The Alexander Technique as a Foundation for Spiritual Practice
Enlightenment is not some special state of mindThe state you are in when you have ‘right posture’ is itself Enlightenment. These are the words of Suzuki Roshi, the foremost interpreter of Zen for the West, speaking to a group of close students some 25 years ago.. Clearly Suzuki Roshi is not referring to some mechanically correct body position when he speaks of ‘posture’. He is actually professing to his students his profound confidence in the unity of mind and body. His message is, that though they may not appear identical on every level, mind and body are intimately and inextricably interwoven and interdependent aspects of the unified whole. We find ourselves however in a culture and historical era where ‘mind’ has come to be regarded as separate from and senior to ‘body’, and although the mind is quite fascinated by such concepts as mind\body unity it is rarely willing to surrender its superior position. Historically we have some of the great minds of our civilization to thank for this predicament. St. Augustine, embellishing Plato’s ideas of eight centuries earlier, argued eloquently for a dogma of salvation through transcendence of the ‘profane’ body. Christian theology prior to this was basically holistic (holy) and the Old Testament is abundant with lines like; “they stiffened their necks so they would not hear the words of the Lord” ( Jeremiah 17:23) suggesting an understanding of ‘bodymind’ unity. The philosophical surgery excising mind from body was completed in the seventeenth century by Rene Descartes. His proclamation, “I think, therefore I am”, made a telling epitaph on the tombstone of wholebeing.
Alexander’s DiscoveryLate last century F.M. Alexander, himself a product of this polarized culture, developed certain physical symptoms which were to propel him on a journey of discovery and teaching spanning over 50 years. In the process of seeking a cure for the recurrent voice loss that had plagued his acting career, he began to realize that his problems: “were not primarily due to defects in the use and associated functioning of the parts of the organism most immediately concerned, but were the indirect result of defects in my general use of myself which were constantly lowering the standard of my general functioning, and harmfully influencing the musculature of the whole organism.” In recognizing the “close connection between the processes of use and functioning which worked from the whole to the part” F.M. Alexander was meeting head on the cultural conviction, by now so finely woven into the fabric of society as to be virtually invisible, that held mind to be separate from body. He now realized that it was this belief itself, held within his body as a complex of neuro- muscular patterns, which was causing his health problems. After a long journey of self-experimentation, he succeeded in distilling this insight into a practical method, of exquisite simplicity, to gradually restore the integrity of his being. The changes in his health and demeanor were apparent to acquaintances whose requests for assistance inspired him to find a way to teach his discoveries to others. Many benefited from his teaching and as his work progressed, and was refracted through the perceptions of certain of his pupils, notably Aldous Huxley, G.B.Shaw and the American educator/philosopher John Dewey, Alexander came to appreciate more fully its philosophical resonances. However this recognition never tempted him into abstraction in his teaching methods. His teaching continued to involve the individual’s moment-by- moment awareness and choice. He taught his pupils how to notice the moment when habitual attitudes or movement patterns interfered with the natural coordination (which he called ‘use’) of mind and body. He showed them how over-concern with results, which he called ‘ends’, caused them to abandon good ‘use’ in favor of unconscious inappropriate effort. He taught verbally and with refined manual guidance how to suspend the habitual way of performing an activity, be it breathing, threading a needle or conducting an orchestra, maintaining the primacy of the dynamic relationship between head neck and back. By suspending the habitual reaction to a given stimulus, a process that Alexander called ‘inhibition’, his pupils learned how to hold the intentional pursuit of a goal within a matrix of constructive means. Gradually, under these favorable conditions, good ‘use’ was found to re-establish itself. T.S.Eliot describes this process in the almost scriptural lines: I say to you: make perfect your will. I say: take no thought of the harvest, but only of proper sowing.
We’ve heard the likes of this before though, only to have it become just another nice idea to amuse the mind. What Alexander discovered was a method of teaching which, by addressing the mind and body as a unified whole, made it more than an idea. He found he could communicate the principals through a refined manual guidance, informed by his own ‘use’. He attended to his own ‘means’, suspending any tendency to directly pursue his goal of helping his pupil: he ‘made perfect’ his ‘will’, and took ‘no thought of the ‘harvest’. He entrusted the harvest to something he on occasion referred to as “the unknown origin”, or in characteristically less mystical terms, “the total pattern of response”. To see that this ‘total pattern’ is more than some remote ideal state, one needs only to observe a healthy infant. While absorbed in exploring a fascinating new world an infant’s whole system is available – eyes, neck, back, limbs a concerted whole. There’s no fixing of the breathing no undue contraction of neck and back muscles. The habits that result in poor use have not yet become fixed in the infant’s psychomotor system, so that although her motor skills are relatively undeveloped, she is naturally balanced and coordinated.