The Vault

Finding a Way to Know

By Stacy Gehman


1. Introduction

Near the end of ‘Evolution of a Technique’ Alexander states— “Clearly to ‘feel’ or think I had inhibited the old instinctive reaction was no proof that I had really done so, and I must find some way of ‘knowing.’ ”1 This statement defines the essential task confronting us as we apply Alexander’s discoveries to accomplishing our own ends. How can we know that we have ‘inhibited the old instinctive reaction’ as we go on to accomplish some task, when feeling or thinking that we have is no proof? The way in which we individually answer this challenge grows out of the ways in which we understand ourselves and the world in which we live—out of the way we decide what we will consider as true. The way in which we decide what we will consider as true defines our approach to the process of learning; then as we turn to teaching, to a great extent it determines what we will do to help others learn.

During the past few years I have been intrigued by this question of what we can ‘know’ about ourselves and the world we live in. I have found great help in beginning to understand the fundamental nature of these questions through study of the work of Rudolf Steiner2, 3 & 4 and a few other philosophers with contrasting views. Making the process of ‘acquiring knowledge’ more conscious has deepened my understanding of myself and of the Alexander Technique. As I have applied this new understanding, I have become very excited by a new clarity in my ability to assess situations and find appropriate actions. And seeing my students’ response to the changes in my teaching has further encouraged me.

In this paper I will offer my understanding of the nature of this process of knowing, how it relates to the concept of ‘faulty sensory appreciation,’ and the implications it has for how we approach our personal application and teaching of the Technique. Everyone of us has a way in which we decide on what we know and don’t know, even though we may not have thought much about it. Making the way we decide this question more conscious can help us free our thinking from habitual patterns and preconceptions. For example there are few individuals whose ideas about learning have not been influenced by concepts derived from experiments with animals, because, at the least, those who educated us were schooled in them. When we extrapolate concepts borrowed from behaviorism, such as positive reinforcement, conditioned response, and even to a certain extent the idea of ‘training,’ as ways to explain our own and our students actions, do we not in at least some degree diminish strictly human qualities such as understanding, love and freedom?

In the last section of this discussion—Applications to the Alexander Technique—I present a process of consciously directed observation that has proved to be a very practical way of working to ‘find some way of knowing.’ This issue of faulty sensory appreciation raises some fundamental questions about thinking, feeling and doing. At first glance it appears to cut us loose from the world and to leave us floating in a sea of uncertainty—a feeling not unfamiliar to most Alexander students at one time or another. The middle three sections of the paper provide a perspective on these issues that support the view that we can become more accurate and sensitive users of what our senses provide us—including our feelings. In these three sections I suggest an introspective process that looks at the way we organize our view of the world, ourselves, and our thinking. These three sections provide a rationale for the practical procedures presented in the Applications section. Depending on personal preference, however, you may choose to read the Applications section first, leaving the more philosophical sections until later.

I will not footnote this discussion extensively, but will gratefully admit that most of the insights it contains were the direct result of studying the works of Steiner referenced above; however I must take full responsibility for the ideas as they are developed here. I do not intend this discussion as a representation or interpretation of Steiner’s work, but only as an honest attempt to understand it, and to apply the insights gained from it, to what I saw as very real issues confronting me as I applied and taught the Alexander Technique. If you find this discussion interesting, I would strongly recommend the three works referenced above, especially The Philosophy of Freedom.

2. Some Preliminary Thoughts

Let us begin with a simple ‘thought experiment.’ Imagine that you have three containers of water, one hot, one cold and one lukewarm. Place one hand in the hot water, the other in the cold water, and wait until each hand has adapted to the temperature of the water in which it was placed. Now place both hands in the lukewarm water—if you actually performed this experiment you would find that the hand that had been in cold water would feel as if it were now in hot water, and the other as if it were now in cold water. Our sense of warmth is, thus, shown to be a poor indicator of temperature. Alexander discovered in himself a similar situation during the experimentation described in The Use of the Self. In our simple case it is our sense of warmth that seems to provide faulty information, and in Alexander’s case (and I would guess in the case of every student of the Technique since then), it was his close observation of himself in movement that revealed the fault.

Based on observations such as these, it is almost unavoidable to conclude that our feelings (and in general, all our senses) are not to be relied upon, since similar errors can be demonstrated for every sensory modality. This problem has been approached by philosophers for a long time—how are we to know anything about the world we find ourselves in, if we can only know what is presented to our consciousness through our senses—and they seem clearly unreliable. There seem almost as many ways to try to understand this problem as there are philosophers.

Once we pass beyond assuming that everything we feel, see, hear, taste, etc is real and as it seems to be (what a philosopher might call a naive realist), we appear faced with two possible alternatives. One alternative: since all we can know is the content of our consciousness, are we justified in assuming that there is anything real out there at all? Philosophers known as transcendental idealists conclude that we cannot assume that there is anything real outside what exists in our own consciousness. This line of reasoning can be taken to the extreme conclusion that nothing outside my own consciousness exists—that it is all a dream, in fact I am only a dream myself. George Berkeley5, on the other hand, concludes that the only thing that exists is the content of consciousness, but that includes my consciousness, your consciousness and God’s consciousness. The apparent permanence of objects and physical laws outside ourselves is a property of being part of God’s consciousness, being His way of revealing His nature to us. From this point of view then, we study our world to learn of the nature of God.

