25. Doing Less

The practice of the Alexander Technique values examining ourselves concerning the effort we put into things, and suggests a basic belief that there is likely to be something we can let go of, some unnecessary effort we can reduce.  I have consciously begun with a bald and somewhat negative statement of the situation.  Tracking down wasted effort or harmful effort or misdirected effort suggests stopping doing something, preventing something happening at least.  I think it’s a very valid concept – doing less – but I think there’s more to it than prevention or reduction.  Michael Lipson’s concise presentation and development of some of Rudolf Steiner’s basic exercises for inner development, Stairway of Surprise, begins with the recognition that “there is something extra about the human soul” (SS, p 9) and that “this something extra, this superfluity in the human soul, needs a task” (SS, p 10).  He sees the ‘extra’ as having to do with our capacity to pay attention; it is the needing of the task.  This capacity, Michael Lipson suggests, has several distinct channels to work through, and it is not automatic or unchanging.  Our attention needs exercise, needs marshalling, needs us, as we lose the child’s natural absorption in experience, to nurture it.

I think that recognising this ‘extra’, this dislocation from our environment, is a helpful beginning to living into the more positive aspects of “doing less”.  The ‘extra’ can get stuck, or diverted away from life, or turned in on itself.  If our concern is with the quality of our attention then we are immediately helped out of the moralising tone implicit in the last sentence.  If I start to pay attention to my thinking and notice how easily I get distracted and how my mind often moves from thing to thing in a chaotic procession, I have already got something lively to notice.  I am withdrawing from practical pursuits and playing with processes, with my own capacity to direct and choose where I give my attention.  Through directing this ‘extra’, this need to have a task, towards objects that are clearly not us, not ourselves, not our normal enmeshed selves, we are actually on the road to ‘doing less’.  We have taken a weight off ourselves.  Doing less is only meaningful because of the extra.  Doing less develops out of doing more.

From such general comments I want to turn again to Raymond Dart and his very precise insights into the dynamics of human activity.  Here we are right in the heart of Alexander Technique territory and the way our attention to ourself can allow a break through into non-habitual behaviour, can unlock ‘the extra’ from unhelpful tension.  Raymond Dart wrote a wonderfully wise article (for dentists!) which focuses on the relation of the head to the spine, the most influential relationship at a joint (or, rather, joints) for the poise of the human being.

Raymond Dart states the basic nature of muscular activity and of the co-ordinating activity mediated through the nervous system: “there is only one thing muscles can do, namely, contract; but their state of contraction can vary to produce anything from a minimal to a maximal amount of tone.  When flexion is actively occurring, the position assumed merely expresses the difference between an excess of tone in the flexors concerned and a relative lack of tone in the extensors.  Moreover, muscles… do not act independently.  Rest, therefore, is purely a relative term… (my italics)  Thus all movements, however restricted they seem to be, involve all the muscles of the body, because if they are not directly concerned in the local resultant of movement, they are indirectly concerned therein, since they have to be kept in a state of minimal contraction.  The chief business of the nervous system is not the initiation but the inhibition of movement.  (author’s italics)  More particularly is every muscle concerned in activities involving the upright posture so that there results a minimum of movement and a maximum of poise” (SP, p 88).

I have referred to this passage before; it is important and relevant to this essay because it is bringing the need for doing less right into the form of the human being.  Dart elsewhere describes poise as a state for which we can strive, but only through “restful study and observation… steady and carefree education of the body and the maintenance of balance.  Poise is a character of rest or repose in the good body, whether it is in the relatively static positions of lying, sitting or standing or is actually in progressive motion during the activities of life’s daily routine or of sport” (SP, p 114).  There is a lot here about doing less but there is also attention, the engagement of the ‘extra’.

To get to the heart of the detailed investigation at the centre of his article, Raymond Dart presents the typical way in which the free balance of the head is lost.  The muscles at the back of the head and neck (the extensors) tend to dominate the muscles at the front (the flexors) and we then try to compensate by bringing into play, antagonistically, a number of related muscles in the face and neck, right down to the diaphragm, creating a permanent battle between the straining flexor musculature, and the extensors of the back of the neck.  The poise of the upright human being is, to a large extent, maintained by conscious attention, but our objectives, our intentions and determination, can easily work into the processes maintaining poise, creating distortion and disharmony and a level of mutually interfering muscular activity which completely destroys the balance which depends on the minimum activity of the muscles involved.

Raymond Dart is clear that to help in such a situation we need “not so much a training to do good movements, as a restraining of the individual from performing improper and inappropriate movements” (SP, p 98).

We do less and we pay attention, and we can pay attention because we do less, and we do less because we are paying attention.  Poise comes about through finding how with least effort to be supported and then to allow what of our personal energy is not needed for support to be free.  Doing less involves a redirection of our attention; some of that ‘extra’ can helpfully be engaged with creative prevention.  What then happens is that the anticipation of doing less, of enacting less unnecessary muscular contraction, creates a general sense of creative anticipation, of connecting with the possibilities which may be waiting in the environment.  Raymond Dart’s picture of the whole body being involved in maintaining the poised structure means we can monitor our wholeness by noticing how well we are using the support the world offers – a rock, a chair, a path, a floor.  Finding support brings freedom, particularly of our arms and of our head and neck.  We avoid the contracting which we use to provide our own internal support.  Doing less allows us to awaken into the wholeness of our poise.  It has a distinctive quality – the ability to do less – which convinces us, paradoxically, that we are active in our thinking and our responding.  It is amazingly powerful as a way of freeing us from passivity and the need to stick with what is familiar and feels certain.

An interesting figure to introduce at this point is Giambattista Vico, a man little known in his lifetime.  He was a historian, a professor in Naples in the first half of the eighteenth century, who developed a view of history, culture and human nature which sought to free the human being from a divinely ordained order.  He tried to understand how our consciousness developed and changed in tandem with all aspects of human culture.  An indication of his significance can be gained from Edmund Wilson’s classic study of revolutionary politics, To the Finland Station.  He begins the history of modern revolution with the discovery of Vico’s ideas in 1824, ideas which can be caught in words such as these: “I speak of this incontestable truth: the social world is certainly the work of men, and it follows that one can and should find its principles in the modifications of the human intelligence itself” (Vico quoted in TFS, p 7).  Vico inspired the first of the revolutionary generation with the intensity of his principle that humanity creates itself.  Vico challenged people to look at the assumptions which they allowed to govern their experience and called on his readers to taker possession of their minds, to recognise that our minds, our ideas, can be the element in the world that we can know most securely because it is the element we have made.  He asserts, more pertinently to this discussion, that we are in a good position to understand our actions, once we have freed ourselves from what closes our minds.  He wants nothing to get in the way of us recognising ourselves, and others, as active agents.  We have a direct understanding of ourselves and others as interactive agents.  And knowing our own minds as our own brings a possibility of easing off, of paying attention to the process and not the result.  I will bring in a couple of poems by one of my favourite poets, the Polish Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska.  One is called “The End and The Beginning”.  She describes a situation after a war with her typical witty, warm scepticism.  People clear up, rebuild, but there is an air of bemused, busy purposelessness.  People need to forget, to get on.  The poem ends with the following verses:

Those who know
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less than nothing.

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.

Habits take over, the creative mind closes down, we may get drawn into consoling abstractions.  Inactivity may mean apathy, a refusal to make the effort to learn and change, but doing less can become an act preparatory to new meaning.  How do we free ourselves from the numbing weight of events?  Not just by dreaming in a field.  The other poem, ‘Experiment’, I find very stimulating.  It takes us back to Charles Sherrington and his classic experiments on severed dogs’ heads kept alive in order to explore reflexes.  She describes the experimental dog with a measured composure which adds to the shock:

Everyone could see that it didn’t have a body.
The tubes dangling from the neck hooked it up to a machine
that kept the blood circulating.
The head
was doing just fine.


Its moist nose could tell
the smell of bacon from odourless oblivion,
and licking its chops with evident relish
it salivated its salute to physiology.

[The head, she goes on, was:]

convinced that it was part of a whole
that crooks its back if patted
and wags its tail

I thought about happiness and was frightened.
For if that’s all life is about,
the head
was happy.

