What Do You Think?
“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein
The work of the Alexander Technique is based on the understanding that we have developed a ‘manner of use’ that is not in our best interests. The way that we hold or move the head in relation to the neck and the way that we co-ordinate the head and neck with the torso and other parts of the body has become cumbersome, effortful and awkward. This manner of use is constant and habitual – we’re often not aware we’re doing it and yet it often leads to poor functioning, discomfort and ill health.
As well as interfering with the physical mechanisms of the body, there is another constant influence that has a profound and significant impact on our overall functioning and wellbeing. It is the influence of our thinking. In FM’s words, we have not only developed ‘mechanical habits of body’ but also ‘mechanical habits of thinking’. But, just as we were unaware of pulling the head back and down or fixing the ankles etc, we are often unaware of what we are thinking.
This matters because what we think affects how we feel and determines the actions we take. Thinking is a wonderful gift. When we use our thinking consciously we can become creative and empowered. With it and through it, we can change our minds and our moods, make life-affirming decisions, deepen our appreciation and experience of life and take actions that contribute to the wellbeing of ourselves and others.
However, subconscious, habitual thinking rarely serves us well. Examples of habitual thinking include judging ourselves and others in a critical way; replaying past events in our heads over and over; worrying about the future, running through countless ‘what if’ scenarios; always reacting in the same way when a certain subject is mentioned or when someone ‘presses our buttons’. We hold thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, about others and about life which we’re not even conscious of and yet they influence and limit everything we do, say and experience.
Stress, depression, addictions, eating disorders, insomnia, dissatisfaction and boredom are all influenced by habitual thinking. Overindulging in things that detract from our health such as a high sugar diet, smoking or alcohol or other forms of addictive behaviour can all be outcomes of habitual thinking. We might be defensive of these ways of behaving or we might feel ashamed of them, wishing we could create a different response but not quite knowing how to break the repetitive cycle.
In order to learn to use ourselves well physically, we had to become familiar with the concept of ‘good use’ and to realise how we were interfering with this. We learnt that there is a ‘primary control’ – a way of using and co-ordinating the head, neck, back and other body parts that allows for optimal functioning and that we have developed habitual ways of interfering with this primary control. We need to stop the interfering so that we can experience the original good use.
In the same way, it’s helpful to understand that there is a way of using or being with the mind that is easier, more peaceful and fulfilling than the usual mind chatter. The mind is capable of much more than rational, analytical, critical or defensive thinking. The mind is capable of awareness – a calm, witnessing, non-judgemental presence that is constant. Often, we’re unaware of it because we’re too busy thinking, worrying, planning, analysing etc. It is the unconditioned part of us – I like to think of it as an inner form of primary control. It is from this place that we know our own value. We don’t have to believe it or convince others of it, we just know it. When we are rooted in this centre of knowingness, we are less reactive and more fully present to ourselves and others.
Just as we became aware of our physical habits such as pulling the head back and down, we can become aware of our thoughts. When we listen to our thoughts, instead of distracting ourselves with TV or alcohol, when we listen to what it is we are constantly telling ourselves, we soon realise how repetitive and ‘unhelpful’ our thoughts are – that this is another form of misuse. We may be telling ourselves that our unhappiness or lack of fulfillment is caused by something external, something that has or hasn’t happened, someone who did or didn’t do something. We may be making assumptions about what might happen in the future or we may be projecting our own ideas about what others think of us. We spend much of our time reacting to something which isn’t true, something which doesn’t exist or hasn’t happened and is unlikely to happen. We are literally choosing to think in ways that make us feel bad.
So do we need to learn to stop thinking, to inhibit those pesky thoughts? No. Just pay attention. Listen. Be present. Develop a childlike curiosity. Notice the thoughts. Don’t judge them or make them mean anything. Have a sense of humour about them. There are no ‘good’ thoughts or ‘bad’ thoughts, there are just thoughts. If you’re inhibiting anything, it’s the story, the mind-wandering…you have a thought about a particular person…then you’re replaying a conversation you had with them…they mentioned swimming…you really need to get more exercise…maybe you should join a gym…but what if you don’t know how to use the machines…remember that TV programme where a woman got stuck on a running machine that was going too fast…what’s the name of that comedienne… Before you know it, you’re off on a daydream, away from the present.
Gently bringing your attention back to your thoughts in the present moment is a practise of mindful awareness and is a way of ‘quickening the conscious mind’ which is what FM encouraged. He wanted us to wake up, to be more alert, more present, making conscious choices instead of operating on automatic pilot. This simple act of being present, being mindful of our thoughts, helps us to detach from them, to see them as just thoughts until they gradually loosen their hold over us.
Note: these posts represent my current thoughts and experience of the Technique and will probably be most helpful for existing students and new teachers of the Alexander Technique.