This past week, my student Jake asked me if I thought this quote represented the truth:
“No matter how many specific ends you may gain, you are worse off than before, if in the process of gaining them you have destroyed the integrity of the organism.”
(It’s a statement attributed to F.M. Alexander, as reported in Frank Pierce Jones’s wonderful book, Freedom to Change. My student Danielle, about whom I wrote a few days ago, had found the quote while reading the book and brought it (back) to my attention. It clearly reflected what Jake and I had been exploring in his last lesson, so I passed it along to him. Do you think Alexander ever suspected that one day his wisdom would be shared among his followers via text message?)
Well, Jake, my own experience supports F.M.’s conjecture. Even though it goes against “common sense” and against most people’s expectations, it seems that we are better off paying a bit MORE attention to the integrity of our bodies and a bit LESS attention to the specific goals we are trying to achieve. Not surprisingly, when I pay more attention to the ease and organization of my body, I feel better and my body works better.
What is really astounding, however, is that this shift in focus away from the achievement of the goals I am pursuing actually improves my performance of these goals as well. It is as if paying attention to the ease in my neck (for example) keeps my brain occupied so that it can’t (badly) micromanage the use of my body in carrying out my goal-related tasks. Actions over which I’d otherwise struggle seem to “do themselves” with far more skill and efficiency than I’d be able to consciously call up. I have noticed this effect improving my performance in singing, swimming, running, dog behavior management, and arguing, among other activities.
Alexander contended that in our thinking, attention to the ease and expansion of our bodies must be PRIMARY, attention to the specific movements we are wishing to carry out, SECONDARY. He called this non-habitual shift in focus “attention to the means-whereby.” The opposite situation, in which we concentrate on our goals, probably ignoring the conditions we are bringing about in our bodies as we do so, he called “end-gaining.” One of the central aims of Alexander lessons is to learn how to stop end-gaining in your daily activities.
Our traditional educational system has instilled in all of us the belief that if we try harder, we just might succeed. My Alexander explorations have suggested that this is a bunch of baloney. Trying hard makes me tense; concentrating on a task narrows my focus and encourages me to forget the very body that is trying to carry out the task. (And even “mental” tasks are carried out by a physical body.)
Paying attention to our Alexandrian means-whereby is often challenging to new students: the ease of your neck is a subtle quality indeed, and your attention to it is easily overwhelmed by the much more easily noticeable movements you may be trying to carry out. For this reason, I sometimes create a “fake means-whereby” for my student to attend to while carrying out a task. Until such time as she is able to effectively monitor her ease, this at least gives her an opportunity to observe the result of NOT focusing so closely on her immediate task.
You can try this out for yourself in your own singing practice by following the procedure I describe below. It is particularly useful when you find yourself trying harder and harder to accomplish a “difficult” passage. (I put that word in quotes because often the difficulty falls away when you stop end-gaining.) I have an advanced student who is working on some arias with fiendish coloratura passages. When she concentrates on getting each note perfect, she slows the tempo down inadvertently and her vocal coordination suffers. I can see this detrimental mental shift occurring in her rigid, unfocused gaze and her loss of body mobility. When I observe these signs, I suggest the following mind-shifting process:
Move your eyes in a big circle, as though you were looking at all the numbers of a huge clock in sequence (or reverse sequence). Let your intention be to move your eyes as smoothly as possible. That’s your (temporary) means-whereby. Now sing the “difficult” passage as you attend to moving your eyes around the clock. Let the smoothness of the eye movement be your aim, letting the vocal process take care of itself for now. What did you notice?
My advanced student invariably notices that the formerly difficult passage now rings out easily and accurately, as if someone else had sung it! This student is also getting skilled at using the Alexander Technique; she is increasingly able to beneficially distract herself by focusing on Alexander’s real means-whereby, which he once put down as something like: “Allow your neck to relax, so that your head can move a bit forward and up, so that your spine can lengthen, and your back widen.” (An Alexander teacher can guide your body into these movements — impossible to accurately represent in words and easily mis-interpreted — with his hands. Use the clock principle or some gentle head movements to practice shifting your focus until you are able to work with an Alexander teacher.)
It may seem in life, especially when things get really hectic, or when we are engaged in some activity that we find particularly important, that it would be helpful, perhaps just for a little moment, to ignore our bodies and push through some task. But is it worth it?
You’ll have to determine the answer for yourself. We are all by training experts in end-gaining. Many people have never experienced what it is like to pay attention to the means-whereby. You can experiment with it by asking yourself the following question before and during your next difficult or important activity:
“How free is my neck right now?”