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These annual lectures were instituted as a memorial to F.M. Alexander. A decade has passed since his death on October 10th 1955, so this is perhaps an appropriate moment to pass in review the knowledge which he left us, and to recall aspects of his teaching which may be in danger of being forgotten and ultimately lost, as the psycho-physical benefits of his work become better known. An institution, said Emerson, is the lengthened shadow of one man -- we, in this Society, are the rapidly lengthening shadow of Alexander. This lecture is a plea that as the shadow grows we may take care not to lose the substance.
It must be remembered that in order to discuss or analyse anything the nature of language forces us to speak in a separative way. The living human being is a whole, works well or badly as a whole, and living experiences are integrated and simultaenous in a way which cannot be expressed in words. Physical and mental aspects of any activity are in fact one, but have to be separated for purposes of discussion.
The idea that posture affects well-being is a very ancient one. We know that the Greeks were concerned with it, that Victorian young ladies used backboards to encourage straight spines, and that posture training in the gymnasium is part of the accepted curriculum in schools. Many Eastern religions and disciplines contained instructions about the carriage and comportment of the body.
We might almost speak of the noble lineage of this idea, since so many of the expressions enshrined in our language indicate a knowledge that bodily attitude betrays inner states of mind or dominant characteristics. We speak of 'a spineless creature,' 'having no backbone,' 'losing our heads,' or 'being level-headed,' -- we all know what it is to be 'beside ourselves.' The Bible abounds in references to a stiff-necked generation -- 'The stiff-necked and the unbelievers shall be punished' and 'they stiffened their necks that they might not hear the word of the Lord' are two nice ones.
During the last 30 years, at least, the importance of body-mechanics has been widely recognised. Alexander found that the problem of posture was a much more fundamental one than had been suspected. He did not use the word posture, because it was too limited a concept for the nature of the discoveries he made, which showed that bad 'posture' or as he preferred to call it 'mis-use of the self' was the end result of much deeper wrong processes, involving the whole person. In fact, of bad habits 'woven in the weakness of the changing body' as Eliot puts it.
One of the things he meant by the 'use of the self' was the way in which the various parts of the body are related to one another in actually living, moving and having our being.
Posture implies fixed positions, and right and wrong ways of sitting, standing, etc. and posture training is based on the inadequate assumption that bad posture can be altered satisfactorily from the outside, by doing something different.
To start with the wrong end of the stick -- because the wrong end is observable -- Alexander found that we live in almost complete ignorance of the way we use the body -- that most people are distorting the form, and impairing the working of the whole organism, by bad co-ordination, muscular overtension and misuse of the parts of the body in their relationship to one another.
The body is an instrument -- it is the instrument through which we live -- it can be capable of very fine and subtle perceptions. Professor A.N. Whitehead wrote in his book The Romantic Reaction, "The unity of the perceptual field, therefore, must be a unity of bodily experience. Your perception takes place where you are AND IS ENTIRELY DEPENDENT ON HOW YOUR BODY IS FUNCTIONING." This instrument is being damaged and distorted in ways largely unconsidered until Alexander began to teach. It is being rendered gross, heavy and incapable of sensitive behaviour, by overtension and the resultant internal noise to which it is subject. This lack of peace in the body makes almost impossible the condition known as 'peace of mind.'
The form this misuse takes follows the same general pattern in everyone.
Invariably the muscles of the neck are overcontracted, causing loss of the free poise of the head on top of the spine. This leads to overcontraction of some muscles of the trunk, and lack of proper tone in the other supporting muscles of the body. This results in exaggeration of the natural curves of the spine, and harmful pressure on the individual vertebrae of the spinal column and on the joints, coupled with overwork and wrong relationship of the limbs to the trunk.
In short we get a state of affairs where the work of supporting the body is being wrongly distributed -- the form of the body distorted -- and important functions such as breathing, blood circulation and digestion are working inefficiently and under enormous strain.
Another way of putting it is that the wrong general principle on which the body is being used is that of contracting every part of it into the nearest joint, beginning with the contraction of the head towards the trunk.
This unconscious way of mismanagement of the self produces states of dis-ease -- dis-ability -- dis-comfort and general ill-health which baffle the ordinary doctor, and for which there is no help other than a radical change in the manner in which the person is using himself.
