In this essay I want to share something of my understanding and appreciation of a process of communication, a language, which has a genesis totally independent of the Alexander Technique. It is the process of Nonviolent Communication developed over the last half century by Marshall Rosenberg. I believe the two languages, the two techniques – of the Alexander Technique and Nonviolent Communication – do have a natural affinity and can enhance each other’s effectiveness. But in this essay I am more concerned with trying to describe Nonviolent Communication in order to illuminate certain features of the Alexander Technique. Because Nonviolent Communication more obviously concerns itself with how we speak to one another I think its insights can more immediately strike home. They can be grasped, and their profound implications sensed, because the processes stay closer to our everyday speaking, responding consciousness than do the concerns of the Alexander Technique with movement and action. In fact, both engage the whole human being.
Nonviolent Communication is a language which hopes to increase our well-being, through establishing a quality of connection – connection with myself and with others, being able to express myself and to receive the thoughts, feelings and intentions coming from others. This process is used around the world from the most ordinary domestic situation of a mother anxious that her children will get their shoes on before the school bus comes, to highly charged political negotiations with slaughter as a possibility. However, the way it works is not, first, to be looking for a solution, a resolution, but, rather, to build and maintain connection between people: not to press forward too fast with action but to stay in the attentiveness to what is alive in yourself, and in those you are meeting, alive to feelings and to what, in the process of Nonviolent Communication, are called needs.
Before I go on I will stop for a moment to stress that the process of Nonviolent Communication is no more, nor less, than a process – a reliable learnable process which hopes to get people into connection, with themselves and each other, so that their well-being can flourish. So, the end is what matters, not the process, and there are many other ways to work towards that end. Some people do not need a process they learn and practice: they will have gained or been blessed with an empathetic, creative way of being. So, its possible virtues become clearer, for me, when I realise that it is a process, a practice, we can learn and turn to when we need it. This, for me, lets it shine and be defined. So, there is a discipline but the mood is playful, in the sense of curious, wondering, present. I encounter someone, there may be difficulties or misunderstandings, but, to use one of Marshall Rosenberg’s phrases, it can help if we “guess human”. The act of guessing, of inquiring of the other what is going on for them, of offering them a help towards their own self-understanding, is a gesture of equality, of companionship, not of the expert. The guessing is important in that it doesn’t matter if I’m right. And your guess will embody a conviction that some valuable human need is alive in what the other person is feeling or doing – even if you find their behaviour offensive or disturbing. I might ask you if you’re feeling angry because of… (here I give my guess, but not a wild one) If it’s a genuine compassionate inquiry, and not an interpretation, then all the energy is about the connecting between us. You can tell me if my guess is off the mark. My question may help you realise anew what is going on for you right now. The guessing will try to tune in to what you are feeling and needing – here we are back at this question of needs.
Needs are what is alive in you, what you value, wish for, hope for. Needs are yours but not thereby selfish. Contributing to the needs of others is part of the spectrum of our needs. In any situation, so goes the Nonviolent Communication process, try to identify the need or needs which, right now, are being met, satisfied, or, more likely in a difficult situation, are not being fulfilled. The path to recognising what needs are alive in anyone, including myself, is through what feelings I am experiencing. Here we need to dwell a while, in inner attention, to be able to give a name to the feeling that is moving in us and to follow it down into the less bright areas of our consciousness to find the need, met or unmet, which is sending forth the feeling. This is the inner core of the process. It has two more outer elements. The first is when I try clearly to identify what it was that triggered the feeling – what happened, in my memory or in my encounters, to bring to life a feeling and a need? Here we come to another crux of the process – the acceptance of responsibility for my feelings and my actions. To attribute the cause of my feelings or actions to another is, in the understanding of Nonviolent Communication, failing to get to the heart of the matter, and failing to live from our own heart. The needs (and whether they are being fulfilled or frustrated) which I have let live in me are the cause, the origin, of my feelings. Not you, not what you’re doing to me.
At the other end of the inner patient, playful process of identifying what is going on in my heart, comes the framing of a request. This may still be a purely inner act, I can request myself to remember something for example, but it may well be voiced to another, be asking something of the other. Note it is a request, and not a demand. A request is open to a refusal. It is not a matter of grammar but of what is living in the speaker of the request. Is there hurry, the wish to get things sorted out, or is there the primary wish to deepen the connection? We are moving from isolation in the head, the intellect as the place of judging and demanding and dominating, to allow a response from the heart, from the whole person. The process begins with a sense of oneself stopping, pausing, and of refraining from stopping the other(s) you are with. All kinds of labels, judgements, demands are different kinds of closing down. The playful quality of Nonviolent Communication is always listening to the unspoken, perhaps unknown ‘yes’ which is there in any ‘no’ that is spoken. When you recognise that there is a situation or mood or action which you or someone else don’t want to happen, try to find the other thing which you or they do want. So the stopping leads to an active responsibility, for oneself, and an active intention for connection. We take any element of compulsion out of the interaction, because compulsion takes all the colour away. Even on the everyday level of ‘I have to go now’, an opportunity has been lost for me to tell you what it is that I want to do once our conversation is over. We part less connected than might have been the case had my explanation been fuller.
