Exploring an Act of Will

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

I have guided many people through the process that I will describe here, and although my approach is essentially the same in all cases, in practice everyone is different in what they notice and what they don’t, so that the questions I ask and the suggestions I offer are different for everyone. Nevertheless I hope to explain it here in a way that will help you ask yourself questions and discover your own possibilities. I would be very happy if anyone who tries this would write me with their experiences.

Let’s look at what happens when we take a step. Really we could choose any activity, to sit down, stand up, sing a song, jump, put a bow to a string, turn a screwdriver, etc, but for now let’s stay with taking a step. The first thing that I would like you to notice is how you have thought about what you are about to do. Did you try to remember what you do to take a step, or to figure out what you must have done? Instead I suggest actually doing it. Go ahead and take a step, then ask yourself “what happened?” If you’re not sure what happened, do it again, but be sure you are really just standing there first. Sometimes simply going back to standing requires very clearly saying to yourself, “No, I am not going to take a step. I am just standing here.” If you find you’ve made a little preparatory movement because you think you know you need to do that anyway, and you can notice yourself doing it, then you are well on the road to finding out how your habitual response to taking a step begins. In fact standing quietly, knowing that in a moment you are going to take a step, but doing nothing in response, can be an interesting challenge in directing one’s will. It is the beginning of what Alexander called inhibition, and is necessary to finding out what your habitual response is. Some consider this consciously willed inhibition of an immediate, habitual response to be Alexander’s most important discovery, because it is this that allows room for a new way of doing to be discovered.

While you are standing there, are you standing absolutely still, or can you notice very slight little movements of your head, neck, torso and legs? Those movements are the natural movements you do to maintain balance. Can you see how those little movements respond to your breathing, perhaps even to the beating of your heart? Movement of the various parts of our body relative to each other is necessary to balance. It really is amazing what all is going on all the time that we never need to bother ourselves about. There is no way that I can help along that process of balancing by tightening something up or holding on to my legs, for example. I can only get in its way. The best thing I can do is to begin to notice how I do get in its way, and stop. This goal, of finding out how I am interfering with the easy, natural functioning of myself, so that I can have a choice to stop interfering, underlies all of the Alexander Technique. Our more usual approach, of identifying an end, and being concerned primarily with gaining that end, Alexander termed “end-gaining.”

Now that we have gotten this far, go ahead and start to take another step. What did you notice? Did your body lurch a bit? Did you notice some part of your body become more rigid, or a tightening of some muscle or group of muscles? My experience has shown me that most people notice something in their legs, back or abdomen first. Alexander’s discovery of the primary control, however, would lead us to expect there also to be a change in the relationship of our heads to our bodies. Did you notice your head move, or your neck tighten a bit? Most people do not notice that change at first because the other changes are much bigger.

So, let’s take another step. Please don’t forget to really enjoy just standing for awhile before you start the step. This time catch yourself as soon as you know you have moved in response to the decision to take a step. Did you notice yourself tighten your neck? If not, start again, always going back to standing for a moment first. No matter what is noticed in response to deciding to move, it seems always possible to wonder about what happened just before that.

There are a couple of things that can get in the way of this process. One is the notion that there is a right way to take a step, or a right way to do anything, for that matter. Oddly enough, worrying about the right way to do something, or even thinking I know the right way to do something, can actually prevent me from seeing what I am really doing. Because there are myriad sensations that accompany any activity, if I am worried that I am not doing it right, I can always find something that feels wrong. If I think I know the right way, I can always find some sensation to prove to me that I have done it right. If I really want to know what I am doing, I have found it best to forget my preconceived notions about what is the right or wrong way to do it. On the other hand it is possible to prefer one way of doing something to another, after the alternatives have been experienced.

With that bit of attention to possible obstacles done, let’s get back to taking a step.

When you get to the point that you can actually feel yourself tightening your neck as you begin to take a step, observe how a wave of tightening quickly proceeds from your neck down through your body as you begin to take the step. Repeat this a couple of times, always going back to standing quietly in between repetitions. Observe the direction that your head and body move in response to the tightening. In particular observe whether it is upward or downward. Because muscles shorten when they tighten in response to my decision to take a step, they in a sense pull the parts of my body down and together (i.e. towards each other) as I start to move. Even the excess tension associated with what is called “standing up straight” actually pulls the upper part of my back backwards and down towards the lower part of my back. If the tension you have discovered associated with taking a step doesn’t feel like it is pulling you down, try out this alternative way of thinking about it, and see if it makes sense. If it does, does the way you feel the movement change?

When what you are doing becomes clear to you, you can ask yourself if that wave of tightening is really necessary. It usually feels absolutely necessary, if you want to take a step, but it really isn’t. When you become conscious of tightening your neck, you begin to have a choice about doing it, but how can you not do something that feels absolutely necessary and still take the step? Another idea, and a spirit of adventure are a big help.

So far you have observed what has happened when you proceeded from standing to beginning to take a step. Then you went back to standing quietly. What happens when you decide not to continue to take the step, but instead to go back to standing? Chances are you didn’t notice, but you can always repeat the experiment. Did the tension associated with taking the step go away when you went back to standing? What direction did your parts move when you returned to standing? Was it an effortless movement upward to standing? If not, are you doing anything different now because you are observing the process of returning to standing? If observing it did change it, or you don’t know, well, forget about it, take a break, and start back at the beginning when you feel like it. In fact I don’t suggest anyone spend more than 5 minutes in this whole process. If you notice at any point that you are getting stiff or have an ache or pain, then I suggest a break, and forgetting about it for awhile. This process isn’t about learning to do anything right. It is about learning to observe ourselves as lightly and simply as possible.

