Expanding Awareness

The journey back to conscious naturalness

By Michael Ashcroft | 5 min read
Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

What does it mean to be truly natural, to have that quality of spontaneity we had as children? Most of us have lost access to that state and would like to have it once again, but there is no turning back now. We can only go forwards and find it in a different way.

This is the story of the journey forwards, towards the rediscovery of that spontaneity, and I suspect it will sound strangely familiar to many people.

Stage 1: Unconscious naturalness

When a baby is born they are in their most natural, ‘authentic’ state. Every expression of their being is spontaneous.

There’s no way they can be otherwise, because they have yet to learn to be any other way than how they are. But this authenticity is not a self-aware one; babies are unconscious of their own naturalness.

Stage 2: Conscious unnaturalness

This unconscious naturalness may last several years through childhood, but for most children there is an inevitable shift in the attainment of a certain level of self-consciousness. This is the moment when innocence is lost.

It’s in this time that differences become clear, along with the associated idea of ‘fitting in’, and both arise in the context of a rising capacity to override natural tendencies.

This is how and why unusually tall children may start to shrink their stature and why unusually short children may hold themselves more upright. Some children may notice that the cool kids walk or talk in certain ways and consciously emulate others' gait or their vocal styles.

Stage 3: Unconscious unnaturalness

While at first all this may have been conscious and purposeful, at some point these choices become forgotten. The new, unnatural patterns take hold as the way things are and always have been.

For many people this stage will forever define their relationship with naturalness, which will remain a confusing, elusive and alien concept. For these people, to be ‘more authentic’ or to ‘be themselves’ can only mean to layer on more kinds of unnaturalness, where to act naturally is indeed to act. These layers fold and reflect back on themselves until, like spending a lifetime in a house of mirrors, the exit becomes not only invisible, but inconceivable.

I make no judgement about this stage. I was here for a long time, and it was only through circumstance that I was shown the way out.

Stage 4: Conscious unnaturalness, revisited

Some people, though, become aware that things may not be as they seem. They begin to notice themselves behaving in strange ways, perhaps shortening their stature, experiencing tension while walking, or straining their voices.

This was how F. M. Alexander made the discovery that would lead him to his life’s work. He noticed that, when speaking on stage, he would depress his larynx, and when he tried not to he found he actually emphasised it. His unnaturalness was so ingrained that, although he was at least becoming conscious of it, he couldn’t do anything about it.

While uncomfortable and disconcerting, this rediscovery of conscious unnaturalness also makes moving beyond it possible. To step out of the house of mirrors requires seeing the world clearly, catching a glimpse of something unreflected and undistorted, which is the path that is not just another mirror.

Stage 5: Conscious naturalness

Arriving at the end of this journey means to have regained what was once lost, only this time to be fully aware of having it. Unlike the baby, who is spontaneous by nature, the truly natural adult can access it by choice, at least some of the time. Old habits die hard.

But this capacity for conscious naturalness is unlike all the skills that came before. Instead of learning how to layer on yet more ‘doings’, this stage requires a conscious capacity to stop doing all the things that previously interfered with the innate, natural state. In this way spontaneity is allowed to express itself, and the skill of the consciously natural adult is to stay out of its way and direct it with intention.

It strikes me that the journey I’ve just described maps on well to the spiritual path of Zen, which seeks to cultivate this kind of natural spontaneity. I believe that Alexander Technique follows the same path, showing us first that we are caught up in a house of mirrors of our own making and then helping us step out of it, over and over again, until one day we realise we are walking around in the real world once more.

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