexander to modern psychology and psychotherapy. The title of his contribution was ‘The process of growth’ and in it he put forward his view that “any system that can be used to facilitate an extension of the existing personality can also be used to prevent such a development”, citing as examples religion’s tendency to replace the cultivation of self-knowledge and wisdom with moralising and dogma, or the psychoanalyst using theory to avoid his own self-exploration. He does not answer the question as to what is the “most central and effective principle, which can be used for or against its aim” with regard to the Alexander Technique but he does hint that it may be to do with “over-emphasis of control and safety, at the expense of expansion and widening of the personality”. This potential for any structured process which promotes growth to block that very growth is inevitable, and not just about misuse or misapplication. Growth and development require loss and risk and regret and courage, and we will feel the pull of the safety of the known. And as Robin Skynner states – “Where a system is most powerful to aid us… it can also be used most effectively to block our progress”. He also warns about believing we can find the answer to the question of this hidden danger. Perhaps it is more valuable, simply to be open to this inherent challenge when change is in the air.
To go back, with these provisos, to the idea of “control and safety” mentioned above, I would draw your attention to the following phrases from the titles of Alexander’s first three books – “Conscious Guidance and Control”, “Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual”, “The Use of the Self – its conscious direction”… “control of reaction”. His fourth book, The Universal Constant in Living refers in its title to the all-pervading influence of our use upon our behaviour and functioning, with the idea of ‘influence’ drawing our attention to the realms of ‘consciousness’ and ‘control’ which were named in the other titles. So, for now, I am wanting to explore the nature of ‘control’ to gauge its power and its danger.
The word ‘control’ goes way back into the middle ages to describe the process of keeping a check on accounts and transactions by keeping a copy with which one could check and compare in the future. In later usage, there is often, as in the language of scientific experimentation, the idea of establishing a norm and then finding out what might distort that norm. From that sense, which still suggests comparison, we move to the more everyday sense of restricting or restraining, or just plain keeping calm. I think the history of the word reveals how in the more generalised modern usage there is still that idea of keeping a standard or a norm in mind, and using some kind of influence or power to prevent getting knocked off or distracted.
I want now to bring before you the infant gaining control over her bodily self in the first years of life. It begins with control of eye movements, during the first days of life after birth and over the next months spreads down to head and neck, then arms and hands, then on down into legs and feet. The process can also be pictured as an emergence, for the child, out of chaos, which is like a second parturition – the head emerging, drawing the rest of the body up and out of chaotic movement. So with the finding of the feet on the ground and the upright stance with head directed upwards, both processes become complete through movements of descent and ascent. I think this sense of a double movement is important because it reveals the reciprocal connection between head and limbs, between sense awareness of the world, and mobility. Learning to walk is not a process, simply, of motor control but is the self discovering herself in the interaction with the spatial world and her own body. Standing and walking bring about a creative separation, confrontation of the individual in relation to the world. As Karl König puts it “The awakening consciousness that enables the child to comprehend his own self at the end of the first year moves from the gaze of the eye over the grasp of the hands to the step of the feet” (The First Three Years of the Child p 13).
We are here in an innocent but active expression of personal control as the child exerts herself towards the joy of balance and mobility. How, in the child’s life, in our own, do we marry freedom and control, do we integrate our enjoyment of spontaneity and desire with our need for peaceful, sociable autonomy? This is a very pertinent public and private debate about how and when we seek to give up responsibility to a leader or a religion, or a drug, and how and when we seek power: control by us, control over us.
One deep way to explore this conundrum is to picture the clear consciousness that brings the flux of life to a standstill, that defines and very much controls. As we walk as individuals, as we walk our own way, do we remove ourselves from the flow of life? When Henry David Thoreau goes to live alone by Walden Pond he describes how he is in one way expressing his individuality but he is also seeking a living connection to wider worlds. He writes “Men of little faith stand only by their feet… when most at one with nature I feel supported and propped on all sides”. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor, expresses this enlarged sense of energy, which is moving from one sense of control towards another: “beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a new energy… by abandonment to the nature of things, that beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors”. (“The Poet”) . This expansion moves on into a wider sense of control which Emerson sums up in his advice to “Act singly”. This is a kind of trust in yourself rather than an impulsive strength of will and is expressed in integrity and presence rather than action. Control means attending to your centre. “I ask primary evidence that you are a man, and refuse this appeal from the man to his actions. I know that for myself it makes no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent” [“Self-Reliance”]. A still centre seems to allow release, abandonment, unlocking the human doors.
There is a wonderful reversal possible here because the expansion of the activity of control, by going through the eye of the needle of “acting singly”, can bring a freedom that is to do with escaping the heaviness of the separate, self-centred (not a moralising term) individual. This is something which can belong to the practice of the Alexander Technique. We are controlling, we are comparing with a norm, but it is a norm inherent in our individuality. In Life and How to Survive It there is a lengthy conversation about humour and laughter, which I recommend for its breadth of reference and depth of understanding. One theme is the theme of control. Incongruities of some kind, two things or frames of reference unexpectedly brought together, cause us surprise and loss of control. Laughter is the expression of that clash and it opens us up, so long as we are able to cope imaginatively with the loss of control, to make it a fiction of some kind. The inflexibility inherent in the clash promotes openness and flexibility in us. And their discussion ends with exploring the way we use humour to challenge and test, to poke fun at ourselves or others, and in so doing create a distance, which in the end can lead to greater intimacy. We recognise common human limitations, pretensions, illusions in and through the contradictions of particular humorous encounters. Unsettling the certainties gives us flexible control. Individuals come alive through what is odd or ‘inappropriate’.
The other kind of norm that can come in, the norm which frustrates the developmental potential of the Alexander Technique, is the standard prescribed by the book or the teacher. Here too is self-observation but it is one concerned with apology and penance and failure and success. For control to be healthy the norm must be our own. We can learn, we can seek change, but at each step we will have the courage to risk change only if we are actively trusting in ourselves. Control, if it relates to a wider more inclusive sense of self, then becomes discovery rather than restraint.