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Tips4Pupils – Pausing is not Stopping

A pause is not a stop; they are quite different. A pause implies that one is going to do the thing, but not yet. A stop has no such implication. We are free to do something else.

If you press the pause button on an old-fashioned cassette player, the motor is still engaged but with, so to speak, the brakes on; as soon as you release the button the machine can only continue in the same direction it was going. If you press the stop button, other options become available; you can rewind, fast-forward, record or even remove the tape.

Real stopping means giving oneself real choices.

But take care! With choice comes responsibility.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – End-gaining

“This end-gaining business has got to such a point – it’s worse than a drug” 1

FM Alexander

One of the biggest, though not always most apparent, obstacles to applying the twin forces of inhibition and direction in our everyday activities is “end-gaining”. What is “end-gaining”? Is there an underlying metaphysical assumption that predicates it?

At a very fundamental level, end-gaining (i.e. going directly for an end without consideration of or attention to the processes, or the means, whereby such an end can be brought about) is dependent upon a conviction,  either conscious or unconscious, that the centre of gravity of one’s life is somewhere else or some “when” else and not in the here and now. It is not a question of speed, or even of tempo. End-gaining cannot be said to be a mental, physical or emotional activity, although it affects all three.  End-gaining is a ‘state’. Like a drug, or as FM said “…worse than a drug“, it seems to permeate us at a cellular level.

When I am end-gaining I am “out of sync” with my life.

Unless there is an ontological acceptance that one’s life is happening here and now, and that it cannot be otherwise, we become very susceptible, as is a host to a pathogen when resistance is low, to either end-gaining or, arguably even worse, a kind of dreamy lassitude (see Aimless and Purposeful).

The pull to gain an end is part of the human condition; it is always waiting to reclaim us and our energies. It takes us away from “process”, and consequently away from a real sense of self.

Our “use” – in particular the disposition of our mental, physical and emotional energies – is axiomatically part of any process, whether we are aware of it or not. When we are attending to process – even if only externally – we are open to possibilities which are not there when we are in a state of end-gaining or of lassitude.

It is, in my experience, of great value to try and study for oneself – and in oneself – the phenomenon of ‘end-gaining’.

Here are some suggestions:

  • What triggers end-gaining in me? Is it something mental or emotional? For example, is my brain busy making lists of things to do? Am I worrying about getting everything done “in time” or of letting other people down?
  • What is the form of it? Does it make me speed up, be more tense, make mistakes? Do I feel as though I am pumped-up with caffeine?
  • Can I let it go? Is it possible for me to shift myself back into the here and now and attend to process? Or am I possessed by it? What resists letting go of end-gaining?
  • How do I experience myself when I am ‘attending to means-whereby’?

We cannot eliminate end-gaining, but we can certainly reduce its strength and duration.

“I always think the best test one can make on oneself is simply, in the middle of an activity, go away, walk away and maybe look out of the window or open the front door and look out. If you mind the interruption, it means you are end-gaining.”

Erika Whittaker 2

By addressing the universal tendency to end-gain, and developing a practical method of directing attention to means-whereby in activity, Alexander’s work has resonances with teachings from East and West, ancient and modern, about latent possibilities in human beings.

1. Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995).
2. In correspondence with the author.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – Spontaneity

…the thing we are trying to kill in you is what you think is your ‘individuality’ 1

FM Alexander

Whilst visiting a training course some years ago I was asked a question by one of the students. She said that she was walking home through a park, feeling lively and energised after a morning in class,  and saw a group of children playing with a ball. She felt a strong impulse to go and join them and just throw a ball around for a few minutes with some of the neighbourhood kids. But then – remembering that she was training to be an Alexander teacher – she decided that she really ought to inhibit this “inappropriate response” and, instead, attend to her Primary Control. What, she asked me, is the relationship between inhibition and spontaneity? 2 Does the former necessarily block the latter?

I found this question, and the example she gave, intensely interesting.

The way I see it is like this.

We need to differentiate between what might be termed “real spontaneity” and what is actually nothing more than self-indulgence in certain superficial and not always wholesome personality traits. The latter are habits, just as much as pulling the head back while sitting down. They are what Alexander was referring to in the above quote.

Real spontaneity comes from a deeper, more real impulse – which it would be unhelpful and unhealthy to suppress. There is a danger that this suppression can masquerade as inhibition.

However, there is a way in which inhibition and spontaneity can connect.  When an impulse to act is felt, then there can – in some people – be a tendency to block it which is habitual. It is not the impulse which should be inhibited, but the thing that blocks both it and the flow of energy which becomes available to carry it out.

If we try to notice where our impulses come from, we can distinguish between what is reactive “old stuff” endlessly repeating, and what is a fresh, appropriate and “spontaneous” response to a situation.

And sometimes we will be surprised at what we find!

1. Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995).
2. From Late Latin spontaneus “willing, of one’s free will,” from Latin (sua) sponte “of one’s own accord, willingly;” (see Online Etymology Dictionary).

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – Means-whereby

When I need to undertake a task of some sort there is an inner activity and an outer activity. The sequence, according to Alexander’s ideas,  of “inner events” is something like this:

  1. say “no”!
  2. consider my options
  3. make a decision
  4. organise myself (head, neck & back etc.)
  5. work out my “means-whereby” (the best way to do it)
  6. reconsider (I can still change my decision)
  7. let my head go forward and up and get on with it

Is it not the case, though, that there is often an assumption that as long as my neck is free (etc.) I am “using” myself well?

Think of any task involving a number of necessary actions. For example, decorating a room: I might need to move all the furniture into the centre of the room or even out of the room all together.

Where am I going to put everything? Which items should I move first? Should I empty drawers or bookshelves before trying to move heavy furniture? Where might I store the contents ? Etc, etc……That’s before I even start preparing the surfaces to be painted.

Unless I work out my means-whereby before I start, I am likely to have to do a lot more work than necessary.

If I start moving a sideboard around with no idea where to put it because I filled the only large enough space with piles of books, BUT….. I keep a free neck – does that mean I have “good use”?

Compare this with the practical man or woman – amateur or professional decorator – who, before starting, thinks things through and works out the optimum sequence of events, BUT….. stiffens or collapses somewhat while doing the practical work.

Whose “use” is better?

Taking a moment or two to consider the means-whereby we are going to carry out an activity (the best way to do it) can bring a new dimension to our understanding of the use of the self.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – “Use” & “Self”

According to Erika Whittaker, when one of his students or pupils would complain to FM Alexander about something or other that was going on in their lives, his response was often to say:

“But it’s you! It’s you who’s doing it.”

So Alexander’s concept of “use” was total. It is not just about what you do or don’t do; or whether you do it with a free neck. It is about who you are: not “use of the body” but “use of the self”.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – Respiration & Voice

How will the Alexander Technique help me with respiration?

In two ways:

  1. by having generally better “use” – that is to say, carrying less unnecessary tension and having the proper support in the body – the respiratory system will not have to work so hard to move air in and out of the body;
  2. by learning how to leave your breathing mechanisms alone, you will not be interfering with what Nature does very well.

What are the mechanisms involved in breathing?

Briefly, the brain receives information about carbon dioxide levels in the blood. When they are too high it responds by sending a message directly to the diaphragm which in turn contracts downwards and outwards from its dome-shaped resting position while the ribs move side-ways and upwards. This brings about a considerable increase in the volume of the thorax. The internal air pressure is thereby reduced and atmospheric pressure pushes air into the lungs. The diaphragm then begins to relax and come back up inside the rib-cage, which closes around it, into a dome-shape, aided by the internal organs and abdominal wall which – having been pushed respectively down and out during inspiration – are exerting pressure. The resultant decrease in the volume of the thorax puts the air in the lungs under increased pressure (higher than atmospheric pressure) and it therefore passes out through the wind-pipe (i.e. is exhaled).

The most important aspect of this from the point of view of respiratory re-education is that the movement of air in and out of the lungs, when not interfered with, is a passive consequence of work done primarily by the diaphragm – not under voluntary control. It is when we either interfere with the voluntary muscles (either consciously or unconsciously), or are more or less permanently in a state of rigidity or collapse that things go wrong. Therefore any effort made to make air come in or out of the lungs is counter-productive. To learn to breathe well is to learn how to get out of the way. Alexander work is a very effective way to bring this about.

How will the Alexander Technique help me with voice?

Natural breathing, as described above, is the foundation for any work with voice. In order to produce sound, the vocal chords squeeze together and provide a resistance to the air being pushed out of the lungs by the increase in air pressure caused by the diaphragm and rib-cage. When this is done without any unnecessary interference from voluntary muscles, the voice has a particular resonance which can be recognised. The most common faults in voice production (or playing a wind-instrument) are:

  • accessory breathing mechanisms are used to pull air into the upper chest. This mechanism (used, for example, when panting) allows for a rapid exchange of air for emergency purposes. However, since the lungs are more or less pyramid shaped they very soon feel full if the air is coming into the top part first. This is the most common reason why singers and public speakers find they feel puffed up with air and yet cannot finish a phrase.
  • the abdominal muscles are used to try to force air into the base of the lungs. The effect of this is to weaken those muscles, cause flaccidity in the intestines, weaken the diaphragm (whose work is being done by the wrong body-part), and bring about a rigidity in the rib-cage, which is denied its chance to expand and contract with respiration.
  • excess tension is used in the throat region to try to control the rate at which air is expelled.

Though there can be exceptions and special circumstances, re-education of the vocal mechanism is best done in the following sequence:

  1. work on improving general functioning
  2. work on rediscovering natural breathing
  3. work on producing simple sounds (whispered vowels) without interference
  4. speech
  5. song

© 1994 John S Hunter