The second alternative, known as transcendental realism, concludes that there is something real outside of our consciousness, but that we cannot know it directly (i.e. my knowledge of it is ‘filtered’ by the subjective nature of my observations). If I am sitting at a table then there is the real table, the real me, my mental picture of the table and my mental picture of me (not to mention chair, floor, building, etc.). By studying the things that I can observe, including myself, then I can learn something about the laws that govern them through induction—i.e. by noting similarities, repetitions and differences in events, I can infer things about an object—but I cannot know the ‘thing in itself.’

Many of these ideas have become part of our popular culture. The idea that ‘everything is illusion’ not only comes to us through Oriental religions, but is supported by our Western heritage of transcendental idealism. The idea that ‘everything is relative’ is a superficial philosophical interpretation of Einstein’s theory, that found a home in the pre-existing philosophy of transcendental realism. I believe that we all use a mixture of these ways of thinking, with varying degrees of logical consistency, depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. For the most part we are simple realists, believing that the things we see, feel, hear, etc. are as real as they seem. But then I put my hands in the water of our hypothetical experiment. At that point I must either simply say ‘this water is both hot and cold’ and go no further, or I must go beyond the sensation itself, to add something coming from within myself to the experience. The something that I add is my thinking. Depending on circumstances and disposition, I might think along one of the ways outlined above.

The preceding philosophical arguments proceeded from the assumption that it is our senses that are at fault in faulty sensory appreciation. But in fact it is not our senses that are at fault, but our appreciation; that is, the fault is in the way we go about using the information they provide us. When we conclude, with the transcendental realist, that we cannot know reality because of our faulty senses, we are ignoring the fact that somehow we have concluded that what is presented to us through our senses is not in agreement with reality—therefore I must know something about reality—at least what it isn’t. How we come to this conclusion is through thinking. In our experiment with the water, we don’t conclude that the lukewarm water is really both hot and cold. With very little thinking we arrive at the reality of the situation. If this were our first experience of this nature, we might at first be confused by our conflicting sensations, but then conclude that what we feel as warm vs. cold is similar to, but not identical with the property of the water that elicits the feeling (although, perhaps, our thinking would not be quite so conscious). In fact it is observations and thinking such as this that must have led us originally to the abstract concept of temperature (i.e. the property of the water). Our sense of warmth is not identical to temperature, but the abstract notion of temperature is interesting to us because it is related to our sense of warmth. Subsequently the concept ‘temperature’ became even more useful, because it, along with other abstractions, provided a way to deal precisely with materials for making useful products.

Something very significant has happened in this line of reasoning—a thought (that the water has a property called temperature) has merged with a sensory perception (our feelings of warmth), and together they present reality to us. Reality is not in our sense of warmth, nor is it in the abstraction ‘temperature.’ The number 37 degrees C means nothing to most Americans, but 98.6 degrees F is very meaningful to most—the opposite being the case in Europe—since both represent our normal body temperature. It is this merging of concept with what we experience that gives us a glimpse of what is real. I would like to suggest here that what Alexander described as the course of his discovery, was to develop and use a continually refined concept of the primary control, together with what he perceived through his senses— including his feelings—to arrive at a reliable guide for the use of himself.

The transcendental realist invests reality in ‘things in themselves’ which we cannot know directly, but which impinge on our senses, thereby creating sensations. There is a very important extension of this philosophy which also assigns reality to the abstractions, i.e. to the thoughts themselves. To the scientist and engineer, it seems obvious that the concepts temperature, mass, molecular stimulation of nerve endings, and propagating waves of compression and electromagnetic fields are much more precise and useful—therefore more real—than warmth, heaviness, smell and taste, sound and light (the sensations from which the abstractions are derived). Since we are made of the material things that these abstractions describe (as this line of reasoning proceeds), our subjective experience must be the result of chemical and electrical activity within the molecules of our body. Given enough time, then, we should be able to describe all of human experience in these terms. We will know the hormone that courses through our veins that makes us feel love, and the brain wave patterns that make it an effector driving the organism to actions. To hold this view one need only forget that all of these abstractions were reached through thinking about our subjective experience, and were formed in analogy with our subjective experience of observable physical events. To then deny any share of reality to subjective experience (because what I observe happening inside me cannot be verified by an outside, ‘objective’ observer), and to then insist that these abstractions derived from the observations of physical phenomena must fully explain living organisms, including human beings, is logically untenable. (As a physicist/engineer, I must admit that this essentially mechanical way of thinking about the world has been very attractive. It has required considerable effort to begin the process of freeing myself from this way of thinking.)

The ‘simple realist’ remains stuck in judging situations based on feeling—or more generally on sensory ‘input,’ because that is where he feels reality to be found. In avoiding the delusions of the simple realist, however, it is not necessary, and is in fact destructive, to conclude that we should not use what our feelings, or other senses, tell us because they are ‘faulty,’ and should, therefore, rely solely on our thinking. Our senses do not present reality to us, nor does thinking; only when the two processes, thinking and sensing, live together can we arrive at reality. In the following sections of this paper I will develop a perspective on thinking, feeling and doing that will support and elaborate these conclusions, and will present a practical approach for beginning to use them.

3. How Are We Organised?

Several years ago the title of Alexander’s book The Use of the Self suddenly struck me as being very puzzling. What is this ‘self,’ and who is using it? Can I at the same time be both user of the self and the self being used? It seems that I would prefer to be the ‘user’ than the ‘used.’ Prior to this time I had thought of ‘I’ and ‘myself’ as being the same thing. However on thinking about it, I saw that ‘myself’ has changed a great deal since I was, say, three years old, but I am still ‘I;’ that is, there is something about the way I use the word ‘I’ that has referred to the same thing as long as I can recall using it. Now this may seem like a silly word game, but I think this distinction has some very important consequences. Why do we, and our students, resist change, even when it can be shown to be to our benefit? If I fear losing my I if I change, then I face extinction if I change. If I merely face losing one of my possessions, namely part of my self, then I might be willing to negotiate; that is, if I can see a potential benefit that outweighs any inconvenience associated with the change, then I would consider making the change. More importantly, however, this distinction allows me to free myself from being so tightly bound to my past notions and conceptions—they may be valued possessions, but they are not I.

