Giving Up

It’s tricky to perceive what’s going on with thought and actions, because everything happens at once – and fast.

You have done it a million times. The most familiar way to suspend what you do not want is to do something else. Fire off another cue and change the channel. Time to go on to the next thing.  Once people get a cue, their urge to respond to it is very strong – hopefully strong enough to face down continuing to do the previous routine.  Brrrrring, the phone rings. Pooof! Stimulus for new behavior. A person can be SCREAMING; their phone rings and suddenly, this tiny, sweet, polite “Hello” voice comes out. They were trained by the bell to offer a new behavior. This is the mind’s superb recognition system in action.

People know that changing from one action to another works. The thinking strategy here is to install a new habit to take the place of the old one, and fire off the next trigger.

But – what happens when the previous state of mind gets in the way of the next? It acts like a problem with inertia – hard to start the ball rolling, and hard to stop it. The person picks up the phone call and they growl at the caller on the phone instead of being civilized. Even though the person on the phone doesn’t deserve it or they may take the insult personally, the previous mood or attitude of the person who answered runs over into the next activity. The poor caller is guilty by association of their bad timing.

This spill-over also happens quite innocently when training oneself to do a skill.  There is learning the intended skill… Also comes extra, unnecessary things done during the training process. These get accidentally get trained into the skill along with what is intended.

So, self-control would be handy, but too much control can be too heavy-handed. In the tiny moments most people witness themselves doing what they don’t want to do, they immediately change what they’re doing as a reaction to the witnessing. They want to “fix things” immediately – fix whatever is happening that they deem is “Wrong or Bad”.

Policing yourself is firing off the behavior of self-judgment. This is what most people call “to be inhibited.” The act of policing oneself irresistibly pops out as what is unwanted or don’t like is noted. Policing oneself works, but it stops everything indefinitely. The dam is held back until it bursts or pops off like the opening a soft drink that’s been shaken. The issue becomes a vicious circle.

I like tell another story about my own sweet mother – she could not get a photo of herself that really looked like her. Each time the camera came out, she would compose her face into an uncharacteristic expression to “get her picture taken.” Something about looking in the mirror would have the same effect. She would compose her face or her posture in a funny, uncharacteristic way. It was a sort of self-consciousness many people get today when they are filmed or during public speaking. One day I tricked her into thinking I wasn’t ready to snap her picture. Finally there was a photo of herself that she liked.

How to get past the vicious circle of assuming the only choice you have is to train and switch?

F.M. Alexander invented the idea. What he invented is a method of subtraction. Rather than adding a new behavior and firing that off to replace what it is you don’t want, merely subtract what is unnecessary.

This approach is particularly effective when one triggered behavior can’t stop the next – they run together. As in when the person who answers the phone punishes the caller by growling – who has no idea what is in progress.

So, now you’re wondering, how can the habitual routine be merely disengaged or stopped? It turns out, that a little unnoticed action of change can fly “under the radar” of the unwanted, coercive reaction. The trick is finding this something to detour the unwanted habitual reaction. It’s a design problem, finding this something. Alexander teachers specialize in being great observers to find such a thing for you. But you can do a bit of it yourself by being sneaky with your habits. Use a low-stress activity, one that makes little difference. Reassure the old habit that nothing terrible is happening. Then do the steps you imagine will get you where you want to go, bit by bit. As you unlock the skill of suspending a routine and as you practice this ability, that trickery can be used as a training tool for the ability to change routines during more important situations.

When you want to suspend a habitual routine, that’s the time to use all those nasty things you have been told that you must never do. You want to lie, cheat, fake it out, make it wait, slap it down, tickle it, distract it, etc. That’s the time to be devious. Your ability to rebel, veto, buck the system, subvert the dominant paradigm… this is what will work best on re-routing a conditioned set or routine. It’s very difficult to directly fight routines that have crystallized into habits once they get going. But you can tease them into submission by fooling them, lying to them, sneaking around them. It works best if you can catch them the moment before they go into action. The best time to do this is right before the routines get started.