When students do observe the downward pull associated with taking the step, and the easy, upward return to standing, they usually prefer the latter feeling. The usual tension associated with standing may not be any different, but the easy movement back to standing is really pretty nice compared to the contraction associated with beginning to take a step. If in your experiments you have gotten this far, then the next suggestion is to ask yourself if that easy, upward feeling of movement could continue while you take a step. Put another way, could you continue with what you felt when giving up taking a step while taking a step nevertheless? It will likely feel impossible, but, just for fun, consider the possibility anyway. If it doesn’t feel impossible, you might want to be a little suspicious of what you’re doing. You’re not doing anything right are you?

Another suggestion that I have found helpful at this point is to think of beginning the movement of taking the step by allowing your head to tilt very slightly forward, a direction that, if it were to continue, would have you looking toward your feet. Let this tilt of your head happen because you released tension somewhere in your neck, and let it take you slightly off of your balance. As you try this, if you make the tilt of your head so small you barely know you have done it, then you won’t end up looking down, especially if you remember to continue with that easy, upward movement through your body. You continue with that easy, upward movement by simply not interfering with it. You actually have to do something to stop it, and virtually anything you actively do will stop it. So, if you forget what that easy, upward movement is like, or if you find yourself tugging at your head to make it tilt, you can always go back a few paragraphs and begin again. You really can’t make happen that easy upward movement in the same way you are used to making other movements happen. It only comes as the result of releasing the downward pressure habitually associated with the movement. The slight forward tilt of your head, and projecting (by deciding to continue it, even if it feels odd) the easy, upward movement of your body allow you to continue to inhibit your habitual response to taking a step, and nevertheless to take the step in a new way that can only be discovered as it happens.

When you are able to begin the step while continuing the easy, upward movement and the slight forward tilt of your head, if you did nothing else you would fall on your face. Instead allow one of your legs to move by moving your knee forward so that your foot comes down under you. I suggest starting with some baby steps, perhaps allowing your fingertips to rest lightly on a table top or the back of a chair to aid your balance. I really can’t tell you much more about what to expect as you continue to walk – it always seems new to me. And when you come back to standing after the step, observe how different that might be from your usual way of standing. I hope you have some fun.

I usually suggest that people not spend more than 5 minutes at a time working this way. If you find yourself feeling stiff or having aches and pains, consider that it might be your bodies way of telling you that you are trying to tell it something right to do instead of observing what is happening, and discovering something new. When I guide a student through this process in a class it usually takes about 15 minutes, so if you are working alone, I suggest spreading out these experiments over a few days. As you become familiar with the process, you can go through the whole thing in a second or two. I find it great entertainment while waiting for the bus or in a grocery store check out line. The movements are so small that no one will notice what you are doing. Then when the bus comes or it’s your turn in line, take off, and let yourself be surprised about what happens, and what you observe.

Before I conclude, I would like to explain how the ideas presented earlier about how we are organized are used in the process outlined above. First, we decided to look at what changed when we went from standing to taking a step. Second, we progressively made ourselves more sensitive to the movement by asking ourselves to look closer and closer to the beginning of the movement. Third, Alexander’s idea of the primary control told us not to stop looking for the beginning of the movement until we knew what happened to the relationship of our heads to our bodies, i.e. until we could actually feel what happened in our necks. It is really this third idea that allows the process to become objective. And finally, in directing the movements of our heads and bodies in a new way as we took the step, we asked that the movement we used to initiate the step be as close to effortless as perceivable, so small that we barely knew we did it.

Conclusions

By working in the way outlined in the last section, I believe that we are directing our attention to what is actually observable through a human body, that is, change. We gradually return our attention to the undifferentiated stream of flowing perception. Other ways of talking about movement, such as paying attention to good posture, proper alignment, just relaxing, or images of strings tied to our heads can sometimes be useful for motivating or encouraging people to change. However, they all rely on an enormous number of preexisting thought patterns that can color our perceptions of what we are actually doing, and that impose prejudgements on our experience. By returning to what we can actually perceive, we have a chance to make fresh choices about what we think and do, free from preexisting conditions.

As you review the experiences you had following the consciously guided observation procedure, how would you describe the change in consciousness that accompanied coming closer and closer to observing the moment that you initiated movement? When you were able to continue with the step while your habitual response remained inhibited, who was observing the movement, thinking the directions, willing the movement? In my experience, at that moment, all three processes blend into one. I don’t think I could discriminate thinking, feeling and willing into separate processes at that moment. As I begin to objectively observe my thinking, feeling and willing, I begin to dissociate them from ‘I’ experiences – i.e. if I am not my thinking, feeling and/or willing, because I am observing and directing them as they happen, then what does that leave? I don’t know, but it’s not nothing, and it’s no thing I can point to.

If you review the process you went through, or if you do it again, notice that what you start out feeling about a movement is by no means what you end up feeling, i.e. your initially perceived feelings were not accurate (and never will be). Also observe that you were willing movements without being aware of it, so that the thoughts that led to the movements were unobserved, as were the movements themselves. The habitual responses were determined by past experience, with no choice on your part as long as they remained unobserved. The consciously guided observation process uses thinking, feeling and willing in an iterative process that continually moves the three closer and closer to being observed at the same time, the moment the new movement begins.

Our habitual responses are usually unobserved while they are happening. In a sense we become partially unconscious during them. Therefore, the processes of thinking, feeling and willing appear to be separated. We appear to ourselves to first think about the movement, then do it, then feel the result of moving. That moment of becoming unconscious, while we tighten our bodies to “get ready to move,” causes us to be unable to observe the unity of thinking, feeling, and of will acting into us.

As we are able to extend our consciousness more fully over more of our activities, we become less bound by our conditioned habits of thinking and doing, and are more able to gain access to new responses that more appropriately fit the moment.

Back to Articles Page

Comments are closed.