The following has been adapted from an article titled "Exploring an Act of Will" published in "Journal for Anthroposophy," Winter 1995, by Stacy Gehman
Some Ideas About How We Are Organized
Several years ago I asked a particularly sensitive and thoughtful student what he had noticed about a movement he had just done. He replied that he noticed a lot of things, and proceeded to list some of them. He wanted to know what was important. How was he to prioritize his observations, to find meaning in them? His question helped me see the importance of Alexander’s discoveries in consciously organizing our observations and actions.
There are three ideas that I use to guide the observation of a willed movement. The first two that I will discuss come from physiology and concern the way our senses are organized. I think Alexander was intuitively aware of both of these ideas, although he did not state them explicitly. If we think a bit about our experiences, I think we can all verify them for ourselves. First, all our senses are relatively poor at determining the absolute, or objective level of any stimulus. What we are better organized for is detecting a change. When a constant stimulus is applied to one of our senses, the response seen in our nervous system is one of rapid firing immediately after the stimulus is applied, followed by a decreasing firing rate as the stimulus is maintained. This seems like a pretty good way to be organized - something which is changing is much more interesting, and potentially more important, to me than something which is unchanging. As an example of the way we experience this physiological fact, think about walking into a cold lake - the sensation at the part of our body that is just getting wet is almost unbearable, but the part that has been wet awhile is actually comfortable. The way we judge absolute levels (e.g. temperatures, relative positions of various parts of our bodies, etc.) is by remembering, in some way ‘summing up’, all the changes that got us there.
If what we experience of the world is the way it is changing, one important question is "how small a change can I notice?" The second physiological fact that I use to guide my observation is that my sensitivity to a change in a stimulus is proportional to the absolute level of the stimulus present. For example, in a dimly lit room I would notice the addition of a single candle, but in a sunlit room I would not be able to see a change in the level of lighting due to one candle. In an objective sense, the amount of light added is the same in both cases, but our ability to see the change in the level of light is very different.
These two ideas can already suggest an approach to finding out how we do something. The first suggests that we look at what changes when we go from one activity to another, when the contrast is greatest. The second suggests that we look at the beginning of the new movement before the level of stimulus is so great that we are unable to observe subtle changes. As I suggested earlier, we might observe going from standing to walking, stopping as soon as we know we are moving. Alexander began his explorations by observing his ordinary speaking, then looked for a difference when he began to recite. The three changes that he observed, pulling his head back, depressing his larynx and sucking in his breath, all happened before he made the first sound of his sentence. After observing these things as he began to recite, he could then see that he was also doing them to a smaller degree in his ordinary speaking, that is, he became more sensitive in his observation.
With enough persistent experimentation and precision of observation, I think that, proceeding in the way outlined above, anyone could discover the third idea for themselves, the idea that is really the core of Alexander’s discoveries. When beginning to observe themselves in activity, most people will notice an enormous variety of things going on within themselves that were previously overlooked. How are we to make sense of all the things we now observe? What is important? If I want to make a change in my habitual way of doing something, where should I start? Alexander spent years observing himself in activity to answer these questions. What he discovered is an organizing principle of our use of ourselves, which he called the primary control.
On its surface it is almost absurdly simple: the changing relationship of my head to my body is the controlling factor in the way I coordinate any activity in which I engage, and in the way I perceive myself and the world around me. It is a "universal constant in living," as Alexander entitled one of his books. This constant influence operates to my disadvantage if I tighten my neck and pull my head closer to my body, and to my advantage if my neck is free so that my head can delicately and subtly move (relative to my body) throughout my actions. This change in the relationship of my head to my body is something I am actually doing every moment of (at least) my waking life, whether I know it or not. If I do know it, I at least have a chance to find a new, more coordinated way of action, one that can be free of the domination by habit. If I don’t know it, the odds are good that I’ll start by tightening my neck, thereby setting up an adverse reaction throughout my self that actually impedes the achievement of my intended goal. We do not perceive this interference with ourselves directly. Instead we usually interpret what is actually an active (although unnoticed) interference as the effort we feel necessary to overcome gravity and inertia. We usually respond to this perceived effort in one of two ways, frequently alternating between them. We either decide to brace ourselves, to master this unwilling flesh, and push our way through to accomplish our ends, or we give up the struggle, slump, and drag ourselves around doing what we have to. We usually admire the one, and pity the other, but in either case the root cause of the trouble is left unchanged and unnoticed. It is my old habits of thought and deep seated fears that are manifested in my ambivalence toward my actions. They are manifested through tightening of my neck and body, and are felt as resistance to my actions that must be overcome by effort. As I remove this internal resistance to my actions, my doing becomes more wholehearted, and seemingly effortless. Any sense of effort that I feel as necessary to accomplish an activity (within the limits of my physical capability), even to push a piano, has proven to be unnecessary when I have examined the activity closely. (I don’t mean to imply that my muscles don’t need to work, or that I never get tired. It’s just that the part of the activity that I identify as my effort is unnecessary.) If my conception of the activity is clear, if my desire to accomplish it is real, then, as Alexander would say, I need only give consent - anything else is extra. If I feel an effort, it is really there asking me to acknowledge my misconceptions and ambivalence. It is a lifelong challenge, one that applies to any activity, not just those that are usually considered physical, and it is actually fun.
In the next section I will guide you through a process that you can use to explore some of these notions on your own.
Consciously Guided Observation
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