Short Intro


I will call the self a riddle.  When we tell riddles we take familiar things and hide them in words, make them elusive.  We turn them into puzzles, asking for an answer.  We play a game, have a conversation.  “Is it a…?”  Some elements of our lives, although they are familiar, can intrigue us without being turned into riddles; they are by nature enigmas.  Such is the self.  Is it more than a picture in your mind?  More than a word which I use?  What happens when you “talk to yourself”?  We try looking inwards in order to catch hold of the self.  We try to survey our relationships, but the self is beyond clear understanding of the intellect.  However, I feel it as my responsibility; perhaps you can describe the self as the one who takes responsibility.  We see it in action, as action.  If that is so, can language be a help in describing the self, if we need to go beyond the grasp of the intellect?  I think it can, I think we approach the self by composing our own riddles, our own creative clues.  With the riddles we enjoy as children, as we play with words, we are learning to live with the powerful riddles of existence which require imaginative reading.  So this is a book of riddles, a net woven to catch, but not kill, the slippery fish of the self.

I am going to base this expedition in the practice of the Alexander Technique which I will describe and refer to throughout this book.  This is a practice which helps us feel secure as individual selves, to feel that I have more substance than a picture.  The Alexander Technique lives in different ways.  There is what goes on in a one-to-one session between a teacher, such as myself, and a student.  Then there are the diverse particular ways that students will put their learning into practice in their daily lives.  This could be in order to stay composed before an audience, to prevent spoiling a job by hurry or overdoing it, by enlivening periods or rest through ordered attention, by creating a restorative pause at the foot of the stairs before you carry up yet another heavy tray.For some the Alexander Technique will have become more than a reference point or a resource.  It will have become almost a way of life, an attitude of the self in approaching life.

As a beginning I want to note three features of this discipline of the Alexander Technique.  First – a word I have already used three times – it is a practice.  You keep going back, actively engaging with the essentials, renewing your commitment.  Secondly, it wholeheartedly includes physical movement into the sense we have of ourselves as individuals.  Thirdly, this work makes use of physical contact, touch, in a distinctive, calm way to help you wake up as a self, to come alive in your life.  This use of touch is most obvious in the way a teacher of the Alexander Technique uses her hands as she touches, holds, and guides her student into movement.  But relying on, appreciating, touch and physical contact, as I hope to explain, can become a quiet but significant support to your awareness even when you are on your own.

My focus in this book is wide, to do with big ideas such as freedom, confidence, flexibility, but it stays clearly interested in everyday physical presence and movement.  Something disturbs us – a painful back, a worry about posture, a loss of voice.  This might be what leads you towards exploring this work, but the Alexander Technique, as it works with tense muscles, is reaching wider and deeper because the human individual is wide and deep.

I have spent most of my adult life living and working in a Camphill Community in Scotland.  Such communities include people who need more in the way of conscious support and care than is the norm.  What helps vulnerable and uncertain individuals to flourish?  That is the same question, even if more starkly challenging, which we all face – of being a self, of my being responsive to other people and expressive of myself.  My interest in the Alexander Technique grew out of this life-long commitment.  Camphill Communities are inspired by the ideas and way of thinking which Rudolf Steiner developed.  This path of learning is called Anthroposophy and insights from it permeate this book as I search for the self.  One key idea, worth spelling out in this Introduction, is that I am both a specific, unique being, and also an individual who creates myself by opening out the boundaries of what is personal to me.  As an adult I become responsible for my own development, but my growth comes through relationships and my handling of the influences that work on me.  This juggling needs an inner tranquillity, a peaceful centre, from which free action can come.  Here is another image of the elusive self, the still centre which allows movement and awareness.

I want now, briefly, to describe three human tendencies which the Alexander Technique helps us to know better, to manage.  The first is our wish to be on the move, to see what’s over the horizon, to explore, achieve.  This can be to do with knowledge, or skill, or worldly success, but it carries with it two contrasting yearnings.  One is the longing for peace, inner and outer, rest on the journey, and the other is the worry about failure, that our efforts will come to nothing, and our achievements be judged unworthy.  Because of worry we try harder, or hurry, we don’t find fulfilment and the prospect of peace is lost too.  The Alexander Technique brings to this tangle, first, practice in the art of pausing, stopping – inhibiting as F M Alexander called it.  We prevent the quick reaction.  One experience which pausing allows us to develop is what is called kinaesthetic or proprioceptive awareness.  This is basic self-awareness, the awareness of the position and movement and ‘feel’ of our body, our limbs and joints, and of ourselves as a whole.  Bringing our ‘pausing’ home to the experience of the body’s movements generates a basic trust in ourselves, a basic self-belief which can then become our potential for boldness, for acting with conviction.  So we move from haste to strength via a trusting pause, dwelling in our living structure.  And that life, felt most readily in our breathing and in our pulse, as well as in our limbs, will help our pausing to stay fluid and free.

The second important tendency of the self which I have chosen in order to map out the territory of this book, is that we live with fears.  As self-conscious individuals we have to deal with all kinds of fears, about the unknown and the inevitable.  Also, as upright creatures, standing on two feet, we live with the underlying fear of falling and hitting our precious heads.  An icy pavement quickly leads us to freeze, become rigid and stiff in our movements.  We contract, withdraw, and this cuts us off from easy contact with what is around us.  We lose trust.

In an Alexander Technique lesson the simple contact between the teacher, with her hands, and the (fully-clothed) student, both in rest and movement, is giving the student a chance to develop a basic confidence.  Confidence comes about through relationship, through a meeting of some kind.  Picture two friends – trusting in grows together with being trusted by.  In an Alexander Technique lesson, the calm exploration of trust, through physical contact, is very different from two friends sharing confidences.  However, the mutual trust of friendship may help you imagine the simple confidence that can come about through thoughtful touch.  Supportive contact helps you feel, and start to let go of, patterns of muscular tension which you would not, on your own, be aware of.  Such habits are so much part of us that we don’t know about them.  Pausing can lead into such explorations of confidence – you are more able to rely on your own self-knowledge, on the presence of other people, on the ground under your feet.  You will become more flexible – in your movements and responses – if you are not gripping yourself.

The third example of how the Alexander Technique nourishes the self concerns something so fundamental to our humanity that it is very difficult for me to separate it out.  It’s to do with how we make decisions.  Our attention leads, via a decision, into an action.  Please remember that all those abstract nouns are really verbs – processes and deeds.  You could imagine yourself as the pilot who, three minutes after his aeroplane is stricken by flying into a flock of geese, lands it safely on the Hudson River, as Chesley Sullenberger did in January 2009.  You could picture yourself working out your next move in a game of chess or tennis.  You could be getting into your car, or opening a stiff jar.  Decisions, decisions.  It is impossible to nail down this human capacity to be in touch with a situation – to be attentive, to employ experience, to bring in memory, to imagine our way into the possible next steps which the situation allows, one of which we are going to put into action.  But we do decide, we do act.  This process is not logical, this is not formal reasoning, this is not the functioning of a computer calculating the best move.  It is the expression of a solitary centre of awareness creating, moment by moment, more or less fully realising, a wider whole.  Most of the time we would not want this constantly occurring activity to be consciously thought through.  But, equally, we would not want to function only with unconscious habits which would end up dull and deadening.  The Alexander Technique is stirring things up.  We keep actively practising; sometimes choosing to stop, connect, widen our attention.  We stand back and monitor what is happening as it happens.  From time to time we enliven this continual process of deciding.  This nourishes the self.

Exploring these three important engagements of the self – the urge to achieve, the prevalence of fear, creative deciding – could all take place as you spend twenty minutes, during an Alexander Technique lesson, getting up from a chair and walking across the room to look out of the window.  Almost certainly none of these big words, big ideas, such as freedom or failure would be dwelt on.  Too bright a light and the self runs for cover.  With the Alexander Technique we respect this modesty by staying with muscles and movement as a theatre of self-expression.  With this book I have tried to keep the light moving, shining from one angle then another, composing riddles for you to work with, riddles without neat answers.  My hope would be that the way this book asks you to read, and the more subtle kind of clarity which you achieve, will, together with the actual images and ideas, tell you about the elusive self, help you read the riddle of the self.

One response to “Short Intro

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