Understanding Unfamiliarity By Filling In the Blanks

On the Alexander Google list server group, it turns out that I’ve gotten a reputation for being able to explain things that others find difficult. So I thought that I would explain how I can read something that has lots of confusing or unfamiliar words in it and still get something out of what is being said.

My ability to read came at a late age – seven. My parents prevented me from learning to read early because they guessed that my ability to imagine would not have the time to form and express itself if I learned to read too early. This probably was true – at least in my case. The effect as an adult was that I am still able to use words to explain concepts that are not completely connected to language until I consciously make the connection. Images and feelings I have are able to be expressed in other ways besides words.

So, predictably enough, as soon as I learned to read at seven, I was overly eager to try it out on anything and everything that could be read. I could not get enough of reading. At seven I took it upon myself to be regular fan of Ann Landers, an advice columnist who was published on the same page as the comics. I was also reading the many Tarzan novels, by Edgar Rice Boroughs that were in my brother’s room.

There were many words in these books that I did not understand and had never heard anyone use in speech. So I thought quite a bit about what they probably meant as I skipped over them. I looked at how these mystery words functioned in the sentence and attempted to judge their relative importance. If they were qualifying words, well, that was more important than an adverb or a descriptive word of what was happening in a sequence when I could understand some of the other words. I came to realize and invent interesting ways to find out what a word meant besides just asking someone else or looking it up in the dictionary.

For instance, if the word seemed to be a descriptive word, I tried these words out in normal conversation and looked at how grown up people reacted.

Because of this, when I encounter reading that I’d like to do (such as a paper on the Polyvagal theory,) I fall back on using my old tricks. In practice, one of my actual strategies would be that I would mentally leave a “blank” in the spaces where I’d run into a word(s) that had an unknown meaning. Then once I read the sentence, I’d guess what similar or vague words that I actually knew would suffice to belong in the blank spots. Sometimes I would diagram the sentence to distill it down to its most simplistic forms so I could understand what function the words might have to the meaning.

This strategy works really well when you’re doing something like reading F.M. Alexander’s books. I’ll let Catherine Kettrick, who has a degree in linguistics and is also an Alexander Technique teacher from an Alexander school called the Performance School in Seattle, WA, give an example from her website “study guide” section at http://www.performanceshool.org

To read Alexander’s long sentences with understanding, you have to be willing to go a bit slowly, figure out the subject and verb, see the different clauses and figure out their subjects and verbs, and hold them all in relation to one another til you get to the end of the sentence. To do this, it is helpful to answer the question posed by each clause as you go along. For example, here is the first sentence from the second chapter of The Use of the Self, “Use and Functioning in Relation to Reaction:” “The reader who reviews the experiences that I have tried to set down in the previous chapter will notice that at a certain point in my investigation I came to realize that my reaction to a particular stimulus was constantly the opposite of that which I desired, and that in my search for the cause of this, I discovered that my sensory appreciation (feeling) of the use of my mechanism was so untrustworthy that it led me to react by means of a use of myself which felt right, but was, in fact, too often wrong for my purpose” (p. 39).

Taking this sentence apart we find “The reader (subject) will notice” (verb). What reader you ask? “The reader who reviews the experiences…” What experiences? “…that I have tried to set down in the previous chapter…” So: “The reader who reviews the experiences that I have tried to set down in the previous chapter will notice…” What? “…that at a certain point in my investigation I came to realize…” Realize what? “…that my reaction to a particular stimulus was constantly the opposite of that which I desired…” Here is the end of the first major thought grouping in this paragraph. The “and” is used to mark the division between the two major thoughts in the paragraph. “…and that in my search for the cause of this, I discovered… ” Discovered what? (Here comes the second major thought) “…that my sensory appreciation (feeling) of the use of my mechanisms was so untrustworthy that it led me…” Led me where? “… to react by means of a use of myself which felt right, but…” (Pay attention– “But” signals a contrast–) “…but was, in fact, too often wrong for my purpose.”

Then again, if you don’t really understand a subject that you want to know more about, you can probably search the web and find someone else who will explain it to you in a way that you can understand. If you still don’t understand it, you can probably find a tutorial about it on YouTube.

Why Did I Do That?

Do people make deliberate choices for negative reasons?

I used to imagine they do. I used to think I did. But as I have come to be able to watch myself in action making decisions and as I have come to watch my students deal with decisions they have made and habits they have put in place, I have changed my mind and no longer assume this is the case. People make choices for positive reasons.

I have come to believe that everyone I’ve ever known chooses an action (or lack of it) because of its positive aspects, not the negative ones.

Now what about those stupid choices?

Some bad ideas are selected because people couldn’t have known what the effect of their actions are over time, or how serious the effects of their actions would be once added up cumulatively. This is a problem addressed by learning one of the secrets of Alexander Technique – once learned, habits commonly disappear from self-perception.

Perhaps the choice doesn’t take crucial things into account that should have been obvious to someone with more experience. Thus the old adage; “Hindsight is 20/20.” These choices show a lack of foresight and information. Sometimes, the ordering of priorities satisfied by the choice are hidden from the person who is choosing, so a little soul-searching would help future choices. Alexander Technique helps remind people to remember to determine their priorities and criteria by becoming more aware of their own multiple priorities and assumptions of their own criteria for success. Determining and knowing one’s goals is crucial to practicing A.T. because of the need to temporarily suspend these goals so experimenting can bring in new information. If these goals are hidden from the person, they will emerge during experimentation.

It is even more common that a person feels as if they “must” make the choice for various justified points or to answer an imperative need. They may be aware that some of the effects of that choice may become negative at some time in the future. They may figure they know what the cost of the choice is, and believe they accept the cost in trade for the benefit. However, as they get closer to the cost, the benefit suddenly pales. So thinking ahead about mitigating time of arrival issues would be wise in these situations.

Related to this circumstance, Alexander Technique offers the ability to pause before choosing a habit or manner of thinking. In this moment of reflection, another choice is possible. This ability to pause and reflect how you are going to do something (called Inhibition in A.T.) allows you to also decide not to do what you realize that you do not want to do.

Sometimes people are aware of the negative aspects of a choice, but must choose between lesser evils. Perhaps they decide the costs are “worth it,” (possibly because sometimes the costs are deferred until “later,” or may not happen at all.) After learning Alexander Technique, a person realizes how often what they do repetitively has a powerful cumulative effect. They also realize that in many cases, they do have other choices. With this information, perhaps they might be encouraged to look elsewhere for more choices before making a choice that cuts off other options.

How much do people really have a choice? In many cases, most adults are a product of their conditioning – their own habits, their environment and their cultural and parental training. As such, it is seldom that people really do have a choice. Alexander Technique gives first-hand experience of how much trouble it is to change and how significant prevention can be, so this encourages compassion for others and patience with oneself.

How often do people examine or realize their options? Choices people automatically make may have negative consequences over time or immediate risks at the time of choosing, but many feel it is the only thing they can do.

Alexander Technique recommends thinking ahead a bit about the effects of choices. It has some wisdom to offer concerning the cumulative effects of what you are going to allow yourself to repeat.

One of the secrets of A.T. is that a circumstance of pure repetition encourages the training a new habit. This habit may be handy and useful – or it may become a nuisance if it goes on too long or becomes too extreme. Of course, a person gets better at whatever they allow themselves to practice – so it pays off in many ways to notice what you are allowing yourself to repeat.

Hands-On, A.T. Style Described

“AT talk seems to not mention what happens when teachers use their hands on people but talks a lot about changing thinking by using thinking. What happens to the teacher and the pupil with the hand contact?”

The answer is – many things. Putting hands-on is a performance art of demonstrated, factual intention being carried into the action of motion on the part of both the teacher and student. The teacher job is using their own ability to actualize Alexander’s principles on themselves as they put their hands on the student.

What actually happens during hands-on are – many things. Most AT teachers continue to originate many, many strategies that work with different people to get their habits out of the way. If one way doesn’t work, they try another. So that is why the so many different styles of how to teach A.T. – and they all work because the principles are principles.

Generally, the greater a teacher’s personal understanding of their own ability to direct their own coordination using AT, the more effective the quality of direction that will come through their hands to their student.

You can prove this the next time you have an Alexander lesson – invite someone else along if you have private lessons. Have that person, not the teacher, put hands-on you like the teacher does and compare and describe the qualities of how it feels. You’ll immediately feel the difference; there will be pulling, heaviness – much physical confusion.

This is why it takes so long to learn to put hands-on with the objective of teaching AT – because a teacher must “walk their talk…” or in a sense, “walk their thought.” A teacher’s objective is to suspend their own ideas about what “should” be done with this student out of the way. This allows the direction to come through their hands, and allows the student to respond in any way they choose. It works much in the same way that an artist suspends “over-control” of their hands in order to allow the image they are looking at to come through their hands into a drawing or painting.

I’m not sure my description above would be appropriate to everyone who teaches A.T. but this is how I experience it myself. I know it does have at least some common agreement; but I’m sure not everyone will agree with my description because everyone comes from a unique micro-culture of implied and expressed meaning.

Why this works is a mystery. Please indulge me and allow me to speculate. Of course, this speculation is from my own experience as a teacher.

I do know that AT teachers often use their hands as merely a backstop so their student can sense the moment they pull themselves out of shape during a movement. Directing timing has much to do with the coaching that goes along with this use of the hands-on.

Actual directing that works from hand-contact: Perhaps the kind that actually making some sort of electrical contact with the students’ body, in a sense, substituting the thought messages as if the student could send lengthening thoughts on their own. That’s just my speculation of course.

Perhaps also hands-on has a sense of empathic ability or sympathy – the kind that encourages people to mirror body language. Just being around someone with much better use than you will encourage you to feel lighter.

Anyway – most AT teachers will not do this speculating, because it’s not very professional and highly subjective to each person who experiences it’s workings.  Most AT teachers never even ask the question “how.”  They are only concerned with that hands-on directing for students does work – to the extent the student’s ability to suspend their habits are able to take a break for a moment. The question of “how” is sort of a moot point, once you can do it as a teacher. You can demonstrate it, so that is “how.”

When you think about it – how does coaching or any teaching process work? Most people arrive at their technique empirically – when they do something that works, they keep doing it. When they try something that doesn’t work, they do something else.

Approaching Pervasive Habits

This article was written in response to a question posed on the Alexander Technique Email Discussion Group. Although the question is about piano playing, the issue it raises applies to just about any activity. In this answer, there are some useful suggestions for any student of the Alexander Technique who is working on their own.

I had a series of lessons on Alexander Technique some time ago. Lately I have consider progressing with Alexander and taking out my old books. I’m a piano student and I have noticed that as I play I raise my shoulders a lot or keep them raised all the time. This of course creates tension and eventually pain in the arm. In an effort of becoming aware of this, I realized that I do this all the time. I raise my shoulder when typing, when writing, when speaking at the phone, when eating, when walking, when walking, when reading. What does should raising mean in relation to the primary control and the head-neck unit? How does it is solved? Thanks, Davide

I’m going to offer some (hopefully useful) perspectives about some of the philosophical challenges present in stopping, avoiding or using substitution strategies in your unique situation of having noticed an all-pervasive mannerism.

First, it’s really a great observation that you did notice something so global about your manner of moving entirely on your own. The first thing to do is to realize how much of an achievement that is in itself!

It can be daunting to realize the extent that a habit such as this has crept into your life. Be encouraged that you can change it! Of course, this will definitely take some time. If it were possible to completely stop this habit now, it would take about three weeks before it would “go away.” Unfortunately, this isn’t possible without constant attention and someone or something to offer constant feedback. People seem to have a certain tolerance for experimentation that will be worthwhile to extend. I’m sure you are familiar with this challenge concerning the process of learning new tunes and piano techniques in relation to playing what you have already learned.

Since you have a habit that has crept in everywhere and has become a mannerism, what you may usefully do now is to note slight improvements that may be celebrated right away. Strangely enough, celebrating small successes as if you were a two year old, (such as “how many moments or minutes can I go without intentionally raising my shoulder?”) makes for faster progress than groaning in anguish every time you notice the targeted objectionable shrug. (Most handy for this is a sense of humor.) It’s all too tempting to demonize a habit!

Remember there are many ways for shoulders to be raised – and what we’re after (at least, by using A.T.) is to “free up” the ability of your shoulder to be raised in every way appropriate to a specific situation. You would want to avoid, sidestep or stop the raising of your shoulder in a PARTICULAR, HABITUAL way instead of moving your shoulders uniquely in response to any changing situation.