I don’t think I can say what my I is. If I could point to something and say ‘that’s my I,’ then it wouldn’t be my I, because I would be pointing to it. Perhaps, my I is that which I can’t point to. That’s the best I can do for now.

As for my self, I can point to a lot of things—parent, mate, Alexander Technique teacher, anthroposophist, engineer, and so on, until somewhere way down the list I come to male, American and white. The border guard has a very different ordering of his perceptions of my self. (To avoid possible confusion I need to point out that the words ‘I’ and ‘self’ are defined by the way I use them in the forgoing discussion. A Buddhist, for example, might use similar words in the exactly opposite way, for example, ‘true self’ versus ‘ego.’)

How do I come to know this self of mine? One half of the answer seems to be through observation. But that isn’t enough—I must also be able to distinguish between what is my self and what is not my self. This distinction is the beginning of the process of thinking working in me. The observations that seem to repeat and have some degree of permanence are what I eventually learn to call me and mine. It is interesting, for example, that toilet training occurs long after learning to walk and even beginning to talk. The time scale of repetition for toilet events is much longer than for sensations from my fingers and toes. It makes sense then that bringing those functions into what I consider ‘mine’ would require my consciousness to develop to a degree that it can span the period of time between toilet events.

It is through observation that I become conscious of what I sense, of what I feel, of my willing and my thinking. Sensation (i.e. the product of my sense organs) appears to be stimulated by encountering events outside of me. Feelings appear to have the same character as sensation, but seem to arise from what is part of me, i.e. sensations arising from within my body. This distinction is somewhat blurred in our usual use of the words. Our usual way of using the word ‘feeling’ can refer to anything from what happens when my fingers touch the keys of the computer keyboard, to what happens when I imagine my daughters smiling. Although this loose usage of words can create confusion when we want to speak precisely, it can also point us toward an interesting idea. When we refer to an emotion as a feeling, is it not acknowledging that we become aware of our emotion through a change in our body which we can feel? The word ‘emotion’ itself is derived from and implies movement. The point here however is that sensations and feelings come to our consciousness through observation of our bodily processes.

When I observe my willing, it at first appears to be a mental process that then becomes an action. On closer observation, however, I see that I cannot know what my action is without first observing the sensations that come to me as a result of movement. My awareness of my willing, then, comes from associating observed events with a prior mental picture of the event (and possibly with my desire for the event); e.g. I have the mental image of lifting my arm, I desire to lift my arm, I lift my arm, I see and feel my arm lifting, judge its progress, and feel the effort of the muscles I am contracting to lift it. It is clear here how this process can become distorted through a coincidence of outside events and my imagining (and possibly desiring) them—Don Weed’s book What You Think Is What You Get discusses several cases of this kind of distortion. For example, I may have decided at some point that a particular muscular tension was necessary to prevent myself from falling apart—when I observe that I don’t fall apart as a result of that effort, I come to think that my willing is successful. More to the point for each of us, is the excess tension associated with standing up, taking a step, or speaking a sentence, for example. We come to relate that tension with the successful accomplishment of our end and therefore think that the tension is necessary—and we are right, until we change our conception of how the movement is to be accomplished. The point here is that I come to know my willing through observation of my mental images and of my bodily activity, then discover a relationship between them through thinking. Working through the conceptions that relate my willing with my observation of my actions seems to me the particular province of the Alexander Technique.

With the distinctions as presented above, we can also see that ‘feeling right,’ as Alexander used the phrase, is not really a feeling, but is instead a judgement about part of a constellation of sensations that present themselves to us as we prepare to do something. It is a judgement based on a relationship that we have discovered between our past experience and a successful outcome; thus ‘feeling right’ is the product of thinking. When we discover that what ‘feels right’ ends up causing us problems, then we should not blame our senses, i.e. the feelings themselves. Instead the source of our problems is in the thinking we used to select the sensations to which we paid attention, and the way in which we made the judgement from them.

So far I have discussed how I come to know what my self is through observation of my senses, my feelings and my willing. I can also observe the results of my thinking (i.e. the concepts and ideas that I have formed). I can observe only my past thinking because I cannot observe what has not yet happened. I can also think about each of these observations and discover relationships between them. Out of this thinking I form my concept of self and its relationship to what I consider to be outside of my self.

Out of these thoughts about these various things that I can observe, one class of them has a special character, and that is thinking about my thinking. Thinking about any of my other observations requires my sensory organs to provide something to observe, but I can observe and think about my past thinking without my organs of perception playing a part. It is possible to approach the real nature of thinking then, since it comes to us directly, without an intermediary, i.e. it is its own ‘thing in itself.’

4. Thinking About Thinking

When I look at my process of thinking, it appears to have at least two parts. One of those parts I use a good deal, especially in my work as an engineer. It really appears to be mine, in the sense that I do it, I have a considerable degree of control of it. It could be called ‘analytical’ or ‘intellectual’ thinking; it is what has enabled a good deal of what I am doing in this discussion. It teases things apart, makes distinctions, determines cause and effect, makes ‘models,’ etc. It is also the stuff that gets scientists in trouble when they apply it in a one sided way to living organisms in general and human social life in particular. It gets us in trouble because it is, by itself, rather cold and lifeless. But it is powerful in its ability to ‘analyze the conditions present.’ It makes out of the hodge-podge of our sensory input, a clear and coherent picture.

