Expanding Awareness

Getting unstuck - physically and philosophically - with Alexander Technique

By Michael Ashcroft | 5 min read
Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

I want to open with a quote from Frank Pierce Jones regarding John Dewey, who was an early proponent of Alexander Technique:

(John) Dewey considered that the Alexander Technique provided a demonstration of the unity of body and mind. With progress as a pupil, he reported an improvement in his vision and in his breathing and in ability to hold a philosophical position calmly with ability to change it if new evidence warranted." Frank Pierce Jones

One of those things is not like the others.

What is this thing that can improve someone's breathing — as well as their ability to engage calmly in philosophical discourse? This is an important question, because it gets to the heart of what Alexander Technique really is and why I think it has transformational potential.

Let me start by describing what I mean when I say 'to get stuck'.

Getting stuck means either to forget that you have options or to lack the capacity to act on your options. It means to close yourself off to certain possibilities that exist within your wider 'possibility space'.

That's a little abstract, so let me give you two examples.

At some point it may occur to you to you that you want to go for lunch. Then it occurs to you that you could go to that burger place down the road. At this point, it's highly likely that your awareness collapses around 'burger place', which makes it much more difficult for you to think of other places you could go. You 'get stuck' with 'burger place', making other options less available.

Going back one step, you might also have got stuck with the idea of having lunch in the first place. Once it occurred to you that you could have lunch, how free were you not to have lunch at all — or to do literally anything else?

This exact same thing happens with movement. The ways you habitually move become the only ways you can move, because your awareness no longer includes other possibilities. This is probably the most common experience in Alexander Technique lessons, where a new movement pattern guided by the teacher causes the student to exclaim in surprise "I have no idea how I just stood up."

"But I can choose to move in different ways!" you might say.

Yes, you can, within a limited set of possibilities that happen to be available to you. There are other ways that are not available to you and you don't know about them, so you can't move in those ways. This is still what I would call 'getting stuck', because you are not available to the full scope of possibilities that exist.

Alexander Technique is a way to notice when you're about to get stuck (to 'collapse your possibility space') and then consciously navigate around getting stuck or get unstuck whenever necessary.

Getting unstuck means to become available to everything within the larger possibility space. This is something that happens over and over again — it is never done, and to think that it can be is a trap that itself gets you stuck.

In an intellectual capacity this means repeatedly asserting that you might be incorrect and so being available to change your mind whenever you want. This doesn't mean being pushed around by whatever arguments you come across. You can be very clear in your belief that you are right while at the same time remaining totally okay with the idea that you're not. This is what gives you freedom to make new choices or change your position at any moment.

You get stuck as soon as you 'forget' that you might be wrong. Your options become constrained and you are no longer available to learn something new.

“You can’t do something you don’t know, if you keep on doing what you do know.” F. M. Alexander

It's exactly the same with movement. You can be very clear about your desire to pick up an object while at all moments being perfectly able not to pick up the object or to pick something else up instead.

Here's a little game. Right now, gently check that you could stand up and get a glass of water. Don't actually do it. Just check that you could. Now that you're aware that you could, can you get a sense of what your experience was like just in the moment before you read this paragraph?

Alexander Technique gives you the capacity to be available to do anything, to go anywhere, to think anything, to feel anything. It's when we're not available to do anything, to go anywhere, to think anything or to feel anything that we get ourselves in trouble — especially when we don't realise it.

'Getting unstuck' is not something that happens once and is then held onto. In fact, trying to hold onto being unstuck is itself to be stuck.

Getting unstuck is a dynamic process, something that is continually reasserted moment by moment and aimed towards all things that might cause us to get stuck. I think this is another way of phrasing what I mean when I say 'non-doing' — it's the capacity to make conscious choices, to move and to act within the world while also dynamically, repeatedly and elegantly not getting stuck in the way I describe.

I want to address one criticism that some of you are likely to have here: "But Michael, how can I be aware of all possibilities at once? That sounds overwhelming".

I agree! And that's not what I mean. The two states I'm describing are "not being available for anything" and "being available for anything".

I'm not talking about "being aware of everything", but "being able to be aware of anything". I encourage you to sit with that sentence for a moment.

Since our thinking mind cannot process all possible options at once (you can't put your attention on everything), the actual experiencing of the unstuck state comes with a sense of unfamiliarity, surprise and trust. You end up moving in new ways and thinking new thoughts that seem to come from somewhere else. This is where I could talk about the Dao and wu-wei, but won't on this occasion.

I'm exploring this line of inquiry because I'm curious about the links between Alexander Technique and other areas of philosophy and epistemology, particularly fallibilism, which I just learned is also associated with the aforementioned John Dewey.

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