Learning how to Stop


“A man enjoys life. But it isn’t perfect. He sometimes experiences
pain, frustration, and suffering. For a while he gets along okay.
But the suffering builds over time, over a number of years. The
suffering becomes a major intrusion in his life. He exclaims,
“Something has got to change!”

“He goes to the wise man and explains that, although he was okay with
life for a while, more and more it has been growing on his mind that
he’s not happy with the way things are, and that he’s really quite
sure now that something has got to change. “Could you help me to
change?” he asks.

“The wise man says, “Thank you for coming to me. You did the right
thing in coming here. And now I will give you my advice: change


When I first read this, a part of me thought to myself, “Well, being a wise man seems pretty simple. Maybe I’ll take up the profession myself. All I’ll have to do is tell people seeking my wisdom: “change nothing” and my exulted place in society will be assured. I might be able to make more money too!

But as a teacher of the Alexander Technique I had to admit that the wise man’s advice was pretty profound. In my field I often work with people who have come to believe that the solution to problems with their physical functioning lies in trying to do something different – to just change something.

Take the field of posture, for example. Some people believe, or have been told, that their posture is poor. Sometimes they’ve been warned that they face potentially serious health risks – perhaps due to the restricted breathing that often goes along with poor posture. Or, for older students, the greater likelihood they’ll loose their balance and fall with potentially serious results. Maybe they’ve come to realize that poor posture just doesn’t look good, that their personal or professional lives are being adversely affected.

They want to improve their posture and, more often than not, are quick to demonstrate just how they might go about doing just that. Someone who is a sloucher, for example, will demonstrate “standing up straight” by lifting their head and chest, probably in very much the way they did as children when a parent or teacher told them to “stop slouching, stand up straight”.

This procedure was effective at getting the parent or teacher off their back – at least for the minute or so until they returned to their old pattern. But it did absolutely nothing to improve their posture. All that happened was that they rearranged the harmful tensions in their body into a different, but equally dysfunctional, arrangement.

Professor John Dewey, the American philosopher and educational reformer, had a fair amount of experience with the Alexander Technique. This is what he had to say on the subject of posture:

“Of course, something happens when a man acts upon his idea of standing straight. For a little while, he stands differently, but only a different kind of badly. He then takes the unaccustomed feeling which accompanies his unusual stance as evidence that he is now standing straight. But there are many ways of standing badly, and he has simply shifted his usual way to a compensatory bad way at some opposite extreme.”

In my Alexander Technique teaching practice, I’ll often ask a new student to simply notice, as best he or she can, what’s going on with their head, torso, arms and legs and to do this without making any changes. Just notice – nothing more. I’ve hardly ever met a student who was able to actually follow this instruction at first – to simply observe his or her self, without making some sort of instant change in their way of standing or sitting. These changes often involve quite large movements of the student’s head or shoulders, for example.

And yet this sort of simple “just noticing” is precisely what’s needed as a first step in learning how to make a useful change in their posture so that they don’t end up with a different way of sitting, standing or moving badly.

In the field of posture – and indeed in all areas of our lives – we need to become conscious of our habitual patterns of behavior in order to reason out how we can best make changes that will actually improve our situation – we need to “just notice” without making immediate, reflexive, changes that prevent us from sensing what we were doing before we made those changes.

A final note: The wise man did NOT say, “Give up. Your problems will never be solved. You might as well resign yourself to having them forever. Don’t waste your time being interested in improving your situation.” No, he merely said, “Change nothing.” The advice is very, very simple, but not always easy to follow.

As another wise man once said: “You need to know where you’ve been if you want to know the best place to go next.”

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Learning how to Stop — 7 Comments

  1. This ties in with another quote by Lao Tzu:
    “Do you have the patience to wait
    till your mud settles and the water is clear?
    Can you remain unmoving
    till the right action arises by itself?”
    which is not always easy, either…

  2. Pingback: Learning how to stop. | My Healthy Challenge

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