When we practice Alexander Technique, we are being mindful. Since ‘mindful’ means different things to different people, it is worth considering just what kind of attention Alexander Technique is calling for. There is a parallel with some streams of mediation practice. Learning from Zen traditions, we can use FM Alexander’s principles to refine a healthy mindful attitude.
Sometimes students think Alexander Technique is asking us to be attentive to how we act one hundred percent of the time. Such attention would create an interference with our ability to act. Alexander Technique is about removing interference with coordinated activity. It is intended to help us to fully engage in what we are doing in any one moment. A hallmark of Alexander Technique is that it integrates coordination into our actions.
As we practice, we attain more sensitivity to excess tension, ineffective habits, dis-coordination and other interferences. When the awareness of something ineffective arises, we can address it. The process used to address mis-coordination is the same process which cultivates awareness. The principles below might offer some guidance for establishing a healthy practice.
A lesson in Zen meditation
The Soto style Zen training (as I have understood it) calls for the meditator to sit and maintain three aspects of form: posture, hand position and vision.
Attention to posture is considered essential. Writings on Zen highlight the import of posture not only as creating a healthy and sustainable position for meditation, but equate a compromise on posture with reduced mental clarity. It is written that to sit zazen (seated meditation) is to attend to posture.
Defying the Cartesian split
In this tradition, there is no division between meditation being a mental act, or a physical one. To maintain posture is to have the right state of mind. In our lives, every action is done from some kind of posture. Attending to posture is attending to our activity. Alexander Technique proposes some strategies to make posture optimal for our chosen activity..
We could say that meditation and Alexander Technique are as much body-fullness as mind-fulness. Cognitive discipline and physical discipline are practiced synergetically.
The form of zazen requires a specific hand position. There must be place for our hands, otherwise we would be wondering what to do with them, and that would detract from practice. Our hands are often the interface with our tools and task. They deliver and receive abundant sensory information. They also express our attitudes and emotions.
Attending to the form of the hands is attending to the task at hand - whether it be just sitting, chopping vegetables, making music or driving a truck. The hands’ activity is dependent on the whole body’s posture. The hand may also dictate what is needed from the rest of the body.
Closing one’s eyes to think or feel is an act of exclusion. It is more profound to process thoughts or sensations whilst our eyes are open. Attention to ourselves can then be inclusive of our environment and therefore our relationship to it. Zen meditation is quite distinct from sleeping, or doing nothing. The form asks for the meditation to keep eyes open. The ability to see what is going on around, and choose a response is a characteristic of both zazen and Alexander Technique.
When sitting zazen, invariably there are times when the form becomes compromised. If hands drop, posture slumps or eyes glaze over, there is a consistent correlation with some form of mind wandering. It is the recognition of deviation from the form that gives rise to the practice. Mindfulness is possible by recognition of what we are doing with our body - or more precisely, with our whole selves.
So too in our practice of Alexander Technique. When we realise there is compromise to our coordination or performance, then there is scope for Alexander Technique practice to be constructive. A physical deviation coincides with a change in attention. Neuroscience proposes that all thoughts manifest in muscle action, so what we think is inextricably bound with what we do.
When random thoughts arise in zazen, the practice is simply to return to maintaining the form - posture, hands and eyes. The extraneous thoughts are not a problem so long as one returns to the form. One teacher is quoted as saying “when there are no thoughts, that’s the real problem - you are probably dead!”.
Thoughts are a function of being alive. Yet thoughts create interferences with our meditation, our Alexander Technique practice, musical performance, cooking or whatever activity we are doing. All our problems and dissatisfactions are patterns of thought.
The thoughts themselves are not problematic. When we respond judgmentally, try to force thoughts away, converse with ourselves or otherwise engage with the thoughts, this is what creates interference. In a sense, we want to be practicing 'mind emptying' - allowing thoughts which arise, to pass.
Alexander Technique students often relate to interferences of a physical nature - a habitual movement or persistent pain. In Zen and in Alexander Technique the critical thing is not whether or not we have interfering thoughts, or misuse the self, but that we recognise it when it arises, and respond meaningfully.
At any given moment, we have a form to our activity. There is form to playing music, to driving, cooking, reading etc. There is required action, and there is extraneous action. For the required action, there is a certain coordination required, and there is infinite scope for deviations from the essential coordination.
Alexander Technique is a way of engaging required coordination and action whilst minimising interference in activity. When our coordination deviates, the practice is to reaffirm the constructive coordination. It may be tempting to engage with the deviations - to try to fix ‘wrong’ positions, or ‘do something’ to avoid pain. Alexander Technique proposes an indirect path is more skilful management.
In this way, we don’t get stuck in habitual patterns of movement or thought. We are exercising some discretion over our responses. An empty mind is capable of a wider range of responses than one full of habits and prejudices. The poised posture and the clear mind arise from letting the clutter pass. This is the state of being ready for anything - being fully present in the moment.
FM Alexander used the term 'inhibition' to describe the moment of choosing not to pursue a line of thought. When one inhibits extraneous physiological or physical activity, only then can one fully engage in the activity at hand.
“To sit itself is enlightenment” writes Zen Master Suzuki. The activity of practice is more important in zen than what one might achieve out of it. Paradoxically, this is precisely how one acquires the positive qualities a meditation practice might offer.
In Alexander Technique, we are interested in using whatever we have to the best of our ability. It is less important what condition or limitation one might have. What is important is just to return to the process. As one practices to principle, the improvements in comfort and performance begin to take care of themselves.
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