Being a ‘better’ person

Alternative version of Coronavirus public health message

FM Alexander was once asked if a burglar were to learn his method, would they become a better person? FM replied (probably with a twinkle in his eye), ‘no, but they would become a better burglar’.

Learning the Alexander Technique involves a process of developing greater self-awareness and more conscious control (i.e choice) over one’s habitual reactions and behaviours. A common experience reported by students is of becoming more one’s ‘true self’. A person’s sense of self can change as learnt behavioural patterns that were used simply to survive / thrive in childhood and the workplace are gradually peeled away. Anyone who has worked with the Alexander Technique for an extensive period will testify to its transformative effects. In my own case, I know that I gradually became more open minded and optimistic, and less judgemental and relentlessly self-critical. I can’t say whether I’ve become a ‘better person’ but I certainly welcome the changes that have occurred.

By its nature, putting the Alexander Technique into practice necessitates a certain amount of healthy self-interest. But what happens if the individual learning the technique is already overly self-interested, for example a narcissist, or someone with those tendencies? Does the Alexander Technique help them to usefully question and challenge themselves, or does it just encourage their unhealthy self-obsession? Does it simply enable such people to develop greater skills in how they want to present themselves to the world, and how to manipulate others? If FM Alexander was right about the burglar (assuming he was thinking of a person who was a burglar by choice, rather than absolute necessity) then perhaps the answer to these latter questions is ‘yes’?

I’ve been pondering these questions over the last couple of weeks. Like most people in the UK, I’ve been appalled and disgusted at the Dominic Cummings fiasco. The callous disregard and sense of entitlement of the Prime Minister’s top advisor are breath-taking. The scandal has been compounded by the pathetic weakness and irresponsibility of Boris Johnson in supporting him rather than sacking him – it’s now clear, if it wasn’t before, who is really running the country. Together they have put at risk all the Covid-19 health messaging and therefore they have jeopardised public safety, as well as trust in government.

While contemplating all this, I wondered whether things might have been a bit different if Cummings had had the advantage of taking Alexander lessons in the past? With more self-awareness, would he be better able to hide his arrogance and disdain? In particular, in the famous Rose Garden session with journalists, would he have been able to not react with the irritation that was visible at the more probing questions; and at the end, could he have avoided that telling smirk on his face? Or, more hopefully, would Alexander lessons have opened out for him other possibilities that allowed his character to change for the better?

I don’t know the answer to these questions but I suspect that there may be certain types of people for whom learning the Alexander Technique might be good for them but not for the rest of society.

In my own experience of teaching the Alexander Technique, people who come for lessons have always been thoughtful and considerate, with a moral compass and sense of personal responsibility. The privilege of meeting and working with so many people who embody the better aspects of humankind, is one of the main reasons I love teaching so much.