Fortunately, during the past 15 years in England, medical research, and the publication of scientific papers in medical textbooks and journals, have resulted in a great increase in the number of doctors and psychiatrists who turn to teachers of the Alexander technique for help with patients who are suffering from the effects of bad use.
To understand the difference between usual methods of posture training -- or postural correction -- and Alexander's teaching we must look again at his own story, re-examine our origins, and see how he arrived at the knowledge which has made possible a completely new approach to the problem of how to manage ourselves in the least harmful way.
Alexander began with the concrete -- he had little time for theories or for ideas which had no practical application.
He was forced to his search by a disability which was interfering with his work as an actor and reciter. The problem seemed to be a specific difficulty -- that of recurring hoarseness of his voice -- but it led him to discover that a small and apparently isolated weakness could not be overcome without recourse to the total change of his whole self. And that attempts to change at the outer visible level -- the usual way of trying to correct faults -- were completely unavailing.
Here then was Alexander, a successful reciter with a passion for Shakespeare and a firm determination to become a great Shakespearean actor. All his ambitions were falling to pieces because his voice was not standing up to the demands being made upon it.
He sought medical advice. After disappointing trials of the remedies, which worked improvements only as long as he refrained from using his voice, he came to a realisation which was the first stroke of genius in a long series. He understood that he might be causing the trouble himself -- that he might be putting strain on the vocal organs in some way which was unknown to him. Looking back from where we stand now, this first step in a new direction in thinking about his problem, stands out clearly as the key to all that was to follow and shows Alexander's capacity for original thought and also the awkward way he had of not accepting anything at its face value. Even when he was a small boy this quality was evident. It is said that he was a perfect nuisance at the Dame School he attended in Tasmania because he invariably questioned everything he was taught, and asked his teachers how they knew that the information they were giving him was so.
There is no means of knowing how many people with Alexander's voice trouble have given up their careers as speaker, actors or singers because they accepted unthinkingly, that if medical treatment failed, there could be no other solution to their difficulties.
Alexander had now taken responsibility upon himself for his trouble. In order to observe what he did when he used his voice he practised speaking in front of mirrors. By patiently watching what he was doing he found, at length, that three rather peculiar things happened every time he spoke. There was a tendency to pull the head back, depress the larynx, and suck in air through the mouth. With these interferences went a tendency to raise his chest and shorten his whole body.
After much experimentation he found that if he could prevent the pulling back of the head the other misuses did not occur.
This was the second major discovery -- namely that the interference with the free poise of the head brought interference with the best working of the rest of his body in its train.
The dominance of the head in the hierarchy of the body he later called the Primary Control partly because in unravelling the muddle of misuse, it is the first factor to be dealt with, and conditions the forms of misuse in the rest of the body.
The Primary Control, in its full definition, is the relationship between the head, the neck and the back. It is the Primary Control of the use of the body whether the use is good or bad.
Having discovered what might be causing the voice difficulties, Alexander now set about trying to correct these faults in the most obvious way. He tried to DO the opposite. But the more he struggled to do the right thing the more entangled he became.
He found that he couldn't stop these wrong habits by trying to do so. At last he realised that he hadn't got to DO something different -- but to stop doing what he was doing already.
This is the next important principle in his teaching which turns upside down all the accepted notions about correcting something that is wrong. Usually if something is wrong we think we must DO something to put it right.
The new principle is that if something is wrong, we must find out what it is and stop doing it. The only cure for banging one's head against a wall is to stop.
The understanding of this principle is cardinal in any attempt to change misuse, and highlights one of the basic differences between this teaching and any other method.
It also provides a useful explanation of the work on a certain level. It can be formulated like this in answer to questions about what Alexander teachers do. "We teach people to become aware of the unnecessary strain and overtension they make in everything they do, so that they need not continue to misuse themselves in this way."
In other words we are concerned with giving our pupils the knowledge of how to liberate themselves from the cage of overtension in which they are imprisoned, so that the free, natural use of the body can emerge. Cyril Connolly wrote in The Unquiet Grave -- "inside every fat man is a thin one trying to get out." We might alter it thus, "Inside every tense man is a free one not knowing how to get out."
We are not teaching people what to do right -- but how to stop wrong DOING. It is impossible to DO an UNDOING.
But to return to Alexander in front of his mirrors. He had now reached a deadlock. He knew what was wrong, he knew he couldn't DO anything to put it right. He had exhausted all ways of trying to alter what was going on FROM THE OUTSIDE.
The next step was to begin the journey inwards to the central place in himself where the trouble really lay. Along the route came the recognition that he could not trust his sense of feeling -- that is -- the kinaesthetic sense of how much muscular tension he was using. He found that what he could see happening in the mirror did not correspond at all to what he felt was happening. Up to this time no one had questioned the reliability of this faulty guide which we all use in judging what is going on in the body -- how much tension we are making -- and also where any part of the body is in relation to other parts, and to the whole. The kinaesthetic sense works partly through the muscle-spindles in the muscles, as well as from receptors in the tendons and joints. Muscle-spindles are tiny mechanisms whose function is to convey information from muscles to the higher centres of the brain about the state of muscles, and to receive information back from the brain as to what the muscles should do about it. However, if too much tension is being made in the muscle, there comes a certain point when this "feedback" between brain and muscle is put out of action, and we can no longer feel what we are doing. This is the scientific explanation of what Alexander called "faulty sensory appreciation" and this is the principal source of our ignorance of what we are doing with ourselves when we are wrong. It makes clear why ordinary methods of putting things right without taking wrong feeling into account are likely to fail.
Alexander could not change anything by doing. He could not trust his feeling. He then saw that he had underestimated the strength of habit. What he observed in the mirror was the end-result of disordered patterns lying deep in the nervous system. And that these inner patterns of impulses, conveyed through the nervous system to the muscles acting on the bony structure and joints of the body, were operative perpetually, whether he was moving, speaking or sitting still.
In fact these inner patterns were him -- insofar as his body was the outer manifestation of them.
The next step in the journey was taken when Alexander realised that the only place where he could begin to control the wrong habitual patterns was at the moment when the idea came to him to speak or move.
The moment when, whatever state of misuse he was in, would be made worse as he went into action.
He had reached the only place, and the only moment in time, where change could begin, or where he could have any control over the habitual patterns of misuse, which were dominating everything he attempted to do.
This place, or this moment in time, was the instant that a stimulus to activity reached his consciousness. In the ordinary way, when a stimulus comes, we react to it in the only manner possible. The response is made without thought -- without any knowledge on our part of what we are putting into motion. The reaction is the immediate response of the whole self, according to habitual patterns of movement which we have developed from our earliest years. We have no choice in this, we can behave in no other way. We are bound in slavery to these unrecognised patterns just as surely as if we were automatons.
When Alexander reached understanding of this part of the problem he had found the key to all change. He understood at last in what way he must work.
We have now followed him in his journey from the outermost manifestation of misuse, that is the interference with the normal working of his whole body, resulting in the vocal failure, to the innermost point where he could stop this interference.
Let us now reverse the process and follow him on his way out again.
He had to make possible a pause or space between the stimulus and the response.
He decided to do this by saying "NO" to, or inhibiting, the immediate response. This proved to be the cornerstone on which all his later discoveries were made, and through which later changes were made possible. The word inhibition in this sense means the opposite of volition -- withholding consent to automatic reaction. It does not mean suppressing something in the sense in which it is used in psycho-analysis.
Having effectively prevented the old unconscious patterns from repeating themselves, and having made a break in the "perpetual motion" machine that he had become, Alexander then brought his brain into action by sending conscious, verbal instructions to the parts of the body which he had been unable to control before.
The first result of this way of working was to prevent the misuse of the head, neck and trunk. He had to be content for a time to give himself a stimulus, refuse to respond to it, and give the conscious messages or directions without actually carrying out a movement. This is the preparatory stage of what one might call road building or the laying down of railway lines along which the train will eventually travel.
In time he was able to continue the new messages during movement.
Eventually the old wrong inner patterns were replaced by the new ones resulting in the co-ordinated, trouble-free working of his body.
In this way he put to a new use a faculty we all have and use in ordinary life. This faculty is intelligence, or the power of the brain to determine and direct what we wish to do. This power he now turned to the management and control of the use of his body, so that the whole of it became "informed with thought."
