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On Belief Systems and Learning
A debate from the Alextech e-mail discussion group on the validity
of the premises of the Alexander Technique
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All contributions are copyright by their authors. Note that the e-mail addresses of the
participants were valid at the time of the debate but may not be valid any longer.
— The article by David Gorman which sparked the debate
1. David Gorman — On Belief Systems and Learning — June 25/98
Date 25 June 1998, 6:48pm
From: David Gorman firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: On Belief Systems and Learning
June 24, 1998
To all on the Alextech forum,
Here at long last is my go at explaining what I have discovered. I have recently been in the middle
of writing a lot around the same territory so this will be a sort of ‘dry run’ for publishing.
Forgive me, but it has taken me a while and it has become a ‘wee bit’ longer than I first
expected, but it takes what it takes, I guess.
I am sending this piece in three parts so as to not overwhelm anyone’s e-mail software. Mine just
chops messages it thinks are too long...
I have been very encouraged by the attitude of all the various responses from members of this list
interested in hearing more. Some of the responses I received, I gather, were sent to me privately.
To find a group here (or at least a number of individuals) who are eager and interested in exploring
any and all ideas openly is a decided treat. I am grateful for your interest and encouragement AND I
welcome any and all responses, criticisms, refutations, suggestions, etc.
David, in the sunny south of France
ON BELIEF SYSTEMS AND LEARNING
copyright 1998, David Gorman, all rights reserved worldwide
[the original posting had a mistake saying "copyright 1988"]
David Langstroth wrote on June 22nd:
"The important point for this forum is that the Alexander Technique, like most practical
bodies of knowledge, is BASED ON the assumption of the existence of objective reality. It is only
WITHIN this assumption that you can speak meaningfully about the technique." [capitals are
This is certainly true. As he says, if we didn’t assume there actually was some sort of reality
outside of our interpretations, there wouldn’t be much point in talking of anything.
It is not so much this fundamental assumption but rather our assumptions of the particular ‘objective
reality’ and premises of the Alexander Technique that my experiences eventually have brought me to
question. Though in the end, these new experiences and my understanding of them brought me to a very
different sense of what that outside reality might be.
I’ll tell the story as much as possible from the chronology of my own realizations, because that is
the way it happened and for someone else to follow the same pathway is often the best way to get to
the same place.
Let me start with a very brief outline of the general assumptions and premises of the Alexander
Technique. Note that I am not trying to be exact here but just to give a general flavour of the
Technique to make sense out of what follows. Of course, the
Alexander Technique has many strands, but near as I can tell, having got around in these different
strands quite a bit over the last 25 years, the common basic ideas behind the Technique go something
like this (substitute your own details to suit yourself):
People go around in their daily lives and do all their activities within their usual habits or ‘manner
of use’. They go to do an activity like stand up from a chair (or recite Shakespeare) and, in doing
so, they habitually pull their heads back and shorten their backs (or some other such habit). They don’t
know that they are doing this because it is an ‘unconscious habit’ that has come to feel ‘instinctively
right’, but Alexander teachers, can show them with their hands or with a mirror that they are, in
fact, doing these things. These kinds of unconscious habits are called ‘misuses of the self’ and
these misuses ‘affect functioning’, sometimes quite soon (e.g. cause neck tension, effort),
sometimes after a period of consistent ‘misuse’ (e.g. hoarse voice, lower back or disk problems,
etc.). They also bring about a general tendency to poor health in indirect ways.
Part of the job of teachers is to help the pupil become aware of these ‘misuses’ (these
unconscious habits) so that they can inhibit them and direct (or re-direct if you like) to allow the
neck to free, to allow the head to go forward and up and the back to lengthen and widen (or some
similarly expansive directions).
It was particularly around the part about having these unconscious habits where we are doing things
like pulling our heads back and shortening but do not know that we are doing them that I first began
I was working one day (many years ago) with a young man and going about things more or less in the
way described above. He had just stood up from the chair and (from my ‘trained’ point of view) had
pulled his head way back like so many do. I said to him, "Were you aware that you pulled your
head back when you stood up?"
He looked at me and said very definitely, "No, I didn’t!"
"Let’s stand up again and I can show you in the mirror that you did," I replied
"Oh, I’m sure that it happened," he said, equally definitely, "But, I didn’t do
It suddenly struck me that what he had said was completely true. It was obvious that his head came
back (something he wasn’t disputing in this case), but, of course, HE DID NOT DO IT in the sense of
saying to himself, "Hmm, now I’m going to pull my head back to stand up."
Equally obvious to me was that normally I would get busy showing him the ‘fact’ of his head
coming back as he stood and then further convincing him that he was actually doing it, but as an
unconscious habit or misuse which was why he didn’t know that he was doing it. Then we’d get
further involved in helping him to inhibit this ‘unconscious habit’ in order to prevent it and so
on... And of course we’d do this because I already KNEW through my training and teaching experience
that this is what was happening.
All well and good so far. But what also suddenly struck me in that same moment was that, if he, the
person, WAS NOT pulling his head back, WHAT WAS HE ACTUALLY UP TO in those moments when his head was
At the same time, I realized that BECAUSE we’d normally both get busy with making conscious the ‘unconscious
habit’ and then inhibiting and directing (with me guiding his movements and ‘giving’ him new
experiences, etc.), neither of us would normally EVER FIND OUT what he was doing. In fact, because I
ALREADY KNEW what was happening, I normally wouldn’t even think to ask the question...
However, the question HAD NOW occurred to me and I was determined to find out just what were people
up to when these events we call ‘misuses’ where occurring? That is, what they were up to in their
‘world’ (how they saw things from their point of view) while I (in my ‘trained’ world) was
seeing their ‘misuses’ and ‘unconscious habits’.
It was a quite exciting prospect--a "whole new field of endeavour" I thought. I also
thought it might take me a while to tease out what was happening to/for people, but it turned out to
be a lot easier and faster than I thought.
I decided to take the most direct route I could think of which was to simply stop people in the
middle of any activity when those ‘misuses’ (heads pulling back, backs shortening, etc.) were most
noticeably happening, and then immediately ask them where they were in their attention, what were they
thinking, feeling, intending, etc.
I also realized quickly that I would need to carry out this experiment only with quite new pupils if
I was going to find out what they were up to in their ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ habits, because
once they’d had a few lessons, what they were up to (at least in the lesson situation) was what
their teacher(s) had taught them to be up to.
Initially, I was using those common Alexander activities of standing and sitting from chairs and
bending, but later on things got even more interesting when I explored with people what they were up
to in activities where they themselves noticed they had problems--playing their violin, caught in an
argument with their partners, and so on. But it will make more sense to stay with the order in which
it came to me.
As we began to explore, it took a while for each person to understand what I was asking of them in
those moments when I stopped them. They were so used to just doing what they were doing, and thinking
and feeling what they were thinking and feeling, that they just took it for granted and had never
thought to articulate it. However, they soon got the hang of it and within the first few weeks of
exploring, certain patterns were starting to emerge.
The first I noticed was in standing when I’d stop people at that point just when they were about to
‘lift off’ the chair and their ‘thigh-tightening’, ‘head-pulling-back’ and ‘backarching/shortening’
was usually at its most prominent. The most common thing people reported when asked where they were
and what they were up to, was that they were way out ahead of themselves with their awareness on where
they were trying to get to.
The same sort of thing happened when they sat down. Almost as soon as they started to sit, they’d
be already on the chair in their attention--where they were ‘present’. It also happened when they
were standing and went to pick up a pen from the floor. When I saw them, from my point of view, ‘pull
their heads way back’, ‘stiffen their legs’ and ‘bend in their lower backs’, they were
reporting that ‘they’ were way out with the pen and their hand and their intention "to reach
Ah, I thought. Of course! This was familiar. They were out ahead of themselves. They were
end-gaining. I sort-of already knew that (as some of you may now be saying, "of course, that’s
obvious"). They were way out ahead, closer to their intended future goal than where they were in
space at the moment. In my teaching, I’d just never seen it that way, from their point of view, even
though I, myself, had had the same habits and experiences as a student not so many years before.
So far this was all, for me, still quite within the context of the Alexander premises. I was just
seeing (I thought at the time) more clearly how the pupil’s conception and end-gaining brought about
the misuses of his or her self (the head pulling back, etc.).
But then I realized why people with these habits were not aware of their heads pulling back and such
like. They weren’t at all aware of what was happening in their ‘body’ because they weren’t
there! They were way out ahead paying attention to something else--namely, where they were trying to
No wonder all these ‘misuses’ went unnoticed... What the actual conscious, feeling, thinking
human being was doing was "reaching out to get up", or "going down to the chair."
Their own words said it all. It just so happened that when the human went about things that way, the
result was all these physical reactions which they were not specifically aware of (though, of course,
they did feel them in a general way as the effort and strain of standing).
Now I really understood what my pupil had meant when he said that HE wasn’t pulling his head back.
He was absolutely right. What he WAS doing, though, was rushing out ahead of himself to get
up-something he’d always figured he had to do in order to get up, and something he always
experienced the same way thereby reinforcing his sense that he had to do it.
This got me thinking. Which was ‘primary’: the ‘unconscious habits’ of misuse that I was
seeing from the outside, or the beliefs and the particular intentions and acts of the human being on
the inside who was doing the standing? By primary, I mean, was one more the cause and the other more
the secondary effect? Or maybe they were simultaneous? Which did it make most sense to work with?
Obviously the more primary one, whichever that was. Certainly, how I was trained and how I had been
working up to that point was to ignore what the human beings WERE ACTUALLY UP TO and instead get them
to inhibit something that they, the conscious human beings, WERE NOT ACTUALLY UP TO.
So, with this question in mind I carried on and decided to see how closely the onset of these ‘misuses’
(which were ‘objectively’ seen by me) correlated with people’s inner experience and way of going
about things. Specifically, I wondered what the person was up to at the very start of the ‘misuse’
pattern as detected by me--in other words which was first and therefore primary.
So, for a while, we spent time tracking backward the events until it was clear that the very moment
that pupils took their attention out ahead and began to stand or sit was the exact moment I could see
(or feel with my hands) the slightest beginning of the ‘misuses’. The moment before they started
to stand, their ‘use’ was relatively fine. But the moment they ‘decided’ to go to standing and
rushed out ahead of themselves, all these characteristic ‘misuses’ manifested, seemingly at the
I wasn’t much closer to seeing directly what caused what, until I realized (again) that it was
clear at the moment of the beginning of the pattern, that the human beings were deciding to stand and
reach out as they thought they had to. The human beings were NOT deciding to pull their heads back.
Suddenly, the possibility of a whole new range of experiments appeared. The people I was working with
were now becoming much more conscious of their rushing out ahead and aware of exactly the moment when
they started to do it. Thus it occurred to me that rather than have them inhibit the ‘pulling back
of their heads’ which ‘they’ weren’t ‘doing’ anyway, I’d get them to inhibit the ‘getting
ahead of themselves’, which they actually were doing.
It took a little while to accomplish that, because they were so deeply convinced that they couldn’t
get up without doing what they normally did, but after a few attempts most people were more or less
able to just ‘stay with themselves’ the whole way. That is, to come to standing being where they
were at each moment, feeling whatever they felt, thinking what they thought and allowing themselves to
remain aware of their goal but not to rush out beyond their own experience of the moment in any way,
nor in any way to try to change anything.
When they more or less managed this they all reported that the movement was so much easier than
normal. There was no particular strain or effort and they were so much more aware and ‘present’
all the way. Many said it was like they weren’t really ‘doing’ anything, even though they did
achieve their goal.
I was amazed, because from my point of view, those ‘habitual unconscious misuses’ had more or
less disappeared all by themselves! I had not done any guiding with my hands or verbal ‘directions’.
The pupil had not released or directed or made any change at all in their ‘use’. All I had done
was to keep coaching them to stay in the moment with where they were as they allowed themselves to
stand and that was the only change they had made from their normal rushing.
When we played with the same process in bending to pick something up, the same thing happened. Just
by getting them to refrain from their normal tendency to get out ahead of themselves and narrow to the
pen, they went instead into a flowing movement with the most enviable ‘monkey’ and obviously
supported balance. Again they reported much less sense of effort and so much more presentness and
wholeness. And no one had been taking care of any of those details at all!
What was happening in front of me in their physical co-ordination and functioning--what I had been
used to calling their ‘use of the self’--was just happening all by itself when the pupil stopped
doing what they had actually been doing.
As a process, it was very easy to help them catch what they were actually doing because they WERE
actually doing it. When they could choose not to do that (which meant making a choice against their
reinforced belief system), their whole system functioned differently without anyone having to direct
it. And I do mean their whole system. Not just a free neck or a sense of more free hips or better
breathing, but a whole person was present.
In fact, most people didn’t even report changes in specific parts at all, just that ‘they’ were
more there, feeling more easy and more whole. They didn’t become MORE AWARE of their body and their
pullings down, they DIDN’T EVEN HAVE A BODY. They were just themselves all the way out into the room
around them. This was one of the most distinct differences that people reported, especially those who
were used to the experiences from inhibiting pulling their heads back and directing while the teacher
guided them in action.
I was beginning to get my answer as to what was more primary...
At this point I’m tempted to go on with another example of what an important difference it makes
when we find out what the person is actually up to compared to when we assume that they are
unconsciously pulling down. And I will. Later.
But that example shows a quite different aspect of how we work and in any case, came quite a few
years after these first discoveries. Therefore, first I’d like to look at the conclusions I drew
from these initial experiments and what seemed to be happening in them, because the light it throws on
our Alexander belief system, suggests some very different interpretations from the ones Alexander
drew. If you are impatient, you can jump ahead to the section titled, "The Violinist" for
the other example and come back here later.
When I’d repeated these experiments enough times over a number of months, and when other teachers
and trainees around me had also made similar experiments and we’d all seen the same sort of thing
happening again and again, it was clear enough what the events were that occurred to hazard a theory
of what was going on.
On the face of it, what seemed to be happening was that when people--the actual thinking, feeling,
intending, human beings--got out ahead of themselves (for whatever reasons) there took place a set of
consistent physical reactions (heads pulling back, legs tightening, etc.) that SIMPLY DID NOT TAKE
PLACE if they were not getting ahead of themselves.
When they were not getting ahead of themselves they were operating in a way that I was coming to
think of as just BEING PRESENT IN THE MOMENT (because that’s how people often described it). Being
present in each moment of whatever activity, neither out ahead, nor in any way looking into the
physical feelings or parts observing or correcting or inhibiting anything in the body; just accepting
whatever state they are in, whether they liked that state or not, simply because that IS where they
are at the moment.
Since they were not doing anything at all at these moments except allowing themselves to go into
activity as they are and since, when they did that, everything seemed to work quite well, co-ordinated
and whole with a definite good use, I found it hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that when someone
was just BEING themselves in the PRESENT MOMENT, some inherent integrating function was taking care of
everything in a quite satisfactory way. The human beings sure weren’t doing it--they weren’t doing
anything at all except being themselves! This was as literally NON-DOING as you can get, seems to me.
Furthermore, since the only thing they had changed was to register what they had actually been up to
and then choose not to do it, it was also an obvious conclusion that those habitual ‘doings’
constituted an INTERFERENCE to this integrating function (or primary control or whatever we choose to
call it). Sounds kind of Alexander doesn’t it? Except here we’re not talking about ‘unconscious
habits’ of misuse of the body (necks, backs and legs) interfering with the functioning, but rather
people’s experienced actions based on their reality construct.
From this new point of view, then, the learning possible and available for any individual, is not
that they have unconscious habits of pulling their heads back, etc. which they need to inhibit and
preventatively direct, but that they HAVE HAD a whole belief
system, reinforced by their tangible sensory experience (which is why it seems like a ‘reality’
to the person--they ‘feel’ it). The precise form that this construct has taken for any particular
individual will, of course, depend on their experiences and history.
The further learning for that person is that their ‘old reality’ was an unreliable or false
appreciation of what was happening because when they refrain from rushing out ahead and doing anything
to help themselves up, they actually get up more easily. How can they escape for long the conclusion
that what they thought was helping them get up, was actually making it harder to get up? That is, that
they had been suffering (literally) under a delusion as to the way that the world (gravity, muscles,
everything) works and now they were coming to a MORE true (or accurate or reliable) construct or
interpretation about reality.
I was coming to see more and more clearly the distinction between what the person was up to and the
physical/physiological effects of that doing. And that when someone changed what they were doing, the
physical/physiological effects immediately also changed. That is, I was beginning to see that what was
happening physically or functionally (heads pulling back, legs tightening, etc.) was simply the
organization or coordination of that particular kind of doing that the person was up to.
There was a piece of the puzzle missing to me when I had got this far. Why those particular kinds of
coordination (or malcoordination if you like) when the person, for instance got out ahead of
themselves, and why the change to a much better functioning when they came back to just being as they
were in the moment?
I had to play around with these experiments myself so that I was, as much as I could, experiencing
that same change before I understood this one. It is easiest to understand what I found by looking at
what is happening in sitting down. When I just go ‘in the moment’ (not getting ahead of myself) I
find myself balanced and all parts moving together. I could change direction and walk or stand up
again at any time. There is no particular sense of effort and nothing standing out in any one part of
me more than any other. It was nice--’nothing’ to it.
When I switched to just ‘sitting down in the chair’ and just ‘going into the movement’ with
my attention out ahead to the chair I was now trying to get to, I had an immediate experience of going
off balance backwards and my arms and chest reached out to regain balance--the effect of which was
that, relatively speaking, my head came back. This reaching certainly helped with my balance, but I
still came with a bump onto the chair. This definitely felt familiar from years ago.
Try it yourself by standing in front of a hard chair and going to sitting by sticking your bum
backwards and going for the chair. You’ll see (and feel) the immediate reaction as your legs grab
and your arms reach a bit forward.
I realized that the same thing was happening when I stood up my ‘old’ way. I was rushing out
ahead to get up off the chair at a moment when I still wasn’t over my feet. The pull of my upper
body and the grab of my legs was again part of A BALANCE REACTION. The same thing also happened when I
went to bend by narrowing my attention out to what I wanted to pick up and reaching out with an arm,
my upper torso following forward. My legs had to grab to save me from slamming into the floor. As my
legs grabbed, they were unable to go into their inherent monkey-like bending and I had to pull and
strain my arm and torso even more to ‘reach’ the pen.
Looking at things this way was suddenly turning everything up side down. The pulling back of the head
and tightening of the legs in sitting had been, in ‘Alexander’ terms, a ‘misuse’-a so-called
‘unconstructive and unconscious habit’. Now it could be seen to be NOT ONLY a perfectly normal
balance reaction, but, in fact, A VERY GOOD AND ESSENTIAL PROTECTIVE REACTION. Without that response,
you’d be in deep trouble as you went off balance and smashed into the chair or the floor. That is
your millions-of-years-evolved system saying, "You’re the boss. If you want to go out ahead
like that, I’ll just do my best to cope with it and try to save you." And it’s a totally
coordinated, whole pattern to boot, perfectly appropriate to the situation and automatically coming
In other words, Alexander’s phraseology was more right-on than he probably realized. The USE OF THE
SELF was exactly that--what the ‘I’ was up to, not what my body was up to. What happened in your
body was the consequent completely coordinated pattern of FUNCTIONING of that particular USE of the
self. Coordinated, that is, in the sense of an entire pattern from top to bottom even though that
pattern may be full of contractions and stress points because of what is needed to cope with what you
are up to. And for sure, USE AFFECTS FUNCTIONING. Not some time later, but immediately and always.
Indeed the ‘body pattern’ is nothing more or less than the automatic and highly-coordinated
functioning of the use of ourselves.
From this construct, it can be seen that there is absolutely nothing ‘wrong’ with these ‘functionings’.
They are simply the inevitable and appropriate coordination of what the person is up to. This is
obvious when we invite someone to stop doing what they were actually doing (their USE) and the next
moment the entire system is in a different coordination--one that is much better, much more whole and
much easier. The MISUSE is in what the SELF is doing, not in the coordinated body functioning that
arises. And misuse is really an inaccurate term for it. You, the self, are doing what you are doing
because, in your reality construct, that is what makes sense to do. That is, it is mistaken
appreciation or inaccurate conception of how the universe works. This can only change by exposing the
misconceptions so learning can take place.
This also explains why we don’t normally feel our heads pulling back, etc. We’re not meant to.
All that coordinated functioning is already taken care of ‘naturally’ by millions of years of
evolution so that we don’t have to pay attention to it. Indeed, we have no business in there, which
is why we’re not set up to feel what goes on inside--all we’ll end up doing if we try is to
interfere. Just because we can see a head pull back we assume we know how it all works and we further
assume it’s up to us to do something about it.
Well, I can tell you, my assumptions were certainly being blown all apart!
Fast forward quite a number of years to a small group class of about 5 people in London just after I
had ended my training school.
A violinist had come for the first time. She wanted help with a painful tension in the forearm of her
bowing arm. If I remember correctly (it was well over a year ago), she had been forced to give up
playing for a time and had recently gone back to playing some professional concerts of chamber music
with 4 or 5 other musicians. She’d begun to have the problem again and was worried that it would get
worse and disrupt her chances of playing. She had previously had some Alexander lessons with a teacher
near where she lived and that work had made her feel better at the moment and for a while after, but
the problem kept coming back. She had come to me because she had heard that I had a different way of
working and that maybe I could help her get rid of the problem.
I invited her to notice that she already had a belief system in which she identified the problem with
the symptom. The ‘it’ she wanted to get rid of was the tension and pain. I explained that in my
approach we were not going to do anything to change her arm or relieve the tension or learn any
procedures that would enable her to get rid of the tension if it returned, but rather we were going to
find out what was causing the problem so that she could change the cause and not have the tension at
all any more.
And how we were going to find the cause was to look carefully at the situation to gather information
to become clear about what was happening--the actual events, her thoughts, feelings, etc. and the
sequence of these. If we could see clearly what was happening then maybe we’d see what the actual
problem was. Part of the larger situation was that she was here to see what she might be able to do to
change. So the first place to look is always to see what she herself may be doing or be up to, the
effect of which is (probably among other things) to make her right arm tense and sore. Only
afterwards, if this does not change everything, does it make sense to look at what she might need to
learn about how to go about changing her arm or her ‘posture’ (as she put it) or learning better
bowing technique, etc.
So I began to ask questions to get more information about what was happening. First I asked her when
she noticed the tension and pain? She said that it happened on and off, but that it was almost always
when she was playing the violin.
I asked her what happened when she felt these symptoms--how did she respond to this event? She
thought a moment and replied that she was usually busy playing, but that she tried to relax her arm
because she could feel that she was gripping the bow too tightly and that lately she’d been trying
to release her neck too, but that it usually didn’t help much.