The first practice of learning this skill is something most people can do. It is to refuse to do the act of self-judgment. Can you sense and witness yourself without changing or “trying to fix” what you usually do to fix the problem?

It is possible to both watch yourself do what you are doing AND also allow the event to occur anyway without your interference of self-judgment. With practice, it becomes even more possible. Perhaps it is so difficult to do such a thing because nobody has ever thought of asking people to do it. Asking in a way that worked. They ran into self-consciousness, which is a form of self-judgment, and they give up.

The funny part here is giving up is exactly what works. Giving up the self-judgment works.

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Recognizing Meaning

How would a person recognize for their own benefit a larger important change or fulfilment that may be taking place moment-by-moment? This skill seems to be related to the ability to select important points that is most commonly used in today’s culture as the ability to tell an interesting story. For instance, a movie will be made up of important scenes that drive the storytelling forward.

How would a person gain the skill of correcting for time of arrival for the important pieces of the puzzle that could be creating personal meanings? It’s curious how some people feel they must tell each and every detail of their experience exactly as it happened, while others seem to possess the ability to select for important points that stand out and make personal meaning universal, artistic and fascinating.

I’m interested in how and why this can happen. It’s probably in the brain, the way we’re wired or trained. Certainly the ability could be practiced and/or learned, as I have come to learn it myself. I used to be a blow-by-blow storyteller, and now I’m not – ah, so much. At least I think I’m not as long-winded as I used to be.

It seems to me that the moment-to-moment ability to recognize change isn’t very precise. People need more practice at self observation. In some people, their sensory ability only feels differences that are significant – and notable as determined by the person experiencing it. In others, the original sequence is paramount, and they seemingly can’t do it any other way.

Significance that is gradual, (change that happens over time) doesn’t seem to register very well on the sensory system. Alexander teachers prefer gradual progress because it tends to sneak underneath habits without making their routines trigger. Meaning or specialness seems to be determined by the relative sensitivity of the person experiencing it; also a factor seems to be how “jaded” a person has become to sensory information. So, in learning Alexander Technique, a student is asked to endure that which is boring, when the personal significance for the student is really adding up to something that is exciting!

F.M. Alexander used to call this phenomena of “jadedness” Debauchery – which to him described how the usage of a habit encourages a dulling and eventual shut down of sensory discriminatory ability. This word is now an old word that has fallen out of modern usage. It was used to describe someone who has lost all joy of life and has descended into bitterness, sarcasm and possibly, addiction. Modern researchers today term the same principle in the field of behaviorism “sensory adaptation.” Besides “jaded,” young people use terms such as “burn-out” to describe a similar state.

Perhaps the level of unreliability depends on how many habits someone has trained themselves to deal with that are suffering from burn-out. Opposing habitual directives seem to flood or shut down the whole sensory system. Of course, the more habitual and automatic the programs in place that have been trained over time, the less new sensory information is actually available to be sensed. This is why things become so boring and depressing. If frogs can die without noticing it’s just getting a little bit hotter in the eventually boiling pot – why should humans be that much different?

Notes on Teaching Kids

If I were presenting the principles of Alexander Technique to kids, I would start with basic thinking skills of revealing assumptions. I would teach what is an assumption as being a habit of a ground rule in games. I’d outline some basic thinking strategies as strategy in game play. I’d go through some common decision-making processes about the best ways to play a game. After I covered those, I’d go on to how to creatively generate ideas and apply them to problem solving of how to win a game.

As a template, I would probably use the work of Edward de Bono in his CORT thinking skills that he designed to teach children in Venezuela in the 1980s. The first situation that I would set up would be Edward de Bono’s basic thinking strategy of outlining the disadvantages, advantages and interesting ideas that do not fit as three basic sections to help explore a topic.In the case of the kids, I would use how to win at playing a game as the topic. Following the process of Alexander Technique, we would first have to play the game to experience what it would be like to be inside the situation. Then we could observe and think about how and why the winning strategies worked – and what these winning strategies were.