Until I began to study this subject, I never really appreciated how much I owe this faculty. Even a sense as seemingly direct as sight, is helpless without its ‘light.’ One morning some time ago, on my way to work, I obtained a glimpse of how pervasive and continually active this analytical faculty of thinking is. As I got off the bus and crossed the street, I looked up, expecting to see a familiar sight—namely the other side of the intersection that I needed to cross next. Instead, for a few confusing seconds, what I saw was almost nothing—the bumper of a car, a person moving, a door—all of which seemed to float in a disorganized pattern in a ‘blank’ visual field. Then I saw a movie camera. Oh, they’re making a movie here. Suddenly the whole scene became clear; I could see whole objects again and their relationships to each other. The scene was very different from what I had expected to see, and without the concept of making a movie to organize my perceptions, I ‘saw’ almost nothing.

As much as this faculty of analytical thinking seems to be mine to use, I confess I have little idea how I got it. It seems to work along certain lines, following an orderly process, but the ordering principles seem something I was given as part of being a human being. It is something that takes place in me at my willing it, but its very nature did not come from me. Not only that, but I can observe it happening in other people (or more precisely, their reports of it), and even if I don’t agree with their conclusions, or even their ability to apply it in a given circumstance, I have to admit that it appears to work the same way in them as it does in me. I can recognize every person I have ever met as distinct from each other, but in this process of thinking we seem the same, although differing in our experiences and abilities to apply it. I do not mean here that everybody thinks the same way; we all have different concepts that we apply, many of which can be associated with cultural characteristics, etc., but the way we use those concepts to organize what our senses present to us, and the way we relate them to each other, seems universal in us as human beings.

This first part of my thinking that I have referred to as analytical or intellectual, applies existing concepts to what I observe, and relates those concepts to one another according to set rules of logic. It seems that I am trained in how to use and apply these rules through my interaction with the physical world. I cannot think any way I wish and deal effectively with the physical world. I can think as long and precisely as I wish about rain drops that rise up to the clouds, but that won’t change what I see if I look out the window. My analytical thinking is trained through organizing what my senses present to me. Is this why, at least in English, we say something ‘makes sense’ as another way of saying that it seems reasonable? And if this is so, then is it surprising that a faculty trained through observing the orderly progress of the physical world would produce troublesome results when applied in a one-sided way to living processes?

The second part of my thinking that I can observe, has never seemed to be mine in the same sense that analytical thinking has, but it is still something that happens in and through me. This second kind of thinking is the answer to the question ‘where do those concepts and ideas that I apply in analytical thinking come from?’ If I just make them up, then how is it that I can communicate them and discover similar or the same concepts in others? If I just make them up, I should not be surprised that I have disagreements with other people, but that I am ever able to agree with them at all. If I am honest about it, I have to admit that these concepts are not ‘mine,’ in the sense that I made them. I can observe how one of them comes into existence in me: it begins with a question. Something I perceive, either in the outside world or in my internal one, does not fit in an orderly way in the picture I have of the way things work together. Or perhaps it may be that I realize that I have two ways of thinking about things, that normally don’t occur at the same time, but contradict each other in a given instance. No matter where the question comes from, my intellect is incapable of resolving the question of its own accord, i.e. by applying my existing concepts. But it sets the stage for its resolution by holding on to the question, by seeking or setting up new experiences which may clarify the question, by re-analysis of old experiences, etc., in general clarifying my existing conceptions and their relationship (or lack of it) to the new observation—until somehow, in a twinkling, the proverbial ‘light bulb’ goes off and I have a new perspective on things, a new concept, or world view, which again harmonizes my experience. It feels marvelous when this happens, but I am beginning to realize that having the question is at least as marvelous, it just doesn’t always feel that way. A question is a new concept, a new viewpoint, waiting—no—actually insisting to be born. Although I don’t actually ‘make’ these new thoughts, I do need to be very active in setting up the conditions that lead to my grasping them. Steiner terms this process of grasping new thoughts ‘intuition.’ (This use of the word should not be confused with the other English usage, which implies a vague precognition of some kind.)

These two qualities of my thinking (intellect and intuition) do not operate in complete isolation. They are continually feeding and supporting one another. It is possible to emphasize one over the other; for example, the stereotype of the scientist who proceeds to logically apply a conceptual system where it doesn’t belong, or the stereotype of the artist who is incapable of coming close enough to the earth to tie his own shoes. But the productive scientist and the productive artist can, with ease, pass from one quality of thinking to the other, allowing one to integrate and inspire, the other to differentiate and clarify—the scientist and artist differing, perhaps, only in which half of the cycle is most conscious.

So far I’ve talked about how and why new concepts appear, but where do these concepts come from? I could perhaps wrap the process in mystery, and decide that an all knowing, but unknowable God occasionally takes pity on me, or perhaps rewards me for my hard work, and doles out a little insight now and then—but that’s not the style of God I prefer—besides, insight, like rain, falls on the good and bad alike. I could decide that new ideas come out of a collective unconscious—but unless I can somehow make that unconscious into something observable, it becomes just another name for ‘I don’t know.’ I could also assume that new ideas occur as the result of random neurological processes in my brain creating new neuronal interconnections, but that’s not logical, since my concepts and your concepts are more often in agreement than not—I know this because I much more often find myself acting cooperatively with others to achieve some goal than I find myself in conflict. If I contend that that agreement comes from my being conditioned by the environment in which I find myself, then, since only what is already past can condition me, I am left with no possibility of anything new ever occurring, with only the illusion of something new caused by a change in my conditioning through a random event or change in circumstances. B. F. Skinner does a very thorough job of establishing this view in Beyond Freedom and Dignity.6 As long as I am looking at somebody else’s behavior, I can force my observations to fit this model. The minute I look into myself, however, I just can’t fit everything I have done and thought into that mold—even though I do recognize that much of my behavior is conditioned, and is therefore unfree. But I can become conscious of that conditioning, and if I choose, I can free myself from it.

