Today I was listening to a conversation with Michael Frederick that was recorded as a podcast on Robert Rickover’s blog post about Marj Barstow. I got to the 29 minute point. Here is when the discussion turned to a question a student had asked Marj Barstow in one of the many workshops. “Why don’t you use inhibition when teaching?” Marj answered carefully, “Everything I teach is inhibition.”
What does “inhibition” mean? In a classic sense, inhibition is interrupting what you don’t want to continue to do, so you can do what you want. Alexander Technique students are literally taught to actually stop what they were about to do and pay attention to what they are doing with themselves before resuming action. Marj Barstow had a very different interpretation of the principle of inhibition. She saw it as indirect prevention. I’ve heard her say that inhibition means…
“Inhibition is prevention. Inhibition is any action that prevents you from doing what you don’t want. Inhibition continues within movement; you don’t want to get stiff. A person can change what they’re doing while in action, stopping is not required. Inhibition is positive. Going in the direction you want stops by elimination how you have been going wrong. You can’t commit to going in two directions at once…”
Well, you can try going in both directions at once. Pain is eventually the result, because it pulls everything that is you out of whack. Your poor body will try to accommodate your conflicting commands as best it can, which isn’t best.
Rickover offered an interesting metaphor for what we call inhibition in Alexander Technique to explain the attitude of Marj Barstow about how she expressed it in her work. His metaphor was something like this:
Let’s say that you’re driving and you realize you’ve gone the wrong way. To correct your course, you might make a U-turn, you might come to a complete stop while doing so, or not. By turning around you can retrace your steps to where you lost your way and continue on from there.
I’m going to continue that metaphor… What if you have a map? Alexander Technique the way Marj Barstow taught us was like having a map of principles about human reaction and response. With a map and the ability to observe where you are oriented, you can plot how to get back on course strategically – without having to retrace your steps. The direction you were conditioned to go in your childhood doesn’t matter. You can start from where you are and go the way you want to live your life from this point forward.
The idea of inhibition is interesting. You need inhibition just like you need the presence of mind to remember you did not want to turn down the same road to go home when you don’t want to go home yet. Of course it’s tricky to be aware in moments where you’re not aware. There are steps for suspending what you don’t want and instead doing what you do want.
The first step is self observation. You become aware of how your habits knock you off course. You learn to perceive the habitual pattern and recognize when it will likely kick in. Then you can design and follow a way to carry out a new logistical strategy to stop it. It turns out that brain science says whenever we go into action, we’ve already prepared quite a bit before we know we are choosing to do something. The only choice we have is to interrupt or redirect our preparations. We’ve got 1/64th of a second before we must do what we’ve prepared ourselves to do.
So interrupting habits is a skill that takes timing and awareness. Remember all those things you were sold on being socially unacceptable? You can use them to inhibit your unwanted habits. You want to cheat, lie, outsmart, fool, detour, side-step or preclude the trained, habitual urge you have installed to steer you wrong.
Designing a way that works to inhibit requires careful thinking. When the habit starts is a factor, because once it gets going it’s harder to interrupt. You might have to try different strategies if the first or second or third possibility doesn’t work. Happily, you don’t have to figure out what to do as a replacement once the unwanted routine releases it’s control. Other more constructive solutions will rise to the occasion once the habitual interference is gone.
It takes practice, and it’s sometimes tricky. You’re catching what you can’t normally perceive that’s operating under your radar. Habits are tricky enough to try to preserve the need for themselves, just like bureaucracies. You put your strategic plan into practice in the important moment of choice by practicing doing it in moments when it’s not so important and commonplace.
Of course it sometimes results in strange, even fearful new sensations. The uncertainty of a new direction can be disorienting. But that’s not so much of a problem. You can get the old habit back any time you wish. The habit remains in your “bag of tricks” as an option, but since you’ve worked to allow another more efficient route to get to your destination, the habit doesn’t go into action irresistibly every time you want to get somewhere.
To continue the metaphor, if you use the awareness of inhibition…you’ll have a “new way home” that is more direct, takes less time and costs less energy to get there. It’s like riding on an empty freeway after being in a traffic jam. Wheeeee!