The View from the Mountaintop

(While I'm on vacation — from teaching and blogging — I hope you enjoy this piece from my website archives.)



Have you ever become so engrossed in a book that you completely lost track of time and eventually looked up from your reading to realize that you’re a little achy from sitting for god knows how long in an uncomfortable position?  Or have you ever zoned out into auto-pilot mode while driving home from work and somehow gotten to your destination without any recollection of the trip?

Lately, under the influence of Missy Vineyard’s excellent new AT book, How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live, I’ve been contemplating this kind of situation, in which my awareness shrinks, leaving me with only a partial picture of my experience.

What constitutes complete awareness?  I distinguish at least three aspects of any moment of experience which my awareness may encompass: my Self, my activity, and my environment.  While recognizing that my awareness exhibits a fluid, delicately shifting balance among these three aspects of experience, my goal is to neglect none of them and favor none of them above the others.

My Self includes the whole psychophysical ME — my thoughts, my emotions, the level of tension in my muscles, my breathing, etc.  In my moments of complete, expanded awareness, I strive to view my physical self as if from outside of myself, allowing me to see the whole of me — what all of my body parts from scalp to soles of feet are doing.  Habitually, I resort to a much more restricted focus, often becoming absorbed in a particular part of my body that is moving or tensing or experiencing pain. Or I lose track of everything except for my thoughts, which frequently have nothing to do with the present moment.  One recent glorious late-summer evening I was taking a walk to restore myself after a long day of teaching.  A few minutes into the walk, I realized that I was mentally reviewing my schedule for the next teaching day, completely oblivious to the sensory smorgasbord at hand: the clear sky and sultry breezes of this mid-September evening that felt more like mid-June, the passing people with their variety of gaits, adornments, and facial expressions, the flowering window boxes, the joyful sensations of my arms and legs swinging as I walked, the smell of just-baked cupcakes at Billy’s Bakery, the rich soundscape of Eighth Avenue on a warm evening.  How much richer and more restorative my walk became when I came out of my frantic, worried thinking into the actual world of sensory stimuli around me.

My activity comprises that in which I am engaged as well as any objects or living creatures required for that activity.  An activity could be as simple as standing on the floor or as complex as keeping my Chihuahua from lunging after a discarded bagel on the ground while looking out for turning traffic as we cross 23rd Street, all while carrying on a cellphone conversation with my mother, as I explain why I can’t stay more than one night when I go down for my sister’s birthday celebration.  I find that in general, the activity predominates in my awareness over Self and environment, this effect intensifying as the difficulty of the activity or my interest in it increases.   Wasn’t I even encouraged throughout my school years to “concentrate,” i.e. focus on an assignment while purposefully ignoring all other stimuli?    (I will return to this wrongheaded pedagogical attitude in a bit.)

My environment is made up of concentric fields in space; I can allow my awareness to include as many of them as I wish to (or am able to) through my sensory channels.  At a minimum, I wish to take in my immediate surroundings, such as the space surrounding the chair on which I’m sitting as I type these words.  Depending on my intentions, though, I could expand my awareness to take in the whole room, my apartment, this floor of my building, the whole building, Chelsea, New York City, the United States, the world...up to the entire Universe.  (I am not yet able to take in the entire Universe.)  While I’m typing, it’s usually sufficient to be aware of the room, but if my activity is disposing of a dead battery, I may wish to consider the effects this action will have on Earth’s ecosystems, well beyond my personal space.  (How many problems of our modern world have their roots in someone’s short-sighted awareness, in someone’s failure or unwillingness to consider the ramifications of their actions outside their immediate situation?)

Were you, too, encouraged to assume tunnel vision sometime in your educational history?  Did a teacher ever advise you to shrink your entire world down to the contemplation of an algebra problem or an essay on Chaucer?  (0% Self:100% activity:0% environment)  Did a coach ever admonish you to ignore the signals from your body and run through the pain?  (0% Self:100% activity:0% environment)  Did a voice teacher ever have you so wrapped up in thinking about your diaphragm that you couldn’t breathe at all...let alone sing?  (100% part of Self:0% activity:0% environment)  Did a tour guide ever over-stimulate your enthusiasm to take in the beauty of a work of art to the point at which you bump into benches and slowly develop aches and pains in your poorly-attended-to body?  (0% Self: 0% activity:100% environment)

It occurred to me that — unlike over-attention to Self or activity — people generally recognize the inadvisability of becoming too involved in attention to one’s environment.  “Hey, watch where you’re going!” is how this viewpoint is usually expressed, for example, when you ram your grocery cart into someone’s heels while ogling the luscious hamburger (or other) buns across the aisle at Whole Foods.

But think of how we are taught to be in amused awe of the absent-minded professor who is so wrapped up in his research that he “loses” the glasses that are on his head or forgets to eat.  Or how we lionize our opera/rock/Broadway divas whose uncompromising career focus leaves no room for living normal off-stage lives.

The beliefs underlying these ways of being and approaches to learning are that 1) we will absorb more information by narrowing our focus, and 2) we are unable to process multiple levels of awareness simultaneously.  My experience of teaching the Alexander Technique has proven to me over and over the inaccuracy of these beliefs.