So where do those insights come from? I’m sure there are more possibilities than those discussed above—they are just some of the ideas I’ve managed to find operating in me on occasion. The idea that Rudolf Steiner suggests is that the world of concepts and ideas, and the world of percepts (percepts are anything presented to my consciousness through observation) are a unity. What I experience as flowing into me from the outside world through my senses and what I experience as coming from within me as feelings and emotions, and what comes to me through my thinking, are in fact unseparated, an indivisible unity. Because of the way I am organized as a human being, this unity appears split into two streams—one stream coming to me through observation, the other through intuition. Intuition is the gateway through which ideas and concepts, the contents of my thinking, appear to my consciousness. Observation is the process through which I become conscious of what is produced by my senses, of my emotions, and even of my thinking. This split between what comes to me from outside me, and what comes from inside, is what has enabled me to become conscious of myself as an ‘I.’ This split is however only an illusion brought about by the way I am organized to receive these two sources of knowledge. The question ‘where do insights come from’ is in a sense misleading. They don’t come from anywhere, but are as much a part of the real world as the smell of a rose or a kick in the shin.

When I observe a piece of silk, I see the color red, for example, and feel a smooth texture and a particular quality of warmth. The way my senses are organized splits my perception of the object into two streams, one from my eyes, the other from my hands. My thinking (both intellect and intuition, at least initially) is what unites these two streams of sensation for me, and enables me to regard them as various qualities of one object. Similarly, through intuitive thinking I can fit the two streams that come to me as concept and percept back together again, and begin to see how I am a part of the indivisible unity from which they flow.

What comes to me through immediate observation is full of life (i.e. pleasure, pain, joy and suffering), but alone it can submerge me and sweep me away. Concepts can be crystal clear and precise as a surgical scalpel, but by themselves, can be just as dead. When I re-unite what in fact was never separated, except through being presented to me through the portals of observation and intuition, then I can begin to educate my life of feeling, and bring life to my world of ideas.

(I would like to point out here that, although I have developed the above ideas as logically as I was able, none of the conclusions need be necessarily accepted . In fact if one rejects the initial distinction between ‘I’ and ‘self,’ then the whole development falls apart. I can easily see how one might contend that ‘I mean the same thing when I say ‘I’ and ‘my self,’ that when I use one or the other is just a linguistic convenience.’ I cannot, however, understand how, with that point of view, one could defend any concept of personal freedom. In fact without this distinction many philosophers have developed thoroughly logical proofs that freedom is an illusion. These philosophers are mirrored in the current scientific debate over whether a human being’s behavior is determined by environment or heredity, nature or nurture, or some combination of the two. That a human being can work toward freedom, completely determined by neither of these forces, is rejected entirely. I see the work we are doing in the Alexander Technique as just this kind of work towards freedom.)

5. Applications to the Alexander Technique

If I am going to use Alexander’s description of the ‘Evolution of a Technique’ to guide me in my self exploration, many questions present themselves to me. Alexander states many times that this description is just the barest outline of what he did (and did not) do, and that the written word cannot convey the knowledge concerned with sensory experience. If we are to get at the knowledge that Alexander wanted to convey, then we must somehow relive in our own way the experiences he describes. After many years of experience with the Technique, I found I could ‘watch my use’ in any variety of situations, catch myself in old habits and move out of them, but when it came to making a real change in the quality of my use of myself, I found myself lost, feeling I needed a teacher’s help. When I turned to the procedures in ‘Evolution of a Technique’ for help, I came away with what seemed like more questions than help. As it turned out, the questions were my help, those new concepts insisting to be born. The following are some of the questions that presented themselves to me concerning the procedure at the end of the chapter.

When Alexander said that he must “make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response”7 what can he mean? Did he simply sit still, until at some point he would say to himself ‘speak the sentence,’ while continuing to sit still, projecting directions? How would I know that a stimulus that I made myself was as strong as one received from outside? And if it isn’t as strong, then isn’t it just a pretend stimulus ready made for inhibiting? Assuming I can make a real stimulus for myself, how do I know that I haven’t done anything in response? Since my sensory appreciation is untrustworthy, isn’t it possible that I have responded, but in a way that is so habitual or so small that I didn’t notice it? When later he came to the point at which he either spoke the sentence, did nothing, or did something else, how did he decide between the alternatives in a given repetition of the experiment? When describing his earlier experience8 he says that he “failed more often than not,” doesn’t this imply that he was sometimes successful, and, even more important, that he had some way of telling the difference? Granted that in this instance he used a mirror to tell him, but since he couldn’t carry a mirror around all the time, he must have found a way to make this distinction without the use of a mirror.

