Expanding Awareness #2

"Other things that are also Alexander Technique"

Hello friends,

One of my ambitions with Expanding Awareness is to identify and explore "other things that are also Alexander Technique". I believe that discovering common concepts and teasing out new frames to explain them will make it much easier to communicate what this is all about.

And what is ‘this’? Well, that’s part of the adventure. Why are all the things I list below the same thing? What is the root system that links them? That’s what I’m excited to find out.

There are a few standout examples that I want to share with you today. Some of these I have read, or have direct experience with. For others I've either seen extracts or discussion of them that suggests they're talking about the same thing.

First up is The Inner Game Of Work by W. Timothy Gallwey. This is a successor to The Inner Game Of Tennis, though this one speaks more clearly to me as a non-sporty person. The key thesis of the book is that we have two 'Selves': Self 1 and Self 2.

Self 1 is the voice in your head that gives instructions, e.g. to hit the tennis ball, and then criticises performance as good or bad. You know this voice well, I’m sure. Self 2 is the one that actually hits the ball.

When I was playing at my best, I wasn’t trying to control my shots with self-instruction and evaluation. It was a much simpler process than that. I saw the ball clearly, chose where I wanted to hit it, and I let it happen. Surprisingly, the shots were more controlled when I didn’t try to control them.

This is a book where I was nodding along and highlighting every other sentence with notes like "yes!! this is AT!!". In this context, Alexander Technique is a method to shut Self 1 up and allow Self 2 to express itself.

I wrote about this in more detail over in Thinking Out Loud No. 21 and I have plans to go really deep into the Inner Game, in part because it acts as an excellent bridge between the rather wooly world of ‘non-doing’ and the more concrete world of ‘productivity’ and ‘performance’.

Next is Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain by Betty Edwards, which is aimed at people, like me, who have a deep and seemingly immovable belief that they can't draw.

As with the Inner Game of Work, I covered the introductory sections of the book with notes relating to Alexander Technique. The frame here is not around Self 1 and Self 2, but around left brain and right brain (and they seem to be roughly mapped as such).

The book is structured around different approaches drop your left brain so that your right brain can do the drawing:

In order to gain access to the right hemisphere, it is necessary to present the left hemisphere with a task it will turn down.

Again there is a focus on getting the wordy, analytical doer out of the way and letting something else actually engage with the process of drawing. And, in the same way as the Inner Game, the results are much improved compared with when the artist is 'trying'.

For example, one of the drawing exercises is described as follows:

The Perception of Edges exercise (seeing complex edges) ... forces extreme slowness and extreme perception of tiny, inconsequential (in left-brain terms) details, where every detail becomes a fractal-like whole, with details within details. The left hemisphere quickly becomes 'fed up' because it is 'too slow for words' and drops out, enabling the right hemisphere to take up the task.

My 'lineage' of Alexander Technique involves a lot of these kinds of tricks to encourage the thinking parts of ourselves to drop away and see what comes up, which reinforces my view that Alexander Technique is, in part, a toolkit to play with our brain hemispheres. While I haven't yet read it, I'm also looking forward to digging into The Master And His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, which seems to be the canonical work on this topic.

Moving on – Zen Buddhism! This discussion of the thinking parts of our mind dropping away reminds me of my experience with Zen. In Expanding Awareness #1 I wrote the following about my experience following one of my first Alexander Technique lessons:

I left my second session of 40 minutes feeling like I had been given the most excellent of drugs. I was high. I floated back to my office in a state unlike anything I had ever experienced. The world seemed more real. Colours were brighter, textures were clearer, moving felt effortless and I was absolutely blissed out. It had an almost spiritual quality to it, as if I had been meditating for days. My life felt special and I was overwhelmed with gratitude and love.

Now compare and contrast that this experience I describe from my Zen practice:

As I paid attention, I thought I could feel my body moving, hear the birds singing and see the trees swaying. But that was just it: thought. I realised I wasn’t experiencing them directly, instead I was listening to my thoughts describe them. And I couldn’t stop it. My thoughts were happening by themselves and seemed like external objects, no different from how I would experience seeing a car.

With that awareness came a cascade of knowing. I saw that my thoughts were made of the same stuff as the feeling of my body moving, the sound of the birds and the swaying of the trees. Everything inverted as my mind expanded outside my head and the world came rushing in. The idea of any difference between inside and outside made no sense and it was plainly obvious that any notion that ‘I’ exist separately of ‘all that’ was a ludicrous illusion.

The more I dig into Zen, the more that, again, I find myself observing that "this is Alexander Technique", something that has long been highlighted by my own AT teacher. It really does seem to be a very different way into the same kind of experience though: I don't know of any Zen teacher putting their hands on a student and taking them directly into kensho, which is basically what I'm describing in both cases here.

The expanded awareness I talk about from Alexander Technique also sounds a lot like Open Focus by Les Fehmi. This is another one for the reading list, but several people, including fellow Alexander Technique colleagues, have highlighted a lot of similarities.

And finally, the last book that I'm looking forward to digging into is Impro by Keith Johnstone, which is about the skill and experience of improvisation in the theare. I've only seen discussion on Twitter, but from what I've read it looks very relevant.

I’m sure there are plenty more examples out there of similar ways of describing, conceptualising, explaining and communicating what ‘this thing’ is. If you know of any more than please send them my way! I’ll be digging into all of these in great detail on my quest to see what connects them. I’m confident that this will help me teach Alexander Technique in non-traditional ways.

Art as spontaneous expression

Finally, since Substack likes having an image for the thumbnail, let me share this simple painting and the story behind it.

A few years back I did some ‘art therapy’, where the assignment was to draw myself – whatever that meant to me. The first canvas (not this) was heavily overworked, blocky and clearly ‘done’.

Then my guide gave me a fresh canvas and asked me to create another one spontaneously. I paused for a brief moment and then painted this in a thoughtless state – a single brush stroke per colour.

Reflecting afterwards, I saw that I had created what looked like a variation of the Ensō, which Wikipedia defines as “a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create”. Another “thing that is the Alexander Technique”.

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 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.