I pointed out again that it seemed that she felt that what was wrong was the symptom and because of
that reality construct (or belief system) it seemed to make perfect sense for her to do something to
change her state of tension in order to get rid of the ‘problem’.
Then I asked if she knew WHY she had this symptom when she played the violin? She said that she didn’t
know exactly, but it must be something she was doing wrong in her bowing or her posture or maybe
because she was just too tense.
I asked if she knew what the ‘something’ was that she thought she was doing wrong. After a moment
she had to admit that she really didn’t know at all, but had been to quite a few teachers (music and
otherwise) to see if they knew.
Notice, I told her, that you don’t actually know what may be happening to cause the tension, yet
you are assuming you can change it by somehow altering the body state to get rid of it. Notice also
that this doesn’t seem to be working. At the very least you can sometimes (or your teachers can)
manage to change the tension state, but then there it is back again the very next time you do...???
What?? Well, the bare fact of the matter is that you DON’T KNOW what you’re doing each time...
The most important thing in learning is for anyone to know what they DON’T know, then they’ll
know what they need to learn. If they don’t really realize that they don’t yet know what is
causing these symptoms, of course they have no option but to try to cope with them. If they are led to
think that THE SYMPTOMS ARE the problem, they will not even think to look for the cause, but only the
Since she now knew that she didn’t know what the cause is, we turned our attention to how we can
find out. So how can she do this? Notice that she always has a ‘natural’ place to start, which is
at the moment of her symptom, the tension. This was the moment in which her wonderful system sent a
loud message to her with red lights and sirens saying, "oh oh, wake up, something is wrong!
Something is happening that you need to change."
At this point in the learning process, she only had the ‘wake-up call’ but not the information as
to what it was that might need changing. So I asked her if she ALWAYS had the tension and/or pain when
she played the violin. And she answered that no, only some of the time. For instance, last week her
group was playing a small promotional gig that they were not even being paid for and there was no
problem. In fact she played well and it was quite fun to play. But then two days later they played in
a bigger hall and there were three critics present so she was hoping it would be the same, but she had
the symptoms quite strongly.
The next question was obvious: so if you have the symptoms some of the time while playing and not
other times, what is different between the times when you have it and when you don’t?
She thought a bit again and then said, well, when I don’t really care I don’t get it, but as soon
as I start to care how well I play, there it is. (I’ll bet this sounds familiar to any musicians out
there on the alextech forum, eh?)
I pointed out to her that she had had available to her a lot of information: she had recognized the
symptoms, she knew when she had the symptoms and when she didn’t, she even knew the kind of
situations where one happened versus the kind of situation where the other happened. What she hadn’t
thought to do was to compare them for the difference. One simple question from me and there it was.
It is important to help people recognize when they have information from their own experience that
was ALREADY THERE and available to them. It is also important to affirm for them that their wonderful
information gathering systems are working very well. It is the construct placed on that information
that hides its meaning for them. They have been HAVING THE EXPERIENCE, BUT MISSING THE MEANING. That
is, they can ‘have the experience’ until the cows come home and not be able to help themselves one
little bit if they fail to understand what it is AN EXPERIENCE OF.
So there we were with this clue that after she started to ‘care’, she started to experience the
tension. What’s important at this stage is to distinguish very clearly between the things that are
happening ‘to me’ and the things that ‘I am doing’. Remember our young man above--the head
pulling back was happening to him; he was not doing it. But he was doing the rushing out to get up.
When he stopped doing that, the head pulling back did not happen.
For our violinist, the tension was happening to her. She didn’t say to herself, "now I’ll
tense my arm and make it hurt." It just happened--she didn’t even want it. It was important for
her to realize that the ‘starting to care’ was also happening to her. She didn’t say, "hmm,
now I’ll start to care here. Yes, there it is, now I’ve got it. I’m starting to care." She
just found herself caring more at some times than at others. This is clear if we look at it the other
way around. If she mistook her caring for the problem and tried to change it, just how would she do
that? Can you decide not to care? If you try it, does it really work?
Thus, we were still one step away. We had not quite found what she was doing, but we were very close.
I asked her if she did anything differently in those situations where she started to care? She replied
that, for instance when the critics were in the audience, she wanted to play wonderfully. And she got
quite nervous before the performance that she wouldn’t be able to play as well as she wanted. So she
tried to play really well. Whereas, when she didn’t care, she didn’t do anything ‘special’.
There we had it: ‘she tried to play really well’. In her belief system, of course (and many other
peoples’ as well) it made perfect sense for her to try to ‘improve’ her playing when it was
important. And because it made perfect sense she went ahead and did it, every time...
I asked her whether, in those situations when she cared and tried to play better, she actually did
manage to play better? She said, "No, not at all! Worse. I play better when I don’t care."
Even though she had just said the words, she obviously was not taking in the significance of her
experiences or she would have seen that these direct experiences over and over were not at all
matching her belief system. But in the beginning stages of being liberated from delusion (if I may put
it that way), the ideas of the belief system are far more ‘real’ than the actual real life
experiences. And someone will hang onto those ideas or ideals even in the face of constantly
contradictory experiences. As long as they are hanging on, their constructing nature simply ‘construes’
these experiences in another way that fits the belief or filters them out. More on this later.
At any rate, having found something that, as near as she could tell, she was ‘doing’--trying to
play better--we were now in the position to make an experiment. What if she could meet that moment and
not do what she usually did? Fortunately, I had made sure that she brought her violin and we had a
group there who could be her audience of critics. We set up the experiment so that she could play one
of the pieces she wanted to play well. It was realistic enough for her because she was already nervous
about playing well and what the others would think.
I told her that she could not fail at this experiment, because the goal here was not to play well,
but to see if it was possible to meet that situation in which she would normally react to her caring
by trying to play better and instead to not do anything at all to play better. To just play however
she plays and no better. In other words, to go about it the same way she does when she doesn’t care,
even though she may be feeling very different. The worst that can happen is that it won’t come out
the way she wants.
She started to play and I let her go on for about a minute or two, long enough for the experiment.
The first question is always, "how well did you manage the experiment?" There is, after all,
no point in looking at the results of an experiment that we haven’t even succeeded in making.
She said she had not managed it very well. She’d been doing OK for a while, then when it didn’t
sound the way she wanted, she started to try to play better and she could feel the tension already in
her arm. That’s good, I told her, that you see that as soon as you start trying, you get the
symptom. That symptom is what it feels like to try to be better than you are. What an idea, eh? To try
to be better than you are! Just think of it.
It’s also good that you could notice exactly when you started trying. Right there in the moment, I
asked her, precisely what sort of trying you were doing?
She reflected back for a moment and then said that she had focused on those notes to get them right.
A few more questions revealed that she started to narrow her focus to the notes AFTER some notes had
been ‘wrong’ and that by ‘focusing’ on the notes she meant taking her attention specially to
the area where the bow touched the strings--where she thought ‘the notes’ came from.
We now had more precise information about the exact nature of what she was doing. And, more
importantly, her doing had now been a tangible experience for her. Of course, it was before too, after
all, SHE had been doing it. She just had never quite ‘realized’ that was what she started to do,
even though she had been there experiencing it. Perhaps, more to the point, she had not had a
construct where this was potentially important information about what she might want to stop doing.
She had a construct where this was precisely what she HAD to do to play better.
So, we went into the experiment again, choosing to not do anything to play better no matter how she
felt or how it sounded and this time with the extra clarity that if any notes ‘went wrong’, that
was NOT a stimulus to focus to make them right. Rather, any notes ‘going wrong’ could be a
reminder to just register that they were not the notes she wanted and carry on without doing anything
to ‘correct’ them.
She played again and after a while I asked how well she had managed the experiment and she said she’d
managed much better, but there were still some times when she had focused on trying to play well. I
reminded her that this was only the second experiment and already she was improving in her ability to
carry it out. Again she had noticed when she had reacted by trying the tension was there. We were
still not looking at any results, since she was still learning how to make the experiment.
After another reminder of what the experiment was, we went into it a third time. This time she said
that she had more or less managed to just let happen what happened without reacting with her focused
trying. These three experiments had taken about 15 minutes to explain and carry out.
Now, since she had more or less managed the experiment, was the time to look at the results. I asked
her what had happened? It was easy, she said.
I asked her if she knew why it was easy? She looked puzzled for a moment then said with a smile, it
was because she hadn’t done anything. Just like the times you don’t care, I added.
Then she added that she’d played really well. Just like the times you didn’t care, I added. But
it was important that she really take in that she didn’t ‘do’ the ‘playing really well’. It
just happened. She did the choosing not to try to do what she usually did to help out. That’s why it
Interestingly, by the last experiment, she didn’t care any more. But that also, just happened. It
Notice I said to her, that so far she had spoken mostly of the ‘musical’ results. How did she
feel in that last experiment? What about this tension thing?
The tension had completely disappeared! It was there when she first played and a little when she
played the second time, but now it was gone. So gone, she hadn’t even noticed its absence until I
asked her. I asked her to play in her old way again, focusing on the notes to get them right. After a
minute or so, the tension was right back there again. When she gave up trying to control the notes at
all and ‘just played’, it was gone again.
She was very surprised. She said she had expected me to work with her arm to help her release the
tension and with her body like others had. I replied that, what we just did, what she just
experienced, was that when she stopped reacting in her old way by trying to control her playing, the
tension went. How could we see the tension as anything other than the functional organization of her
trying? That is, the tension is part of the entire ‘coordination’ that her system organizes to
carry out her trying to control her playing. Remember. she’s the boss.
Or to put it slightly differently, what she was doing was the ‘trying to control’. The tension
was the experience of that kind of trying to control. No more, no less. It has NOTHING to do with her
arm, except that her arm is where she happens to feel that part of the entire coordination. It DOES
HAVE TO DO WITH her belief system and how she was ‘forced’ down a certain pathway of action
because in that belief system ‘controlling’ is the only thing that makes sense to do.
Now, however, she is in a very different place. Now she has quite consciously seen how she normally
reacts to certain events (the critics hence the wrong notes) which she interprets in certain ways
(they won’t like her unless she is even better than she is) and therefore is forced to react by
doing something (‘trying to control’--as if that made sense to do and as if a human being could
actually do it).
She has also actually made the experiment of quite consciously meeting those moments and choosing not
to react that way. It took her a few times to learn to do that, but only 3 times over 15 minutes.
And, from that experiment, she has quite consciously registered that some very surprising things
happened (and didn’t happen) when she did choose differently. Her surprise shows that she was not at
all expecting those results. In fact she was convinced, as are most people, that if they don’t do
their controlling ‘techniques’ it will be really, really bad.
With all these conscious experiences and an understanding of WHAT THEY ARE EXPERIENCES OF, how could
her belief system stay intact?
She just perceived how the ‘controlling’ was NOT actually making her play better. When she
stopped it, she played better. This contradicts her belief system.
And she saw that the ‘playing better’ happened BY ITSELF. She didn’t have to do it. This
contradicts her belief system.
And if she didn’t DO anything to play better, how can we interpret it but that this is how well she
ACTUALLY PLAYS, since it is what is happening when she is not doing anything. She certainly DIDN’T
KNOW that she plays this well. And how could she when she had constant experiences of playing poorly
because she was trying to play better?
Her attempts to control ‘to play better’ can now been seen for what they are--interferences that
bring down her playing. This is also different than her belief system.
And the tension was simply the feeling of her trying to control; of narrowing her attention in order
to try to take over her ALREADY EXISTING COORDINATION. She didn’t know this before but she knows it
now because every time she stops the trying it goes away and every time she starts trying again, it’s
back. After all, what is tension, but the feeling of us working against ourselves?
She also experienced in the most powerful way that the process she just used was SO DIFFERENT from
what she normally does and FELT SO ABSOLUTELY AGAINST HER HABIT that she would probably never ever
have thought to use it. This also gives a very good measure of the familiarity and strength of her
normal construct--roughly equal to the amount of ‘force’ she has to meet and the amount of courage
she needs to make that choice.
But ‘just’ the experiences that ‘go against’ her construct are not enough. She must
understand them for what they are. So I went to great trouble to re-iterate for her what she was
registering and to put these experiences of hers in conjunction with the belief system as she has
revealed it, so that the contradictions sit there like a large elephant in the teaching room and can’t
be kept separate.
I pointed out that she must not accept these obvious interpretation as fact at this point. ONE TIME
PROVES NOTHING. But, if she goes home and keeps making the same experiment each time in the next few
weeks that she notices her symptom wake-up call, she WILL SEE if a similar thing happens. If so, then
maybe she can believe it. In these first experiences, we can only make a tentative hypothesis, SUBJECT
TO FURTHER PROOF. Or at least it is tentative for the pupil for whom this is the first time and brand
new. I have seen it hundreds of times with as many pupils in the last several years so ‘working
principle’ is a better term for where I am. Or perhaps ‘new construct’ would do as well.
Notice that all this happens without any need to assume ‘unconscious habits’ of pulling back the
head’ or ‘stiffening her arm’. Nor any need for consequent ‘directing’ of necks to be free,
or releasing arms either. In fact, no need for any teacher’s hands on at all, since we are simply
working with the pupil’s own existing awareness and perception AND their existing ability to choose
once their actions are perceived.
There is not only no need for the teacher to ‘give’ the pupil a new experience, it would be
positively counter-productive since, from this point of view, the pupil is already having lots of
their own experiences all the time. They are simply misinterpreting these experiences. They just didn’t
know that to go about things the way they are going about them inevitably brings about the particular
symptoms they were experiencing. Through that lack of knowledge they doomed to repeat those
experiences. They had a faulty construct or ‘reality appreciation’ as I put it, and therefore,
quite ‘naturally’ were acting in the way that made sense to them from the point of view of that
construct or belief system.
A word about our constructs might go well here (or maybe a few hundred words).
As human beings we are construct-creating creatures. Perhaps other creatures have this also, but we
certainly do in a big way. It is our nature to always take in the raw flux of experience and interpret
it. This is not under your conscious control. This ‘constructing’ takes place deep in your system
long before ‘you’, the conscious human being, are presented with the fully-constructed results as
‘reality’. In fact, ‘you’ the conscious human being are part of this construct, since the
construct IS your consciousness. Your existing belief systems provide the filters for the raw data so
that only some sensations fit within your construct and so are deemed important and hence are ‘experienced’.
These ‘experiencings’ in turn reinforce the construct until, for most people, the construct
becomes ever more deeply fixed and ‘certain’.
But an example that most of us have experienced will make aspects of this construct-creation clear.
Have you ever been in a train waiting in a station with another train waiting on the track right
outside your window? Then your train moves off until a few seconds later, you realize that it wasn’t
you moving, it was the train beside you?
Notice the sudden start when you ‘realize’ you’re not moving. Your wonderful
millions-of-years-evolved construct-creating system took in the visual motion outside the window and
sent you a ‘reality’ that you were moving. It wasn’t an idea, it was a lived experience of
REALLY MOVING. That’s why there’s the sudden surprise, the almost physical jolt when your ‘reality’
changes. We are visually dominant creatures, remember, which is why this construct can be so dominant
even when there are none of the usual kinaesthetic sensations supporting movement. The physical ‘jolt’
is the returning to the kinaesthetic experience of ‘yourself’ which had been filtered out as not
matching the moving construct.
You can understand why this is the first ‘reality’ you are presented with if you remember that
this construct system evolved way back when we lived mostly ‘in nature’ not in our own self-created
environments. In nature, when the visual background is moving, it is because you are moving relative
to it. It is not often in nature that you are standing still and the whole world is moving!. Quite
possibly your anticipation of the train starting to move plays a part in determining the construct
Another aspect of this ‘illusion’ that is worth noting is that the you-are-moving construct
carries on until some sensory data so blatantly contradicts it that your system is forced to
re-interpret. Usually it is something like the other train pulls past you and you see that you are
left standing still in the station. Or you notice the unmoving station through the windows of the
Your construct-creating system is not there to trick you, of course, but to give you the best
interpretation it can come up with. When the data can’t be made to fit, your system goes,
"Oops, sorry about that interpretation, here, try this one." YOU don’t have to figure out
what is happening and come up with a better interpretation, you just get the NEW IMPROVED reality
dumped unceremoniously into your ‘experience’.
The same process is at work in these lessons. As we bring out the belief system in people’s words
and actions and show them how their construct channels them into taking certain actions, then make the
experiments of not going down that pathway, of course, such different experiences come up that
blatantly contradict the old ‘reality’. They don’t have to intellectually ‘understand’ what
is happening, though it helps. They just have to ‘be present’ for the contradiction. This ‘violation’
of the ‘reality’ of the construct shows it for what it is--merely a construct, and a faulty one at
that. No self-respecting reality can stand up to that demotion and sooner of later will collapse under
its own weight.
Fortunately for us, just like in the train, we don’t need to come up with a new and more accurate
construct. Your system has millions of years of experience at that and will happily manufacture
another one in short order. And it will be intrinsically MORE ACCURATE than the last because it has to
take all these new facts and contradictions into account.
Most people, of course, with a lifetime of existing under one major reality, will seize upon a new
one as if this time it really is reality and attempt to fix it into certainty. It takes several times
through the cycle and several changes of reality to see that we will be trading in our old, less
accurate and less workable realities for new, more accurate and more workable ones as long as they are
relatively inaccurate to the ultimate ‘objective’ reality, whatever that is. Another word for this
I could go on and on, as I guess you gathered, but that will have to wait for the book.
Speaking of books, when I was thinking about this a while back I suddenly thought, what if Alexander
had just made one more connection when he was making his ‘evolution of the technique’ experiments?
He was so close yet so far.
When he realized that he was pulling his head back, lifting his chest and depressing his larynx, what
if he hadn’t been so quick to assume that HE was doing it?
When he saw that it wasn’t just his head, neck and back, but an entire pattern of his whole system,
what if he had asked, "pattern of what?"
When he noticed that the same pattern was happening in his normal speaking in daily life but much
less exaggerated, what if he had gone on to ask, "what am I doing differently in performing than
in daily life?"
Who knows what he might have found, but like many performers I’ve worked with, he might have found
that he had a construct that says performing took some extra preparation on his part, like the
gripping of the stage with his feet that he had already noticed.
Perhaps in those days of large unamplified halls, he may have found that his respiratory problems
instilled in him the sense that he needed to try a little more to project his voice out to the whole
This is pure speculation, of course, and it doesn’t matter what he might have found, but if he had
found something like this, what if he had then made the experiment of not doing the extra bit he
thought he had to do?
What if he then found that his whole coordination changed and the head pulling back, chest raising,
etc. was no longer happening?
And what if a colleague out in the hall said that not only was his voice filling the hall nicely, but
that the quality was much, much better, mate?
This is exactly the sort of thing which happens to the performers I work with all the time.
Everything would have been very different if Alexander had made that connection. But he didn’t and
the Alexander work has become largely defined by its hands-on work whereby teachers facilitate changed
psycho-physical experiences for the pupil, and by the principle of inhibiting unconscious
physical/functional habits and preventatively directing in order to allow the optimal ‘pyschophysical
Of course, I don’t expect all these words to necessarily convince anyone. Words cannot do that. You’d
need to come and see for yourself again and again what happens. Or better still, open your eyes from
this new point of view in your work and see what happens when you find out what the person IS actually
I would like to end with a thought about "standing on the shoulders of giants" as Newton
said. I can’t see that I would have been in a position to make the discoveries I have if I had not
had the benefit of the discoveries Alexander did make and the teachers who taught me.
Anyone who has experienced the benefits they gained from study of the Technique knows that they are
better off after than before. They also know some of the knots and difficulties they (and their pupils
if they are teachers) can get into trying to make sense of the work. Maybe these are not just THEIR
difficulties. Maybe there are some conceptions in the work that could benefit from another point of
However, I wish to repeat, that the question for me is NOT what is wrong with the Technique. The real
question is how much further can we go when we can see things even more clearly?
Postscript: Where this has taken me...
Needless to say, my discoveries and experiences have moved me to very different understanding and
consequently to a very different practice. Initially, of course, when I was running the training
course to train Alexander teachers in London, I was seeing these insights as deepening my Alexander
understanding. Then, as they began to move into new territory, I saw it as new developments of the
Alexander work, stretching it to new possibilities. This was something that to me had always seemed to
what the work was about-learning, growth and development.
The reactions of some of my colleagues showed me that many people did not the want the work to change
beyond its recognizable (to them) ‘traditions’.
So, after much consideration of whether it made sense, in spite of them, to keep trying to shoehorn
this new work into a stretched definition of the Alexander work, or posit a ‘new’ Alexander work
that is evolving, it is becoming more and more apparent that this really is a radically different
work. At the very least, people familiar with the Alexander Technique would be surprised by this new
work (and often are), and anyone knowing this new work, would not be expecting what they would likely
get from an Alexander teacher. This is an important factor.
Thus, I do not call myself an Alexander teacher any longer and do not teach the Alexander Technique
any more. It makes no sense for me to do so knowing what I now know.
For the moment I have named this new work, LearningMethods and there are some 5 other teachers
teaching it with me. They are, or were, all Alexander teachers. Most of them either trained with, or
worked with me in the Centre for Training, my Alexander teacher training course in London. All have
then carried on with me as the work really developed and have been consistently part of that learning
There are a growing number of other Alexander teachers who are coming to workshops and studying when
they can, then going back to their practices and trying out these new ideas. It’s a big change to
make for someone trained in another way.
There are also a number of people who are learning to be come teachers with me. Three of these were
part way through their Alexander training with Ann Penistan and myself when the training ended and
have elected to carry in this new work. They are very nearly ready to go off on their own as new
teachers of the work. Others have just begun and this work will be their experience of learning to
help others learn.
There is no formal or full-time training. Instead they are learning in what amounts to an on-going
apprenticeship situation. That is, they attend most of the workshops I give and, along with their own
on-going learning for themselves, begin to practice working with others as they see how people learn.
It is not a formal training in the sense that there is no structure of separate classes for those
training. The people learning to become teachers are learning in the ‘real life’ situation of the
workshops where ‘real life’ people (if I may call them that) bring their real-life problems and go
through their realizations and changes.
There is no time frame to their ‘training’ (that is, it is not a ‘3-year training’). People
who are interested just keep coming and keep learning, extending their learning more and more toward
helping others until they have learned enough to manage that competently. This might take longer for
some than for others depending on how often they can attend and where they are in their own
understanding and practice when they start.. Certainly makes it hard for anyone to end-gain for the
certificate (there isn’t one). And it automatically selects those who really are dedicated enough to
keep coming on their own steam. We’ll see how it all works out.
Anyone interested in more information about the work or in details of workshops, etc. can contact me
directly or visit the web site at: http://www.learningmethods.com.
Quartier la Rouvière, 30130 St. Alexandre, France
Tel: +33 (0)4-66-39-55-75, Fax: +33 (0)4-66-39-56-79
Continued in PART 4...
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