F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique, believed that if we want to improve the way we function, we need to make the best use of our ability to think. Only then can we engage in what he called “constructive conscious control” of ourselves. He even titled his second book Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, often referred to in the Alexander world as CCC.
His idea seems logical, simple, and straight forward. And perhaps obvious.
Nonetheless, it didn’t take long for him to discover that lurking in the background, were a host of unexpected challenges in teaching his students how to use their thoughts in a useful way. Many of these challenges came from their inability to think a thought without adding some habitual muscular effort. That effort almost always incorporates within itself the same habits they want to release.
Alexander, and pretty much all the “first generation” teachers he trained, spoke and wrote about this. In an earlier blog, Not Even a Teeney Weenie Bit, I discuss it in greater detail, and you can read how they each described the problem.
But there is a even deeper and more insidious problem which Alexander saw very clearly, and which I believe is not always well understood by Alexander Technique teachers and students today. That problem he called “mind-wandering” and, to get some idea of how important it is, there is actually a section titled: “Mind-Wandering Recognized as a Shortcoming – Its Relation to Self-Preservation” in the early pages of CCC.
He writes a lot about mind wandering in that section, and throughout CCC. Here is just one example:
The shortcoming to which the individual will awaken will be one which interferes with his immediate activities outside himself, in reading, for instance, or when he is attempting to learn something, or to learn to do something, and, as a matter of fact, the shortcoming that has been recognized as interfering more than any other in this connexion (sic) is the shortcoming concerned with his inability, as he would put it, to “keep his mind” on the particular work with which he is immediately engaged; in other words, the shortcoming which is commonly known as “mind-wandering.”
So… what is the problem posed by mind wandering?
Apart from it’s sheer waste of our mental energy, Alexander’s view of the problem is encapsulated in a phrase from the quote above: “keep his mind”. “Keeping”, is a type of concentration. And concentration is actually a form of physical and mental tightening. And that is precisely what we don’t want, if improved functioning is our goal.
Alexander writes a lot about the dangers of concentration in CCC. Here is a particularly poignant example:
In my experience, as soon as the pupil is asked not to do anything, he will immediately show all those signs of strain and fixity of attention that he shows when he is asked to do something, and which we have learned to associate with any attempt at concentration. Point this out to the pupil, and he will answer, nine times out of ten, “I am trying to do nothing!” He actually believes that he has something to do to do nothing. To such a point can we be led by our belief in concentration!
So…how do we prevent mind wandering, and indirectly our belief in concentration?
I believe the easiest, and most effective, way to address the problem is to use an Alexander Technique self-direction tailor made for just that purpose.
(If you are not familiar with Alexander Technique directions I suggest listening to the 2 podcasts below.)
The direction I have found most useful in preventing mind wandering is this: “I am not thinking”. Technically, it’s an example of a “paradoxical direction” – which is a specific type of “inhibitory” or “negative” direction. And to be clear, the phrase “I am not thinking” is not at all about the usefulness of thinking in general. It’s about improving your particular way of thinking.
I see this direction as a kind of quality control process that weeds out thoughts that have no useful purpose – agonizing over past events, worrying about possible future developments, and the like – and thus improves the overall quality of our thinking.
Which, of course, is exactly what Alexander thought would be needed to bring about improved mental and physical functioning.*
I’ve recorded an interview about what the direction “I am not thinking” means, and how to use it effectively. It also goes in to some detail about it’s broader implications: A Simple Alexander Technique direction that can change your life (video version) There is also a Podcast version
I would love to hear about your experiences when using that direction!
*Alexander used the words “physical” and “mental” only because there were no better ones available. Again, from CCC: “I wish to make clear the sense in which I use the word psycho-physical. The term psycho-physical is used both here and throughout my works to indicate the impossibility of separating “physical” and “mental” operations in our conception of the working of the human organism. As I wrote in (my first book) “Man’s Supreme Inheritance”, ‘In my opinion the two must be considered entirely interdependent, and even more closely knit than is implied by such a phrase.” (emphasis mine) You can learn more about this here: Your Body and your Mind: More Tightly Knit than you could ever have Imagined
The legendary Hank Williams wrote and recorded a country song that resonates a bit with the dilemma Alexander faced: