Expanding Awareness

Explaining Alexander Technique to software developers

By Michael Ashcroft | 9 min read

Just like computer programs, it seems humans have functions. When functions run, the world can get less vivid while reducing your agency.

I'm going to explain a human phenomenon that Alexander Technique plays with, using an idea from computer science: functions. I'm not a developer, so I might not capture it perfectly, but you also don't need to be a developer to follow my thinking.

First, what are functions? Computer programs tend to run linearly, line by line, top to bottom. At the most basic level, you need to write out every single step that you want the code to carry out. This creates a lot of repetition, which gets tedious quickly. Every time you want to print a list, add numbers together, or change the format of some text, you need to write out the code to do those things in full.

This is where functions come in. A function is a chunk of reusable code that is 'called' from the main program, does something, and returns the answer back to the main program, which then continues on its journey from top to bottom.

You have functions

What Alexander Technique reveals is that humans have functions, or something like them. I don't want to imply that humans are as mechanistic as computers, though, so let's assume it's more complicated than that and that this is just a simple analogy.

You have many functions of varying complexity. Here are some examples:

You get the idea. Each of of these probably calls a bunch of other functions as part of an enormously complex, interconnected web of behaviours that you do a lot.

While most of my examples are physical, that's only because they're easier to point to. In fact, since mind and body are one continuous process—this is a core principle of Alexander Technique, which points at the same thing as 'bodymind' in other traditions—all functions are also 'psychophysical'. Neither entirely mental, nor entirely physical, but both. Thinking is a physical act and movement is a thoughtful act.

These functions accumulate throughout your life into an increasingly large 'library' of things you can do without being conscious of how you do them. The existence of these functions makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary point of view, because they save energy and free up resources for other things. We might also call functions 'habits' or 'grooves of familiar behaviours'. Once a groove has been laid down, it takes less work to follow that same groove next time.

Alexander Technique—and other awareness-based practices, I'm sure—reveal that strange effects come with these functions. The first is a kind of reduction in consciousness.

Functions put you on autopilot

Have you ever had the experience where you've been daydreaming and someone has pulled you out of your reverie and back 'into the world'? It's an odd experience, akin to waking up, where you suddenly realise that you weren't all there. You were somewhere else. Where? That's not clear, but you weren't fully present in the world around you.

People sometimes use the terms 'check out' or 'zone out' for this effect, where it's like the world has gone away a little bit. Sometimes things feel further away, less colourful or somehow dimmer. There might be an experience of tunnel vision, or what might be called 'contracted awareness'. There might also be a sense that you're 'living in your head', or what I tend to think of as being in a simulation of the world rather than in the world itself.

This effect tends to happen at the moment when your functions are called, just as the familiar behaviour starts. Alexander called this the "critical moment".

Take sitting down as an example. As you start to sit down, you enter the 'sit down' function, your consciousness of the world around you diminishes a little, and then comes back when you've finishing sitting down. Functions like this are running all the time, so you probably move through multiple overlapping functions and experience different layers of being more or less vividly 'in the world' throughout the day.

It's tricky to notice that this is even happening, because the reduction in consciousness that comes with being in a function also affects your capacity to notice it. You might call this a reduction in 'meta awareness'—your awareness of awareness itself.

What all this means is that it's difficult to step out of these functions—these highly familiar, habitual behaviours—while you're in them. You're like a ball bearing stuck in a well-worn groove: until the groove shallows out, you can't roll any other way.

Your functions may not be serving you

In theory, functions are a tremendously useful time, energy and cognition saving device. Having to work out how to tie your shoelaces from first principles every time doesn't lend itself to an effortless life.

There's a big 'however' here, though. Alexander's view—based on an early 20th century, lay understanding of evolution, I should make clear—was that humans are in the unique position of having the capacity to involve ourselves in our own behaviour, while also experiencing rapid and dramatic change in our environments relative to how we evolved.

I'll dig into this more in a minute, but first I'll bring in another modern idea from computer science that I believe is similar to Alexander's conception of defects: technical debt, which is "the implied cost of future reworking required when choosing an easy but limited solution instead of a better approach that could take more time." (Wikipedia)

My current working hypothesis is that Alexander Technique is a method for resolving psychophysical technical debt, i.e. all the not-ideal habits that we have picked up because of not-ideal conditions that are accumulated in our body-mind system. I also want to acknowledge that the idea of applying technical debt in this way is not mine, but comes from Mark's meditation book (which changes a lot so this quote may not always look the same):

When a mind is really surprised, or things are happening too fast, or something is just too hard, or a mind enacts ingrained bad habits, in all these cases a mind takes on technical debt in order to keep dealing with the world in real time. The more technical debt a mind has, the harder it is for that mind to solve problems moving forward, so technical debt begets more technical debt.

Let's go back to Alexander's perspectives on why humans might be susceptible to defects like this in the first place, when it doesn't seem they exist in wild animals.

First is our capacity to notice and change our own behaviour. Consider the experience of being thirteen, becoming self-conscious about how you walk, and trying to walk in different ways so that your peers will think you're cool. Or consider that you can consciously breathe in, but you can't consciously beat your heart. Changes like these don't arise 'of themselves', they are layered on by some conscious part of your mind that has some control in some domains.

Put another way: you can think your way into behaving in ways other than the spontaneous action that would come from your natural instincts. This is probably a net good, because it allows you to live in modern society without behaving like a wild animal, but it seems to come with a cost. You can change yourselves, yes, but not without creating subtle, cumulative side effects.

Second is the dramatic and rapid change that our environment has gone through in what Alexander called the 'civilising' process, i.e. all of human development that took us further and further from the 'wild' context that we evolved for—modern features like shoes, agriculture, electronics, chairs and even formal education. For example, while my body is capable of sitting and typing for eight hours a day, this is both a recent behaviour and an enormous deviation from what evolution expected my body to be doing. All this has made possible the introduction of 'defects' in human functioning.

Factors like these, and probably more, mean that your library of functions might not be serving you as well as it would if you were, say, a wild wolf, because a wolf's 'instinctive' functions would be perfectly appropriate for the context, while yours are not. This applies also to the shorter-term perspective of your life: the functions that you learned in your childhood may have worked well enough back then, but they might be out of date now. Going into a low-awareness autopilot whenever something in your environment happens might not be what you want as an adult in an utterly different context.

Given all this, what if you actually want to change? How do you do that?

How do you actually change?

One of Alexander's key insights, from experimentation and self-observation, was that when he tried not to do a particular habit, not only did he fail, he emphasised his existing habit more. Put another way, when he tried not to call the function, he ended up smashing the 'call' button even harder.

The only way out of this bind, he learned, was not to try harder, but to notice that critical moment where he was about to call the function and then simply pause there. This is a special kind of pause, though, because it's emphatically not the same as slamming on the brakes—it's much more gentle than that.

This kind of pause is called 'inhibition' in Alexander Technique (which is not at all the same as Freud's idea of 'the expression of a restriction of an ego-function', on which I can't comment).

Inhibition is the skill of responding to these functions in a 'not yet' way, rather than with a firm 'no', because a firm 'no' tends to activate other functions, like resistance. Inhibition can lead to a state of 'functionlessness', where you could call the function, but you haven't yet given consent to it. You could just as easily call the function as you could do literally anything else, because you're not committed in any way to any one path. I call this couldness if you want to explore that.

Helpfully, the concept of inhibition in Alexander Technique is similar to what inhibitory neurotransmitters do in the brain. Rather than getting neurones to send a particular message, inhibitory neurotransmitters prevent neurones from sending any messages at all.

This points towards one of the core philosophies of Alexander Technique—and many other traditions, not least Daoism—that doing and doing nothing are actually the same category of thing. They're both activations, both 'doings', just in opposite directions, like trying to drive with the parking brake on. Inhibition leads to the absence of this type of doing.

The best of both worlds

When you practice inhibition, a few things happen. First is that the world gets brighter, more vivid, and more three dimensional, because you're not running in that low-consciousness autopilot mode so much of the time. This is a pleasant way to live.

Learning to pause like this also gives you access to a whole new level of agency. You start to notice how much of the time you're just jumping from pre-written function to pre-written function, with little space for choice in between. By pausing, you can expand the space between stimulus and response to notice and then step out of your conditioning and make new, conscious choices.

And to be clear, inhibition is emphatically not self-denial; it's just pausing in a particular way before you act. Let's say you notice that you're about to eat a chocolate cookie and, rather than just doing it, you inhibit that behaviour. That doesn't mean you can't then go ahead and eat the cookie! Instead, you enter a space where both eating the cookie and doing literally anything else are open to you. You get the space to choose.

But you may be wondering: aren't those functions doing useful things? If you're inhibiting the functions, does that mean you have to think about everything?

No! Instead, it's more like you're able to stay fully conscious while the functions are running and, when you do, they actually run better. You're able to watch as your body seemingly moves or thinks by itself. This points at the experience of 'non-doing', when you act, you observe that you're acting, but you don't have the sense that you're putting any effort into it or ‘doing’ it. You get all the benefits of full aliveness, while still retaining choice about how you express it.

That's an essay itself, though, so rather than go into all that here, I'll pause for now and let you digest what I've covered above.

And, if you want, I invite you to notice some of these things in your day to day life: