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Thinking About Thinking About Ourselves
The F. M. Alexander Memorial Lecture

by David Gorman

Delivered by David Gorman on October 27th, 1984 before
The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT),

Copyright (C) 1984-1995 David Gorman, all rights reserved world-wide
Lire une traduction complète en Français 

This article is the transcript of the F. M. Alexander Memorial Lecture I was invited to give to STAT (the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique) in 1984, just 4 years after I’d become an Alexander teacher. I had begun to have intimations of just how deeply our ‘problems’ and ‘misuses’ were bound up in our belief systems, our constructs — in short, our current ‘reality’. Whole new vistas were opening up for me and I was very excited about the discoveries I was making. So I decided to talk about it all. The feedback I got was that very few people had any clue about what I was saying and, looking back at those times, I’m not at all surprised.

Even though I can re-read what I said and see clearly in those insights the seeds of so much that I am doing now, the fact is it has taken me over a decade to realize and bring into practice the implications of the discoveries that were just forming then. These implications have exploded recently into fruition in a whole new understanding that has revolutionized my way of working and brought about a new work I am calling LearningMethods. This, however, is the subject for another day and I am ‘retiring’ to the south of France for a few years to develop it — London, 1997


I want firstly to thank the STAT Council for the honour of being here to give this talk, and secondly to thank you all for coming. What I want you to join me in playing with tonight is how our ideas affect our physical use; how our thinking affects our bodies. I want to explore how we think — particularly the aspects of thinking that involve our beliefs; how our individual beliefs tend to organize themselves into a system of beliefs and how these belief systems then coalesce to become a 'reality', producing for us a relatively self-consistent overall perception of ourselves, the world and our manner of living in it.

We'll then look further at how different belief systems constitute different 'realities', and how these different realities lead into their own correspondingly different worlds of experience. Our belief systems, that is, tend to imply certain patterns of use. It is inescapable once we operate from the basic premises of certain beliefs that we will tend to have a way of use in accordance with them — be it a poorer use or a better use. In other words, we use ourselves the way that we think of ourselves. Of these realities, in still other words, some are more constructive than others.

Let us begin with some very general cultural beliefs... We are creatures who believe that we live on a rather large planet that is whizzing around in a rather large universe. We believe that on this planet there are a variety of 'things'. Some of these things appeared on the planet without us having very much to do with them. Some of these things we actually put together and made out of parts of some of the other things that were there without us having very much to do with them. We believe that we move about on this planet among all these things making a living, doing activities, and responding to events. We believe that we 'have' bodies which 'belong' to us and which are separate from other things since they come along with us when we move among the things in the world. We believe also that our bodies have different parts with different functions; some of which we can control and some which we can't.

It is not difficult to find, in our culture, subscribers to these beliefs. We believe in the system not only because it 'works', and is confirmed, for us in our lives, but also because a lot of other people tend to believe too. An immense amount of power is carried by the system because it's so common; a sort of 'common-sense' pervades and renders it true. But is it so true? And, maybe more importantly, does it really work so well?

We believe that there are stars and a moon out there. We believe that the sun comes up every morning... Ah, but here we've got something interesting! We all know the sun comes up every morning; we experience the sun coming up every morning (except, of course, here in London where the clouds get there first). But, on the other hand, we also 'know' that the sun doesn't really come up; rather the earth turns and each day we are brought around to a new morning. It is obvious that these are different ways of looking at the same thing; different 'points of view' of the same phenomenon.

Another example of these different points of view is how we find it very easy to speak of taking a breath, thinking of it as sucking in air. Yet at the same time we know that what we are 'really' doing is opening a space inside ourselves for the pressure of the atmosphere to push the air into us. Our deepest beliefs tend to be based on our own experiences. We'll see as we go on how very important it is for us to become aware of the implicit point of view contained within any particular belief system.

The difference between the point of view, for instance, of the sun coming up and that of the earth turning (or of sucking in air versus it being pushed in) is the difference, respectively, between 'subjective' and 'objective'; the difference between us 'experiencing' something and 'knowing' something. We experience the sun coming up in a direct sensory way while we don't actually experience the earth turning. The fact that the earth does turn is an objective point of view. It is a point of view from outside ourselves; a bird's eye view; or better yet, the universe's point of view. The experience of the sun coming up is more subjective. It is a point of view as we see it from within; from the information of our own senses; from our 'still point at the centre of the universe'. Both are, of course, different, but equally valid, ways of looking at it. Each has different implications and different uses. Of necessity, each takes us into different modes of thinking and experiencing.

