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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

Part 4

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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.

Section Four
— The debate begins...

  1.  John Coffin — re: On Belief Systems and Learning, part 3 of 3 — June 26/98
  2.  Kay Hooper — Gorman's Essay — June 26/98
  3.  Peter Ruhrberg — re: re: On Belief Systems and Learning — June 27/98
  4.  David Langstroth — re: On Belief Systems and Learning — June 27/98
  5.. John Coffin — re: On Belief Systems and Learning — June 27/98
  6.  Nina Aledort — re: On Belief Systems and Learning — June 27/98
  7.  John Coffin — re: brain dead cultural relativists — June 28/98
  8.  Peter Ruhrberg — re: On Belief Systems and Learning — June 27/98

Date: Fri, 26 Jun 1998
From: JohnC10303@aol.com
To: 100653.2057@compuserve.com, alextech@life.uiuc.edu
Subject: Re: On Belief Systems and Learning, part 3 of 3

Hello list: (and David)

I am reading your 3 part post with a sort of horrified fascination. I cannot imagine how you spent so many years in and around the technique without thinking these things through before, discussing them with other teachers, or reading about them in FM’s books.

I understand your pupil’s eagerness to disown pulling his head back. Inappropriate reactions to stimuli are perpetuated BECAUSE they occur outside of our field of awareness. They are not ‘our fault.’ Neverthless they are not ‘done’ by any agency outside ourselves. If misusing ourselves was caused by some personal perversity or conscious decision, all we would have to do is tell people to stop. The ego-bruising and self scolding that interfere with learning the technique are themselves examples of how incorrect conceptions limit our ability to adapt. e.g. If we assume that all our actions are brought about by our conscious choice, how could we have ‘done’ the misuse if we didn’t decide to do it? We have to get past this fallacy to become teachable.

Pulling your head back is not the problem, end-gaining is. Your (re)discovery that remaining in touch with the ‘means whereby’ fills the gap in consciousness where habitual misuse occurs is a terrific point. If we are actually present in our actions we will not do things to ourselves which we don’t like.

Alexander points out several times that ‘directing’ is nothing that we are not already doing in real life. Learning and teaching how to direct ourselves consciously, IN ACTION, is an enormous task; ‘conditioning’ a student by having them repeat the verbal orders (or for that matter, by whisking them in and out of the chair a few hundred times) is only of use insofar as the process TEACHES the student how to direct themselves in real life.

A few quotes and comments:
"reality construct or belief system"
is a synonym for what FM called conception.

"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."
Of Course, this is what ‘giving new sensory experiences’ is for!

"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 hadnt been so quick to assume that HE was doing it? When he saw that it wasnt 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?"

Please read Use of the Self. Searching for the differences between his reaction to the stimulus to speak in ordinary situations versus his reaction to the stimulus to ‘recite’ was one of the earliest experiments Alexander performed! At the end of his experiments (at least as he reported them) the last hurdles involved:

1. Finding a way to know for certain if he was really not reverting to his old misuse.

2. Observing and contrasting his responses to diferrent stimuli (including the stimulus to recite) many times over untill the practice of retaining his awareness of himself in action could be sustained in the face of any stimulus.

John Coffin

Date: Fri, 26 Jun 1998
To: alextech@life.uiuc.edu
From: fhooper@postoffice.ptd.net (Fred Hooper)
Subject: Gorman’s essay

Hi, all, and thanks to David Gorman for sharing his insights in detail:

I hesitate to be a reductionist because I know I may miss certain subtleties, but there are a few core points that I would underscore.

1) According to Chris Stevens, and I suppose a bevy of researchers, the number one priority of the neuromuscular system is to prevent falling. So the tightening or stiffening at precarious states of balance is as natural as free movement. I wouldn’t want to lose this any more than I would want to lose the flight-or-fight response. What I do want to do is reserve it for those moments when it is necessary to save face, both literally and figuratively. Often when I introduce AT to pianists, I refer to it as "The Art of Not Falling On Your Face" for this reason. Pianists are often so in danger of falling due to odd approaches to the instrument that they must incorporate stiffness or land on the keys or the floor. The complication occurs when sophisticated movements have to occur in a stiffened condition. (This is one of the monitors I use to determine whether I have gone beyond stability and into stiffness.)

2) Fear is not the enemy either, but conjuring it in inappropriate levels or situations is certainly a difficulty. The natural systems that kick in adrenalin and heighten awareness during danger have literally saved my life. But experiencing high levels of fear on stage has also resulted in some very miserable playing on my part. This is when fear is restrictive because the "predator" - the performance - cannot be clubbed or run from (although I’ve seen the latter once or twice) so that the adrenalin is used to its best advantage.

Playing right notes is really OK, in my book, unless the performer is afraid that some dire result will come from something less than perfection. For those students, I ask them to play all wrong notes. It can be fascinating to hear how few wrong notes actually get played when they have the permission to play mistakes.

3) When I am working at my best, I do have the feeling of stopping time. I know I am not alone in this, but this is a challenge for musicians. For example, we are often taught to "read ahead", which is a notion I have been challenging lately. And the beat of a conductor or metronome may not allow us the flexibility we desire.

4) The holistic approach of AT allows us the opportunity to problem solve in many ways. Nothing is "just" physical or "just" emotional or "just" rational or "just" spiritual. If this is "true", even a non-hands on approach can have some physical response. (I suggest the book "Mind Over Back Pain", by Dr. John Sarno.

Whether or not it fits with one’s teaching style may be another issue.

Be well,
Kay S. Hooper

Date: Sat, 27 Jun 1998 08:39:32 +0200
From: Peter Ruhrberg pruhrberg.at@cityweb.de
To: alextech@life.uiuc.edu
Subject: Re: Re: On Belief Systems and Learning

Hello John (& all)

John Coffin wrote:
"reality construct or belief system" is a synonym for what FM called conception."

This would be a really good way to describe it, and it is also one of several possibilities. Perhaps we never can be really sure, because the concept of "reality construct" or "belief system" wasn’t known at FM’s time.

However, I’d like to propose an alternative which I think is equally likely to be true.

For seeing the point I’m trying to make here, you might refer to my earlier mail (June, 21). I put the quote in here again that I then used from CCC:
"... if ... all so-called mental processes are mainly the result of sensory experiences ..., it will be obvious that in our conception of how to employ the different parts of the mechanism in the acts of everyday life WE ARE INFLUENCED CHIEFLY BY SENSORY PROCESSES (feeling). ... in every case, the nature of our response, WHETHER IT IT BE AN ACTUAL MOVEMENT, AN EMOTION OR AN OPINION, will depend upon the associated activity of the processes concerned with conception and with the sensory and other mechanisms responsible for the "feeling" which we experience. This associated activity is referred to throughout my work as SENSORY APPRECIATION." (CCC 1946 p.20, emphases and quotation marks are Alexander’s)

Now, what if the phrase "and other mechanisms" in the above definition, which, together with the sensory mechanisms, are responsible for the "feeling" which we experience, was FM’s way to describe what we now would call "belief system"? And could it be that the term "conception" contains more of what we could call a general idea (and sometimes belief, but not a whole belief system) which underlies our specific ideas?

In this way "belief system" would go into and be part of "sensory appreciation". Just look at the following passages, think about my proposal, and try to see it one way or the other:
"Owing to the limited range of the working of his reasoning processes, he must have concluded that his general shortcomings were due to specific muscular shortcomings, and this narrow and erroneous conception led directly to the idea of muscle development by means of specific exercises to be performed at specific times for the purpose of developing specific muscles." (CCC 1946 p.36)

"The significance, however, of the fact that a persons attempt to make practical use of a new idea is conditioned by his conception of the written or spoken word cannot be fully realized until we connect it with the further fact, that this conception, in its turn, is conditioned by the standard of the psycho-physical functioning of the individual, this standard again being influenced by the standard of sensory appreciation; in other words, that the accuracy or otherwise of the individual conception depends upon the standard of psycho-physical functioning and of sensory appreciation present." (CCC 1946 p.65)

"... a teacher, in dealing with the shortcomings of a particular case, must give due consideration to the pupils fixed conceptions, otherwise these will greatly complicate the problem for both teacher and pupil. Certain of these fixed ideas are encountered in the case of almost every pupil; fixed ideas, for example, as to what constitutes the right and what the wrong method of going to work as a pupil; fixed ideas in regard to the necessity for concentration, if success is to attend the efforts of pupil and teacher; also a fixed belief (based on subconscious guidance) that, if a pupil is corrected for a defect, he should be taught to do something in order to correct it, instead of being taught, as a first principle, how to prevent (inhibition) the wrong thing from being done." (CCC 1946 p.79f)

"... I have no hesitation in stating that the pupils fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties." (CCC 1946 p.80)

