Expanding Awareness

ADHD and the Alexander Technique

By Michael Ashcroft | 6 min read

Some people with ADHD have reported benefits in applying some of the ideas from my materials. What could be going on here?

My interest in Alexander Technique’s potential relevance to ADHD arose because quite a few people with ADHD who have engaged with my materials have reported improvement in how ADHD manifests for them. I’m curious why this is, because my lay understanding is that ADHD has more to do with attention control than with awareness.

But reports like this thread from Thomas got me curious: what if ADHD has a significant awareness component as well, such that learning to notice and control what’s happening with awareness might also be beneficial for those with ADHD?

I’ll comment on some points that Thomas raises and see what conclusions we might be able to draw.

Understanding attention vs awareness

First of all, for anyone who hasn’t seen me talk about this, it’s important to remember that attention and awareness are distinct, yet mutually interacting ways of relating to the world.

My view, which I’ve seen reflected both in The Mind Illuminated (Culadasa) from a Buddhist-meditation perspective, and in The Master And His Emissary (Iain McGilchrist) from a neuroscientific perspective, is as follows:

Is ADHD a problem of hyper-contracted awareness?

I don’t have ADHD, so I rely on reports like Thomas’ to give me a window into what the experience might be like, although I also recognise that his experience of ADHD might not be like others’ experience of ADHD.

Thomas reports that, in fact, he has “sharp and stable levels of attention all the time”, but…

From my perspective, a “tiny blob” of awareness could be problematic few reasons.

Hyper-contracted awareness leads to hyper-constrained attention, where attention cannot go anywhere outside the boundary of awareness. If you can’t notice people or objects around you then you can’t make any choices regarding them. In effect, you would be stuck in tunnel vision until something sufficiently powerful knocked you out of it, like exhaustion, an intrinsic loss of interest or a sufficiently powerful outside stimulus.

On its own, this seems to makes sense, but it doesn’t square with some other reports of ADHD that suggest it’s either difficult or even impossible for people with ADHD to sustain attention on a single thing. Instead, attention seems to move from one thing to another with extreme speed, leading to experiences something like “I was trying to read a book, but now I’m playing online Chess—how did that happen?”

I suspect these two views are compatible, though, if we consider that the tiny blob of awareness could itself, for whatever reason, bounce around with attention constrained inside it. The flow of events might go something like:

This could happen extremely quickly with multiple cycles in quick succession, leading to rapid shifting, repeated hyper-focus and low awareness that this dynamic is happening at all, because awareness—the thing that allows you to notice things like this—is itself too contracted.

Could awareness control help with ADHD?

If this analysis is accurate—or at least sufficiently accurate for some people’s experience of ADHD—then learning to better notice and control the dynamics of awareness, rather than attention, could be helpful to reduce some of the unhelpful manifestations of ADHD.

One way to catch this might be to practice having a more spacious awareness in order to catch the cycle as it’s happening. If the ‘flash’ of awareness that happens with the focus shift could be expanded or extended, even a little, it might provide enough of an entry point to notice and interrupt the cycle.

In general, I wouldn’t attempt to train this in the context of task focus, because the pull of attention is too strong. Instead I suggest practicing in low-stakes contexts, like going for a walk in nature without external input like audiobooks, podcasts or music. Over time the ‘baseline’ level of awareness can improve enough to make noticing the rapid switching easier, or even to reduce the “tiny blob of awareness” effect when in hyper-focus mode.

Mind-body interactions and ADHD

The other point that Thomas raises in that thread is the relationship between awareness and how to body responds to it, which may be particularly emphasised in ADHD.

A shorthand way of explaining this relationship is “where awareness leads, body follows”. Contracted states of awareness tend to shrink the stature of the body, particularly in such a way as the body moves towards where contracted awareness is located.

Put another way, if you are only aware of the space in front and down from you, like if you’re working on a laptop or using a phone, your body will tend to slump forwards and down. Beyond the ‘bad’ posture, this will also come with all kinds of generalised muscle tension and constricted breathing patterns.

As Thomas correctly points out, if you are able to notice that your body is crumpled, something aches and your breathing is shallow, this can be enough of a cue to intervene. This can be as simple as moving, or it can involve an expansion of awareness back into the broader space around you. In general, that moment of ‘coming back to yourself’ and moving around comes with an expansion of awareness anyway, whether you’re explicitly conscious of it or not.

Isn’t contraction of awareness needed for focus?

There’s one question I get a lot: “don’t I need to cut out distractions to make focus easier?”

My answer to this is… maybe. I don’t know for sure. There are plenty of times I have found easy focus in an obnoxiously distracting environment, and plenty of times I have been horribly distractible in a silent, empty room.

That said, for people who have trouble sustaining attention, removing distractions from awareness can be helpful, because the pull can be too strong. I would just suggest doing this through environment design—like noise cancelling headphones, reduced visual clutter, airplane mode, etc—rather than contracting awareness, because that comes with unhelpful physical and mental side effects, like tension.

In an ideal world, I suspect that training both attention and awareness would be beneficial, such that even if you’re able to notice distractions, you’re still able to keep attention where you want it. In the absence of this, contracting awareness may work, but in my view it’s suboptimal and probably has unwanted second-order effects.

That’ll probably do for now. If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them. I am doing my best to simulate what ADHD is like from the inside, but I could be completely wrong. If I am, please let me know so I can update my model! I suspect there is some useful work to be done along these lines.