It finally occurred to me that I cannot know that I have made the experience of receiving a stimulus to act unless I actually allow myself to do something in response, and that it is logically impossible to know that I have inhibited a response that I don’t usually notice, until I know what that response is. These two ideas seemed to fit together and implied a course of action. I would decide on an act, say taking a step, then do it. My goal was simply to find out the first thing that happened in taking the step, so as soon as I noticed myself moving, I would stop, and ask myself “what happened?” If I stopped

myself as soon as I knew I was moving, then I had made the experience of receiving a stimulus, and if I stopped the movement as soon as I knew it was happening, then I had done the best I could at not responding, as long as I made a real stimulus to act. More importantly, my immediate goal had changed from taking a step while directing myself to move forward and up, etc., to simply finding out what I was doing. My desire to know what I was doing finally got the better of my desire to do something right.

As I began these experiments, I would usually notice something in my lower body first—say tightening my legs or stomach or back. But I would remember that Alexander had discovered that every movement involved a change in the relationship of his head to his body. I had definitely missed that part of the movement. So I would begin again, with my only goal being to repeat the movement, and stop myself as soon as I actually knew that I had responded to my stimulus. Then, again, “what happened?” I might then notice that I had tightened between my shoulder blades, or compressed my chest. I still didn’t know that my neck had tightened first, but I was getting closer, so I would begin again, asking myself, “did anything happen before that?” Eventually I would notice that I did in fact tighten my neck first, and if I didn’t stop the movement, but went on to take a step, then the whole pattern of contraction that I had discovered would be activated, beginning with a contraction somewhere in my neck, then proceeding very quickly from above to below throughout my torso and legs. Frequently I would not actually notice myself contracting muscles somewhere, but would only notice a movement. I would reason that something had to make me move, and since I wasn’t standing on the bus, and I had no evidence of earthquakes, and I didn’t see anybody push me, then it must have been me. So I would repeat the movement until I did perceive the actual contraction. I also knew that my feet were on the floor, and that my head was at the top and everything else was in between, and that a muscle gets shorter when it contracts, so the result of the contraction must be pulling me down. (Actually a muscle can also get longer as the tension in it increases, but only while retarding a force applied to it—otherwise it would be very difficult to walk down the steps—but that’s not what I was doing.) If it didn’t feel like down, then I would just do it again with this bit of reasoning in mind, until I could in fact see that the movement really was down. Since I was carefully discovering what it was I was doing ‘wrong,’ I had some confidence that I was being objective, and not deceiving myself with my desires to get it right—and the experiment was all too repeatable. I really wanted out of this mess.

I thought: “if I can catch myself soon enough in this pattern, then perhaps I will be able to inhibit it before it gets too far and will be able to find a more free movement,” or “perhaps if I positively direct myself then I can inhibit the pattern before it starts.” I had varying degrees of success with this approach, trying various ways of positively directing myself. A new idea about what moving ‘forward and up’ might mean would work very nicely for a few days, but it seemed that any specific notion I had about directing myself would soon lose its effectiveness, and I would quickly turn it into a ‘doing,’ or pushing myself around—I knew that was happening because eventually I would wake up from that self imposed dream, and feel myself pushing myself around. But at least I knew that I was pulling down or pushing myself around.

After experimenting in this way for some time, I began to notice something very interesting. In my experiments, I would stop myself as soon as I noticed myself moving, when through my directed observation I could feel that I pulled my head down—that much was clear to me. But whenwhen I would then go to repeat the experiment, I would have to go back to simply standing, giving up for the moment any attempt to take the step (or whatever movement I was exploring). As I did that, my head would move up, and very delicately at that. I had pulled it down to take the step, then I stopped pulling it down, so it had to go back up—without my doing anything to make it happen other than momentarily giving up my goal of taking a step, and releasing the tension I had thought necessary to start it. In a sense I wasn’t any better off than before I had begun the step—I hadn’t released any tension that I hadn’t consciously applied, so I was still left with whatever excess tension I had associated with standing. But it was kind of fun to feel myself do that little movement while the tension I was using was actually decreasing—it reminded me how delicate a movement can be.

It finally occurred to me that this latter movement—the one that happened easily and delicately as a result of giving up my goal of taking a step—could serve me as something like a ‘prototype.’ It was a real movement, it was happening right now, I could feel it was delicate, and I could feel when it stopped being delicate if I began to pull my head down. I decided to make continuing with that delicate upward movement my primary goal (possible since it simply meant continuing something that I was already doing), and then added finding a way to make a step that did not interfere with it. I would remind myself that I didn’t know what it would feel like to take the step in this new way, but that I would discover it in the process of moving. When I proceeded, one of two things would usually happen: one was that I would not successfully inhibit my old habit, and I would pull my head slightly down—but I would notice it much more quickly than I had before, so going back to simply standing gave me the experience of an even more delicate movement. The other thing that would happen was that the old habit would remain inhibited, and I would successfully begin walking without my habitual pattern reasserting itself. The difference was in whether or not I had a clear conception of how the movement could happen from a very physical, almost geometrical or spatial point of view. Sometimes I discovered that clear conception as I was actually doing the movement.

This is really a relatively simple way of working. It seems odd to me that it has taken me several years to get this clear about it, and that it has taken me several pages to describe it, when I know that after becoming familiar with it, and gaining some facility at catching my favorite ways to delude myself, I can go through the whole thing in a few seconds. I usually tell my students that it’s one way to keep waiting for the bus from being boring. This little exercise is not the beginning and end of the Alexander Technique, but I have found it a valuable resource when I seem stuck between the alternatives of lugging myself around in a slump, or pushing myself around stiff as a stick. It is simply a way to reacquaint myself with what a really delicate movement can be, then as I go to climb on the bus, or whatever it is I am engaged in, my senses are much quicker to tell me when I interfere with that delicate quality of movement.

I have employed this procedure in teaching, first with advanced students, and recently with absolute beginners, who have never before had an ‘Alexander experience.’ I usually ask for a volunteer (in a group class) who wants to ‘discover the Alexander Technique’ for themselves. We pick an activity, and proceed as above. If the student doesn’t see or feel anything, I usually suggest that they begin again, but to see if they can catch themselves sooner, when the movement has barely started. The only clue I give the student, is that Alexander discovered that there was something about the relationship of our heads to our bodies that is in some way a controlling factor in the way we coordinate ourselves in movement (it’s not necessary to be more precise since they are about to discover for themselves what it means, and until they do, a more precise statement would be meaningless). If necessary I will tell them to pay particular attention to the component of the movement that is either up or down. And on occasion I have had to help a student out by using my hands to aid them in their observation. This procedure of guided observation usually provides real life opportunities to talk about ‘end-gaining,’ trying to be right, about how what we think about what we do relates to what we actually do, etc. As a classroom demonstration, it usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes, but when students finally discover that they really do pull their heads down to take a step, for example, and that they don’t need to, it makes a very clear demonstration for the group of the power of consciously directed observation and constructive thinking. (I need to point out here that this is not original with me. After I had worked out this way of working for myself, I realized that I had watched Marjorie Barstow do something similar to this many times in class. It is always wonderful to watch her help a student direct their observation of themselves, talking them through to making a constructive change in their use. I don’t know why I never understood how it was happening until I had worked it out for myself.)

How is it possible for this procedure to work? Am I not using my untrustworthy feelings as a guide? How do I know I’m not just deluding myself? These are questions that have been asked me by people with a great deal of experience in the Alexander Technique with whom I have shared this procedure. I take these questions quite seriously, but I was at first somewhat surprised by them. The effectiveness of the procedure was so clear to me that I had not really considered why it worked—or that it shouldn’t. In attempting to answer these questions, my understanding of the procedure has deepened considerably.

There seems to me to be two underlying reasons why this procedure works, and why it really doesn’t violate any of the basic conceptions of the Technique—even though at first glance it may appear quite different from our usual conceptions. One of these reasons I have already alluded to, i.e. instead of trying to do something right, I finally gave up and simply tried to find out what I was actually doing. Why is this so important, as Alexander emphasized? I have had plenty of opportunities to observe myself trying to be right, and the procedure seems to be as follows. I have some idea that I hope will help me free myself in some way from a discomfort or impediment to my performance. Let’s say that the idea is that I should move my head delicately forward and up throughout some activity. As I begin the activity, if I have decided the idea is right, then I will anticipate a certain pattern of feelings that I associate with the idea. As I proceed with the movement I will look for feelings that will fit that expectation to assure myself that I am proceeding as planned. The problem is that I can almost always find some feelings that will assure me I am ‘doing it right,’ and they will preclude me from noticing the feelings that tell me what I am really doing. For example, if I tighten the muscles in my neck very slowly and push my head ‘up,’ then I can delude myself into feeling that it is a delicate movement—I know that’s true because I’ve done it lots of times. Fortunately my stiff neck starts to hurt after a while and I come back to reality. Thus the reason that trying to do something right causes me so much trouble is that it precludes me from knowing what I am actually doing. (I do not intend here to negate what Alexander has written about this topic. I have found those passages very helpful. Here I am presenting the results of my own introspection in the hope that it might be useful to someone.)

The other aspect of the procedure that helps explain how it works, is that I am actually using my thinking to guide my observation of myself in movement. There is no question, when I begin as described above, that what I feel is really only a small part of what is actually happening. As I proceed I am educating my sense of feeling by guiding my observation of it with some ideas that have proved useful. The most important one is that there is something about the relationship of my head to my body that is in some way a controlling factor in my coordination. This idea of the primary control is the most important because it is the idea that organizes all of my observations and establishes my priorities when I want to make a change. The other ideas are really in the category of ‘helpful hints.’ For example, muscles get shorter when they contract. If I am standing on the floor, then an increase in tension will pull everything above it down. If I am lying down, an increase in tension will pull everything in towards some center, and so on for other arrangements—this is an example of what I mean by thinking geometrically. A decrease in tension will result in the opposite movement. And any tension I feel myself do is probably too much. This last idea is really the one that keeps me experimenting.

There are also two physiological ‘facts’ about the way our senses work that I have found useful. The first ‘fact’ is that each sense tells us much more about a change in its condition than about its ‘absolute’ condition. Everyone who has ever jumped into cold water to swim knows that—at first the water is uncomfortably cold, then we adapt to it, and it feels comfortable, or even warm. It also explains how we become habituated to our misuse of ourselves. Our senses simply don’t tell us much about something that is not changing. The second ‘fact’ may not be so well known. The sensitivity of any given sense is related to the absolute value of the stimulus applied to it. In every one of our senses, the smallest change that I can notice is roughly proportional to the level of stimulus present. If I have ten pounds in one hand, then someone adds an ounce to it, I probably wouldn’t notice it. But if I had an ounce in my hand, and someone added another ounce, then I would probably know immediately.

The procedure that I have outlined takes advantage of these ‘facts,’ first by looking for a change as I go to move instead of trying to figure out what I’m doing while standing ‘still’ (another helpful hint is that we never really stand still). Then I deliberately make the movement smaller and smaller so that I can become more sensitive in my observation. I frequently tell my students that what I mean by small is so small that I barely know that I’ve done anything. Again, I am using these facts to help me guide my observation of my movement.