Let us now examine in detail the series of new orders or messages he was employing. The first and most important break in the old patterns came, as we have seen, when he said "NO" to the habitual reaction. He then ordered the muscles of the neck to release. The neck muscles are the only parts of the body which can exert direct traction on the head, and it will be pulled back or down or sideways according to which group or groups of these muscles are being over tensed.
No change in the poise of the head can happen while it is held in the grip of neck misuse. Moreover, the small sub-occipital muscles between the base of the skull and the top vertebrae of the spine, the axis and the atlas, cannot perform their function of delicately balancing the head. The next order was for the head to be directed forward and up -- not put but directed.
The next order was to the back to lengthen and widen.
Alexander explained to us that this was the nearest he could get in words to the actuality he wished to bring about. These simple verbal formulations are designed to bring about the reconciliation of two opposing tendencies in each case, and to ensure the balance of forces in the antagonistic muscle pulls in the body. A harmony results, where everything is doing its own work of maintaining stability, and there is a stillness without fixity, or if you like, a lack of disturbance, in the working of the parts of the body in their relationship to each other.
Too much effort to lengthen the back and it narrows -- too much widening and you lose length and slump down.
The whole process is self-checking. I hope this makes it clear why one cannot do the orders. Their first function is preventive. The wrong inner patterns are the doing which has to be stopped.
I'm afraid I have rather laboured this story -- so familiar to many of the audience. The full account of it is in Alexander's book, The Use of the Self, but I warned you that I was going to re-examine our origins. It was necessary to do this if what follows is to make any sense, especially to our guests who may not know Alexander's teaching.
After he had worked out the technique by putting it into practice to restore his own normal co-ordination, he was very surprised to find that the misuses he had overcome in himself were present, in varying degrees, in everyone else. It is a curious fact that until the scales fall from our eyes in this matter of misuse, we do not notice the misuse of others. It is as if the words about the beam in our eyes and the mote in other people's went into reverse.
Alexander then had to find a way of teaching others what he knew. This was a considerable task, involving not only explanation, but learning the special and subtle skill in the use of the hands needed for working on other people.
Later still he took on a further burden in the shape of students wanting to learn how to teach the work. This is a different task again, group work instead of work with one individual.
It is important to remember that we are all in the same situation as Alexander. He has found the way and the technique for following the way. We have the enormous advantage of the skilled help of a trained teacher. But the real importance and value of the technique is that we learn to work on ourselves.
Alexander used to say, "Everyone must do the real work for themselves. The teacher can show the way, but cannot get inside the pupil's brain and control his reactions for him. Each person must apply it for himself."
Learning this work is like learning anything else. We make use of the same faculties and need the same patience and perseverance as in any form of learning.
So far we have explored Alexander's work in its application to our faulty muscular habits and general misuse of the body, and seen how we may build up a stable good use which is under our control.
Let us now examine some applications of his principles to other spheres of our experience, and see if we can catch some part of his vision of its importance which inspired him throughout his life.
He understood, as perhaps no one else has done, that here was the possibility of a different quality of living, which could help resolve many of the difficulties of life which we bring on ourselves through lack of awareness and control. He was very modest about his part in the discoveries, and often used to say, "if I had not discovered the work some other poor chap would have had to go through all that, because the need for it is so great." This attitude is probably common among creative people. Once the poem is written, the music composed, the painting finished or the scientific discovery made, the creation assumes its own life, and its originator feels a certain detachment towards it.
The Alexander technique will work wherever it is applied. It is not magic, but does its job at the point of application. How deeply it is applied depends on the aims and wishes of the person concerned. If the aim is to get rid of a pain in the back it will do so effectively by bringing into consciousness the 'wrong doing' which is producing the pain. If the aim is greater awareness of habitual reactions in other departments of the self, it will work there too, and by the same process. We are all bound in the prison of habit. We have habits of thought -- unexamined fixed opinions and prejudices which determine our behaviour without our realising it.
We are also the victims of emotional reaction. These are very powerful driving forces.
A young pupil of my husband's, when she first realised the importance of these things, burst out, "Oh, I see, Dr. Barlow, this is a life-sentence."
Alexander's favourite way of describing his work was as "a means of controlling human reaction." Under this basic umbrella can be included every form of blind, unconscious reaction, and here we come to the whole question of Self-Knowledge.
The muscular bad habits of misuse harm only oneself -- unconscious habits of thought and emotion harm oneself and other people, because they determine our reactions to everyone else. It could be said that we use other people to practise our unconscious bad habits on.
The greatest misery and misunderstanding we experience is often in this field of personal relationships. Of course, these inner emotional states are mirrored in the way we use ourselves -- states of rage, anxiety, and fear -- to take only the most obvious examples -- are there for all the world to see by the unmistakeable bodily attitudes. This is also true of more subtle inner conditions such as depression, worry and hopelessness.
In some way the constant and deep reaction-patterns are more obvious to other people than to ourselves.
I sometimes think that there is a wry sense of humour lurking somewhere in the background of the Universe permitting this tragi-comic state of affairs, where certain characteristics of a person are known and clearly seen by everyone, except the person himself.
There is a thing known as 'the state of the world.' In whatever part of time a man's life span is set down there must always be large, terrifying problems, known as 'the state of the world.'
In primitive times wild animals and marauding tribes were probably the main worries -- apart from the weather. Later, perhaps, the plague, persecutions, lawlessness and lack of respect for human life. In this, things haven't changed much -- and always there is war.
An individual can do little about these large issues On a smaller scale, but nearer home, there is the problem of other people. Most of the time they just don't behave as we think they should. Again there is little that we can do about it, although we waste an enormous amount of energy trying to make them alter.
Where then can we affect anything? We have been told many times in the course of history, by wise men, that the chaos in the world is only a reflection of the chaos within us -- writ large.
Alexander taught that there is one main field of work for each of us -- work on ourselves to gain more light on our unconscious habits -- work to use more constantly the one place of freedom we have, the moment of the impact on us of a stimulus, so that we increase the number of moments when we choose our reaction, instead of being driven by habit to react as we have always done in the past. For this we must be there -- present and aware, at the crucial moment, to inhibit before we react.
We have no freedom in dictating the state of the world, we have only limited control over the events that happen to us, but we can develop control over the way we react to these events. The freedom in our environment and in regard to other people's reactions is also limited, but we can have some control over the nearest bit of our environment -- ourselves.
Alexander used to chide us for always trying to change and control the big things instead of changing the small things that were in our control. The inscription at Delphi 'Know thyself' sums it up.
Down the ages we can see that all the real teachers of mankind have tried to make people understand this point, that change can only happen in the individual. We know that fundamental new ideas have always started with one person and spread slowly and gradually as more and more individuals receive and understand the new knowledge.
The vision Alexander had of the possibility of individual evolution in the development of consciousness and awareness was the mainspring of his life's work. It is this aspect of his teaching that places him in the direct tradition of the great teachers of humanity. It is this side of his teaching which could so easily get lost. It is a not unreasonable supposition that many whose reported teachings have come down to us, also gave to the people of their time practical techniques for carrying out the teaching. If so, most of this has been lost and forgotten, and we are left with reports and writings which today often have little meaning for us. It is interesting -- apropos of all this -- that a pupil of mine, a doctor, once remarked that Alexander had rediscovered the secret of Zen for our time.
Another aspect of traditional teaching worth mentioning is the necessity to live in the present. It is a recurrent theme in the great mystical writings. The Now is all that we have. We cannot inhibit next week, direct ourselves tomorrow, or even control our reactions five minutes hence. All this has to be done Now. The fact that we find it so difficult to BE in the present, and to deal with the requirements of the present moment in the most appropriate way is, I might suggest somewhat fancifully, also mirrored in the way we stand. How can we BE all present and correct, if our heads are driving back into the past, our bodies rushing forward into the future and only our feet all too firmly anchored in the Here and Now?
But you may say -- let's not be so gloomy about it and, of course, you would be quite right. Nothing is achieved by gloom and heaviness. As one of our students pointed out, "If there is a force of gravity there must also be a force of levity."
Frequently when he was training us, Alexander would come into the students' room, look round at all the earnest, serious faces preparing diligently for his class, and send us packing for a walk round the square saying, "That's not the way to work, let's have a bit of gaiety and lightness."