With this in mind I want to dig into some of our fundamental beliefs about our existence on this planet, and look at the 'givens' behind them. By 'givens' I mean that which is given; the phenomena which are just there, in and around us all the time (of which: "sorry, nothing you can do about it; just happens to be the way that it is"). We'll see how our point of view shapes and shades these givens, channelling us to respond within the framework of the belief. This structuring occurs such that fundamental and basic beliefs about the nature of the givens provide the foundation (and the architectural style) upon which further beliefs about our own nature are elaborated, which in turn imply still further beliefs about using ourselves.

We live on the surface of the Earth. The world is rather large compared to us, and one of the most obvious, taken-for-granted aspects of living on Earth is a very commonly held belief in this thing called Gravity. Gravity is a name that surrounds and holds within it an experience that we all have. It's a point of view and a framework for describing the relationship between ourselves and the planet. Using our beliefs about this relation to the ground as a foundation — a very appropriate place for a metaphorical foundation — we can trace the implications of these beliefs to see what sort of superstructure constellates around them, and what are the results of living within such a system.

When asked, most of us will respond that the biggest attribute of gravity is that it 'goes down'. Thanks to Newton, we all know that it is gravity's fault that things fall back down when you throw them up. We tend to think of it as a sort of omnipresent force all around us which is constantly drawing things downward to the ground, rather like a steady and never-ending drizzle. The implication of this downward force is that gravity gives us 'weight'.

Now, we as creatures are built of many different parts quite closely, but loosely, connected with each other. That is, we are flexible and moveable creatures. We as humans, in particular (compared to the other animals), are very unstable creatures. We have so much of ourselves so high up off the ground over such long moveable bones that our 'weight' is constantly threatening to fall because of the down of gravity. Within the terms of this belief system we will find it very difficult not to have gravity, weight and instability conspire to make us do 'effort' in order to deal with them.

Does it make sense to most of you that to do this effort, which is needed to deal with our unstable body-weight in gravity, we have to use our 'muscles'? Do we not think of our muscles as the 'active' parts of us? They are the parts we use to get hold of our rather inert bones to keep ourselves from falling. In other words, to hold ourselves up. If we let go of ourselves we fall down. Of course, what I'm describing here is the majority belief-system in this culture. It will not necessarily be what we each believe individually. It also seems self-evident to most of us that most 'movement' doesn't take place without muscles doing effort — effort that they do by 'contracting'; by working as if they were a whole group of active little hands that grab hold of our bones to keep us upright or to pull us into activity.

Well, so far so good. Most people (you know, the mythical Mostpeople) will think that the above makes perfect sense — "I mean, everybody knows that!" In terms of our metaphor, we've come up from the foundations in the basement to the ground floor where most of our daily life takes place. Company is plentiful here, however, if we follow the implications just a bit farther, we can see that this set of beliefs has already created somewhat of a problem for us.

When we hold our unstable selves up in gravity by using contracting muscles, we can't avoid that fact that we are 'holding' ourselves. This is not just semantics here, but a very real physiological event. Consequently, we've got ourselves in a bit of a bind (pun intended). We need to be able to be upright to move around in the world and do our jobs; yet we are getting that uprightness by holding ourselves. In addition, we all have a desire to be as free as we can be. Yet, through gravity, weight, effort, muscles, and holding we've arrived in a situation where we get our 'upness' by holding onto ourselves. We're either up and holding (that is, postured and not very free) or, when we let go the holding to free ourselves, we collapse and go down. We can either get the up at the expense of the freedom, or we get the freedom at the expense of the up.

There are not many ways out of that bind without a great deal of confusion entering into the attempt to explain how one can go about freeing and still be upright while doing so within the terms of gravity, weight, effort, and so on. We have, in effect, a contradiction in terms. As long as we stay operating within these terms, this conflict becomes difficult to resolve without becoming overly simplistic, vague, or somewhat mystical.

So what is the significance of all this? With this way of organizing ourselves we are operating in a situation where we are constantly in a struggle — we are fighting gravity. Gravity is the bad guy who gradually and inevitably pulls our tissues downwards, and eventually drags all of us six feet under the ground. When we think of gravity as a force all around us with the attribute of having 'down-energy', we are making the relationship between ourselves and the planet into an abstract concept; we are objectifying it. By conceiving of it this way, from a point of view outside ourselves, we constantly put ourselves in the position of having to do something about it. Our beliefs are structured so that we have to react to gravity to achieve what we want — hence the conflict.

The significance here is that we are not really fighting the abstract of 'gravity' at all; we are fighting ourselves. If we are holding ourselves up (getting a grip on ourselves) by means of muscles contracting, then we are organizing ourselves with a way of operating based on contraction — we are contracting ourselves. We stay upright and move around by getting hold of parts; pulling and levering them around other parts. Our muscles then work by shortening, by squeezing our bones closer together and pressuring our organs. We end up hanging onto our skeleton for dear life! And there's not much freedom in that. Those of you who are Alexander teachers, and probably even those of you who have had lessons in the Technique, can recognize this essential approach in the problems with which people come to this work — those common habit patterns of either getting hold of themselves and tightening into themselves or of slouching and collapsing when they 'relax'.