What I have presented in this discussion of what I have called consciously directed observation are concrete examples of what I meant when I wrote ‘Our senses do not present reality to us, nor does thinking; it is only when the two processes, thinking and sensing, live together that we arrive at reality.’

I am beginning to understand that there are really two kinds of thinking that are taking place as I employ this procedure. As I begin observing myself, I am breaking the chosen movement into finer and finer parts. I really need all the information I can gather from my senses to discern my pattern of movement. I need to think about what I actually can sense, and how it fits with my picture of how things work. When I come to an area where my picture is fuzzy, I have to consider everything I know about that area—from observing myself, from observing other people, and from what I have learned from anatomy and physics. When my image of myself doesn’t fit what I know abstractly, then I reason out what direction I would have to move to change that. All of this is a very analytical process. It tears the movement apart into little bits. If I tried to keep all those bits and pieces consciously in my mind, and somehow fit them back together to make a movement, then I would really be a mess. However once I have done this thinking, I can, in a sense, forget about it. I already know it, so there is no need to keep it held in my consciousness—it is always there in the back of my mind for when I might need it.

When I want to go ahead and do something, I need a different way of thinking. I need a way of thinking that conceives of seemingly individual things as harmonious parts of a whole, a way of thinking that gives me access to new insights. My analytical thinking has prepared the ground, and has formulated the question—for example, can I take a step without pulling my head and everything else down? But once I have done this kind of thinking, I forget it. Instead I think “my primary goal is to see to it that my head continues to move delicately in an upward direction, leading my body through the movement. I will trust that I will find a way to use the various parts of my body to accomplish the task (for example, taking the step) without interfering, even though it will probably seem unfamiliar.” Once I start I don’t stop until I have done what I have decided. If I notice some downward drop, I move up out of it, and note it for future reference—along with the question—what happened just before that? I cannot ‘do’ this new movement, in the sense I am used to using the word ‘do,’ any more than I can force myself to have a new idea; but I can prepare the ground out of which the new movement will grow.

These two ways of thinking are the same as we discovered in the previous section. As people, the second way of thinking, which Steiner called intuition, is much less common and not as well developed as the first (analytical thinking)—at least not in my case. Both seem absolutely necessary if we are to gain clarity and freedom in our lives. One provides us a systematic way of applying our existing concepts to what we experience, and provides us with questions when what we observe doesn’t fit with those concepts. The other provides us with access to new ideas with which to understand our ever changing world, and a basis in thinking from which to act. Beginning to develop and gain facility with these two ways of thinking in a very practical way strikes me as one of Alexander’s most important contributions to our lives.

I see my role as teacher as one of helping students apply the concept of the primary control as a way to gain a better understanding of themselves and how they relate to the world in which they live. I do this by finding out how the student is thinking about movement; I observe the student in movement and infer what their self image is like; and I guide them by either discussion or using my hands, to help them to new experiences that make them question their conceptions about themselves and their movement, and to bring to their attention things they might otherwise ignore. The process of learning is one of developing more detailed and more inclusive concepts that are directly related to experience, to what we feel, think, see, hear, etc.

As time goes on I really find that I know less and less specific things about teaching the Technique. Instead, from a basis of respect and compassion for the student, I trust the basic principle of the primary control, and my ability to observe, question, and think as I work with the individual student. Alexander states in the ‘Preface to New Edition’ of The Use of the Self:

The desire that mankind will come into the heritage of full individual freedom within and without the self still remains an ‘idealistic theory.’ Its translation into practice will call for individual freedom IN thought and action through the development of conscious guidance and control of the self.

If we recall the distinction made between ‘self’ and ‘I’ in the last section, we can see that this self is made up of what I have observed to be part of me—it has come out of my past. If I determine my actions out of this self, I must act according to past concepts, etc. If I act out of this self, together with my perception of my present and anticipated conditions, then my actions are determined by my present conditions and past conditioning. In this case B. F. Skinner is right—freedom is an illusion. However, if I become conscious of this conditioning, and instead decide my action out of intuitive insight into the universal, real world of ideas, with love of the action as motive, then I am free in thought and action. Rudolf Steiner called this the only true basis for moral action, since everything else is unfree. F. M. Alexander gave us a practical method for beginning to win that freedom ourselves. 


Stacy Gehman began studying the Alexander Technique in 1977. He studied with Marjorie Barstow in Lincoln, NE from 1980 until 1986 and began teaching in 1983. He was one of the founding faculty of The Performance School in Seattle. He is a Tai Chi practitioner and has been studying Rudolph Steiner’s Anthroposophy through personal reading since 1985 and a study group since 1987. Stacy is a Physicist/Engineer who has worked in applied research and engineering since 1966. He presently specializes in designing software to analyze the electrocardiogram.


1. Alexander, F. M., The Use of the Self, Centerline Press, 1984 (first printing), p. 31.

2. Steiner, Rudolf, The Science of Knowing, Outline of an Epistemology Implicit in the Goethean World View, Mercury Press, 1988.

3. Steiner, Rudolf, The Philosophy of Freedom, Anthroposophic Press, Inc, 1964.

4. Steiner, Rudolf, The Redemption of Thinking, Anthroposophic Press, Inc, 1983.

5. Berkeley, George, The Principles of Human Knowledge, The Open Court Pub. Co., 1904

6. Skinner, B.F., Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1971.

7. Alexander, F. M., The Use of the Self, Centerline Press, 1984 (first printing), p. 27.

8. Ibid, p. 29

Stacy Gelman, 129 N.E. 57th St, Seattle, WA 98105, Tel: + 1–206–525.3166

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