Expanding Awareness #3
Unleashing your supercomputer, the paradox of intention and learning to pause
Welcome to the c. 50 or so new subscribers who have joined this adventure since the last edition. It really means a lot to me that you’re here.
In this edition I cover three topics:
the supercomputer inside you and how Alexander Technique unleashes it
why intention is vital, yet paradoxical
learning to pause and widen the space between stimulus and response.
Unleash your supercomputer
New metaphor: Alexander Technique is the art of unleashing the power of the supercomputer within you.
In Expanding Awareness #2 I outlined “other things that are also Alexander Technique” – the Inner Game Of Work, Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, Impro, Zen – and asked what connects them.
In A Pattern Recognition Theory Of Mind (paywall), Tiago discusses the key ideas in Ray Kurzweil’s book, “How To Create A Mind”. There’s a good intro here to what Alexander Technique, and all those other things, are about.
Consider the last time you played tennis (or another sport). As light from the bouncing tennis ball hit your eyes, photoreceptors turned that light into electrical signals that were passed along to many different kinds of neurons in the retina.
By the time two or three synaptic connections have been made, information about the location, direction, and speed of the ball has been extracted and is being streamed in parallel to the brain. It’s like sending a fleet of cars down an 8-lane freeway, instead of a bullet train down a single track – some cars can depart as soon as they’re ready, without having to wait for the others.
You really are an amazing creature. As the tennis ball hurtles through space, you take a huge number of measurements and perform astonishingly complex calculations in mere fractions of a second. And then you keep doing it – over and over again, updating your model of the ball in relation to your body and the environment – as the situation evolves.
Image credit: Jack Butcher. I’m working through Jack’s design course now, so I will soon starting making graphics myself.
The thing is, though, that you have absolutely no idea how you do any of this. You observe and then move the tennis racket such that the ball bounces back over the net. You “just run”.
How? There’s no role for the thinker here: everything is happening too quickly and you wouldn’t be able to do those calculations with your inner monologue anyway. And yet, there’s a part of you can do it effortlessly. Let’s call that part the supercomputer.
It’s great when it works, but a problem arises when your thinking mind either forgets about, or doesn’t trust, your supercomputer. It gets involved and tries to do things it’s very much not equipped to do. This interferes with the functioning of the supercomputer: “Performance = Potential - Interference” in the language of the Inner Game.
Even worse: we’ve been conditioned to interfere to the extent that we don’t even know we’re doing it and we now have to unlearn those habits.
The solution to this seems obvious, right? Just stop interfering! Get the thinker out of the way and let the supercomputer function!
Well yes, but… how exactly? It’s the same as trying to falling asleep. The more you try, the more you interfere, and the worse the outcome. As Alan Watts might say, you’re in a bind.
How to get out of that bind is precisely what the Alexander Technique teaches. To quiet the thinker, remove self-interference and then watch in amazement as things happen of themselves.
You can’t act without intention
Intention organises your system in a particular direction, telling your supercomputer what’s important. Without intention you’d be pushed around by the currents of life.
That said, intention also sets up a trap that we can easily fall into. I want to teach you how to avoid that trap.
Take that tennis ball. In order for your body to move, you need to intend to hit it, otherwise it will just fly past you as you stand motionless.
However, the ‘quality’ of your intention really matters. If you force it too hard then you trigger self-interference. Your inner monologue will start trying to organise your legs and arms, all the while totally suppressing the supercomputer that ‘just does it’.
This sets up a paradox. How do you want something without wanting it so much that you trip over yourself? You set your intention and then let go of any need to achieve it. That ‘need’ is a kind of forcing that triggers self-interference. It’s the manifestation of your inner monologue not trusting your supercomputer to just hit the ball.
In my early Alexander Technique lessons, my teacher and I would spend entire lessons just playing catch. Like most people, I had been conditioned to care about catching the ball. I would beat myself up if I dropped it. It was afraid that I would look silly. I couldn’t stop myself from trying to catch the ball.
What I learned in lessons was that if I decided/intended to catch the ball, but at the same time was also perfectly okay with not catching it, then my hand would move out and catch the ball flawlessly. I wasn’t trying to second guess where to put my hand, I didn’t even have to break eye contact with my teacher to look at the ball, my supercomputer just did it.
So let me leave you with this. Where in life might you be ‘intending too hard’? See what it’s like to set the intention and then let go of any caring associated with the outcome.*
*This line of thinking will be intensely triggering for many of you. That’s fine, just notice that you don’t like it. I only ask that you suspend disbelief for long enough to explore it.
Learning to pause
Let's run an experiment. In a minute I'm going to ask you to choose an object that you can pick up.
This is very important: you’ll need it for the experiment to work.
Before we go on though: raise your hand if you've already identified that object.
I said "in a minute" – I even bolded it! – but notice how your problem solving mind already wants to go off and do it.
You can also notice if there are any secondary thoughts:
"What kind of object?"
"Should it be heavy or light?
"What if I choose the wrong object for the experiment?"
And perhaps more subtle, societally conditioned ones:
"Can I second guess what the experiment will be so that I can choose the right object?
"Oh if I choose it now rather than in a minute that will show how conscientious and (therefore) good I am!"
Instead, call to mind the idea that you don't need to know yet. When you notice my prompt acting as a stimulus, you can decide to pause. You can decide not to respond.
Become familiar with that space between stimulus and response. Stretch it out. Fall in love with not knowing. And then, once you've stayed in this space a little, allow yourself to choose an object.
By the way: pausing should involve absolutely no effort. No muscular tension. No change in your breathing. No holding of any kind. No narrowing of awareness. Notice if you have a tendency to do any of those things when you pause.
Let's play again.
In a minute I'm going to ask you to identify an object that you can pick up.
Without looking, notice that there is space above you.
Without looking, notice that there is space behind you.
Notice that part of your mind that really, desperately wants to look around and choose an object. Don't suppress it, just don't give it energy. Come back to the present moment. And again. And again.
Now with full consciousness and – almost as if from within the pause itself – allow yourself to pick an object.
What was that like?
By the way, that was the experiment. You can let go of any need to choose an object now. Sorry (not sorry) to mess with you.
This pause is at the heart of ‘non-doing’, or I could say ‘non-caring-in-the-self-interfering-way’. Once you start to see how the stimuli in your world trigger conditioned responses, you’ll see how this pause can open up entirely new possibilities for change and growth.
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.