What we have done with this point of view is to objectify ourselves. We've made ourselves into an object — a series of falling weights that we have to hold up. We have to use one part of ourselves to do something to another part of ourselves. This is the essence of the mind/body split. We have an objective part of ourselves, our body, acted upon by gravity while the subjective part, our consciousness (the little man behind the TV screens up in your brain), is monitoring and operating your body. As a mode of approach, this way continually shrinks our 'self' inwards, from our bodies, up into some little point of consciousness inside our brains. In our metaphor, we have now moved up the stairs to the first floor above the ground level where, in the privacy of our bedrooms and bathrooms at the end of the day, we admit of our tensions, our symptoms, and wonder what's going wrong.

If our 'common-sense' beliefs lead us directly toward our problems, what do we have to do to resolve this seeming paradox? The Alexander Technique teaches us effectively in practice to break out of our habits to a freer, more open, and 'up' way of use. We might ask here, what is so different in the way the Alexander Technique gets us using ourselves? How is it such a different way of thinking and operating than most people are used to?

Let's go back to the basement, to our relationship with the earth, and see if a different point of view will get us a different 'reality'... The planet is poised in space and we dwell on its surface. From a more subjective point of view what gravity is about is that no matter where you go the planet will always follow you around coming right up underneath and supporting you. No matter what you do (in normal activities) you can count on being supported.

Let us use a different name to encompass this different aspect of our relation to the planet. We can change Gravity to Support. There is a far bigger difference than just a name here. Gravity is an enemy; support is your friend. We need support and if we can learn to use it skilfully then we have a very powerful tool at our command.

When we allow the planet to support us (or allow ourselves to simply rest on the planet) as we move about, we get quite different results. Instead of experiencing the struggle and effort of reacting to the abstract of the 'force of gravity', we directly experience something much more tangible — the planet itself. Our point of view now spreads out from ourselves to include the planet and our relation to it, instead of shrinking us back into a small point of consciousness. We now perceive 'gravity' as our in-the-moment contact with the ground, and as a bonus we instantly perceive our changing relation to our support as shifts in this contact. From the other point of view we had a system of concepts in which we constantly had to react in order to avoid something we didn't want. Now we have one where the more we use it, the more we get what we need. The weight and effort resulting from the other point of view are also very tangible experiences; but they stem from an approach that is not nearly as constructive in practice. So, down in the basement we've found there are two doors; each leads to a very different space. It's up to us to choose which we enter.

We will carry on deeper into this in a moment, but first to give a little concreteness to all of this I'd like to ask your indulgence to play a game. There's an exceptionally full hall tonight, but I think we've got enough room to do this. I'd like you all to stand up, find someone nearby to work with and face them. Now I want each of you to come to a way of standing where you have a sense on the bottoms of your feet of a more- or-less even distribution of contact with the floor — as much contact to the front of your feet as to the back; as much to one side as to the other. Then one of you bring up your two hands in front of you with your palms facing each other and all your fingers pointing up to the ceiling. The other person bring up one of your hands and place it right in between your partner's two hands so that your fingers are pointing up too.

Now, the person with the two hands up, quite simply bring your hands together onto the other person's one hand until you sense on your palms and fingers roughly the same amount of contact as you feel on the bottoms of your feet. I want you to do this fairly quickly; take just enough time to go: "Hmm, yeah, that's sort of about it; no, that's too much; now that's too little; yeah, it's sort of somewhere around in there". When you've got your hands and feet feeling about the same pressure, let the other person know and both of you just take a little snapshot in your memory of what it felt like, then switch and do it the other way around. When you've all had a turn, I want to make a statement to you and then ask you a rhetorical question...

(Several minutes pause here for people to do the experiment...)

The statement is: "What I asked you to do was to recreate on your hands your subjective sense of your entire weight." The question is: "Did it feel like it?" You objectively know that you weigh a hundred- and-some pounds. You can stand on the scale and read it off. Did it feel like you were squeezing with or being squeezed by a hundred-and- some pounds?

    (Everybody answers: "No no no no no")

Did it feel like twenty pounds?

    ("No no no no no")

Like five pounds?

    ("No no yes no no")

Three pounds?

    ("Yes yes yes yes yes")

We have here a rather large mismatch. A mismatch between what we objectively know and our kinaesthetic reality of the moment. What your senses are actually telling you is that you are just very lightly resting on the planet. What happened to all that 'weight', and why are we doing all that holding and gripping when we are just lightly resting there? As you can see there's quite a broad gulf between the implications of these two points of view.

It's very easy for us to 'know' that we weigh a certain number of pounds because we have these little measuring instruments called scales to tell us. I stand on it and it says, "one hundred and forty". If I was to walk over and pick up a sack of flour labelled "one hundred pounds" (which is lighter than most of us), then compare that hundred pounds with my even greater 'weight', I will naturally think: "Gee, am I ever heavy." It's not difficult, once we make that correspondence, to begin to think heavy and start to feel heavy. We begin to move heavily and go around carrying, literally, hundreds of pounds through the world in our daily life. (No wonder we want a good collapse now and again.)

But there is a very big difference between a sack of flour and you. One is something that is outside yourself which you are using yourself to feel; the other is yourself. You need to hold up the sack of flour, but the planet will hold you up. We have, in effect, sensitive scales in our feet to reassure us of it's support. The reality that your feet are telling you is, in a sense (another pun), a much more direct reality than the abstraction of pounds on a scale. We can learn to deal directly with this tangible support, allowing ourselves to bring a sense of security and lightness into practice, but only if we choose to direct our attention to it, not becoming seduced by how much weight we 'really' have and how much effort must be necessary to keep us up.

You can all sit down now... When you were standing there and as you sat down, were you aware of being lightly supported as you began to move? As you were moving? Even as you were touching the chair? And as you let the chair lightly support you? Or, did you drop back into the chair, feeling your weight and the increased effort to control it, only now becoming aware of support and contact? This necessary security of supportedness is an undeniable reality that is, at any moment, accessible to us. All we have to do is look for it. Then, and only then, do we have a chance of using it as a basis for movement. Remember also, that what you're feeling on the bottoms of your feet is all of you on the ground. No other part of you has all of you over it, so every other part of you could be used even more lightly than what you feel from your feet.

Let's go on to some further implications of that belief system which has lead us to weight, effort, and holding. What is the objective of this holding up? That is, what constitutes successful 'up'? Is it just that we don't fall down? Obviously not, since we also want freedom served with our up.

Well, it doesn't take too much to figure out that the less instability we have, the less we will tend to fall, the less effort and holding up we will need, and the more freedom we will have. So, naturally, we will be looking to get our collection of unstable weights as much up over themselves as possible. In other words, we'll be concerned with 'balance' — the sort of balance where perhaps, if we could stack ourselves up over ourselves (like piling up building blocks), getting it just right, we could let go the holding and become free. Thus, as soon as we become concerned with balance we also become concerned with 'alignment', and when we're concerned with alignment it's difficult for us not to start to pay attention to 'positions'. Am I straight? Am I vertical? Have I got myself sort of up over myself? Is this good alignment?

This sounds eminently reasonable if you imagine those stacked-up building blocks again. However, we are not a set of blocks with our parts symmetrically arranged or symmetrically moveable on each other. Because of two structural 'givens', it is not possible to balance our human bodies in the same sense that you can stack up blocks. The first is the simple fact that we are alive — we move and breathe, our hearts beat constantly, upsetting any static balance. Thus, the best we could hope for would be a dynamic, constantly-reaffirmed balance with our muscles forced to grab us when we go off balance and then pull us back to alignment. While it is possible to 'stack up' your leg bones in this kind of dynamic balancing, even though they keep wanting to go off balance, we generally find it easier to lock or hold our legs (quite often in an alignment which is not even remotely balanced).

Your torso, however, is a different story. There are entirely different kind of joints in your spine — what I call distortion joints. Your discs are flexible elastic structures, meaning that there is no movement in your spine without those discs being distorted in some way — either squashed, bent, twisted or stretched (with no particular connotations at this point about whether these distortions ultimately are 'good' or 'bad' for your discs). Your torso is also inherently unstable in a forwards direction, as we all know. When we get tired of holding ourselves up, we start to slouch out forward. To put it in different words, there is more of you in front of your spine than behind your spine. We cannot 'balance' our torsos in the sense of getting all its parts up over each other without pulling ourselves (using grabbing muscles) up out of that inherent instability and then holding ourselves there against the elasticity of our now distorted discs.

In the face of this elastic and unstable liveliness of our bodies, whatever 'alignment' we do achieve is going to require constant and fine adjustment. Naturally, we will want to get our balance as well-aligned as we can, then, hopefully, keep that good alignment where we've got it while we see if we can get a little bit more. To the degree we are successful at this aligning, we will end up deviating from this 'right posture' less and less, hence allowing less and less flexibility, until we get into a position where we hardly move at all anymore. We are no longer poised, we're postured.

As a matter of fact, as you're all aware in yourselves and the people you work with, it doesn't take long before the range of deviation from the good alignment in which we carry ourselves becomes so small that it is smaller than the range of flexibility needed for free breathing. In other words, we hold onto our breathing so it doesn't disturb our 'free' balance. Huh? This seems like pretty strange territory to end up in, considering that our path began with beliefs that made so much sense in the beginning. The more we follow this path the further away we get from what we want; and the more confusing it becomes to try to get what we want and discover that we keep getting something else!

Time to go back down to our structural 'givens' — one of which pertains to the game we played earlier. Built into you is a very powerful tool for recognizing and coming to support. As an upright creature, a very unstable upright creature, you so happen to be built that when you rest on the planet in such a way that your sense of contact is more or less evenly distributed on the bottoms of your feet, you are directly over the planet and it is supporting you totally. This means that within that range of contact you cannot fall. That is, all of you cannot fall since you are already on the ground and there is nowhere lower than the ground to fall to! This simple evenly-distributed contact is directly tangible and very easy to find. All you have to do is look for it and go there. You then know that you've taken care of your major security in terms of support on the planet and a base for movement.

All of you can't fall when you are directly over the ground. However, it is conceivable that part of you could fall off another part of you. This toppling over is what we usually mean when we speak of falling down. But there's another 'given' that takes care of that one. We are so built that it is not possible for a part of you to fall off another part of you unless you give permission for it to happen. Not only do you have to give permission for it to happen, but you have to give very active permission. And, better still, the more that you begin to topple, the more active permission you have to give to allow it to continue. Most of us, especially on a floor like this, won't give that permission more than just a little bit.

Putting this all together, perhaps we can get a little closer to understanding the strange territory we were in a minute ago, where the very way we try to be free gets us more tangled up in holding. If it's so easy to know when we're over the ground, and if (short of tripping or stumbling) we have to give permission to fall, then what exactly is going on with this holding up stuff anyway?

It is inevitable that once we force ourselves into habitual holding we will begin to feel that holding. Most people don't know exactly how they're holding, but after a couple of hours they can feel the soreness, the tension, the stopped breathing, whatever are the symptoms of that holding. It's here that we can see how important our point of view is. For, if you believe that you are holding yourself up and you let go that holding to free yourself, where is the only place you can go?

Down! It's built into your way of approach. You let go holding up, you'll come down. Every time you 'relax' your holding, thereby losing your uprightness, you will have your belief system reaffirmed. You'll say: "Ha! See I told you, I have to hold myself up because if I don't I will fall down!" Right there is the permission we have to give to topple over. It's implicit in the belief that if I don't hold myself up I will fall down. So when we stop holding ourselves up, we drop. In fact, what we're really doing when we make parts of us into weights that other parts of us are forced to hold up, is dropping ourselves and then holding up the dropping. We must be still dropping while we're holding up, because if we weren't, we would have nothing to have to hold up — another conflict in which our way of thinking can tangle us.

Hang on, it becomes curiouser and curiouser! If we return to our structure again with a different point of view, we find that even when we think we're holding ourselves up, we're not really doing that at all. What we're doing is holding ourselves down.

The fact is that there is more of you in front of your spine than behind it; in other words, we are unstable forwards. When we turn off our holding up, the upper part of our torso slouches down forwards with our lower back and hips slouching backwards. When we haul ourselves back up again, we do so looking for the result we want — to get up. We pay attention only to the end we are trying to gain and don't really notice what we're actually doing to get there. There are no skyhooks up there, of course, to grab onto and lift ourselves up, so the only way to pull ourselves up is to use that powerful set of muscles that runs up and down the back. These muscles have to pull down on our back in order to lift up our front and squeeze our lower back forward. They then must keep on holding us down to keep on holding us up! So the actual muscle work of it, the actual doing, is a pull down the length of our back. Thus, we see that 'weight', in any experiential sense, is a self- created phenomenon — we weight ourselves with our own muscles by pulling down on ourselves.

Until we can reveal to ourselves the 'doing' side of it — the actual pull down — it's inevitable that we are going to be stuck in our point of view, and consequently stuck with our habit of holding up and all the symptoms that go with it. Now, if we can start to catch ourselves in our pulling down, and we can release that pulling down, where can we go?

Up! Quite a different direction — approximately 180 degrees different — from what we normally think of as gravity. Hard to imagine how one could let go upwards — it seems to defy that whole other belief system. And yet we got here by picking at a few loose thread on the 'reality' and finding that we've unravelled a line of reasoning which, at the very least, gives us a different perspective to work with. As we begin to catch ourselves in these 'mismatches' between systems, we begin to have the opportunity of choosing a point of view which might actually lead where we want to go.

If we can catch ourselves at the actual doing of holding ourselves down and manage to release that holding, we go up. We are then, in the deepest way, changing our whole way of organizing ourselves so that, instead of trying to hold ourselves up, we can get up by releasing our holdings-down. In other words, we can use our muscles to let go of parts into activity — into more freedom, more openness, more length, more breathing, and more flexibility.

When we ungrip to let ourselves go up and open out, we allow an expansion to come in. That's the opposite of the contraction and inward pressure we saw before. The expansion allows more freedom of movement and more sensitivity, not only inside ourselves, but also outward to the planet and our daily life. This increased sensitivity makes it easier to notice our changing supportedness and, also, to respond accordingly. When we are weighting ourselves and holding up the weight, we tend not to be aware of where our support is — we aren't looking for that kind of information. Instead, we're looking for alignment, hence, we can't use our sense of lightly being supported and are stuck in the vicious circle of balancing weights.

It is very difficult, when you are subscribing to one belief system, to allow the elements of another system to come in — they tend to exclude each other. A belief system will always tend to expand outwards until it equals 'reality'. Operating within a system gives you corresponding sensory feedback such that you experience yourself and the world in terms of that system, which in turn corroborates the whole approach of the system.

Let me give you another example of this. There is a lot of attention these days in our fitness-conscious, beauty-conscious, thin-conscious, culture focused on our abdominal area. We generally have a conception that all our organs are just going to come plopping out if our abdominal muscles don't do their job of holding everything in. So we work hard to get those flabby muscles trim, toned, and strong so they can keep everything nicely in there. The usual way to achieve this is through 'strengthening exercises' such as sit-ups, leg-raises, rowing exercises, and so on.

Structurally speaking, these muscles stretch between your ribs and your pelvis. The major set of muscles run in a criss-cross fashion diagonally, while others run up and down from the front of your chest to your pubic bones. When we work hard at these exercises, we are practicing getting very good at shortening our abdominal muscles; we're getting very strong at pulling our ribs closer to our pelvis; at pulling our ribs down. We are training ourselves to use these muscles to reach down from our ribs, grab hold of our organs, pull them up and in, and then hold them there. We are hanging our organs from our ribs — in essence, hanging weights from our ribs. Since the criss-cross muscles narrow our chest when they shorten, these pulls act not only downwards, but inwards as well, pressuring our organs. No wonder they want to pop out the moment we let go — it's not in spite of the 'strength' of the muscles, but because of it!

Strangely enough, moreover, it seems to be that our ribs have a lot to do with breathing. Breathing seems to be the sort of thing that has to do with expansion — an expansion where our ribs open upwards and outwards all the way around us. Thus, if we do any abdominal holding- in, we're using our own muscles to interfere with our breathing. In addition, it is inevitable that if we do any contractile 'effort' with these muscles in front, we also force ourselves to do similar effort in our back. Our spines are, after all, flexible structures and if we pull down with these front muscles without any compensatory pulling-down in back, we simply bend ourselves over forwards. So now we have two sets of muscles pulling down on us — and we wonder where our heaviness and tension comes from?

Here we are with a skeletal structure, with it's connecting ligaments and capsules, that is very free. There's absolutely nothing in your skeleton to stop free movement. The only thing that can stop us from moving freely in ourselves is that our muscles won't let go of our bones. As soon as we start any grabbing on with our muscles to shape or posture ourselves, we will have to begin compensatory holdings elsewhere until the contraction spreads all over us. (Each person's patterns of holdings and droppings, tightenings and squeezings, will naturally vary according to their own ingenuity and determination.)

In a manner similar to holding-up posturally, if we notice our abdominal holding (up and in) and then let go of the holding, of course our organs are going to drop out. This reaffirms the need to hold them in, and around we go again. But if we sense how we are holding ourselves down and, instead, let go of our ribs upwards and outwards, we simply allow ourselves to breathe again. We give ourselves more space; our organs are happier; our muscles lengthen and are more 'elastic'; and our in-built breathing reflexes are freed and activated — all because we stopped interfering.

Let's come back to this concept of balance again. There is another problem we create for ourselves. When we search for good alignment, we tend to gradually freeze our liveliness and flexibility into 'right positions'. As we become stiffer and more stuck we begin to have a sizeable amount of inertia to overcome when we go into movement. That is to say, it becomes easiest for us to go into movement by actually going off balance so as to get the momentum of our 'weight' working for us. Walking, for instance, is described in many texts as a 'continually-arrested falling' — we lean forward off our supporting surface area then force ourselves to react by catching ourselves.

This is very obvious in sitting and standing also. It is astounding how so many people sit down by heading blithely back off their feet to begin. As they leave their supporting surface little stiffenings increase in their necks and backs; tension starts in the front of their thighs; their arms may reach out; their toes pick up a little off the ground and you can see the tendons in the front of their ankles stand out. All these events aren't extraneous habits we have picked up, they are balance reactions — the sort of things which happen when you go backwards off balance.

Similarly, if I pose the question to a group of people: "What do you have to do to stand up out of a chair?", they will tend to describe a combination of the following: "I have to lean forward", or a little more actively: "I have to thrust myself [or pull myself] forward". "I have to then push down [or push myself up] with my legs to get up". (Everybody knows you have to push; how can you get that weight up unless you do some work?) "I have to lift [my bottom] off the chair in some way". (They will probably not be aware of all the tightening in their neck and the arching of their back during this sudden 'oommpphh' of pulling off the chair.) "I reach out with my arms as I get up", or sometimes: "I put my hands on my knees and push myself up". (This is an interesting one — pushing down on a part of yourself in order to lift another part up!)

From a different point of view, these things we experience as essential parts of standing which 'I have to do in order to get up' aren't things we are 'doing'; they are simply things we have become accustomed to feeling because every time we try to get out of the chair before we are remotely over our feet. All of the above efforts — the tightening of our neck, the arch of our back, the reach of our arms, the grab in our thighs — are not really actions. They are the balancing reflexes of us suddenly having to grab ourselves from falling and reach for balance because we aren't over our new support (our feet) before we try to leave our old one (the chair). We just get so used to them happening that we think we're doing them. Interestingly, there's nothing like going off balance, then grabbing and lifting the off-balanceness, to give an experience of weight and effort. Thus we become convinced that we have to do quite a bit of helping out to get our heavy old selves up off that chair.

Of course, in a sense, we are doing all those efforts. We force ourselves to do them because we have almost no awareness of where up-over-the-ground really is. We don't have any real experience of balance and support — all we've got is a series of experiences of reaction when we've gone way off it. We have no real set of experiences of what it's like to use gravity intelligently and skilfully. And one thing the Alexander Technique is about, is learning a skill. At least on the physical side, we refine a skill of using ourselves in the world, in whatever activities we are doing, in such a way as to free and open ourselves (not only the self we are at that moment, but to all our as-yet undiscovered possibilities).

There are so many different ways we can move; different shapes we can get into; and different activities in which we can partake. We are such free structures with so much potential. If we don't have the skill to manage all that freedom, we still have to go on living and functioning, so our only recourse is to shut down parts of that freedom in order to be able to manage it. We generally accomplish this by using our muscles to freeze joints by gripping our bones until, for practical purposes, there is no joint there to manage. We end up reducing the possibilities until there become only a few places of movement; few enough for us to deal with. Alexander's discovery of our constructive central organization, and his technique for getting across how to access it, teach us how to gradually discover for ourselves the skill of letting ourselves be freer, lighter and more open — and the further skill of staying with (or keeping coming to) that new central organization so that, while being freer, lighter and more open, we can learn how to go about our various activities.

Well, so far tonight we've explored how our thinking affects our use, and the implications of applying a more constructive point of view to the fundamental 'givens'. Let me begin to finish by using this tool to climb up into the attic and look at our thinking itself.

Our brain (that is, our forebrain) is built in two functionally somewhat different halves. The left brain is primarily concerned with analysing. To use our point of view of subjective/objective, it is the objective part of our brain. Processes in that half attempt to deal with movement by breaking it down into components and directing parts individually. That mode of thinking is very well-suited for directing activities out in the world. That's the part which can figure out how things work. That's the part which conceptualizes, gets insights into mechanisms, sees patterns in things and connections. That analytical mode works beautifully when focusing our attention outside of ourselves, using these insights and ideas as a guide, to recruit and direct our parts in the manipulation of objects, in making things, and in invention. That part of us is not very well-suited to dealing with directing us as a whole in postural 'activity' or in movement because it inherently wants to break it down into bits and direct us as a series of parts. That mode is very linear, very cause and effect, very 'objective'. When we operate that way on ourselves, we inevitably start to lose our integration and sense of coordination — we end up splitting ourselves and losing the whole.

On the other hand, the right side of our brain 'experiences' movement rather than analysing it. Through that area we experience as a whole. This is the part of your brain which is sensitive to your kinaesthetic feedback. This is the part of your brain which can perceive support; which can perceive openness, and freedom, and liveliness, and all the incredible amount of information which we need in order to use ourselves skilfully. We have no hope of being able to use ourselves with a highly responsive skill without a great deal of reliable information. If we don't have enough information available to us, we have no choice but to shut down possibilities and respond with a relatively crude level of activity in whatever we are doing. Thus, when we embark on a process of integrating and unifying ourselves; of gaining a sensitivity and an appropriate responsiveness; of freeing and opening ourselves we are largely developing our right brain functioning.

However, it is the left part of our brain which handles verbal explanations; which figures things out; which is able to talk about things. We are going to have a bit of a problem if we successfully allow ourselves to experience ourselves and the world around us as whole, and then try to analyse it and talk about it, since our left brain didn't have the experience and so can't really explain it. If we attempt to explain it in left brain mode, we'll have to reduce the experience down to something that is figure-out-able. This abstracting, conceptualizing mode of consciousness is only part of us — there is a lot more happening in us than this part can isolate and focus detailed attention on. This 'objective' mode is like Procrustes when it encounters a new experience outside it's territory. It will encompass and explain the whole by chopping it down to fit it's present concepts and terms. When we do this, we, as a whole, shrink a little bit along with our thinking. As our point of view narrows down to concentrating on fiddling with the parts, our muscles also contract us, pull us down, narrow us; and at the same time our experience of our self shrinks up into a point somewhere behind our eyes. When we use the products of that reductive thinking in communicating with other people, in stimulating their thinking, and encouraging their potential, our effectiveness will diminish proportionally.

This doesn't mean, though, that we can't use words constructively at all with this process, because obviously I'm doing it right now. We need to learn to use the language, not as an end in itself to model or 'explain' the experience, so much as to prepare us and lead us up to the experience. I think the best use of language is to lead us into a point of view where we can catch the mismatches of our belief systems in action; where we can reveal and understand the premises of our habits. We need also to explore and/or expand the repertoire of language for more constructive concepts and phrases which more closely mirror the quality of the experience we discover, so that in thinking and speaking it, we are greasing the way to living it.

This means allowing our thinking to lead us to inherently paradoxical places; somewhat circular places; places where we don't need to immediately try to figure out and resolve everything. After all, hopefully, they are new and unknown experiences — a little larger than our 'old' selves.

Let me emphasize here that I'm not disparaging the objective point of view. It is, of course, a point of view that describes the way things work when considered objectively, i.e. from outside ourselves. However valid (and valuable) it is when directed outwardly (and that includes looking at the human body as an object), it ceases to be constructive when turned inward and used on our own selves as a basis for activity. That left brain mode of understanding only leads us right back into the sort of use and experience which we are trying to get out of. For, we cannot figure out this new reality — the only understanding is the actual experience itself. After we've allowed ourselves to reorganize into a new experience of activation, of opening ourselves, of release and lightness, it all begins to make sense, and we can say: "Ah, now I see what you mean!"

Our mind and our thinking can be a very powerful tool if we can gain command of our attention and learn to direct it constructively. When we learn to use that tool appropriately, our language and the way we use it can engage people's thinking in such a way as to facilitate them letting themselves have the experience. As a result, they will find, gradually, that the point of view of this new pathway (the means) will be reaffirmed by the understanding that comes with the actual experience itself.

In other words we have to become comfortable with that left brain part of us feeling a little hungry, a little unsatisfied, while we stay close to the experience and avoid abstracting it. That left brain part likes to consider the right brain contribution as only supplying 'raw material' of sensory experience which it then has to polish into a finished product, nicely wrapped in meaning. We need to respect the reality of the experience — its awesome depth, its emotional scariness, its open-ended newness. We have to embrace the seeming paradox of getting what we want by giving up what we have. We have to acknowledge those mismatches — those parts which don't fit — between the old and the new and just let ourselves exist, for the moment, as two different 'realities' in the same place at once. There is an immense amount of energy-of-discovery generated by the conflict of two different realities in the same place at once. The inevitable resolution of that conflict will occur by itself. Our job is to create and maintain the forum where that working out can take place for us. It is an extremely constructive place where we will grow and change and become more free. In other words, it's a process of evolution which we can choose to enter at any time.

That's really all I wanted to say... Thank you.


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

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About the Author

David GormanDavid Gorman has been studying human structure and function since 1970. He is the author of an illustrated 600-page text on our human musculoskeletal system, called The Body Moveable (now in its 6th edition and in colour), and numerous articles and essays, including the book, Looking at Ourselves (2nd edition in colour).

David has been working with performers (singers, musicians, actors, dancers and circus artists) for over forty years. He is a trainer of teachers of LearningMethods and of the Alexander Technique and has taught all over the world in universities, conservatories, performance companies, and orchestras; for doctors in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics; and in training courses for Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, physiotherapy, osteopathy, massage & yoga.

Over the years, his changing understanding about the root causes of people's problems led him to gradually extend his Alexander Technique teaching into the development of a new work, LearningMethods (and an offshoot, Anatomy of Wholeness about our marvelous human design), which is being integrated into the curricula of performance schools in Europe, Canada and the United States by a growing number of LearningMethods Teachers and Apprentice-teachers.

Since 2010, David has been running online post-graduate groups for Alexander Technique teachers and groups for those who want to learn to use LearningMethods in their own lives, as well as those who want to integrate the work into their existing professional work as a teacher, therapist, medical or body-work practitioner.

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