Making a list of this sort involves going through a process of brainstorming and “lateral thinking” activities – a term de Bono coined that has since made it into the dictionary. Lateral thinking would come under the heading of “interesting” ideas that do not fit the other two categories.

Most kids are already familiar with brainstorming, thankfully, even if they do not know what to do with the list of ideas. If not, I could show examples of what is brainstorming; I like to think of it as the ability to make a list to preserve every idea before we decide if we want to do anything about any one idea. So the first skill I’d be teaching would be making the ideas, so we can deliberately choose which idea to act on later from a list of possibilities. Separating the activities of noting ideas without deciding if they are good or bad judgment is teaching suspension – which is a major feature of Alexander Technique.

Many skills build on previous concepts. For instance, we can’t understand circumference until we experience what a circle is and how long it actually takes to go around a circle. Learning has the sound of a surprise, an “aha!” Things do not turn out as we expect when we make discoveries.
From my own observation, when they begin to establish what is criteria for themselves, people favor two major ways of sorting: people tend to match for similarities or people compare to reveal differences. As you direct your line of questioning in each of those two directions, each of these two strategies will give you wildly differing answers. Some of us seem to be wired to notice novelty and also we are motivated to retain the status quo; so each of these two abilities are useful to purposefully be able to use in their respective differing situations. In this teaching situation, we can sort the group of people into two sections depending on whether they think they are kids who like new, exciting experiences or kids who like things to be predictable, easy and comfortable.

It strikes me that playing “red light, green light” would be a fun way to learn these features. For those who do not know about this game; it is where one child stands a ways away from a line of children with their back to them, and the objective is to get close enough to tag the child who is “it.” This child can turn around to spot the line of people moving; they can send anyone who is moving when they turn around back to the starting line further away.

It is a way of getting kids to experience how there are two basic strategies someone can use to win that game. Of course, combining these two means works the best. The two strategies are is to inch forward so gradually that the person cannot see you moving to get closer and closer. The advantage to using this strategy is you can easily stop on a dime each time they turn around to look; because they are moving so much faster than you are, they never notice you are moving. The other is to make a mad dash when the person is not looking and tag them by getting into their blind spot, which is determined by which way they choose to turn around. After the experience of the game was played until these two strategies were revealed, then I would note the mystery advantage of suspending the urge to madly dash for the goal, noting that each strategy has advantages, disadvantages and points of unrelated features that make them curious or interesting.

Then I might ask the kids to make a list for themselves as homework over a few days, “What are the disadvantages of being a kid?” I would have them interview adults, I would have them observe their own reactions to how it feels to be who they are, and I’d have them act out and role play their objections to being kids in the classroom. Essentially, I would have the kids tell to someone else the secret of how they think is the best way to win the game.

It seems to be in our nature to sense disadvantages. To compete in a game structures a very clear priority. So, in some ways, we are wired to notice what does not match – in this case whether we are winning or losing. After we have a list of why it is a disadvantage to be a kid and what are the limitations of childhood compared to being an adult, this list will tell us what the advantages are, point by point. Advantages are much more difficult to reveal than disadvantages. Why is that so? The nature of an advantage is that it is almost as natural as a fish noticing it is in water, so it is tricky to notice what you take for granted.

My motive in asking this question of kids is that the guiding feature of what makes kids different from adults is adults get stiff and tend to resist learning new things; kids learn very fast and are flexible.

What do you do when you notice an assumption?

What do you do when you notice an assumption?

Part of the challenge is to notice what you usually do. An indicator of something that is “sticking out” that may eventually become some sort of problem is a signal. Usually when people notice this, it more often means they must “shore up” or “justify” the need for their conclusion or assumption, reinforcing the circle and reapplying their “remedies” that are really keeping the circular problem in place.

Because their focus is on the content as being more important, they cannot see the larger picture of how they are caught in a repeating pattern. They only experience that some part of the pattern is working in the ways they intend, when it is really an out-of-control pattern that MUST repeat whether the person wants it whenever the trigger is pressed for the habit to “go off.” I would say that there are “endorphin squirts” that occur in pressing the trigger originally, but often the experience of the squirting may not register any more because it, too has become habitual.

If you take away the need, I believe our systems “self correct”. You do not have to “do” anything but experience the lack of need, then just wait and watch yourself. What happens next will tell you quite a bit about everything you have been experiencing. If you just get the familiar justifications for your habits, just stop again and wait. Each time you stop, your senses will wake up a little more as you take the next layer of the habitual assumption off. It seems that people are naturally sensitive underneath layers of habits.
That’s why stopping yourself when you would have normally started talking is such an effective technique in a David Bohm style Dialogue group – or in any conversation. Listening will tell you more than talking, for obvious reasons. You merely interrrupt yourself right when you found a need to say something and watch what happens in yourself. As you question your motive of wanting to talk, there will be usually be feelings and needs underneath the assumptions that could be a surprise to you.

So if you don’t know what these feelings are or they don’t surface because they are the submerged part of the iceberg, you can find out what they are by stopping yourself from going into the habit repeatedly. My experience has told me that there is often more than one need/motive/justification. Sometimes these are tricky to uncover, because the remedy of the assumption is trying to cover it up by answering the need. So this is where your own persistence comes in. You put yourself in a situation where this issue comes up again and again, without getting discouraged – and you watch what happens in yourself each time you notice the old same reaction.

Be Specific

Many AT teachers find it’s important to carefully say what you mean when you are giving yourself any sort of directives. This is because you will do what you tell yourself to do. It also means that you can mistakenly tell yourself to do what you do not want to be doing!

I have heard that this phenomena comes from an ancient part of the reptilian brain that does not receive linguistic qualifiers. So if you state that you do not want to do this thing, your brain gets the image message of doing it, despite you qualifying your intentions by saying “do not.”

In that way, it’s very good advice to be positive, without any Polly-Anna or self delusion involved. If you state what you are about to do in the positive sense rather than saying it in the negative, you have a much better chance of fulfilling your objectives for many logical and empirical reasons. As you outline for yourself what you are doing, you are being specific about the steps involved, planning strategies and providing for damage control only if necessary.

If you tell people your positive motives for your actions, you’re more likely to get cooperation. When people don’t understand why you’re doing something mysterious to them, their small-minded negative suspicions are probably being justified by self-preservation.

I believe it’s an assumption of advanced educational debate techniques, art critics, news and dramatic presentations that objectivity must always be negatively critical to be valuable and valid. You will find that it is much easier to tear something apart by focusing on a derogatory feature than it is to create options and move out of personal limitations. By some people, going for positive, easy progress is defined by our culture as “trite” or “lucky,” depending on the subculture. I think this is because it is no surprise that you get whatever you practice. If you take it upon yourself to restate negatively defined objectives in the positive as I’ve recommended above, you’ll notice that just doing this much takes a certain deliberate creative ability that is sometimes tricky to muster up in the light of how you feel at the time. Intense emotions make it a challenge to be creative. Some people find it tricky to switch from editor to artist or inventor and back again.

Perhaps it would be useful to take away the value judgment elements from the assessment processing if you suspect there is something wrong with you? Leaving out the value of whether you “like” something or not that seems to be happening is useful because then you are not sorting or matching for preference, defining your criteria for success or defining your priorities (or self delusion) while you are making observations. Let the evaluation period be a different stage from the observation time. If you are making observations before you have made any changes, then it is likely all you will be able to observe is your habits and what you do not want. If you decide whether you “like” what happened after you have made a change or run an experiment for yourself, then you have more of a chance to have something new happen.

So rather than “good” and “bad” use, think about your desired criteria: which is exactly what brings about “easier” effortlessness. As you see “difficult” use around you (which is so much more common than “easy” use,) noticing people’s coordination of any sort can be a reminder to remember to use A.T. in gratitude. Such as, “wow, I can see how that person is so down, I’m so glad that I know how to move out of that example!” Then as you know enough to
recognize “easy” natural use, (rare as it is!) the elegance in that person’s use stands out like a spotlight is on them amidst a crowd of confusion.

Is there too much “Polly-Anna” in that strategy for you? How about: “Although I see difficult strain in many people, I guess I can’t shut the door on knowing better now that I’ve opened it, so I may as well move easier now myself.”

Noticing Assumptions

What do you do when you notice an assumption?

Part of the challenge is to notice what you usually do. An indicator of something that is “sticking out” that may eventually become some sort of problem is a signal. Usually when people notice this, it more often means they must “shore up” or “justify” the need for their conclusion or assumption, reinforcing the circle and reapplying their “remedies” that are really keeping the circular problem in place.

Because their focus is on the content as being more important, they cannot see the larger picture of how they are caught in a repeating pattern. They only experience that some part of the pattern is working in the ways they intend, when it is really an out-of-control pattern that MUST repeat whether the person wants it whenever the trigger is pressed for the habit to “go off.” I would say that there are “endorphin squirts” that occur in pressing the trigger originally, but often the experience of the squirting may not register any more because it, too has become habitual.

If you take away the need, I believe our systems “self correct”. You do not have to “do” anything but experience the lack of need, then just wait and watch yourself. What happens next will tell you quite a bit about everything you have been experiencing. If you just get the familiar justifications for your habits, just stop again and wait. Each time you stop, your senses will wake up a little more as you take the next layer of the habitual assumption off. It seems that people are naturally sensitive underneath layers of habits.


That’s why stopping yourself when you would have normally started talking is such an effective technique in Dialogue – or in any conversation. Listening will tell you more than talking, for obvious reasons. You merely interrrupt yourself right when you found a need to say something and watch what happens in yourself. You question your motive of wanting to talk, because there will be usually be feelings and needs underneath the assumptions.

So if you don’t know what these feelings are or they don’t surface because they are the submerged part of the iceberg, you can find out what they are by stopping yourself from going into the habit repeatedly. My experience has told me that there is often more than one need/motive/justification. Sometimes these are tricky to uncover, because the remedy of the assumption is trying to cover it up by answering the need. So this is where persistence comes in. You put yourself in a situation where this issue comes up again and again – and you watch what happens in yourself each time you notice the reaction. Watch without berating yourself, without getting upset, just watch and see how soon you can see the conditions that are really contributing to the habit staying in place.

More characteristics of how to notice assumptions – or more ‘techniques’ of what to do when you do notice these assumptions? Tammy here, who is an Alexander student of mine has a rare ability to update her assumptions.

Qualities of Attention

Part of what you are practicing with learning Alexander Technique is a new way of using your attention and thinking. If you remember back, it was a little overwhelming when you first learned to blow a now-favorite musical instrument or when you learned to drive a car. As you practice, new ways become much easier to sustain, no matter how strange it felt when you began.

write down your wishes and leave them hereMost people favor a certain way of using their attention and exaggerate it because it is the only attention style they know. There are many variations on applying attention. Perhaps now your attention works somewhat like a searchlight or field glasses – whatever you direct your attention to takes up all the capacity you have. If that were the case, a great deal of effort would be required to redirect this kind of all-absorbing attention. The same would be true of having a butterfly-like attention span of only a few moments. Your ability to appropriate the quality of your attention is stuck – no matter what the pattern it’s stuck in.

The brand of attention that the use of A.T. cultivates could be described as a widening of the field of what is going on at one time; a multi-tasking ability. You also learn to shift your attention lightly, easily and precisely. These are qualities that most people find unusual.

Secretly, there are also more effective and strategic moments for when to apply the process of A.T. rather than just generally whenever you can remember to do it. Some people find that a little thought to making what you’re doing easier is best applied before intending to act. Try experimenting as you start moving and during pauses as you continue doing the action. The preventive strategy behind this works because once a habit starts and assumes full control, it is more difficult to stop it. So the way you start what you are doing determines how you are able to continue doing it.