It’s not hard to imagine that this sleepy leopard could be up and moving in a flash if an unwitting young antelope happened to wander past. Even when totally relaxed, the leopard is alert and ready for action. A few hundred years ago most humans would probably have shared this same ability to remain aware of what is going on all around them and, just like the leopard, be quietly and calmly ‘ready for action’.
Our current world is full of mobiles, tablets and laptops and these tend to narrow in our focus, rendering us less aware of what is around us. We’ve all either been or seen someone who is so intent on their mobile that they collide with something when walking down the street; and it’s easy to spend a whole bus journey completely oblivious to everything and everyone around us. What’s more, we’re usually in a constant state of doing, or readiness for doing, as we dash about our busy lives. This tendency to hyperactivity and focused concentration makes it even harder to ever return to ‘neutral’ – a state of quiet contemplation.
In a previous post I talked about how awareness, intention and balance are, for me, the bedrock of the Alexander Technique. Having already explored the role that balance (in all its senses) plays in our lives, this month I’m taking a look at awareness and the particular kind of self-awareness that we develop through learning the Alexander Technique.
The awareness we gradually develop through Alexander lessons is largely an appreciation of ourselves in relation to our environment. Rather than our attention being focused at any one time on either the external or the internal, we take in both at once. I like to call this ‘expansive awareness’ whereby we bring together into an integrated whole, our sense of our physical self, our thinking self and the information coming in on what’s around us.
So, we are able to see with a real depth of vision rather than over-focusing on what we are directly looking at. Again, if you think of the leopard, it is able to pay close attention to something, without losing this wider awareness.[i] Similarly, we can appreciate the rich three-dimensionality of our field of hearing. During our Alexander journey we also begin to notice more and more how we have a tendency to over-tense and hold ourselves – and we learn how to use the Technique to reduce this. We also gain a better appreciation of one of our most important senses which is proprioception – the sense of where we are in space and how different parts of ourselves relate to each other spatially, including the sense of our movement. Although proprioception is largely ignored (it doesn’t even feature in the commonplace description of having ‘five senses’), without it we would be unable to do virtually anything in life.
It’s not just our physical selves that we become more aware of – I used to have very little sense of my body as I was such a ‘live-in-the-head’ person. Yet, at the same time I think I also had little awareness of the habitual nature of much of my thinking. Through the Alexander Technique I’ve gradually reduced the amount of the ‘I must / I should / I need to’ type of thoughts, as well as all the ‘what if…’ thoughts. As we begin to reduce the physical tension and mental chatter, we will feel calmer and more in control. So over time, as we develop our skills in applying the Alexander Technique, we become more and more conscious of the information that all our senses are gathering about ourselves and what is around us, as well as what we are thinking, and all this leads to a greater sense of embodiment.
One last thought – I’d like to make a clear distinction between self-awareness and self-criticism (in the sense of being judgemental). As our awareness of ourselves increases through the Alexander Technique, our habits (both physical and thinking) come more to the foreground of our attention. It can come as a bit of a surprise to find that we’ve spent most of our lives up to this point blissfully unaware that that way we are sitting, standing, texting etc is not that well-coordinated, nor are we in balance and so we’re tensing to hold ourselves up. As a result of this realisation, thoughts like ’I’m doing it all wrong’ or ‘oh no, I’m tensing up again’ are not infrequent reactions. Thankfully it soon becomes clear that such self-critical thoughts are counter-productive. No-one is ever going to be perfect, so striving for perfection or ‘being right’ is not achievable – nor indeed is it desirable – and in trying hard to get it right we will only encourage our existing tendency to tense up. Rather, a curiosity about ourselves and a non-judgemental interest in any unhelpful habits are catalysts for change.
So we don’t want to encourage self-criticism or self-obsession, just greater awareness of what we’re doing with ourselves as we go about our daily lives. Implicit in an awareness of an unwanted habit is a desire for change. Forming a clear intention to stop or reduce the habit is the most important step in bringing about change in a positive direction. And we’ll come back another time to intention – the third member in our Alexander triumvirate of awareness, intention and balance.
[i] If you’re interested in reading more about this see Iain McGilchrist’s work where he describes how, for example a bird is able to pay close attention to the ground so that it can peck out the seeds from the grit, while at the same time remaining aware of what is around it to stay safe from predators. Humans seem to be gradually losing this ability and McGilchrist puts this down to the shifting relationship over the last few hundred years between the left and right hemispheres of our brain.