Expanding Awareness

Non-judgemental awareness is curative

By Michael Ashcroft | 6 min read
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

This is one of the lessons from my Fundamentals of Alexander Technique course, which I'm reproducing here because it's something I want to be able to link to on the public web.

There are times in life where we catch ourselves ‘doing’ things that perhaps we don’t want to be doing, like procrastinating, getting angry with a partner, mumbling while speaking or eating sugar. A common response might be to tell ourselves off in some way and resolve to try harder to not do the thing.

This trying immediately gets us stuck. As F. M. Alexander put it:

”Trying is only emphasising the things we already know.” F.M. Alexander

Consider this claim: doing and doing nothing are exactly the same thing. They may seem like opposites, but they are actually both still doing.

What happens if you try to relax? You just end up tensing your muscles in a different way. Relaxation is the absence of tension, the absence of trying. Doing and doing nothing are the same thing.

The absence of doing is known as ‘non-doing’ (a translation of the Daoist principle of wu-wei). Non-doing doesn’t mean inaction; it points to an absence of trying or of pushing oneself around. It’s useful to sit with this idea until you feel it in your bones. I will develop little games to help you explore this, but for now let me draw from someone else’s wisdom.

If I had a recommended reading list to accompany the course (and I will), it would certainly include one of W. Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game books, like The Inner Game of Tennis or The Inner Game of Work. Gallwey likely doesn’t know it, but what he describes is very close to what I’m teaching here, only using different language and ways in.

First, see if you recognise the experience that Gallwey describes here around playing tennis.

“When I was playing at my best, I wasn't trying to control my shots with self-instruction and evaluation. It was a much simpler process than that. I saw the ball clearly, chose where I wanted to hit it, and I let it happen. Surprisingly, the shots were more controlled when I didn't try to control them. I gradually realised that my well-intentioned instructions were being internalised by my students as methods of control that were compromising their natural abilities. This critical inner dialogue certainly produced a state of mind very different from the quiet focus reported by the best athletes.” W. Timothy Gallwey

What he found was that the voice of the teacher, coach or critic created a kind of forced effort that interfered with the player's natural ability. The harder we try to direct ourselves, the worse we perform. This is expressed in the book as Performance = Potential - Interference.

From here Gallwey recognised the presence of two ‘selves’ within each of us:

”I called the voice giving commands and making the judgements 'Self 1'. The one it was talking to, I called "Self 2". What was their relationship? Self 1 was the know-it-all who basically didn't trust Self 2, the one who had to hit the ball. Out of mistrust, Self 1 was trying to control Self 2's behaviour using the tactics it had learned from its teachers in the outside world.__But who is Self 2? Is it that unworthy of trust? In my definition, Self 2 is the human being itself. It embodies all the inherent potential we were born with, including all capacities actualized and not yet actualized. It also embodies our innate ability to learn and to grow any of those inherent capacities. It is the self we all enjoyed as young children.” W. Timothy Gallwey

Self 2 is the part of us that operates in the world with an economy of effort, elegance and lack of force. Ultimately, it feels easy. Great work gets done when Self 2 is free to do its thing. Is this what becomes liberated when we practice the kind of ‘non-doing’ that we access via Alexander Technique? I think so.

Self 1, in this framing, is the part that tries to order Self 2 around or, worse, forgets entirely about the existence of Self 2 and tries to order itself around, all while failing to recognise that it cannot in fact do anything. I suspect that Alexander Technique is a set of skills that allows us to unleash and befriend Self 2. And translating this into my language: Self 1 is the doer, while Self 2 is the non-doer. The doer easily sets up a trap for itself: it sees something it doesn’t like and tries to do the opposite, but only succeeds in reinforcing its own interference. Instead, what we want is to get the doer to shut up and get out of the way entirely. This is how we allow the non-doer to express its natural, effortless, elegant self.

But we have a problem. The doer doesn’t know how to stop doing. It only knows how to do! This is how we find ourselves stuck.

There is a way out though, and that is not to try to get unstuck. Like quicksand, struggling will only pull us in deeper. This is where Gallwey’s advice shines through:

"Non-judgemental awareness is curative. W. Timothy Gallwey

Rather than try to fix things, all you have to do is notice, non-judgementally, that you’re doing them. Even while you’re involved in this non-judgemental noticing, you will notice a barrage of impulses to try different things, to intervene, to try, to fix. That’s fine, just notice them non-judgementally, too.

(I often advise people to consider themselves like an alien anthropologist from the future who is noting what you’re doing in a notebook. That alien is completely dispassionate, as you should be too — it’s all just data).

I’ve spent a lot of words on this idea, because it will come up over and over again in this course and in your practice. Any time you get it in your head that you want to fix, improve or otherwise 'get something right', pause. This is where the practice really starts: it’s noticing all the way down.

Keep doing this and you’ll find things changing by themselves in ways that will surprise and delight you.

But Michael, I hear you say, I don’t understand how I can still have agency and act in the world through this ‘non-doing’?

And my answer: intention and doing are not the same thing. You can assert a clear intention (like wanting to pick up a ball), notice all the ways in which you habitually try to pick the ball (doing), not do any of those things (AT skill: ‘inhibit these responses’), and then watch as your body moves in a totally new way and the ball ends up in your hand.

We start getting into this later in the course in the session on the ‘Vishnu Hands’.

Notice your ‘getting ready’ habit
I don’t mean preparation, like for a public lecture or test. I mean the moment by moment experience of bracing yourself for the next moment. Yes, I’ll explain. There’s a very common experience in Alexander Technique lessons, particularly for beginners, where the student ‘gets ready’ to receive
A single integrated field of awareness
I’ve started re-reading one of the best Alexander Technique books out there: Freedom to Change by Frank Pierce Jones. When I have a reading list, this book will be on it. I want to share a few really interesting excerpts from the opening chapters with some commentary. “It was
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