Expanding Awareness #15

"What is Alexander Technique?" for new folks (and old!)

Hello everyone!

It’s been a little while since I last wrote to you as I worked the final weeks of my notice period and have been adjusting to the self-directed life. In practice, that has involved a profound fatigue after leaving my job that has kept me from doing much, but I’m now beginning to reboot and turn my attention back to my Alexander Technique explorations.

I’d like to welcome the 247 new people who have subscribed since the last newsletter, most of whom joined after seeing Nick Cammarata’s juggling video (which I’ll talk about in the next issue). There are now 971 of you here, and that blows my mind a little. Thanks for being here. I’m really excited to cross the 1000 threshold.

In this issue I’d like to provide a bit of an on-ramp for those 247 who signed up (thanks!), but don’t necessarily know what this is all about. I also include a link to a recent podcast with Twitter favourite @eigenrobot, where we talk a lot about Alexander Technique.

BY THE WAY I am planning to relaunch the course in the first week of March. Details to follow. I’ll be opening 100 places this time so there’s less risk of it selling out in 90 minutes…

Brief intro to the Alexander Technique

For people who are new to my Alexander Technique writings, here is a quick primer. And for people who are less new, I think you will still get something from this framing of what Alexander Technique is. Each time I write something like this, I get better at telling the story.

You’re probably familiar with this well-known quote from Viktor Frankl:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

But… how?

At its heart, Alexander Technique is a method to notice, expand and ultimately play within that space between stimulus and response.

This has an enormous range of applications. While Alexander Technique is most commonly associated with physical performance — and it’s often used by actors, musicians and athletes — in reality the entire scope of human experience can be enhanced by being able to make new conscious choices in response to things that happen in our internal and external worlds. 

An example I used in a recent podcast conversation with @eigenrobot (more on this below) is one of getting angry at someone in conversation. When in ‘fully automatic’ mode — which you could characterise as a kind of autopilot or ‘choice unconsciousness’ — you might just get angry and yell at them. The notion that you had any option to take a different path wasn’t available to you; there was no space between stimulus and response.

That’s what Alexander Technique is about, but the actual experiencing of it has another, much richer dimension to it, which is around the conscious control of awareness. And it’s this that I think has attracted so many people to want to explore the subject more.

A quick primer. You are probably very familiar with attention, that spotlight that you can move from thing to thing (with varying levels of success, depending on your executive function). You have your attention on these words right now.

Awareness, on the other hand, is the space that attention can move around within. Awareness is the capacity, moment by moment, to be able to notice things that could be noticed.

This graphic comes from the book “The Mind Illuminated” by Culadasa (John Yates), which describes the same distinction between attention and awareness. You can have your attention on the face of the person you’re talking to, while the sound of the aircraft or the dog are in your awareness.

Right now, your attention is on these words, but you might also be able to notice the temperature of the air, ambient sounds or feelings of pressure in your body. And if you weren’t aware of these before, notice that you are now with me reminding you of them.

For example, let’s say you’re busy working on the computer: writing, coding, analysing, reading, whatever. Such intellectual things have a capacity to really pull you in and collapse your awareness… to the extent that you might not realise that you needed to use the bathroom hours ago. The feeling was there the whole time, but you didn’t (and couldn’t) ‘notice’ it, and as such it was outside your awareness. 

Things that are outside of your awareness are not accessible to you; you cannot choose to engage with something until your awareness includes it.

Awareness is a characteristic of human perception that is independent of, but related to and highly affected by, attention. It’s like a ‘user interface’ that we use to exist and navigate as conscious agents in the world. We seem to think awareness is like a TV screen that we just passively watch or get guided by, when in fact we can reach in, interact with it and direct it.

Awareness has a shape, size and ‘boundary’ of variable permeability. It can be compressed, expanded and its contents can be made more or less vivid.

And all of this, bizarre as it may sound, can be brought under your conscious control. The spatial component is why I call this newsletter “Expanding Awareness” — I mean this quite literally.

Now I know what some of you may be thinking here: “this all sounds suspiciously like silly woo”. It certainly crossed my mind when I first encountered it — my physics degree and career in low carbon energy innovation didn’t quite know what to make of it. 

You’ll have to take my word for it, but in my three year part-time training as an Alexander Technique teacher, I was the annoying rational one, always trying to come up with falsifiable hypotheses, designing repeatable experiments and trying to catch out my fellow trainees. I was satisfied that there is really something here, something important and additional to the existing ‘mindfulness’ discourse — something I want to share more widely. 

Like meditation and other contemplative practices, this is a way of exploring and increasing our capacity to be and act in the world, it’s just that we’re doing it subjectively — ‘from the inside’, so to speak. And, often, we seem to be accessing the parts of the brain that don’t use words, so we sort of have to point, gesture, and use examples and metaphors to gain entry to these new ways of being. Even though I don’t know how these things work, I know after years of testing that they work: I just don’t fully understand the physical mechanisms yet (working on it).

I want to avoid this newsletter becoming a mammoth essay, but suffice it to say that Alexander Technique — the way I teach it — is about showing you that awareness is so much more than you think it is, showing you how to gain conscious control over it, and how that conscious control of awareness can be used to develop a greater sense of ease and agency in any aspect of your life, whether it’s how you move, how you think, how you perform, how you speak, how you relate to others or how you relate to yourself. 

By the way, this is also what you can see in Nick’s video. He can obviously already juggle, but by changing different aspects of his own awareness, his body moves differently, he finds juggling easier and he is more able to be playful with it. He’s not doing any of those things — they come about indirectly as a result of his playing with his awareness. (I believe this was the day after Nick took my course 🙂)

If you’d like to dig into all this some more, here are some things you could read:

And by the way, I am building an online course at the moment. It’s the first and only fully asynchronous online course on Alexander Technique (as far as I know), which is usually taught in person and through touch (what I’m figuring out how to do has never been done before).

Many current students are reporting that it’s working — which makes me so incredibly happy — and I’m excited to be refreshing it this month, aiming to open it again in the first week of March.

Podcast with @eigenrobot

This week I recorded a podcast with well-known Twitterer @eigenrobot, where we spend a good hour digging into Alexander Technique and awareness related things. 

You can listen to it here:

Until next time!

Michael


Thanks for reading this far! If anything here resonated with you then please hit reply and let me know.

By the way, I also write articles on my website and run another newsletter called Thinking Out Loud. That’s where I write about stuff like building in public, Total Work, solarpunk, carbon removal, sense-making, building communities, creating positive narratives for the future, identity and various other things. I invite you to check them out.