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Confessions of a Do-er

by Dr Nick Drengenberg

Copyright 2006 Nick Drengenberg, all rights reserved world-wide

Read other articles by Nick Drengenberg — Bearable Lightness of Being and Floating in a Sea of Tissue

This is an account of a transformation in my life over the past couple of years. An enormous transformation, in what has been a relatively short time. A transformation that had many contributing elements, and that allowed me to finally be rid of several issues that I’m sure others have also faced, in their own lives.

The main players in this account are my encounter with the Alexander Technique, and subsequently the LearningMethods work pioneered by David Gorman. What has been learned in this short time led to a vast expansion of my understanding of the workings of the body, but also of the nature of problems in any area and how they may be resolved.

In The Beginning

Like many people, for most of the adult years of my life I had taken several things for granted, as being just they way things are. These included: that it takes effort to do things, whether that be to stand, sit, walk, run, lift, push, pull, think etc.; that experiences in life could be grouped along a continuum running from ‘bad’ to ‘good’, and that part of our life mission is to maximise the good and eliminate or alleviate the bad; and that in general my life was something that I needed to be constantly steering in this or that direction, that things happened around me but the overall course of my life and all of the activities in it were mostly of my own making. Me and the world, with me either driving a path through it as best I could, or reacting to it when events overtook me.

So, again like many people, I was pretty happy with my lot, although there were certainly problems or experiences that I didn’t enjoy much, many of which were recurring but which seemed to be just the human lot — “everybody has problems”. And like the same many people, there was almost a sense of pride in acknowledging this; it seemed part of being an adult to accept that problems would occur, and that bearing them stoically or doing my best to fix them was the best anybody could expect.

Amongst the issues that fell into this category of things to grin and bear were: that I would have pains and tensions in my body when doing things, whether that be working at a desk or at a more vigorous activity, because obviously gravity and activity will take their toll; that I would feel stressed by some situations, and that I would therefore need to balance this with some deliberate relaxation; and that some of my more chronic issues like an ongoing battle with asthma and with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) were manageable, but these were ‘conditions’ and I shouldn’t expect them to follow the logic of anything else going on in my life.

For each of the issues in my life, I would carry out the standard responses of trying to eliminate them or at least lessen their impact on my other activities. Some examples relating to OCD and breathing might be useful here.

OCD and Breathing

For those unfamiliar with OCD, it’s essentially an anxiety disorder, which causes people to obsess about issues which to a non-sufferer appear as complete non-issues (like “did I turn off that light?”), and then to compulsively undertake a wide variety of rituals to try and drive the anxiety away. There are variants on this basic model, but that’s pretty much how the disorder operates. OCD sufferers can spend many hours every day ruminating over these non-issues, without ever resolving them, because in truth they are issues that cannot be resolved in the way that OCD causes them to be framed.

My own encounter with OCD, as an adult, was quite subtle. It didn’t manifest itself with the more famous OCD rituals like hand-washing (although there had been some of this when I was younger), but rather with a continual attempt to set a standard for any activity which was one of perfection. Every experience potentially got caught up in an endless rumination and associated increase of anxiety as to whether it was ‘right’. This could be hours of thinking about conversations I’d had with other people, trying to figure out if I’d said something offensive or silly, or enormous effort in trying to pin down THE correct approach to apply to this or that thing, be it a medical problem or some aspect of my work, and so on.

Steven Phillipson is a renowned psychologist with great success in treating OCD. I stumbled upon his work one day, and his approach seemed startling. Without being too detailed here (the work is easily found online), essentially he was saying that OCD was a battle between the rational self and emotions or feelings. And that the rational self was powerless against the condition, and in fact usually made it worse. His solution? To fully accept all of the emotions and feelings, in this case the feelings of anxiety associated with an activity, even if these feelings were crying out for some kind of response or reaction. This is extremely effective against OCD, and its relevance to what comes later in this paper should be obvious, later.

