Learning to say no: experiments in inhibition

Consent lies at the heart of Alexander Technique. I mean two things by this.

One person giving permission to participate in some activity. This kind of consent is vital not just when teaching Alexander Technique, but in all domains of life.

The experience of giving consent to respond to stimuli. This is how someone who practices Alexander Technique would work with themselves.

What does it really mean to give consent? To me it means, "yes, I am making a clear choice to participate, knowing that I have the freedom and the power – at any time – to change my mind".

Because that's what consent comes down to: knowing that you can say no. Can you really give consent to something if you aren't deeply aware – at the most fundamental level – that you have the power to withhold it?

Open and close your hand a few times. You're not thinking "open... close...", you're just doing it. The just opening your hand experience is the level of knowing I mean. If you know that you can just say no, your world changes.

Alexander Technique can be framed as learning how to consciously withhold – and then to give – consent. It gives you the power to say no. But, importantly, it's learning to say no such that you can then say yes.

The jargon we use for this is 'inhibition', which is also a verb, i.e. 'to inhibit':

You come to learn to inhibit and to direct your activity. You learn, first, to inhibit the habitual reaction to certain classes of stimuli, and second, to direct yourself consciously in such a way as to affect certain muscular pulls, which processes bring a new reaction to these stimuli. Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus. But no one will see it that way. They will all see it as getting in and out of the chair the right way. It is nothing of the kind. It is that a pupil decides what he will or will not consent to do. They may teach you anatomy and physiology till they are black in the face -- you will still have this to face, sticking to a decision against your habit of a life.” - F. M. Alexander

Let’s play with this.

If you previously read Learning To Pause then I'm sorry (not sorry) that I’m about to pull the same trick on you again.

Incidentally, I did this on every one of my Zoom calls this week and all but one person fell for it, even if they knew it was coming. The only person who didn’t immediately start looking for an object to pick up confessed that he literally doesn’t have an internal narrator like many people do.

Ready? Here we go:

In a minute I'm going to ask you to identify an object you can pick up.

So, is a part of you already looking for an object? Come back! I said “in a minute!” I even bolded it!

Did you really consent to that 'looking around' process, or was there a sense of it ‘hijacking’ you?

Here are two more versions of the same trick:

  • Don't think of an elephant!
  • If you don't eat that marshmallow then you can have two later!

“But I can't not think of an elephant! And I really want that marshmallow, even though I eat a ketogenic diet (true story)!”

All true. Inhibition is not about suppressing anything. To try not to think of an elephant is still to have your experience defined by the elephant. So in classic non-doing style, we’re going to explore neither thinking of an elephant nor not thinking of an elephant.

Let's repeat the game except, this time, I want you to actively try not to pick an object.

Ready? Let’s go:

In a minute I'm going to ask you to identify an object you can pick up.

...

<Michael pauses for dramatic effect>

...

What happened? If you're like most people, then one or both of these things:

1. You tried to push away the idea of choosing something by over-focusing on something else.

This is the "la la la not listening" version of attention control. It does work, but you're still defining your experience in that moment by the thing you don't want to think about. It still has power over you.

2. You may also have found yourself tensing your body somewhere, like constricting your breathing or tightening around your jaw and shoulders.

If that's you then you have my permission to let go of all that.

Again, this might work to a point – mind and body are one process, after all – but it's hardly ideal because now you’re tense, and your experience is still defined by the whole object-picking thing.

Instead, I want to show you another way.

First, I invite you to expand your awareness. Right now, as you read:

  • notice the furthest away sound, and also
  • notice the feeling of pressure in your body, and also
  • notice that there is space above your head and behind you.

Keep choosing this expansive state as we repeat the game again.

Notice what it does to that sense of expanded awareness. Notice, even, how me even talking about give you the prompt might be having an effect.

Here we go.

In a minute I'm going to ask you to identify an object you can pick up.

...

<Michael pauses again for dramatic effect>

...

What happened? The key thing to notice is that your previously expanded awareness likely narrowed or 'collapsed’ in some way. You became less aware of your surroundings, while the idea of picking an object, like the elephant, seemed to take up more space.

This shows us that there is a correlation between automatic habits – that hijacking that happens – and our experience of immediate spatial awareness.

Inhibition is to notice this process happening in a non-judgemental way and to consciously decide to re-expand your awareness. The notion that you could pick an object is there and so is the world around you.

Let’s repeat it for the last time. Expand your awareness (notice all the sounds, space, textures, colours around you), notice that your awareness will collapse a little, and then consciously choose to be aware of the whole world again.

In a minute I'm going to ask you to identify an object you can pick up.

Notice the collapse of awareness.

Consciously re-notice the entire world around you.

Let both the thought and the entire world be there at the same time.

Welcome to a special place of undefined. You could now choose to pick an object if you so wished. You could also get up and make yourself a coffee. All options are available to you.

Remember Viktor Frankl’s famous words:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

To inhibit your habitual responses is to widen and then ultimately live in that space between stimulus and response. From inside that space you have the power to either give or withhold consent to the response.

Thanks for playing with me. That game will have worked for some of you, while others among you may be a little perplexed. That’s okay! Different people need different ways in – this is just one of them.

If it worked then I invite you to notice this phenomenon happening in your day to day lives. Notice what collapses your awareness. Notice that you have the power to consciously re-expand your awareness. Notice what happens if you do.

Michael Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft

London


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