Expanding Awareness

A single integrated field of awareness

By Michael Ashcroft | 6 min read
From the cover of "Freedom To Change" by Frank Pierce Jones

I’ve started re-reading one of the best Alexander Technique books out there: Freedom to Change by Frank Pierce Jones. When I have a reading list, this book will be on it.

I want to share a few really interesting excerpts from the opening chapters with some commentary.

“It was only after I realized attention [what I call awareness - MA] can be expanded as well as narrowed that I began to note progress. In order to move on a conscious level in which I could be aware of both doing and not-doing (of the inhibitory as well as excitatory part of the movement), I had to expand my attention [awareness] so that it took in something of myself and something of the environment.” Frank Pierce Jones

This framing of expanding attention (awareness) to include both doing and not-doing is really interesting. One of the core skills of Alexander Technique is that of inhibition, the constructive noticing and choosing not to respond to stimuli. You may notice that you have the urge to yell at your boss, but you don’t.

But this is an active process, one that you are continually renewing.

You are aware of what you are doing in response to your boss (having a conversation) and what you’re not doing in your response to your boss (yelling). Through the skill of inhibition, your awareness includes both of these processes at once. At any moment you could yell — that option is available to you, should you want it, and this is a good thing — but you're choosing not to.

The expanded awareness is what allows this to happen. If your awareness were collapsed down to the yell response, you wouldn’t have any choice but to yell. By expanding out you are able to monitor a wider field of processes and choose the one you want.

He immediately goes on to say:

“It was just as easy, I found, instead of setting up two fields—one for the self (introspection), one for the environment (extraspection)—to establish a single integrated field in which both the environment and the self could be viewed simultaneously.” Frank Pierce Jones

For those of you with any contemplative training, particularly in Zen, this should be really exciting. Particularly bearing in mind that, to my knowledge, Pierce Jones had no involvement in these himself.

This ‘single integrated field’ is a wonderful way to experience life, and gives access to the skills of Alexander Technique. You learn to ‘be able to notice all the things that you could notice’, rather than being functionally blind to some proportion of your experience.

Remember, when something is outside of your awareness, it is essentially inaccessible/impossible for you. You cannot get out of the car if you do not know that outside of the car exists.

Later, he talks about really enjoying movement for its own sake for the first time, with links to the expanded state (emphasis mine):

“Using my body even for such tasks as shovelling snow or mowing the lawn became pleasurable. I supposed that other people had these experiences routinely, but for me they carried the fresh appeal of newness—like a new spectrum of colours. There was more to it, however, than mere sensory experience; there was a strong intellectual content. By expanding the field of consciousness it is possible to enjoy an experience at both a sensory and an intellectual level. Frank Pierce Jones

Expanding consciousness (awareness) allows you to notice all the things that can be noticed, which here includes both the physical sensations of movement as well as your thoughts about them (or about anything else). You no longer have to swap back and forth from one to the other, like checking out of your body when you daydream or being unable to think while engaged in movement. This is useful, as he goes on:

“By ‘overviewing’ it you can detect and inhibit trains of thought or patterns of tension that would otherwise get in the way of your enjoyment.” Frank Pierce Jones

Let’s say you’re playing with your kids and you start thinking about the deadline at work tomorrow. Having this expanded awareness (overviewing) allows you to notice that and then consciously choose not to respond to that thought, such that you can continue enjoying playing with your kids.

But that’s common to lots of mindfulness practices, and AT has more to offer. He then adds:

“Bringing the intellect into physical experience has practical value as a problem-solving technique. A sprained ankle or a stiff neck ceases to be mysterious. After ruling out external causes that can be remedied by help from outside, you set up the hypothesis that something you are doing is interfering with the healing process. It is a hypothesis that can be easily tested an acted upon.” Frank Pierce Jones

There’s a lot here.

One thing to highlight is the scientific method framing here in the creation of and testing of hypotheses. In fact, John Dewey, the American philosopher, said:

“Mr Alexander’s technique is scientific in the strictest sense of the word.” John Dewey

And indeed that was my experience of my own training: propose hypothesis, create test, observe result, refine hypothesis. Repeat.

Also here is the ability to notice and stop things that you’re doing to yourself. The AT principle of psychophysical unity (body and mind are one process, not separate) also leads to such concepts as noticing what I’m doing to my body with my thoughts and then stopping that, like the kind of tension we create while we are ‘concentrating’, like how you might be tensing your face as you read right now.

I want to end this exploration with a final excerpt about what inhibition is like:

“The emotion (or the autonomic manifestation of it), instead of building up to an explosive force, remained a potential for action but did not interfere with rational decision. The same procedure could be used to take the panic out of fear. Redirecting or containing an emotion in this way is not the same as relaxing or ignoring the stimulus, both of which would reduce the capacity for action if action should be needed.”

Alexander Technique gives you the capacity and agency to remain available to respond to any stimulus in any way you choose. You can also see from this why so many benefits are in scope for this work: movement, emotional management, communication, intellectual pursuits: the entire scope of human activity can be improved through these skills. Sounds like snake oil, but if you’re talking about improving the functioning of the human organism, then this isn’t that weird.

I'll close with one last quote from the book's introduction as it's a great definition of Alexander Technique (whether the monkey paw meme is true or not is irrelevant):

“It is said that a simple way to trap a monkey is to present him with a nut in a bottle. The monkey puts his paw through the bottle's narrow mouth, grasps the nut, then cannot withdraw his paw because he will not (and hence cannot) let go of the nut. Most people are caught in monkey traps of unconscious habit. They cannot escape because they do not perceive what they are doing while they are doing it. Having an unconscious response pattern pointed out to you by someone else is not the same thing as perceiving it for yourself while it is happening. The Alexander Technique opens a window onto the little-known area between stimulus and response and gives you the self-knowledge you need in order to change the pattern of your response—or, if you choose, not to make it at all. Missy Vineyard
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