The Fork in the Road

Suppose a man starts out to reach a certain destination and comes to a place where the road branches into two. Not knowing the way, he takes the wrong road of the two and gets lost. He asks the way of someone he meets and is told to go straight back to the crossroads and take the other road, which will lead him directly to the place he wants to reach. What should we say if we heard that the man had gone back to the crossroads as directed, but had there concluded that he knew better after all than his adviser, had taken again his old road, and again got lost, and had done this thing not once or twice, but over and over again? Still more, what should we say if we heard that he was worrying dreadfully because he kept getting lost, and seemed no nearer to getting to his destination?

One could easily imagine a minister including this little story in a sermon about why smart people make foolish decisions.  It almost sounds like one of Jesus’ parables.

But in fact it was written in 1923 by F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique in a chapter titled “Incorrect Conception”  in his second book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual

Alexander was certainly not a man of the cloth, but by the time he wrote this, he had a lot of experience with students of his who behaved exactly like the man at the crossroads. As he writes a few sentences later, the crossroads story “…is more or less what happens in the case of every pupil, even…those who are accounted the most intelligent, the most highly educated, the most scientifically trained…”

And it’s precisely what Alexander Technique teachers come up against over and over again today.

Why is this?

Alexander’s view of the matter is that almost everybody carries around incorrect conceptions of the usefulness of his or her way of doing things – that, in Alexander’s words, …what he thinks of as a “difficulty” is not a difficulty in itself, but simply the result of “his way” of going to work.

Or, to put it another way – again in Alexander’s words – a student typically …subconsciously believes he knows more than his teacher about the things he can or cannot do.

Even, I might add, when intellectually he or she is in full agreement with the teacher.

Needless to say, this is one of the greatest challenges that Alexander Technique teachers face in helping their students change the way they do things, even simple things like standing, sitting a walking.

As Alexander famously remarked, Everyone wants to be right but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right.

Have you had experiences with others’ incorrect perceptions and how their lives were affected?

Have you ever realized you had incorrect perceptions of your own?  What was it that brought you to that realization – and what advice can you give based on your own experiences?

I would love to hear from you about your experiences with preconceived notions about what is right, and what is not.


Off topic, but I can’t resist including this quote from Yogi Berra: When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!



The Fork in the Road — 9 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post, Robert.
    Some of us who have been in severe musculoskeletal pain realize, at some point, that we are causing our own pain. Either we realize it on our own, or with the help of an Alexander Technique teacher. In my case it didn’t register with me that my horrible posture was causing my horrible pain, as obvious as it seems now. Once I corrected this perception, with the help of the Alexander Technique, I was on the path to recovering my life. I’m glad I took the Alexander Technique fork.

  2. Hi Robert,
    what a wonderful notes ,and i liked this.

    My story matches with the story.

    I noticed many incorrect ideas
    1. The exercise gives health and muscles.
    But, alexander says the way of doing the exercises bring good results.
    2. Praying GOD gives health.
    But, FM wont accept this phrase and says USE OF THE SELF is fundamental.
    3. People are born with manners.
    But, FM says a manner can be changed , still protecting our own manner .
    4.humans are not machines.
    But, fm says humans are coordinated machines.
    And many more….

  3. Taking the well-worn path can be a way to suppress fear and anxiety that come up when faced with the unknown. I have often found that it has taken me quite a bit of will-power an courage not slip back into the safety net of habit. Fear and chaos can be more of a deterrent than a destructive habit.

  4. Optical illusions are an example of mistakes involving perceptual expectations.
    Not as well-known is the auditory illusion of a tape loop of a voice saying a phrase. It’s a known perceptual science fact – depending on how young you are, you will hear the recorded voice loop saying multiple other phrases as the emphasis in your attention shifts on the syllables of that recording. Ever heard that?
    Of course, our movement sense being relative to whatever got learned is no different. Prove it by crossing your arms and then crossing them the other way. It’s tricky for most people and feels a bit wierd. But do the odd way five times and you’re already practicing it and it won’t feel so strange. Humans adapt. If you did it sixty times, both ways would feel equally “normal,” because that’s how long it takes to train a habit. Training a habit is easier than getting rid of what you can’t perceive.

    Anyway – I know this stuff about misperceiving oneself. When I started studying A.T. (I was 23) I was a noodle with a congenital limp. It made absolutely no difference in feeling to me whether I was up or down – I followed up with an A.T. teacher’s direction just as easily as I collapsed. The only reason I got motivated to do the up instead of the slump was because being up made me feel high, awake and sharpened my attention as if I’d taken some sort of psychedelic. I had no idea that being up instead of down would make me lose the limp. It totally surprised me.

  5. Thanks for that Franis. I also had absolutely no self-awareness when I started with AT teachers but the motivating force for me to continue were the huge, unexpected, changes for the good took place in the first few weeks – even the first couple of days! In a sense I never got to a “fork in the road” – I stumbled upon the AT by accident, thought it might be interesting to explore, and just continued for over 35 years.

    • Thankyou Jack. Having had a quick wiki search to remind myself of the Unforgiveable Sin I came across the Arabic, Shirk (SRK) and realised that this may be the etymology of to ‘shirk’ responsibility in English.

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