One part of my life that OCD got its hooks into was my breathing. Because breathing had been a bit of a focus already, through the odd bout of asthma over the years, once OCD got involved I could spend many hours every day trying to get my breathing ‘right’. It’s probably not surprising to anybody that I never got there, but it wasn’t through lack of trying! Diaphragmatic breathing, different types of breathing exercises advocated by anybody from yoga practitioners to pregnant mothers’ groups, etc.

And then one day, while scouring the Internet for yet more advice on breathing, I stumbled upon a short piece written by somebody calling themselves a “teacher of the Alexander Technique” (I’d never heard of it) who said there was only one way to breathe well, and that was to “just breathe”. To throw away all of the exercises, techniques and advice, and just breathe. I’m sure my first reaction of “duh — that’s what I’ve been trying to do” would have been shared by many, but something then clicked and it seemed immediately obvious that if breathing is an automatic function of the body, no technique could ever get it right. That in fact what I needed to do was just stop fiddling with my breathing, no matter how well-intentioned the fiddling was.

This is where the journey started to get really interesting.

Encounters with Alexander

This isn’t a paper designed to give people a comprehensive view of all aspects of the Alexander Technique. Information is not difficult to find, as I soon discovered. (Alexander was an Australian, so let me be chauvinistic for a moment and say wake up Australia and given him some posthumous recognition.)

I immersed myself in the key Alexander literature, and in different peoples’ accounts of their experiences with the work, for maybe 6 months. And I started to experiment on myself, using what I had learned. First this thing, then that thing, with many successes, some failures, and some successes which then seemed to lapse back into failures. But over time it became obvious that a profound change was occurring in me. I might now give a brief synopsis of what Alexander’s work is about, just to help the story a little at this point and to give some context to some of my experiments, which I’ll then describe. Again this is in no way a comprehensive history or even description of the Alexander Technique — there’s plenty of information out there, if you’re interested.

Alexander believed that each of us is what he called a “psycho-physical unity”, meaning that there is no real distinction between our minds and bodies. This is something plenty of other people had said previously as well, including Buddhists and some psychologists. That statement alone would therefore have meant little, but Alexander then discovered that quite extraordinary changes occurred in his body/mind if certain things were done with the way his head, neck and back interacted (particularly the head and neck). He found that this interaction was the ‘primary control’ of the functioning of our entire body/mind. He’d therefore stumbled upon a very practical, and in principle simple, way to restore ‘good use’ to our entire selves, rather than have our minds and bodies opposed and fighting each other (like me trying to get my breathing right).

Those who have experienced the Alexander Technique will know that the effects are both profound and very real. [How it can sometimes get lumped in with the more kooky ‘alternative therapies’ is a bit of a mystery, given that anybody can walk into an AT lesson and experience these effects, usually in a very short time.] There is an incredible sense of lightness, almost as if your body had been pumped full of helium, and all feeling of effort in your activity disappears completely. At the same time your mind becomes calm and you become immediately aware of a lot more things happening around you, so that space suddenly seems a huge, expansive thing. And your breathing becomes almost geologically deep and completely smooth and automatic, it feels as if gravity itself was now in charge of it, and what you’d called breathing up until that moment was nothing but insignificant fiddling.

There are various methodologies Alexander teachers use to bring about this good use. In fact the methodology is sometimes contested, within the Alexander tradition, but all tend to agree about good use when it’s achieved — it’s a bit hard not to know it’s happening, even if only to some extent. Most use a type of ‘hands-on’ work, where the pupil is guided in some way using the touch of the teacher’s hands. In any case, a few of my own Alexander experiments are described below. My description of them can’t convey the variations I tried for each, nor can I describe the full variety of experiments I used, but you can at least get a sense of what I was up to.

Muscle Tension

Like many people, I had experienced muscle tension in many of my activities. With my breathing, playing with it every day produced a tight, knotted feeling in the guts that many would know, and a day in the office made me ache in the back and shoulders, no matter how many ergonomic gizmos or stretching exercises were involved. And like most people, my response to all of this had been to try and “relax” these muscles, or to treat them in some way using massage, hot baths, stretches etc.

None of this had a lasting effect in the sense of these problems not recurring, because they were back to annoy me, every day. And why would it? Obviously bodies aren’t built to be doing these things, as I then thought. There was also often no connection between relaxing muscles in one part of me and in how the rest of me felt — I might get my stomach to stop feeling knotted, but the pain in the shoulders, neck or back was a separate pain, to be relaxed independently.

When I discovered Alexander’s experiments with the head, neck and back relationship, this gave me a new possibility for relieving my own muscle tension. What if I just concentrated on relaxing the head, neck and back muscles? This can take some time to learn how to do, because the muscles in the head and neck in particular are not always easy to perceive. But I got there eventually, and lo and behold once I could keep these muscles from tensing while doing things, my entire body was free from effort and tension. There was no need to focus separately on breathing, shoulders, stomach — they all “fell into line” dutifully the moment the tension was removed from my head and neck region. And my head felt more free, less held to the rest of me, and it seemed to just float upwards on its own, with my body following — I didn’t need to be ‘held’ up.

Not to lose track of Alexander’s psycho-physical unity, there are varying degrees of mental tension as well, which you can just as easily monitor and release by control of the head, neck and back region. For example, repetitive or obsessive thoughts are ‘tense’ thoughts, because they’re attempting to solve some issue or focus on some thing with a redundancy that is equivalent to the physical straining which produces muscle tension. I noticed that such thoughts produced noticeable muscle tension, often in the forehead, and by releasing this tension the thoughts lost their power and went away. Such repetitive or obsessive thoughts, I noticed at this stage already, directly produced an overall coordination of my body that was tight and not smooth.

I was very excited at this time, as you might imagine. But…

Taking it to the Streets

There was a but. Namely that the lovely absence of tension was at last achievable, all over, all at once. But only in a fairly circumscribed way, namely when I had awareness of the tension in the key head and neck area, while involved in some activity. When I lost awareness of that area, typically the tension would return. I’d lost the awareness of whether I was straining or tensing there, and thus inevitably these things occurred and the muscle tensions throughout the body came back. Also, even when I could keep the tension there in my moment of awareness, while doing other things, it was in itself a restriction on my activity, because instead of being able to be fully engaged in what I was doing, there was always a need to be ‘checking’ or feeling out that the tension wasn’t there.

So I had a problem. I could get rid of tension in certain fairly restricted conditions, but I was spending a lot of my day monitoring all of this, to the detriment of my real engagement in the other things I was doing. This monitoring also, and inevitably, fired up the OCD again, and became another of my rituals: am I tense there now? What about now? Yes, oh wait, no…yes, there it is, good now…”.

Awareness

The word awareness came up a few times in the previous section. One of Alexander’s own pupils, Frank Pierce-Jones, wrote brilliantly about the nature of awareness, and this was my next Alexandrian port of call. Awareness, in Pierce-Jones’ description of it, is the ability to have more than one aspect of any moment in your experience, in that moment. For example, you can be reading a book, closely focused on the words on the page, but you can also be reading while simultaneously noticing the temperature of the room, or a smell, or the feel of the pages under your hands. Note that this is not the same as having your attention alternating between these things — they need to be in the same moment of experience.

Most important for Pierce-Jones was the idea that you should have an element of your body (including the vital region around the head) in any moment of experience together with the activity you’re involved with, outside your body. So if you were writing you could be observing both the words and feeling of the pen in your hand, at the same moment. Or if you were seeing, you could be aware of what it was you were seeing but also of your actual eyes, at the same moment.

This was a quite new experiment. No playing about with tensions at all, simply broadening my awareness while doing things. My first and favourite was to simply allow myself to feel the Earth under my feet, while I was doing other things, even sitting, or breathing — whatever. This produced a great release in the Alexander way, and was simple and physical, so didn’t degenerate into endless thoughts like “is there tension? Is it there now? How about when I do this?” I just needed to keep that persistent contact there, in my awareness. Great also for computer or office work, where the pressure feeling of your bum on the chair serves equally as well.

Was there a but here? There was a butt here, on the chair, but had I now hit upon the magic technique to surpass all other techniques? Alas. It’s probably clear to most people reading this that here again is a fairly restricted and artificial state of affairs. Were we put on this Earth to mingle all of our great joys and sorrows with some sort of awareness of what our bum and feet are doing, at each moment? It seems unlikely. This approach was still tied up with the whole domain of technique. Should we need techniques to live the fullest possible life? How can we ever be fully engaged with what we’re doing if technique needs to be part of that experience as well?

I shouldn’t give the idea that a failed experiment returned me to the drawing board, to ‘start again’ each time. Each experiment was a progression of sorts, and what I learned stayed with me through the next experiment as well. And I had already lost or at least drastically alleviated most of the problems I’d been dealing with for years at this stage, such as persistent OCD, clunky breathing and muscle tension. All of the wonderful things students of Alexander work experience, such as effortless movement and sitting, calm mind, expansive awareness — these were all mine to turn on and off at will. To this day I can still play with all of these techniques, and experience the same things again. And there are even times, for example when I’m very tired, when these are lovely little ‘tricks’ I’ll drag out to make some pain or tension go away.

But something was still missing. I wanted to truly live that lovely ease, rather than always need to produce it by doing something. It also seemed that there was something going on here that went beyond the body, that there was something about the nature of the world itself which was trying to be told. And then along came David Gorman.

The Rounder We Go…

You might remember me describing the approach of Dr Steven Phillipson in the treatment of OCD, where sufferers are told to accept fully their feelings of anxiety, despite the fact that every fibre of their being will be screaming at them to do something to alleviate the pain. This is the part of the story where my pre-Alexander world was going to collide with where I’d now arrived.

I stumbled upon a long and sometimes heated discussion in the Alexander Technique discussion group between David Gorman and others, about a paper he’d submitted for feedback. David was a very experienced and respected teacher of the Alexander Technique, and yet was challenging some of its core tenets. [The details of this debate aren’t for this paper, but can easily be found on David’s website at www.learningmethods.com/debate/]

I was intrigued by the details of the discussion, and felt a little threatened by it as well, having now found (I thought) a pathway to a better life via Alexander’s work, which I didn’t like being threatened by any sort of suggestion that something was amiss. As it turns out, it wasn’t a throwing the baby out with the bathwater affair, although some might feel it to be this, to this day. To my mind that would be everyone’s loss. But again the details of the discussion are best explored in the actual paper, on David’s site.

My curiosity then led me to read the other papers on David’s site, detailing where Alexander work had led him, into a new area he calls LearningMethods (one word), or LM for short. One paper in particular started ringing my OCD bells, a classic text called “The Rounder We Go, The Stucker We Get”. In this paper David makes the following statements, the effects of which have never left me:

“The moment I truly accept what is going on for itself and its own sake is the moment I truly give up to it. I am no longer struggling and straining to get to a 'better' moment. There is no longer a split in me with one part of me that feels another part of me as wrong and therefore not OK to be in the moment. There is no longer that one part of me trying to change that other part to what I think it should be (as if that were possible)… To make the choice to be in the actual moment I am in is also the moment that I give up imposing my deluded version of what should be happening and leave myself open for something new.”

This was so similar to what Steven Phillipson was saying about OCD, an approach that simply accepted your experience for what it was. But this seemed broader, it wasn’t just about anxiety, it was about using this approach in all aspects of a life. And the paper explained why this approach worked so well, going well beyond the brain theory which is used to explain why anxiety acceptance is effective against OCD. Most importantly, it showed that this acceptance not only made symptoms we don’t like go away, but that this acceptance then automatically opened us out into that lovely state of ease and awareness which Alexander had been working towards. The symptoms weren’t problems, they were the solutions, sitting there all along waiting to do their work, but which we tended to push away, or to try and fix.

Here was something that felt very new. Up until this point I like everybody else had problems, be they ‘mental’ or ‘physical’, and I’d tried to find a way to alleviate or get rid of them, or just bear them. Even when I was working with awareness, the underlying motivation was to do something which would give me a better experience. But here was an approach that said why try to exclude any aspect of your experience? Why are some feelings right and some feelings wrong? Why do you need to try and fix anything, and more importantly why think that you have this power over something as all-encompassing as experience?

The vanity of what I’d been trying to do really struck me at this point. Me against the world, me judging and controlling experience. What a notion. And how did I know that these experiences didn’t have a meaning I was completely ignoring?

In case the way I’ve described this new insight seems a little New Age, as a sort of hymn to “love and accept all”, it’s important to point out that this is an intensely practical approach. Repeating any sort of mantra such as “accept everything” or “don’t react to what happens” will probably get you noticed or even locked up as some hippie throwback, but it won’t in itself have much effect on the quality of your experience. There will be plenty of people also who feel that this is what they do already, surely? More on that response at the end of this paper.

So it was time for new experiments. Whenever I was doing something, anything, and something appeared in my experience that I didn’t like, be it a muscle tension, blocked nose, or even a nagging thought that something was amiss, I decided to not let it interrupt my activity, to not try and fix this thing that had appeared that I didn’t like, and to not push it away but to let it be a full flavouring of that activity, as it were. This took a bit of practice, because as anybody who has tried this knows, there are two traps for the unwary:
    1) you find yourself pushing the thing you don’t like away to get on with what you were doing; and/or
    2) you remove your attention from what you’re doing, even if only subtly, to focus on the feeling.

In other words, it can be difficult at first to have the activity and the feeling as an undivided single experience. To make the feeling the feeling OF that activity, not to make it activity plus feeling, as two separate things. But after my practice with awareness of having more than one thing in a simultaneous moment of my life, this soon became do-able, and the result was everything David described — that full, expansive awareness that the Alexander methods also tapped into.

This was closer to that ideal end of just having this natural and expansive ease and awareness in my experience, all the time, without having to “think about it” in any way or to “do” anything. All that was needed was just to accept my experience as it came to me, warts and all. Not easy by any means, at least at first, because our deepest instincts are to react to what feels bad or not right. And to feel that we need to be controlling things, whether that be our posture or movement or thought or whatever else. This seemed to finally be the answer, to just accept everything that was happening. Hard not to react to those ‘bad’ feelings, but with a bit of practice…

Still Do-ing

Stepping back for a moment, there’s a common theme to everything that had happened up to this point. And the theme was still there, working away as it always had. It could be summarised as:

Feel bad or wrong SO find something to do to make it better.

Whether that do-ing was feeling the pressure of my feet on the floor or my bum on the seat, or working on my awareness or even just accepting everything that happens. I was always looking for some thing, some technique, which when used would ‘fix’ things, for good. I was a chronic do-er!

On the face of it the last place I’d arrived at, as described above, where it was all just going to be a matter of accepting that happened to me, was different because it carried the suggestion that there was nothing that needed doing. But the sting in the tail was this — yes it works to accept the bad aspects of your experience, in terms of getting you to a more open and expansive ‘nice’ feeling, but why were these bad feelings occurring? I’d found a way to deal with the symptoms of what was happening, but I hadn’t fully understood or learned why the symptoms were there in the first place. What was going on when these symptoms occurred? (This is in fact the sort of question LearningMethods will ask you, and David’s work quoted above was in fact from a time when he was making the transition from Alexander to LM work.)

I understood by this time that they occurred when I had become disengaged from whatever I was then doing. Disengagement took many forms, for example:
    • thinking about one thing while trying to do another;
    • doing physical activity with my attention only on the end of that activity,
       rather than on its details; and
    • trying to ‘figure out’ how to do something in my head, while I was in the act of doing it.

To return for a moment to Alexander’s psycho-physical unity, what was happening in my body at any time was inextricably linked to what my “I’ was doing. When my I was simply letting the details of any activity be what they were, without any trying, reaching, grasping or figuring out, then I had that lovely ease, or better I didn’t have any feelings at all in the usual sense of that term — the activity was all that was in my experience at that moment, there was no “me doing an activity” — just the activity. It was only when my I was one of setting myself apart from the details of what was actually happening (and this could be in extremely subtle ways) that the symptoms would occur. This is so obvious when you think about it; if we are psycho-physical unities, it means that there is never a need to fiddle or do anything to coordinate our bodies, because that happens all by itself. How a person’s body behaves is how their mind is working at that moment in time, because there is no mind separate from their body.

This seemed like coming full circle in a way — it couldn’t be as simple as just doing the activity! I’d been on a search for how to do these things properly, had experienced great highs and excitement as bad feelings turned into amazingly good feelings, and after all of that the answer was that simple?

“That’s What I’m Already Doing!”

To return to my earlier mention of a fairly common response people will give you when you try to explain that it’s all as simple as simply being fully engaged in what you’re doing. Many will be absolutely convinced that this is what they already do. And yet scratch the surface and there’s a do-ing there, even if this is the extremely subtle do-ing of maintaining some sort of distance or detachment from the moment (usually what’s termed “thinking”). You will have experienced this yourself — how often when talking to a person or eating something, or whatever else, has your ‘mind drifted’, even only in a minor way, to something else? Whether it be to focus on an itch, to think about where you car keys are, to think about what the other person is saying, or to dwell in a particular memory etc.? How often have you washed the dishes while thinking about the day that’s just gone or the day to come, or while talking to somebody, ignoring most of the actual details of the dishes in your hands? Or rushed up out of a chair thinking only about where you’re going, ignoring every detail between sitting and walking away?

(There’s a very strong feeling people can have that life must be something more than what happens in it. That there must be something ‘behind’ the details that explains it. Like the man who said to me that he couldn’t just sit in a chair and take in what was happening around him, because it was “too boring.” We can be so used to cultivating this artificial detachment from actual detail, that we come to feel this detachment as our simplest state. However complete immersion in detail is the most delicious thing that can happen in a life.)

Ironically people learning something like the Alexander Technique can suffer the most in this regard. So convinced (and often assured) that there’s a something they need to get right to achieve ‘good use’, such as to let their head do this or that thing, they can often end up not far short of full OCD in their obsessive attempts. It’s vital to remember that the body coordinates itself. Our ‘bad habits’ are merely the expression of a disengagement from our experience. Any sort of fiddling, or even ingenious attempt not to fiddle, with the body/mind, is doomed to fail in giving you a fully engaged experience. The action is in your activity — being fully engaged there takes care of your body/mind, and this is how it should be; surely the most obvious end-point to be reached here is active and full engagement in a life?

This is a profound shift in the way you can come to view things. The focus of your entire life shifts from inside your head and body and out into the world. You learn how to make more and more of what you do a response (rather than reaction) to what’s happening around you; the locus of your activity is where it should be, in your activity! The great existential feeling of a solitary soul staring out at an alien world is replaced by a sublime immersion in the world’s details, no matter how insignificant they may have once seemed. Everything comes alive, the world seems to be a vibrant and constantly changing and fascinating thing, and just being in it is all you want and need, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

From here you can move into much wider areas of a life than the traditional physical problems like muscle tension — in fact you have an approach which allows just about any human problem to be understood in a very new way. And beyond that you have an inkling about the way the wider world and universe works, the wonders that might appear if you’re prepared to allow them by relaxing your attempts at control. This is in fact where David Gorman’s Learning Methods work has gone, and the testimony of those who encounter it is more than enough evidence of the seemingly miraculous changes that are wrought in their lives, by nothing more than their own learning.

~~~~~~~

There is a small biography of personal details about the author below.

Read other articles by Nick Drengenberg — Bearable Lightness of Being and Floating in a Sea of Tissue

Copies of many of these articles are available as downloadable e-books from
LEARNINGMETHODS PUBLICATIONS

Read more articles on the work by Eillen Sellam, David Gorman and others
Return to the LearningMethods home page

  
About the Author

Nick Drengenberg trained and worked as an engineer, before working as a teacher of high school students for almost 10 years. During this time he also trained in philosophy, and now works as an administrator at a University. He has three young children, and gets most enjoyment in finding the extraordinary in the ordinary details of life.


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