“A Little bit of Nothing”

Marjorie Barstow 1899 – 1995

That’s how Alexander Technique teacher Marjorie Barstow often described her work.  Sometimes, towards the end of her four-week summer workshops she’d say to the group: “Now when you get home, and people ask you what you learned in Nebraska, you probably shouldn’t tell them you learned a little bit of nothing!”

Her “little bit of nothing” was some of the lightest, most delicate – and most powerful and transformative – hands-on guidance I’ve ever experienced.

I think what gave her teaching that special power was a very clear intention coupled with the softest of touch, which I believe reflected the softness and lightness of that clear intent.

I’ve noticed in myself and others that when we focus on something that’s very specific – a book we’re reading, a computer screen, carrots we chopping – it’s easy to add a bit of tension to that focusing.  This can take many forms – a furrowed brow, neck and torso tightening, or restricted breathing for example.

Most of us have much less of that kind of tension when thinking about more general topics – such as “What a nice day it is.” or “I saw a wonderful movie yesterday.”

What we’re not used to, in the West at least, is combining lightness of mental intent with a clear intention about something very specific.  Marj was a master of that and it’s an important part of what made her teaching so powerful.

It’s also what can make Alexander Technique self-directing powerful.

Here’s a little exercise I use with my new students to help them develop this skill for themselves when applying their Alexander Technique directions:

I have them sit in a chair and ask them to tell me the color is a small table in in one corner of the room.  It’s a very ordinary table and it’s doubtful they would have noticed it before.  When they say “brown” I ask them how much of an effort they needed to come up with that answer.  Mostly they say none at all, but I point out they did have to shift their awareness from wherever it had been before to this little, boring, brown table.

I then have ask them to stand up, take a walk around the room and sit down again. And as they do so to have enough awareness of the table that they could easily answer a question about it either by remembering it, or knowing where to look to get the answer. I also tell them not to worry in the slightest if they forget about the table, but when they notice they’ve forgotten, to easily bring it back into their consciousness.

In other words, have a light interest in something very specific they would not have thought about before.

Most students can do this right away with almost no effort on their part.  A few go reflexively into concentration mode and it takes a few repeats and a bit of coaching to get them to let go of that.

Once they’re able to do this I tell them that if they’re using more effort than they just did when they think their Alexander Technique directions, they’re doing too much.

If you’re a student or teacher of the Alexander Technique, play around with this and see what you notice. Then think up some other ways of experiencing lightness of thought and specific intent, perhaps involving sound or some other sense.

If you’re not an Alexander student or teacher, next week’s blog will give you some simple Alexander self-directions that you can explore in this light, easy way.

I’d love to hear your experiences with this procedure.  And I’d love to hear about other ways you’ve thought up to develop this combination of specificity and lightness.

Desk Photo© Alexander Knjazhetsky | Dreamstime.com


“A Little bit of Nothing” — 11 Comments

  1. I love the exercise you describe too. Sounds like a good way to have people explore shifting attention without that concentrated effort which almost always comes along with it to some degree. You have given me another idea to try out – thanks!

  2. The Alexander Technique is a little bit of nothing! I love that idea. Also, it’s a little bit of nothing; not too much nothing. Maybe too much nothing is collapse. Also great that you used the word ‘exercise’. I don’t we should be rigidly afraid of that word.
    Thanks Robert.

  3. Nice one Robert. Here’s a similar take on developing this combination of specificity and lightness… Concentrate really hard at an object, really hard, and then sense the tension in the brain, eyes, breathing. Then ‘unconcentrate’ (got to get that word into the dictionary!) and notice how the effort releases, the brain, eyes and brow soften and the breathing frees up. I reckon our awareness can go out or in, like a tide, and it’s best to keep a bit of both, and find that ‘little bit of nothing’ on the shore.

  4. Pingback: The Power of Negative Thinking | Body Learning Blog

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