I will stop now with this description of a language which I value and which goes hand in hand with my Alexander work. They share a commitment to non-judgemental mindfulness, that has a deeper security than knowing what the right answers are. I think the image from John’s Gospel, “I am the door” expresses something of the common quality of the two disciplines. The self allows both inner and outer movement between separate spaces – a journey which is best not hurried, although hurry is only the most obvious way in which we constrict the space, close the door.
I want to reflect on the process by which we become individuals and why it is difficult. The human brain, to continue the theme of connection, grows a great deal after birth, primarily because of the growth of connections, not the multiplication of neurones – and this goes together with the complex connections of the social organism into which the child grows. We, as we grow up, have the opportunity to learn, to respond and grow into the world, and, at the same time, free ourselves from the direct influence of the environment. This emancipation brings self-awareness and will mean that the child not only appreciates that she is a separate physical self, with boundaries, but will have to cope with the fear and anxiety that go with realising that she is not only separate but helpless and dependent. How do we move towards a state of maturity which can acknowledge dependence?
I think this was a particular concern of Carl Jung, who was intrigued by the ways in which we can come to feel more fulfilled by letting go of the need to direct the course of our own development. We acknowledge forces which are not of our own making. This for him also entails the paradox that what we are sure of, our convictions, support us better if we let in some doubt, a tolerant scepticism. This is one element of the self-regulation, the ongoing balancing of the self, which Carl Jung suggested as a process we can rely on beneath our everyday consciousness. Both the Alexander Technique and Nonviolent Communication suggest that if we still the noise then we will discover that our individuality, the feeling of belonging to ourselves, leads us to be able to connect.
In a late essay first published in 1957 and called in English The Undiscovered Self, Carl Jung develops the distinction between statistical or scientific knowledge and individual understanding. He sees an obvious tension between these two for the doctor which is also true as a general problem in education and training. The doctor, faced with a patient, will apply general principles but will also seek to recognise the uniqueness of the individual. The doctor can be drawn too far towards understanding, in which case the relationship becomes isolated in intimacy and one or both of the two will sacrifice his individuality. He makes this possibility clear because his main thrust is in the other direction, to do with helping the individual to overcome all the features of the modern world which stifle individuality. He sees this impulse as requiring the individual to be purposeful in his self-development. “Resistance to the organised mass can be effected only by the man who is as well organised in his individuality as the mass itself” (US, p 43). Later on he writes of “the forlornness of consciousness in our world” and of the need to work our way into the unconscious “which can manifest itself only in the real, ‘irrationally given’ human being” (US, p 61). Both the Alexander Technique and Nonviolent Communication belong to the movement, celebrating the individual, which is deepening and broadening consciousness – or which is allowing the unconscious to come to expression as part of our organised self, although we cannot, and do not want to, determine its influence.
How do we marshall the unconscious, let in the irrational? Allowing the unconscious to have expression can stimulate fear but it need not be about darkness, chaos, nihilism. The Alexander Technique helps us to be able to make decisions, and every decision has a possibility for anxiety. A clear process, such as we find in the Alexander Technique or Nonviolent Communication, has a kind of magic, a self-generated magic, which enhances both our sense of responsibility and the sense of letting go. The release of allowing, letting a movement happen, letting a moment of connecting be undisturbed, are ways of being which are common to both disciplines. Above his door Jung had carved the words of the Delphic Oracle: “Invoked or not invoked the God will be present”. We seek for a being above and beyond the conscious self. Carl Jung suggests, in The Undiscovered Self that when an individual works at self-exploration, at channelling the energy of the unconscious into his integrated self, that the magic extends to others: such an individual “exercises an influence on his environment… an unintentional influence on the unconscious of others… and its effect lasts only so long as it is not disturbed by conscious intention” (US, p 76).
Here, again we can see the ambiguities of consciousness, of intention going hand in glove with an influence which we need to let take care of itself. So with the rigorous, reliable, learnable processes of the Alexander Technique, as with Nonviolent Communication, it’s both a skill that is being learnt and something deeper, more personal, than that word ‘technique’ normally suggests. It has recently become common for medical students to be taught ‘Communications Skills’, something older doctors felt they had successfully acquired through example and osmosis as a satisfactory bedside manner. Will it be the case that if such skills are learnt they will be part of a performance, and lack authenticity? Is it just a way of ensuring that no time is wasted and the consultation time can be reduced to the necessary five minutes to achieve targets and justify pay increases? There may be goals of efficiency but also benefits in being trained to examine yourself, to look at yourself and, hopefully, to deal with this increased self-awareness in such a way that it disappears into spontaneous, engaged communication. This is what Carl Jung is pointing to as the path of learning which we need today – becoming “organised” in our individuality by working into our unconscious – something which belongs to both the disciplines I am describing here. Structured empathy protects individuality.
One of the most perceptive and articulate early students of the Alexander Technique was an American academic, a Classics scholar, Frank Pierce Jones, who was in his thirties when he was introduced to the Technique just before the beginning of the Second World War by F M Alexander’s brother, in Boston. He was the first to offer himself to join a training course for Teachers of the Alexander Technique which took place during the war years in the USA under the instruction of both F M Alexander and his brother. To pursue this unusual vocation he had given up his academic career. Many years later, in 1973, shortly before his death, he gave a lecture in London which I will use to give a flavour of this thoughtful man’s approach to the Alexander Technique. The paper is called ‘Learning How to Learn’. His is convinced that the Alexander Technique is not “just another way to achieve individual salvation”. He mentions a then recently published book Ways to Grow listing one hundred and five techniques, including the Alexander Technique, but he is sure the Alexander Technique is “on a different level, or order of significance”. He goes on to say that the effectiveness of the Alexander Technique should not be judged by improvement in health or posture. He feels these are not only difficult claims to substantiate but also miss the point. He stresses, in relation to posture, that ‘movement pattern’ is much more relevant and that there are students whose improved posture disintegrated in movement and others, whose poor posture was helped, overcome, through the way their movement became freed. The distinctive feature of the Alexander Technique, for Frank Pierce Jones, is the “character of the thinking involved… an expansion of the field of consciousness (or of ‘attention’ if you object to the word ‘consciousness’) in space and time so that you are taking in both yourself and your environment, both the present moment and the next”. This expansion “restores free will”. This is concise and, in my opinion, accurate. He goes on to describe his work with a jazz musician who needed to be responsive to his fellow musicians and his audience and able to bring forth his own contribution to the evolving music. The student used the term ‘self-monitoring’ to describe the ability, which some have instinctively, but which, otherwise can come through the Alexander Technique. The self-monitoring is possible (and again these are the jazz musician’s words), because the teacher and the Technique are helping the student to establish “an objective sensory distance that prevents one from interfering with the task”. The discipline of the Technique, the pausing, the non-reacting, the thinking into the physical self in its relation to the environment, all these are a process which turns into activity and allows the student to monitor himself while letting go into the activity. The expanded consciousness includes, or is surveyed by the monitoring attention, which allows one to learn in activity, because one is both acting, performing, and observing in a way which does not interfere. The teacher does not interfere with the student, and the student does not interfere with his activity.
I feel very fortunate to have been able over recent years to work with a woman, now in her nineties, who is a highly respected horse riding teacher. For her the Alexander Technique distils the essence of her teaching – that teaching is really coaxing – bringing out what is in you already. With help the learner gives herself to a clear goal which becomes what teaches you. The one focus can be, as she says, “just one ear” of the horse you are riding. In the 1960’s, when the small group of teachers were helping to establish the Technique in the years following F M Alexander’s death, ‘The Alexander Journal’ had a gentle competition to compose a description of the Alexander Technique in 250 words. According to the editors the standard of entries was disappointing but they print one, from which I quote:
A Teacher, going-up himself,
Acknowledging his individual pupil,
That is it;
And that is all.
I want to stress the “acknowledging his individual pupil”.
I mention also two strands of research – the first to do with the risks run when you drive a car and carry on a phone conversation. Hands-free kit does not improve a driver’s response time: the distraction comes from the act of talking to someone who is unaware of the situation you are in as a driver and the changing hazards you face. The divorce of the conversation from the full reality of interaction promotes disorientation (New Scientist 7 April 2007). Secondly, experiments exploring the sensitivity of babies to sounds of language show that after very little exposure they can pick out sounds from a language they have heard spoken from random speech-like sounds. But it only works if the speaking caregiver from whom the baby originally hears the spoken language is actually there in the room. It doesn’t work with film, although film does work with the teaching or demonstrating a manual skill. Language learning needs the full range of eye-contact, pointing, mutual responsiveness which is impossible with an image (Simpl. Ch 8).
As an adult I want to be able to remind myself or discover why I’m here and what my point of interest is – whatever I’m doing, even if it’s just watching the clouds float by. This is the need for being present which complements the need to relate, to connect. Any technique to bring us back to presence and connection will be a technique we will always need to renew. It can be a habit but can’t be automatic. With the Alexander Technique or Nonviolent Communication one does not become a teacher who no longer needs the process you are sharing or encouraging in another. And you can’t pretend you’re practising it in order to demonstrate it in any depth. The participation of the teacher – the sense that she is engaged with it as much as the student – keeps the process alive. It means it stays too interesting for me to start worrying about getting it right and too important for me to waste my effort in trying.