Confessions of a Do-er
by Dr Nick Drengenberg
Copyright © 2006 Nick Drengenberg, all rights reserved world-wide
Other articles by Nick Drengenberg — Floating in a Sea of Tissue
| Bearable Lightness of Being | I Wouldn't Start From Here
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
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,
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
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.
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
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…
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
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
Other articles by Nick Drengenberg — Floating in a Sea of Tissue
| Bearable Lightness of Being | I Wouldn't Start From Here
Copies of many of these articles are available as
downloadable e-books from
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, with active research
interests in a variety of areas, including the
LearningMethods approach. He recently co-authored a
book on learning analytics, which explored how technology and education have not really ever understood each other very well, and what to do about it.