In fact, in a way it’s useful that you have a predictable, repeating habit. This is very handy because you will want to repeat it in order to make some observations about so you can use it as a starting point. In experimenting, scientists always establish a “control,” meaning, a ground zero. You might want to even write down and date observations to give you a chance to note how much you have changed as you proceed. Perhaps make a video of yourself in action for a starting point comparison?

Asking some questions with observations concerning relative location would be useful. This would be so you may answer with your observations such questions as: How far are you already going with this shoulder-raising? You might want to establish additional criteria of “how far” by measuring distance in relationship to some observable condition.

For instance, how far in relation to your nose as you turn your head to the side? How far would your elbow move if you raise your shoulder in relationship to your leg while sitting down? How are the wrinkles in the neckline of your clothes affected by a particular frozen shrug? Perhaps choosing time-sensitive effects that you could describe would also be useful. …As in how long does it take until your piano playing seems limited and how is this affected by possible experiments aimed toward improvement?

The more of these answers and questions you have to orient yourself, the more useful your evaluations and comparisons will be for you as you make changes designed toward improvement.

You seem to have already answered the question of “Do I need to raise my shoulders?” Obviously not, but maybe that’s an assumption that would be worth asking on a routine basis, even if you cannot answer the question now. Because for some good reason you put the habit in place long ago. As an Alexander teacher, I don’t believe people train routines for themselves without a reason. (It’s just that the need to repeat them can be short-sighted when they can’t be turned off…as in the Disney Sourcerer’s Apprentice cartoon.) It would be handy to know when that happened for you personally. So you could make a different choice at the source, that would be a short-cut bonus answer to your quandry that would pay off big to be able to trace.

Alexander teachers find that timing is an important relationship helps clarity of observation. The questions including “when” are a very useful ones – When do I raise my shoulders? Can I pay attention and observe myself about to raise my shoulder in response to what stimulus? When do I bring my shoulders down? When do I notice my shoulders are up? Can I notice that I have already raised my shoulders sooner?…and so on.

There is a secret in using whatever you have remembered learning in A.T. to improve things for you, and the secret is this: As you observe and describe yourself before you have changed anything about yourself by experimenting with A.T. – you will find your habit. Observing and describing yourself AFTER you have moved or experimented with a new direction using A.T. head/neck relationship or any other experiment – you may find out something new. Simple as that.

Let’s say your original goal is to improve your stamina as you play the piano. You have correctly assumed that a starting point concerning timing would be handy to establish. When does this habit start? When you raise your arm? When you walk over to the piano seat? When you think about playing the piano?

The tricky part about changing habits is often that a gradually escalating standard for success may put the bar higher each time, keeping up with your ability to improve. You seem to have discovered this paradoxical stumbling block. To stop this sneaky perfectionist tendency which can discourage, it’s important to establish and seek what exactly constitutes progress. For this you need observations – VERY specific observations about the nature of the “shoulder-raising.”

Contrary to what you have observed – (since raising your shoulder can be done more or less of a vengeance!) it is possible to work with an intention to lessen the intensity of raising your shoulder less (rather than more) at the piano by working it into your practice time – perhaps each time you put your hands on the keyboard or each time you move your hands to a new location on the keyboard. You could parse for frequency – how often you have the urge to raise your shoulder? Location is also a useful parse: How far you seem to want to raise your shoulders? Then you’d reward yourself for raising with less height and also, sensing yourself doing the raising of your shoulders less often. (Because if it’s the sort of habit you describe, the doing of it is buried within the rest of your piano-playing routines.)

Since you have observed that this shoulder-raising starts during walking and many other common activities, nipping the urge to shoulder-raise in the bud by experimenting with it as you begin to walk or use the phone, etc. would be a useful long-term strategy. Since you’re having a problem with this issue, you won’t know where your shoulders should be. So don’t “put them” somewhere, where you imagine they “should” go. It’s most constructive to just stop interfering with them so much – so often – so far. You’ll know you did that by allowing your shoulders to “feel a little weird” (but easier) by “un-sticking” them and letting them go where they want to go, without settling your shoulders in a certain location.

What I’ve outlined here are merely procedural tips that anyone may use that follow along the lines of some of the principles of Alexander Technique. Hope they’re useful to you and that you can come back to using them often.

Habits and How to Know What You Desire In Spite of Habit

Alexander Technique addresses the ways people come to notice the need for problem solving. It also has something to say about the ways people deliberately choose and design exactly how they might move to respond – as opposed to the actual content of these thoughts. Sometimes content is important, but only to the extent that some of our choices narrow and prevent other choices. Using a habit and holding certain assumptions may prevent us from perceiving other possibilities that may be more practical and useful to us.

The first thing on the list of Patrick MacDonald’s synopsis of his understanding of the Alexander Technique is learning about the force of habit, how it works to set up habits and how strong habits are in the face of new possibilities. Also implied in recognizing habit is recognizing when a discovery or insight arrives that is not consistent with established habitual ways. The ability to recognize when something new has happened allows us to note and use these new discoveries to our advantage. Part of the difficulty in doing this is that habits prevent new experiences from happening, and the use of habits dulls our innate sensititivy to sense that something new has happened. Use it or lose it!
It seems from this comment of MacDonald’s that humans are set up to see disadvantages first. The nature of a disadvantage is it shows us an objection that “sticks out” or emerges in a gestalt that “rises to the top” of our attention in similar ways that figure/ground relationships emerge in a visual field. In many cases, we only notice that something is wrong because we feel pain or stiffness.

In our Western culture, we tend to pick out the “important” activity or thing that is going on in a visual field rather than notice all the elements in the picture at once. We tend to favor the use of a searchlight instead of a wide beam field of attention. Our culture sells to us the value of immediately determining the goal and ignoring what does not fit the goal. Who gets to determine the goal is not so often questioned, so the question of “by who’s standards are we selecting for?” is more often already determined for us.

So the ability to match for similarities is more prevalent in our culture than the ability to compare and “scan” to reveal important factors that may be determining subtle differences. Desires would tend to disappear as a person accepts outside influences to be the most important ones. As you practice a habit, by selection the opposing activity will die off.  The ability to “scan” and compare is more useful when revealing subtle differences, internal desires, thoughts and ideas that do not fit the priorities of others. If you do not use this ability, it will die down because there is less and less of a need for using it.

This motive comes from how our culture values goal setting. Goal-setting drives an imperative need to install the skill of goal-setting so it can become innate and disappear into our ability to command it as soon as possible. Many people are satisfied after they have successfully installed their first answer to what they have determined the goal is. They do not go on to seek for the next step in learning until something else jumps forward to demand their attention. “Good enough for Rock and Roll” is their philosophy.

Part of the beauty of habits is that we are able to add additional next important steps onto it in a behavior chain. We are able to refine a habit to pick and choose which parts of it we want to retain and which parts do not serve us as we learn to tell crucial difference in quality. The disadvantage is that our standards can escalate as we learn. We cultivate perfectionism and get caught in the bind of not being able to live up to our own standards that go just beyond our own reach.

I have observed that this problem comes from putting our objections before our ability to make a move in a new direction. We use our observations, sense only our habits and become discouraged that nothing new can happen before we have gone anywhere or anything else. Our habits trap us and we do not know how to get free.

It is in our human nature to sense objections and desires that do not fit, and also in our nature to ignore what does not fit or match. Sometimes what “sticks out” needs to be addressed and could benefit from some adjustment, and sometimes it is to our benefit to note them and put them aside, and sometimes merely expressing them is satisfactory. The ability to put an objection aside and the power to choose to do something to accommodate an additional desire – or not – is one of the signs of maturity.

As anyone in a certain situation understands and can become aware of what sorts of characteristics exist to their advantage, it is possible to work within these advantages and have quite a bit of power and influence that will answer their desires. So it pays to know what your desires are as well as how to be patient enough to choose a suitable means to get what you want.

We are rarely taught how many possible ways there are to come to a decision concerning what to do about our personal concerns and desires. This ability to think for ourselves is not to the advantage of those who see the need to control us. Adults want kids to go along with the program of what adults want kids to do. The adult justification for this is kids need to obey because they need to be protected from the consequences about what to do. A kid’s objections, criticisms or urge to rebel against the status quo needs to be controlled for their own benefit and protection. Adults cite the need for this because kids often can’t see ahead to the eventual result of their bad choices, although many kids still retain the ability to sense what they want to do. It’s also within the nature of kids to have a built-in bullshit detector that determines how much adults are trying to protect them so they can go beyond those limits that are imposed by adults. However, by doing this, kids force adults to compensate for their lack of foresight so this is a virtual question that kids and adults are engaged in constantly as the kids mature. Often adults run into a blind spot in the gradual eduation of kids when kids reach the teen years; so this is why a strategy that worked for awhile no longer works indefinitely as circumstances change.

Noting My Style of Writing Down Ideas

Since I’ve been spending time with an eight year old lately, I’m beginning to think about how I would teach her age group Alexander Technique.

Since I’m writing my ideas that follow on the fly from here on out to get them down, I’m going to apologize in advance for the disconnected way these ideas may be presented. The first part of this is far and away my philosophy of why chose certain means to teach more flexible mannerisms of choosing to respond. My own innate way of organizing my thoughts for the purpose of communicating to others requires me to go back and compensate for the time of arrival of my ideas, even choosing which sentence follows the next sentence. My ideas innately usually do not follow a presentation sequence that makes sense to other people when these ideas first emerge, so this may be a little confusing to read. I will do some editing to group my ideas together, but it may not be enough. Please tell me your impressions.

Describing Relationships for Alexander Technique

Describing relationship is an honorable goal, because it is in relationship that AT shines. The structure of English is very tricky to maneuver to articulate relationships. I think misunderstandings come as we try to make a generalization specific as we explain. Getting English to describe relationships is not quite suitable to its natural structure in sequencial sentences. It’s also very tricky to use metaphor or map-like activities to explain AT concepts. In fact, it’s so tricky to use language in concert with AT to explain it at all, that for many, many decades, Alexander teachers did not use language at all! Somewhere in the eighties some teachers began to be able to talk about Alexander Technique… I believe this has mostly been a positive change. It’s an interesting question that since we ultimately agree once we work it out, why do we seem to disagree and misunderstand each other to start with? So it pays to observe there are some built in dead-ends in common usage English when it comes to describing relationships.

Briefly, I’ll give a couple of examples – very common ones of why language makes it tricky to describe A.T. concepts.

The first is the common use of oppposites as examples. In our culture, we have a number of assigned opposites that have been set up for this convenient purpose. However, these are not absolutely factual opposing characteristics, (because they can exist concurrently) these characteristics have merely been defined as opposites by our cultural association & habits.

There is a place for opposites which is in inhibition; as a person makes a particular choice, they may leave behind in the dust all other choices that they could have made. Choice can be done in a way that precludes and prevents all possible other choices.

There is a more process-oriented way of describing this choice-making; by articulating some of the opposing characteristics of how a person’s specific awareness can “stretch” to encompass two ends of the same system working together. In some ways, this is a much better usage of the idea of opposites, because it is much more likely that a choice will also include some of the “opposing” ends of the other possible choices mixed in it. We can be clear to which direction we are intending to go – and we will go there as time passes as we sustain our intentions to do so.

This of this not as exclusive of each other, where you pick one and not the other, but as the extreme ends of the same stick. Much of how MacDonald deplored the degraded usage of the word “concentration” which used to mean a focal point around which other characteristics clustered or supported as compared to the definition that blotted out all other possibilities and held up the one tunnel-visioned ideal.

Another instance, I’ve noticed that concerning relationships, such as those in AT, people often use an “if…then” structure to describe these characteristic relationships. I just did it in my explanation above, disguised as “as…may.” It’s very handy: the motive is the “if…” part sets up a circumstance where “…then” is the case to be saying something about. So, using language in this way, I’m “parting out” and creating a sort of fictitious opposition.

In this structure misunderstanding is likely. Because the “…if” example is often too radical or oppositional. Or the “…if” situation doesn’t have a subject, it is a passive situation that came about somewhat magically. So this is why I tend to shy away from the more literal “if…then” constructions when talking about relationships to illustrate AT concepts. I do this by softening and making more voilitional their construction by using the “as…may” example as a substitute.

Perhaps we are attempting to get a rather mechanistic language of English to describe relationships that are more like Quantum physics than the parts of Neutonian mechanics that has been the paragon of our culture?

An interesting book I’ve been reading on this subject has been: Leadership & the New Science: Learning about Organization from an Orderly Universe by Margaret J. Wheatley. 1992