[The experiment with the dog is said, in the poem, to be a prelude to some kind of performance.]

in which the actors did their best
to make me cry and even laugh –

Here is an alarming picture of the possibility of living with the illusion of wholeness, of agency, an illusion maintained by stimulation, by physiology.  For Giambatista Vico the truth that the human being is a creator, an actor, is found in the artistic or symbolic quality of his total being, body and soul.  He suggested that we danced before we walked, that poem and song preceded speech, that everyday language and thought is diminished symbol.

The ‘experiment’ was a prelude to a performance that was intended to engage, but is such human stimulation – entertainment, art, all that feeds our inner life – any different to the dog’s salivation?  The poem ends with the puzzle of happiness.  ‘Happy’ is such an interesting word, combining ideas of chance and good fortune with the idea of something that just fits, that just suits the needs of the moment.  The active, whole human being is not going to be interested in an ideal of happiness which is concerned only with pleasure and the absence of pain.  If we go back to Plato and Socrates and Aristotle we come to the deep concept of ‘eudaimonia’, literally ‘having a good guardian spirit’, a word we often translate as happiness, but which includes the idea of health and growth.  For Aristotle eudaimonia is a capacity, the capacity to plan, have intentions, reflect and act.  It is the ‘extra’.  Happiness is sustained wholeness.  It had, for Aristotle, an inherent connection to other people and caring for the needs of others, and a letting go of any impulse of revenge, an interesting development given the struggles we see in Greek Tragedy.  The idea of a guardian spirit can remind us of Socrates and his ‘daimonion’, his voice of conscience which was seen as a new god he was introducing, and as a dangerously subversive idea.  The separated dog’s head is satisfied with happiness as pleasure, pleasure as physiological.  The whole person sees happiness as the fulfilment, the full use of the ‘extra’, of the need for tasks.  Doing less, if it is like the figure lying in the grass, may help us to escape the tyranny of outer causes and effects, and the inner pressure of stimulus and response.  But escape is not in itself creative.  Doing less, though, can become doing more fully.

I am very struck by the beginning of the second poem, with the performance, and the intention of the actors to “make me cry and even laugh”.  There is a delicate irony in Wislawa Szymborska’s poems, an irony which I find wonderfully encouraging and energetic.  Today we love irony in the sense of appreciating events which turn out opposite to expectations or wishes.  We enjoy the mocking of the promise of things, the under-cutting of pretensions.  If we go back to Socrates as the father of irony, we find there a different orientation in the pretence of irony, a wish to avoid being too strong an influence on others, by affecting ignorance, by refraining from being clear about what one thinks or believes, letting the others work their way towards the truth.  Irony, in this sense, is already leading us towards Vico’s discovery of human independence of mind, just as the pulling down of the old securities by Vico carries on today in the love of anything ironic, anything which undermines established order or meaning.  But independence is not fulfilled in the refusal to be fooled.  ‘Doing less’ is akin to a more creative irony, irony in the sense of ‘let’s stand back, let’s explore, let’s make this concern my own, let’s allow something to happen’.  Irony is not necessarily about suspicion; seen as part of doing less, of refraining, it is more a prelude to engagement, to trusting that our attention, our extra, will meet something real, fresh.

One great character of modern Scottish culture who died recently was Ivor Cutler, a poet and performer.  He dealt in absurd details.  Like a master magician he would cause the audience to wonder if he was going to get there, finish the story, find the thread again.  There was always the puzzle, the minimal content, which drew the audience in, just as the apparent clumsiness of the magician does.  This is the conscious art of Doing Less, of allowing us to feel the ‘happiness’, the willingness to be part of what is happening.  This leads us to be whole and we find wholeness by doing less, by releasing into carefree rest which we can take with us into movement.

2 responses to “25. Doing Less

  1. Flipping Over Buses

    I came out of a lesson one time with that feeling of immense freedom, empowerment, ability to do more,
    Since I had so much more leveraged a means whereby;
    I wanted to get to work right away and to be at the farm,
    To dig, to create.
    This was New York City
    And there was no farm nearby, and God
    Did not lead me to any that day.
    The harder I pushed the less I got there,
    Nor did telling my teacher how wrong I was doing it help.

    What would you have me do with all that surplus productivity?
    The answer is the same as it always was, simplistic as Popeye’s spinach,
    Make the poem that exactly fits the lock.

  2. Interesting articles you post on your blog, i have shared this article on my facebook

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