Marjory Barlow was F. Matthias Alexander’s niece, and a well-known teacher of the Alexander Technique for many years. In her book, An Examined Life she quotes Alexander on the topic of giving directions: “This is an exercise and finding out what thinking is.”
She then goes on to write: If that doesn’t put it in a nutshell, I don’t know! Because it’s so hard for us to think. By that word we mean to send a direction, not to try and implement it, not to try to carry it out, not even a teeny weeny bit. We’re always inclined to to think, “Oh well, just a little bit, just give it a little nudge.” and a lot of that’s not very conscious, actually, the degree to which we are helping it along, or trying to help it along, otherwise, you see, we’d stop! But it’s a blind alley. – page 130
Marjorie Barstow (different Marj!) was the first person to graduate from Alexander’s first teacher training course in the early 1930s and she too emphasized thinking in her work. For example, she would often ask students, “Are you really doing your constructive thinking right now?”
Marjorie knew that while constructive thinking is incredibly simple (“It’s too simple – you people just won’t believe how simple it is”, she’d sometimes say) it’s not always easy. Here she talks about the challenge of effective self-directing in a winter 1990/91 workshop in Lincoln, Nebraska:
Walter Carrington was Alexander’s assistant on his teacher training course and when Alexander died in 1955, took over from him and continued running it for the next 40 years. He said: “Lots of pupils wish the up to happen, but since they don’t really set much store on the wish, they will just do it a little bit, just to make sure, just to be on the safe side, they’ll introduce just a little bit of doing.”
Alexander himself was well aware of the problem. He is quoted by George Trevalyan, one of the students on his first teacher training course, as saying: “…the trouble is none of my pupils will believe that all they need to do is to think and that the wish for the neck to be free will do the trick…We are so brutalized by our belief in doing and muscular tension”
Alexander thinking is a tricky business for reasons Alexander, Marjory, Walter, and Marjorie understood.
It’s also a challenge in ways they were probably not aware of.
For example, neuroscience research shows that our conscious brain is capable of attending to only a very limited number (somewhere in the range of 7, plus or minus 2) of ideas at one time which, I believe, explains one of the problems Alexander students have had over the years with the directions used by Alexander.* Newer, shorter and simpler, directions are far easier for most students to use.
Another example: Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow has emerged as one of the most intriguing voices on the complexity, and the outright contradictions, of human thought and behavior. He won the Nobel Prize in economics for his part in creating the field of behavioral economics. His work acknowledges, as classic western economics did not, that we are not always logical and rational in our economic lives.
Or other aspects of our lives – applying Alexander’s discoveries, for example. His work presents a novel way of looking at the language and meaning situation we humans find ourselves in. It also explains the seemingly irrational things Alexander students (and teachers!) think and say at times.
You can read or listen to a fascinating interview with Kahneman here: https://onbeing.org/programs/daniel-kahneman-why-we-contradict-ourselves-and-confound-each-other-oct2017/
As you may have guessed, I’m very interested in the thinking process in general, and in particular how we can best use our thinking abilities to take advantage of Alexander’s discoveries. I’ve recently produced a series of six short video (and audio) lessons that are an experiment in helping Alexander teachers, students, and anyone interested in learning about the Alexander Technique, cultivate the ability to self-direct effectively. You can see or listen to them here: https://movementcoaching.com/video-lessons/
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic – please comment below and/or on Facebook.
*Even later directions like “Let the neck be free” are problematic as they make a faulty assumption, namely that we know how to “let” and consequently they often create a bit of tension. Newer directions such as Negative Directions and Freedom Directions make no such assumption and are far more effective. You can learn more about Alexander Technique directions here: https://www.bodylearningcast.com/teachers/directions/
It goes without saying that Country Music has its own unique take on flawed thinking: