To have one’s eyes open seems like such a trivial thing. In the practice of Alexander Technique, however, it is an application of principles with deep implications. It challenges views on concentration and intention.
Commonly, students want to close their eyes in a lesson. Especially in the lying down practice (Semi Supine). Students protest that they can better “feel” what is happening in their body by removing the “distraction” of the external environment.
Acknowledging the environment
Even in a seemingly simple thing as lying down, an awareness of the external environment is crucial to our practice. Our location and orientation visually sets the tone of the whole body. If you are in the middle of a busy intersection, or the middle of a tranquil park your body will be predisposed to different qualities. Having eyes open means one can acknowledge the presence or absence of threats, and thus react appropriately.
At a primal level, we are wired to respond to visual cues from the environment around us. Cats demonstrate this ability well. A cat may lie completely at ease until a bird comes in sight. Although the cat may not move, one can see it’s entire being spring into alertness, orient itself towards the bird, and become poised for action.
Vision as part of coordination
In the setting of our Alexander Technique lesson, the visual cues we are interested in are those which let us know the environment is safe to be at ease in. In the lying down practice, eyes open also prevents the association we have of lying down to sleep - which is a different practice than that taught in the context of a lesson.
Alexander Technique exists so that you can do something. If you must close your eyes to use The Technique, it becomes useless. In learning, sometimes the application of The Technique is unfortunately abstracted. This may serve a purpose in facilitating an experience or presenting a principle, but unless one is using Alexander Technique to do something, it cannot be effectively employed. The Technique only informs the user about coordination. What the coordination is for, or what one does with the coordinated self, involves a relationship with the environment one is in.
The visual system gives essential information on balance. Standing on one leg is more difficult with eyes closed for this reason. The student who is upright and closes their eyes is depriving the system very useful information and feedback! The motion sickness resulting from discrepancy between visual balance cues and the vestibular apparatus (inner ear) also hints at the importance of vision in balance.
By asking a student to be aware of the visual field and to heed the incoming sensations of proprioception (relative position and tone of body and limbs), I am asking for non-exclusive attention. That is something few of us actually believe in.
We often consider “concentration” to mean excluding everything except the thing we are “concentrating” on. This is the logic behind the perceived need to close eyes to remove distractions. Some students claim that closing eyes helps them feel the sensations and they are better abel to calibrate themselves and learn the technique. It is true that removing stimuli can help bring attention to other inputs. However, the same messages are being sent from the body whether or not eyes are closed. To be able to ‘hear’ those sensations at the same time as seeing is the more profound skill. If we have inclusive concentration, then all the information our senses gather can still be present in our peripheral awareness.
To some degree, we all exhibit the skill of inclusive awareness. Driving a car requires a constant attention to the full range of vision, but we are quite comfortable in holding a lively conversation at the same time. All that whilst we also consider the route we are on, the traffic around us, the controls of the car, and what’s on the stereo!
Exclusive concentration is consistently a major factor in discoordination. Consider the office worker who has scrunched himself up at the computer. He is unaware of his scrunched condition whilst he works as his attention is exclusively on his computer. If he were to have attention on the computer inclusive of awareness of himself, he would then be more able to change his scrunching.
Whilst we are training (or re-training) the body and mind, we want to program in the ability to stay visually engaged. We need to train the ability to manage several aspects of coordination simultaneously. Since it is something we do naturally, we all have the ability to do it - the ability is just something which needs to be practiced to make it accessible.
When one has eyes open, there is a constant stream of visual input. We have from this the essence of being ‘in the moment’. For most of us, our eyes don’t capture photo-like still moments. We perceive a constant movement, like in film. Thus by acknowledging the action in our visual field, we stay engaged in the present - meaning we are less susceptible to habit and more open to revolution.
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