One of the most endearing things about him was his capacity for enjoyment and his refusal to be serious about things which did not really matter. He liked particularly jokes against himself and would tell them with great gusto. He knew the meaning of the words Enjoy Yourself.
In 1946 my husband and I were on holiday in Brittany with Alexander and a South African Q.C. with rather expensive tastes. We were nearing the end of our stay and were awaiting, rather anxiously, the arrival of some travellers' cheques belonging to the South African. They did not come and, meanwhile, the rest of the party were supplying him with cash.
On the last day the cheques still hadn't arrived and we had 1600 francs between us to foot a large hotel bill. After consultation we decided that the only thing to do was to send Alexander to the Casino in the hope that he would retrieve our fortunes. We all went with him and stood behind his chair while he, with the greatest composure in the world, proceeded very slowly and diligently to lose every sou that we had. As he remarked in another context, "You cannot change the course of Nature by primarily co-ordinating yourself."
All ended happily enough as Alexander had made friends with a young French couple who were staying in the hotel, and they agreed to stand surety for us until we could collect the money from the nearest large town.
But to return to his teaching. It is, like all important things, invisible and fragile, the heart and core of it I mean. There is a nice little piece by Rilke which I can't resist quoting: "This is the creature that has never been, they never knew it yet, nonetheless, they loved the way it moved -- its gentleness -- its neck, its very gaze, calm and serene." I am reminded also of Bernard Shaw's remark "Alexander calls upon the world to witness a change so small and so subtle that only he can see it."
Alexander's teaching comes into being -- it is born anew, only when someone uses it. In this way it is like music, it is brought to life when someone plays it and makes the music manifest.
Alexander used to tell us that he wrote his books to ensure that a record of his work would exist even if the teaching of it died out. His hope was, that in this event, someone might come across the books and reconstruct the practical side of it. Now, I know these books come in for a lot of criticism. It has always been so. They are not easy to read and certainly they were not easy to write. But there they are -- the man's own words -- how he worked the problem out and what he thought his discoveries meant.
Francis Bacon said, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."
I suggest that Alexander's books are obligatory reading for anyone who takes his teaching seriously.
He is accused of being incomprehensible. I would like to quote a passage from a recently translated book by Merleau Ponty called The Phenomenology of Perception. "The excitation is seized upon and re-organised to make it resemble the perception which it is about to cause," end of quote.
I don't pretend to know what the author means, but I'm sure he is trying to express something important. It might even be worthwhile studying his book to find out. So with Alexander's books -- they require study and hard application, given this they will yield up their gold.
Before the war I had a pupil who was home on leave from Army service in India. He had a course of lessons and went back to his unit. Two or more years later he returned to London for a refresher course of lessons. I congratulated him on the change in himself which he had brought about. "Yes," he said. "I have been working hard. One thing has helped me more than anything else. I keep Alexander's books on my bedside table and read a chapter every night."
The following day I told Alexander this story while we were having a training class. He was silent for a long moment and then said thoughtfully, "Yes, and I would be a better man if I did the same."
These then are the two aspects of Alexander's teaching. First as a means of allowing the natural laws of the organism to work without interference -- a means of giving back the birth-right of good use, which, as children, we all possessed. Alexander said, "When an investigation comes to be made it will be found that every single thing we do in the work is exactly what is done in Nature, where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously."
Ideally, the teacher has to be a craftsman in the use of his hands, a scientist in his adherence to principles which are subject to 'operational verification' and an artist in conveying his knowledge to others.
The teacher's responsibility for the continued existence of the work is heavy, especially if he trains other teachers, to ensure that none of the essential elements of the teaching is lost.
In the second aspect -- the application of the work to the deeper spheres of our experience, the division into teacher and pupil vanishes.
There is no end to work on oneself -- here we are all in the same boat.
When Alexander was nearly 80 years old he said to me, "I never stop working on myself -- I dare not." He knew that the only limits to this kind of development are those which we impose on ourselves.
He continued to teach to within five days of the end, at the age of 86 and then, having refused all drugs which might deprive him of it, he achieved the rare distinction of being present at his own death.
Tonight we have remembered him -- but the memorial that would please him best is that we should do his work.