"... conceptions which are mainly influenced by unreliable sensory appreciation, acting and reacting subconsciously and harmfully on the processes involved, are incorrect conceptions, and that in these cases unreliable sensory appreciation goes hand in hand with incorrect and deceptive experiences in the psycho-physical functioning." (CCC 1946 p.91f)

"... once consent has been given to react to the stimulus to perform a certain act, they will perform that act, as we say, "instinctively", that is, without any reasoned conception of what direction of the use of the mechanisms is required for its satisfactory performance." (UoS 1946 p.29)

What do you think?
Peter Ruhrberg

Date: Sat, 27 Jun 1998 19:28:40 +0100
To: alextech@life.uiuc.edu
From: David Langstroth david@alexandertec.u-net.com
Subject: Re: On Belief Systems and Learning

Hello all,

I must admit, when I first received David Gorman’s thoughts on Belief Systems and Learning I inwardly groaned at the length of it. However, I found it to be exceedingly well written and illustrated with examples. I read it from beginning to end without once thinking about all the things that need doing in the garden. I’d like to thank David for taking the time and effort to share his ideas with us in such a complete way.

However, well-written doesn’t necessarily mean well thought- through, and I would like to raise the issues that I find problematic in his LearningMethods.

Let us start with the violinist example. David describes how "trying to play really well" was associated with the arm problems that she complained of. And, when she was finally able to change this "belief system", and to play without caring, her performance was musically better and pain free. This is a great description of how "trying" is usually associated with an increase in muscular effort and a deterioration of the quality of the psycho-physical performance. As such it is a valuable illustration of a principle that Alexander goes on about at great length. I would disagree with David however that it represents a new discovery.

Secondly, although she has been helped to some extent by learning to stop trying to be right, I am concerned that our violinist has missed out on the opportunity to really deal with her problems. I would suggest that she is still left with the same patterns of misuse as before, but as she is not trying so hard, they are just less exaggerated. Such was the case with Alexander who, as David points out, "noticed that the same pattern was happening in his normal speaking in daily life but much less exaggerated".

I would agree fully with David that the way we think has a huge effect on our use and functioning. But once again this is not a new idea. Alexander talks at length about conception and how the teacher needs to deal with faulty conceptions. As such it is (or ought to be) a part of every Alexander teacher’s understanding and practice. But, if all our violinist has received is a new "belief system", that is, the idea that she ought not to care, or to try to be right, I would be very concerned for her long term future. I cannot imagine that the long term effects of that particular "belief system" as it becomes fixed will be positive. Are we really to believe that her psycho-physical health and her career as a violinist will be enhanced over the long term because she is developing the habit of "not caring", without attending to the (now more subtly expressed) misuse from which her problems stem?

Caring, or wanting to be right are mainsprings of human energy and creativity, and are vital for our success and even our survival. We ought not to be teaching people to give these up. Rather instead of "trying" as most people understand it (more muscular tension) we need to help people to gain the ends they so desire through the reasoned means which are the Alexander Technique. Our violinist should continue to want to play well, but she should be taught how to co-ordinate herself to achieve it. Does anyone really think that she will come to great success by not wanting to play well?

I have similar misgivings about David’s interpretations concerning the young man rising from the chair. Once again, it is an admirable description of end-gaining, as the end was the entire focus of attention for the young man. In fact this is one of the best descriptions I have read of end-gaining. It comes as no surprise that the young man was able to rise from the chair with much less malco-ordination when he gave up his end and directed his thoughts to what he was doing moment by moment -- classic Alexander. But, like the violinist I would suggest that he has only succeeded in reducing the exaggeration of his misuse without fundamentally changing it. And, what the long term effects of this new "belief system" will be on one whose pattern of misuse is unchanged remains to be seen.

In effect then, LearningMethods appears to have taken some of the principles of the technique and it will likely have some of the success, if only in the short term. Without a demonstration I cannot believe that good use will just "do itself" so long as you have the right "belief system". I think it likely that David has misinterpreted the results of his experiments and is under- emphasising the misuse that remains in his students.

I would like to thank David however for his integrity. For sure his method is not the Alexander Technique and he has shown the courage to give it a new name and to set off on his own.

David Langstroth, david@alexandertec.u-net.com, Cardiff, Wales

Date: Sat, 27 Jun 1998
From: JohnC10303@aol.com
To: pruhrberg.at@cityweb.de, alextech@life.uiuc.edu
Subject: Re: On Belief Systems and Learning

Hello list: and Peter

Wonderful quotes! You are certainly much better at quickly pulling out relevant examples than I am.

I don’t think that terms like "reality construct" and "belief system" are much better than ‘concept(ion).’ This piece of Alexander jargon is not too esoteric to be useful in day to day practice, and links very well to the concept (construct? belief system?) of sensory appreciation. I can’t pull the exact wording from my head, but it goes something like this: Wrong experience encourages the formation of incorrect conceptions, incorrect conceptions are expressed in mis-directed activities, mis-directed activity results in wrong experience.

I am leary of pulling terms like "reality construct" and "belief system" from popular culture. Their very familiarity tends to connect them to concerns outside the realm of the Technique (in particular the way they are used by brain dead cultural relativists).

Thank you all
John Coffin

Date: Sat, 27 Jun 1998
To: alextech@life.uiuc.edu
From: nina@inch.com (Nina Aledort)
Subject: Re: On Belief Systems and Learning

Hello John:

I have to say that this type of language (brain dead cultural relativists) offends me, is uncalled for, and shows a lack of respect for others. It may not be to your use, or liking, but casting aspersions on belief systems or philosophies of others certainly makes me wary of engaging you in dialogue, lest I be cast aside with such dismissal.

Cultural relativism may not work in all situations, but it is an ethical imperative in fields like social work, anthropology, etc.

Unless of course you believe that dominant culture is the same as "truth".

I would have thought that conscious use of self applied to language as well.

Nina Aledort, C.T.A.T., M.S.W.

Date: Sun, 28 Jun 1998
From: JohnC10303@aol.com
To: nina@inch.com, alextech@life.uiuc.edu
Subject: Re: brain dead cultural relativists

Hello list: and Nina

Cultural relativists argue that genital mutilation and infanticide of girls are acceptable behaviours because they are ‘part of the cultures’ that practice them. Racism, slavery, violence, religious bigotry, all are validated in the same circular fashion.

If you dare to be so ‘judgmental’ as to suggest that the invasion of Poland in 1939, or for that matter the extermination of the Jewish population of Europe might represent ‘inappropriate’ (e.g. wrong) behaviour; you risk being asked in shocked tones what right you have to such an opinion, apparently only Nazis have the ‘cultural perspective’ to judge Nazi behaviour.

These examples may represent the extreme, but they are valid. Try taking a ‘relativist’ stance on Rev. Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson or Jesse Helms. Each of them fairly represents the ethical, moral, and cultural standards of their own groups. Those ethical, moral, and cultural standards are wrong, they are harmful. These men do not profess some ‘separate but equal’ standard of ‘truth,’ they represent a basis of evil and immorality which SHOULD be recognizable to anyone from any cultural background.

Some quotes and comments:
"Cultural relativism may not work in all situations, but it is an ethical imperative in fields like social work, anthropology, etc."

Cultural relativism is a means of avoiding ethical decision making. Cultural RESPECT is imperitive in social work, anthropology. etc.

"Unless of course you believe that dominant culture is the same as "truth"

Cultural relativists believe that (each separate) dominant culture is the same as truth, or that the concept of truth must be abandoned to avoid judgmentalism.

In love and service
John Coffin

Date: Sat, 27 Jun 1998
From: Peter Ruhrberg pruhrberg.at@cityweb.de
To: alextech@life.uiuc.edu
Subject: Re: On Belief Systems and Learning

Dear John,

thank you for your email! You see, I also believed that Alexander describes somewhere in his writings the circular-like phenomenon which you pointed out:
"I cant pull the exact wording from my head, but it goes something like this:
[1] Wrong experience encourages the formation of incorrect conceptions,
[2] incorrect conceptions are expressed in mis-directed activities, mis-directed activity results in wrong experience.

But what I could find in FM’s writings was merely about the second part of what you described above. I fail to find the whole picture you draw. Just work your way through the following few representative passages, if you will. Of course, there are much more examples, but the ones I found are all very similar to those below.

"The technique ... in which we are interested has been developed throughout from the premiss that, if something is wrong with us, it is because we have been guided by unreliable sensory appreciation leading to incorrect sensory experiences and resulting in misdirected activities. These misdirected activities manifest themselves in the use of the psycho-physical mechanism in connexion with all the general activities of life, and in many varying ways, according to our individual idiosyncrasies. They are influenced by and associated with our incorrect conceptions, our imperfect sensory appreciation, our unduly excited fear reflexes and uncontrolled emotions and prejudices, and our imperfectly adjusted mechanisms. These psycho-physical derangements in the process of formation are the forerunners of a psycho-physical attitude towards the conduct of life in general which must be considered perverted, and because these misdirected activities are so closely connected with this perverted attitude, they present a problem of great difficulty to both teacher and pupil in any endeavour to convey or acquire knowledge, particularly in regard to the satisfactory use of the psycho-physical mechanisms." (CCC 1946, p.77f)

In the next three examples FM puts it somewhat differently:

"The idea ... of ceasing to do the wrong thing (as a preliminary measure in re-education) makes little or no appeal at first to the average pupil, who, in most cases, goes on trying to "be right" in spite of his experience and of all that his teacher may say. There are many reasons for this, chief among them being, in my opinion, the fact ... that in our conception of how to employ the different parts of our mechanisms, we are guided almost entirely by a sense of feeling which is more or less unreliable. We get into the habit of performing a certain act in a certain way, and we experience a certain feeling in connexion with it which we recognize as "right." THE ACT AND THE PARTICULAR FEELING ASSOCIATED WITH IT BECOMES ONE IN OUR RECOGNITION." (CCC 1946, p.82)

"I will now take an equally fixed and unreasoning conception which is common to most pupils who need re-education and co-ordination - - namely, their fixed ideas AS TO WHAT THEY CAN AND CANNOT DO. Their judgment on these points, of course, can only be based on their previous misleading experiences ..." (CCC 1946, p.85)

"... when we remember that ... our judgment is based on experience, we must also see that, where this experience is incorrect and deceptive, the resulting judgment is bound to be misleading and out of touch with reality. WE HAVE TO RECOGNIZE, THEREFORE, THAT OUR SENSORY PECULIARITIES ARE THE FOUNDATION OF WHAT WE THINK OF AS OUR OPINIONS, AND THAT, IN FACT, NINE OUT OF TEN OF THE OPINIONS WE FORM ARE RATHER THE RESULT OF WHAT WE FEEL THAN WHAT WE THINK." (CCC 1946, p.92)

The last example I choose is one in which FM, while using the example of pupils "carrying instructions out correctly", comes very close to the whole picture, but the point at which he stops going back in time is again the pupil’s idea or conception:

"It is only necessary to watch adult pupils at their lessons to realize that, in the great majority of cases, more or less uncontrolled emotions are a striking feature in their endeavours to carry out new instructions correctly. Watch the fixed expression of these pupils, for instance, their jerky, uncontrolled movements, and their tendency to hold the breath by assuming a harmful posture and exerting an exaggerated strain such as they would employ in performing strenuous "physical" acts. In many cases there will be a twitching of the muscles of the mouth and cheeks, or of the fingers. In each case, the stimulus to these misdirected activities is the pupils idea or conception that he must try to do CORRECTLY whatever the teacher requests, and, as we have seen, on the subconscious plane the teacher insists upon this. The teacher of re-education on a conscious plane does not make this demand of his pupils, for he knows by experience, and has to face the fact that in cases where there is an imperfect functioning of the organism, AN INDIVIDUAL CANNOT ALWAYS DO AS HE IS TOLD CORRECTLY. He may "want" to do it, he may "try and try again" to do it, but as long as the psycho-mechanics by which he tries to carry out his teachers directions are not working satisfactorily, every attempt he makes to carry out his teachers directions "correctly" (trying to be right) is bound to end in comparative failure. For in making these attempts, as we point out elsewhere, the pupil has only his own judgment to depend on as to what is correct, and since his judgment is based on incorrect direction and delusive sensory appreciation, he is held within the vicious circle of his old habits as long as he tries to carry out the directions "correctly." Paradoxical as it may seem, the pupils only chance of success lies, not in "trying to be right," but, on the contrary, in "wanting to be wrong," wrong, that is, according to any standard of his own. In this connection, it is most important to remember that every unsuccessful "try" not only reinforces the pupils old wrong psycho-physical habits associated with his conception of a particular act, but involves at the same time new emotional experiences of discouragement, worry, fear, and anxiety, so that the wrong experiences and the unduly excited reflex process involved in these experiences become one in the pupils recognition; they "make the meat they feed on," and the more conscientious the teacher and the pupil are on this plan, the worse the situation becomes for both." (CCC 1946, p.130f)
[note: all emphases are FM’s]

Should someone of you be lucky enough to find in FM’s writings the whole sequence as John described it, could you please give me chapter and verse?

Thank you!
Peter Ruhrberg

Continued in PART 5...

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