I just wrote this post, adding to what was already on this wiki on Alexander Technique. It’s released on a Creative Commons license.
This aspect of Alexander Technique comes close to the Buddhist practice of ‘mindfulness’. Alexander’s principles about self-awareness adds additional interesting points to other methods that have the goal of inviting more sensory awareness into your life.
A sign that you could benefit from learning about your awareness by studying Alexander Technique would be surprise at having apparently taken a wrong turn, due completely to habit. Finding habitual routine driving your actions and not your intentional, conscious awareness can be somewhat unsettling.
Habits are designed to become innate in order to become reliable. Once we know how to do things, gaining competence allows us to perform the task ‘without thinking’. Driving a car is a good example for this. Primates haven’t evolved to drive cars without learning it as a new skill. Yet our human nervous system happily adapts to this ‘remote controlled’ movement as we trained ourselves to get used to driving cars. We do this training as a series of behavior chained actions, linked together in a sequence.
Once we know the skill of driving, we are usually much more aware of our goals of where and why we want to go to our destination than about the details of shifting gears or using the steering wheel. Sometimes, on a familiar route, we might completely run on ‘auto pilot.’ Evidence of this is not noticing anything on our way, except perhaps the beginning and end of our journey. So it is quite understandable to become a slave to one’s own habitual routine. Thus, we notice the need for learning a little more about how our awareness and responses work.
What is the difference between a habit that has become innate and effective for a reasonable purpose, and a nuisance habit that we repeat “mindlessly”? (Or perhaps we repeat it painfully, without knowing the cumulative effects of our habits?)
That difference is awareness. We can do a routine skill with awareness and be satisfied with it. Or we can allow and enjoy habit running its automatic program and use our awareness to glide over the top of the skill, only noticing what is unusual or notable. This would allow us to note that the ball bouncing into the street might be followed by a child. Thankfully, we don’t have to use our conscious reasoning to step on the brake in time to avoid the child following the ball – that response would be much too slow! We can use our “RAS” (Reticular Activating System, which is a switchboard activating various brain areas) with an “emergency response needed” general message, without specifying which response might be best. If you go into a panic in emergencies and do crazy, unreasonable things, this means you need Alexander Technique lessons to “refresh” and “zero out” your ability to respond without answering too many conflicting habitual routines. Alexander Technique calms the brain’s RAS, so it automatically and intelligently chooses the more apt survival response in a split second.
Or we can find ourselves doing the routine in a completely mindless way, with no memory of what it was like to learn in the first place. The strength of habit makes it possible to integrate more and more, as the routine fades into the background so we can add another habit onto what we now know how to do. Awareness makes it possible to notice, learn and integrate the next new challenge into the pattern, if we so desire.
The advantage of awareness is it makes us effective teachers, good managers, great parents and compassionate with ourselves about learning new things. Awareness is the secret of being able to articulate describe and communicate what we know how to do.
Our habits determine our behavior, yet we are mostly unaware of them. Brain science says the only 1/6th of our awareness is conscious – the rest is non-conscious and habitual. This can become problematic when non-conscious habits that interfere with our potential for health and happiness by running a program out of our control when it really doesn’t serve us. An example is the Disney Fantasia movie of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” where the character uses a spell to mop the floor and cannot cancel it.
Self-observation and awareness are our pattern interrupts – the canceling spell for an ingrained habit. As we observe, describe and become aware of our habits, we gain the possibility of another way to go. Suspending or temporarily surrendering goals is often all that we need to choose a different way to react to a situation. Even if we ‘give in’ to our habits, we can use our awareness to observe the complexity of them, learning more about ourselves in the process. To the extent that we apply attention before habits get started at the beginning of an activity, awareness will work on it’s own as a turning point for free choice. As long as we can tolerate using our awareness of how we’re doing what we’re doing while in action, we can continue to shape, revise and grow.
A technique to deal with very insistent habits that will not give up control comes from the example of what Alexander Technique teachers call “inhibition.” These techniques show exactly how to effectively subvert and free up routines, usually by running “under the radar” of our self-protective habits.