Awareness is a user interface

In What is the Alexander Technique? I defined awareness as:

the space that attention can move around within; the capacity, moment by moment, to be able to notice things that could be noticed.

Let’s play a game.

First, please look at this optical illusion. Is it a duck? Or is it a rabbit? Or is it both at once?

Spend a few moments to really see each version and switch back and forth between the two a few times. This is important: the rest won’t make sense if you don’t spend a few moments getting comfortable with this ‘switching’.

Great!

Thanks for doing that.

Now on with the game.

How many of the following statements are true?

  • “I am leaning forwards slightly in my chair”
  • “I am holding my breath a little bit”
  • “There is some extra tension in my face, particularly around my eyes and jaw, and in my shoulders”
  • “I have sort of forgotten that the rest of the world around me exists”

Sorry (not sorry), but I played a trick on you. The game had nothing to do with the optical illusion, but was meant to show you a few important things:

  • It’s easy for your sense of what is ‘important’ to be hijacked. Fundamentally, you’re reading an article involving a duck and a rabbit from some guy on the Internet. This is possibly one of the least ‘important’ things you’ll do all day, yet I suspect many of you responded within a frame of needing to get something ‘right’.
  • Our awareness is easily ‘collapsed’ by sufficiently powerful stimuli. Did the world go away a little bit while you were looking at the picture? When I pointed this out, was there a sense of surprise and ‘getting the world back’? This is perhaps the most confronting part of this for me — how easily I can be made to ‘check out’ of my wider environment.
  • Your attention and awareness have a powerful influence over your body. If you noticed any of the physical effects I mentioned, just ask yourself… why are you doing any of that? Even if you want to argue that you needed to get closer to the screen to see the illusion… did you really?

Now, let’s get that expanded awareness back.

Right now, in this moment, and without moving your attention away from these words:

  • notice that there is a world above your head and behind you
  • notice that there are also ambient sounds
  • if someone were to call your name, just check that you would be able to notice that.
  • notice that there are objects in your peripheral vision
  • …now notice if your body has changed at all

Notice also how you didn’t have to do anything to be able to notice more of the world, nor did you have to actually look at or ‘listen at’ it. There’s something going on here.

Like I said, awareness is the capacity, moment by moment, to be able to notice things that could be noticed, and you can’t do noticing.

Awareness gives you agency and the freedom to choose

Here’s a fun question to ponder.

While you were engaged in figuring out the illusion and making it switch back and forth… could you have stopped and done anything else? Or were you on a kind of autopilot that released you back into the world, either when the task was completed or as it became less salient? This effect would have been be more apparent if your awareness was more collapsed, by the way.

If you noticed this, just think: how much is this happening throughout your day to day life? I use the example of browsing Twitter: when you’re in infinite scroll mode, are you able to stop? Or do you have to wait, somewhat unconsciously, until your attention is no longer hooked, whatever the cause of that may be?

This is something you can explore in your own life.

If something is outside your awareness — i.e., in a given moment when you wouldn’t be able to notice something that you might notice if you were in a different mode — are you able to take action in relation to it?

For example:

  • if a friend calls your name and you don’t notice it — and not because it was inaudible — can you answer them?
  • if you don’t notice the thought that you need to buy your mother a birthday card, can you?
  • if you forget that the space behind you exists, are you able to occupy it? (Are you already leaning forward slightly again, right now? How long have you been doing that?)
  • If you’re not aware that you could take another route to work, can you go that way?

This is why I say that expanding your awareness increases your agency — it literally makes more options available to you.

But! As you’ve seen, it’s also trivially easy for your awareness to be collapsed by external (and internal) stimuli.

If the space between stimulus and response is very small, you will almost certainly end up following your habitual response, over and over. Your options disappear just at the moment you might want to choose one of them.

So how about that user interface?

My goal with this article has been to show you that these dynamics around awareness exist. It’s a whole new world of experience, with effects that seem obvious on reflection, but that lacked words and a useable framework.

THIS is why Alexander Technique, I think, could be so valuable. Alexander Technique lets you engage with the world at the level of awareness, rather than at the level of the objects within it.

For example, many people lean forwards and slouch when they work at a laptop, because they ‘forget’ that the space above and behind them exists, and their bodies follow their awareness.

If that’s you, you might use muscle to ‘sit up straight’ and sit back… or you could expand your awareness up and back and watch as your body reorganises itself, without you ‘doing’ anything. This does actually work, and people who have taken the course are reporting this kind of experience.

This particular rabbit hole goes deep, and this is already a long article, so I won’t list more examples now.

But the point is that the stuff you can notice happening in and to awareness is not passive — you can reach in and play with it. And when you do, things change. Your body moves differently, you think differently, you make different choices, and on and on.


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Michael Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft

London


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