A life ruled by habit?

Habit and change spelled with Scrabble

We all develop habits – our usual way of doing things. As young children we learn how to walk, talk etc partly through mimicking the adults around us (which inevitably involves copying their habits). Later we may want to emulate our peers and slouch nonchalantly to ‘look cool’. Or perhaps we injure ourselves and have to adjust so that we can, for example, walk without pain – only to continue walking in that way when the pain has resolved. If we experience trauma, we develop coping strategies that then stay with us, even if the person or event that we’re protecting ourselves from are no longer there. Habits develop as a response to many different situations.

And why do we always end up hunched over our desks and our mobiles? Simply because mind and body are not separate entities, so wherever our attention is, the rest of ourselves want to be there too – and these days our attention is often absorbed in a screen of one sort or another!

Habits are inherently neither good nor bad. They allow us to get things done quickly as we don’t have to pay attention to how we are carrying out all the acts of daily life. This may not be too much of a problem if we are able to retain our poise and coordination as we carry out our everyday activities but that is rarely the case. Being on ‘automatic pilot’ has its downsides.

One of the, perhaps less obvious, reasons we get stuck in habit mode is because of how our sense systems work. Generally speaking, we are consciously aware of differences not constants. Every moment nerve signals are conveying a whole host of information including visual, auditory, proprioceptive (sense of oneself in space), olfactory, gustatory, and touch related (texture, temperature, etc). It would be impossible to be consciously aware of the myriad of sense signals that our brains receive every second. So we tend to pay attention to what’s different – and that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because anything that is different could represent either a threat or an opportunity.

However, this system evolved (and was therefore probably quite effective) for a world that is rather different from the one we live in today. Going back pre-industrial revolution, most people would have lived in a less complex environment, with no fast-paced cities or technology. At the same time, their lives would have been less sedentary and more varied in terms of the range of movement moment by moment throughout a typical day. In contrast, today many of us are stuck at a desk – staring at a screen, using a keyboard sitting on chairs for many hours at a time. If we do spend a lot of time sitting, we’re likely to have little or no awareness of our sitting bones (being busy paying attention to ‘more important things’); but if something were to change, e.g. if the seat became warm, then we’d probably notice this.

If our life consists of many hours of repetition e.g. sitting and looking at a screen, then we are likely to simply cease to register when we begin to slump, or tilt our head to one side, or shift the weight mostly onto one sitting bone, or to grit our teeth or generally tense up. Whatever it is that we’re doing with ourselves becomes our habit. Crucially, because it’s ‘normal’, it begins to feel right. So, for example, a habitually tilted head will feel like it’s straight. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to change when something fundamentally feels right i.e. is what we always do. That’s why it’s such a challenge if we want to change the way we sit, move, eat, think etc.

More than 100 years ago, FM Alexander recognised that we’re gradually losing our ability to accurately interpret all the information we receive through our senses, and he coined the term faulty sensory appreciation. He realised that we are usually governed by what feels right – by the force of habit. He recognised it first in himself, when he observed his habitual response to being on stage, and deduced that how he was standing and speaking lay at the root of his voice problems. His next important discovery was that he was unable to stop these habits simply by force of will. Alexander developed a method that enabled him to be free of these habits, and then worked out how to teach his method to others. The Alexander Technique enables us to lessen the habits that hold us back and to have more choice in our lives – we can’t often change the world around us but we can find more freedom and happiness in how we respond to it.