As an Alexander Technique teacher it’s always seemed to me that our ability to direct our thinking in a useful way is what really lies at the heart of the work. After all, isn’t “Man’s Supreme Inheritance” – the title of F. M. Alexander’s first book – basically our potential to use our mind to change the circumstances of our lives?
And isn’t that also what he means by the title of his second book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual*?
And as the late Marjorie Barstow, the first person to graduate from Alexander’s first teacher training course liked to say: “People think this is bodywork. But, really, it’s brainwork.”
So why on earth is this writer, who so many people deeply respect, intent on trashing thinking, and the thinking mechanism?
It took me a little while to realize it wasn’t the mind itself he objected to – it was our identification with it. That’s what causes thoughts to become compulsive – and destructive.
As he writes:
Then the mind is using you. You are unconsciously identified with it, so you don’t even know that you are it’s slave. It’s almost as if you were possessed without knowing it, and so you take the possessing entity to be yourself…
You have probably come across “mad” people in the street incessantly talking or muttering to themselves. Well, that’s not much different from what you and all other “normal” people do, except that you don’t do it out loud. The voice comments, speculates, judges, compares, complains, likes, dislikes, and so on. The voice isn’t necessarily relevant to the situation you find yourself in at the time; it may be reviving the recent or distant past or rehearsing of imagining future situations.
In other words, taking you out of the present moment, the only place in which your mind can actually be helpful to you.
As he says, “The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly”. And:
Your mind is an instrument, a tool. It is there to be used for a specific task, and when that task is completed, you lay it down. As it is, I would say about 80 to 90 percent of most people’s thinking is not only repetitive and useless, but because of its dysfunctional and often negative nature, much of it is also harmful.
So really Tolle is not against useful thinking – perhaps we could call that constructive conscious thinking…or even constructive conscious control. He’s concerned with our tendency to settle into useless and harmful mental rant patterns. Destructive unconscious control, as it were.
I believe Alexander was on to this in his many condemnations of what he called “mind-wandering”. To take just one example from Constructive Conscious Control:
…in the sphere of learning something and learning to do something, the shortcoming most frequently recognized is that known as “mind-wandering.”
Now there exists a close connection between the shortcoming which is recognized as “mind-wandering” and the shortcoming which manifests itself as a seriously weakened response to a stimulus to an act (or acts) of self-preservation. – page 13
It seems to me that Alexander’s “mind wandering” is pretty much the same as Tolle’s “identification with the mind”.
Tolle has a lot of practical advice about weakening, and ultimately releasing, that pattern but that’s perhaps a topic for another blog. But this will give you some idea of the approach he takes:
The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not the possessing entity – the thinker. Knowing this enables you to observe the entity. The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated.
I believe that “higher level of consciousness” is, in Alexander’s words, “our supreme inheritance”.
And for me, an Alexanderian approach to moving towards my own “supreme inheritance” is to use simple, effective, easily-testable, in the moment self-directions such as “my neck is free”, “I’m free”, or “I’m not compressing myself”.**
I’d love to hear your experiences, and your thoughts, on this. Please post them below and/or on Facebook.
**You can learn more about Alexander Technique directions here: New Directions in Alexander Technique Directing
As you might expect, Country Music songs frequently address the issue of poor thinking leading to disastrous results. Here’s a nice example:
And here’s a more hopeful song: