End-gaining Mistique

We’re having an interesting conversation on one of the Facebook Alexander Technique groups. Since FB tends to cycle off rather quickly, perhaps having a spot elsewhere for the discussion would encourage it to continue.
Sara’s blog post that we’re discussing is at:

Here are some excerpts:

Nick Drengenberg writes:

Sara, I don’t believe something being a system of work makes it finite. It makes it a something though rather than a generalised ineffability, which wouldn’t distinguish AT from any other type of experience. I see the ineffable as a bit of a slippery slope in other words, confusing questions about what’s shareable in our different experiences with what’s specific to a particular type of work, like AT. I agree each of us might experience AT differently, but you quickly lose any way in which AT is different to anything else if it becomes about attempting to share some subjective experience. I don’t think Alexander at root discovered some sort of subjective experience, those will vary for each person who comes to the work. He discovered a quite objective set of relationships between the human body and the world it sits inside. It’s those we should be trying to describe and communicate, and the feelings at each point in that exploration will be full part of the context we’re in. So a feeling of lightness or easiness will suggest a prior tightness or holding, which we can unravel using Alexander’s insights (to discover how and why we were holding), for example. It’d be a dead-end to try to make the lightness or easiness what’s important about that moment, feelings are pointers or indicators to a full context of existing in space in varying states of balance and support.

Yes, as Nick Dregenburg points out, A.T. has a therapeutic effect that is measurable and scientifically reasonable and predictable as a set of principles. In a way A.T. work could be considered an early form of observational brain science. It’s similar to Dr. Edward de Bono’s predictive models, (in “Mechanism of Mind,”) where de Bono came up with models of how thinking works so he could design compensations to stimulate creative insight. F.M Alexander came up with an open-ended, ongoing demonstration that stimulate creative-conscious insight using a bodymind integration.

Sara Solnick replies…

Nick, I don’t think we are talking about quite the same things here. I am not quite sure what you mean by describing AT as a possibly infinite system of work. What I meant was that understanding the depths of AT is not a finite process: it is layered and subtle. The principles are easily stated, as a system if you like, but their extended meaning unfolds only gradually. I do not use the word ineffable in a generalised way as you suggest – what I mean is that there are some things (in my experience at least), the essential nature of which, though apprehended, cannot necessarily be expressed adequately in words – and these can be very specific things. Subjective experience will always be part of one’s understanding of this or any other work – part of the illusion I wish to avoid in writing is that of seeing us as human beings who sit inside, or in any other way separate from, the world – for me, we are inextricably entangled with, and ultimately indistinguishable from, our world – the subjective can never be completely removed, the objective never fully attained. Alexander nevertheless developed a set of principles which can be entertained intellectually without being understood experientially. However, experience and feeling are not irrelevant to our deeper understanding of those principles – they are what promote our developing understanding, and perhaps require us to revise our intellectual formulations along the way… your last sentence seems to be suggesting something similar. But in the final analysis, what all this indicates to me, is how very difficult it is be clearly communicative with the written word alone – which was my point (perhaps misguidedly made by me in a piece of writing!)

Sara Solnick, your point is not misguided. Why this is so is deeply embedded in Alexander’s questioning and experimental foundations. At it’s best and extended toward an art form or life philosophy, A.T. takes people into the unknown, allowing a person to tap on the door of the unknowable and walk through it toward what they don’t know – time and time again. It doesn’t work every single time in a predictable manner because there are so many factors involved in asking for the unknown to reveal itself, but that’s part of it’s attraction of mystique.

Words are frozen, codified meanings. The skill of combining them is an art too – because we’re attempting to get them to say something about our experience that tends to familiarize it into being something we “know.” That’s the definition of being an author-ity.

Using words after an experience of the unknown offers the ability to “tag” for retrieval, which is how the brain works to retrieve memories. But this urge to “have” the unknown as a “thing” sells short the potential of what A.T. really offers. – and I believe this is what Sara Solnick is really hinting at…and why the A.T. community labels the “tagging” urge to be merely end-gaining.

Think about how, when you have an unusual experience, you must be careful who you tell. The telling will be shaped by your relationship to that person’s rapport with you and with the experience itself. Once an experience is in words, people have a tendency to remember what they said, rather than retrieving the raw experience itself in their memory of it. Once expressed in words, usually an experience becomes limited by its description…correct? That’s why we call it End-gaining.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “End-gaining Mistique

  1. I’m hearing at least three issues here:
    1. Whether and how AT engages in experiences that are ineffable, i.e. beyond language.
    2. How we often use words in ambiguous ways and must be careful in any communication to agree at least on what we mean by the words we use.
    3. Does the use of words warp our understandings of experiences, whether “ineffable” or not.
    It seems to me at the very least that we stay clear in the discussion as to which of these issues (or others) we’re discussing. This seems to me the minimum structure necessary for any sort of clear communication among us in this discussion.

  2. Words are as much a part of any wholeness as our bodies and mind. Which means they always have a context, and their meaning will vary from context to context. I think a lot of the angst around the malleability of words comes from neglecting this and trying to solidify meanings outside a context. As Ben says, you can clarify the context and then be much closer to everybody being on the same page. And standing alone words seem ambiguous, but they don’t exist alone – plug them back into a context and the dialogue, words in active use, will firm up meanings. But the best writers and users of language also manage to leave an opening to the outside, to other contexts. Usually that’s via the use of simple, engaging language.

  3. Franis, I think this is very well put – and pretty much reflects what I think. Two points that occur to me though:

    I wonder to what extent words do have frozen, codified meanings. Dictionaries would suggest that many do, but what I find happens in discussions, is that we may discover that words have meanings which are very slippery and shape-shifting, and that this can be responsible for much misunderstanding between people, and indeed can lead one into all sorts of inconsistent thinking in oneself too, especially when trying to articulate the ‘unknown’. Words can both be either very precise or somewhat malleable. So, I think we have to be very careful to clarify ourselves where we can. That said, I find that there are some aspects of my understanding of the AT that just do not translate adequately into words. (I am not alone in this: Robertson Davies, the Canadian author, says much the same in his introduction to the AT essays published as Curiosity Recaptured)

    Does the AT community regard the ‘tagging’ urge to be merely end-gaining? I really don’t know. It seems that many in the AT world would really like to achieve concrete and consensual definitions and explanations. I don’t so much find it end-gaining as unsatisfactory and inadequate for the reasons already discussed.

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