The Vault

The Mind/Body Paradox

Don Mixon


Philosophers and behavioural scientists continue to address the "mind/body problem," typically attacking Descartes as if the problem would vanish were it not for him. I wonder why Descartes? Few read him anymore; furthermore it would take a careful search to find even one contemporary scholar who does not believe in mind/body unity. If mind/body dualism does not threaten current orthodoxy, what is the problem?

I think the problem remains because, although assertions that mind/body unity must be so are convincing, no one has produced a satisfactory account of how it is so. What keeps the problem alive is the everyday experience, the everyday practice of mind/body division. We are creatures divided by the practice, the habit, of telling ourselves what to do. The practice is so common, so usual, that few will see anything strange about it. But why do we tell ourselves to do something? Why not just do it? And why tell ourselves not to do something? While affirming mind/body unity the Alexander Technique depends on the division, depends on teaching pupils to tell themselves to stop doing certain habitual doings. If mind and body are one, what is this peculiar division all about?

Duality and Internal Commands

Historically the story is simple enough. It begins with superiors enjoining, commanding inferiors to do or not do something. No mind/body problem here: the command comes from another; an Other who commands and controls your body. The practice continues—much of the time others, from parents to bosses, indeed command and control our bodies. But over the years people have been taught to internalise commands, internalise control—thus saving commanders a good deal of trouble. Self command, self control became a good thing, a primary virtue. The part of us who knows what should be done commands another part of us that is thought likely to do the wrong thing if not kept under control. By dividing ourselves into a commander and a commanded we create the everyday experience of mind/body duality.

Interest in the division has been central to a few psychologies, most notably Freud's, but is absent from most academic psychologies. Freud characterised the division as the opposition of culture and instinct. Although Freud misses the nature of the division, he did affirm its central importance. Psychologies that fail to address our divided selves, however interesting otherwise, manage to bypass psychology.

Alexander and Duality

Alexander, early in his work, faced the division. In my view the ways Alexander found of dealing with the division make up the heart of the Alexander Technique. What I call "facing the division" went something like this: Alexander discovered that he could not do what he told himself to do. But it was more than that. He thought, he felt like, he was doing what he told himself and found that he was not only by looking in mirrors. The mind commanded the body, the body seemed to be obeying, but the mirrors showed it was not. Alexander's discovery is of considerable importance that goes well beyond what sometimes is called "body work." Alexander knew this and Alexander's many distinguished admirers knew too. Alexander and his champions thought (roughly) that by finding a way to get through to the body Alexander contributed to civilisation's longstanding project of putting more and more behaviour under conscious (internal) command and control. Less obviously, the discoveries can be interpreted as contributing to the opposite: freeing humans from conscious command and control.

Alexander assumed that our natural bodies function just as well as any other sound animal body. Children's bodies, the bodies of primitives, even the bodies of settlers in the less than civilised Tasmania of Alexander's childhood were functionally satisfactory. Civilisation was the culprit. My guess is that Alexander's own vocal problems stemmed from his efforts to make himself into an actor. Some of the postures typically adopted by nineteenth century actors could, I think, bring on the vocal problem he described. What Alexander was doing during those years when he worked on himself was solving his vocal problem by looking for ways of regaining his formerly perfectly satisfactory body.

Remedies and Alexander's 'non-doing'

The world, particularly the theatre and dance world, is full of competing body techniques. Some (most?) of the techniques were devised by people who thought they had discovered and could teach the Best Way to Move. Others, like Alexander, want pupils to regain their natural bodies and think that this can be done either by doing something to them (Rolfing) or by giving them exercises or other movements to do. Alexander took a radically different position: he was confident that pupils cannot regain their natural bodies by having something done to them or by doing something. The thought still is so uncommon that it may be the most difficult aspect of the Technique for pupils to grasp. And for scientists to grasp. Applied science, whatever else it is, is about doing things. Alexander invented an applied science of non-doing.

Paradoxical Injunctions

Recently, while thinking about the nature of human nature, it came to me that natural bodies are not the only part of us that relate in a special way to command— both external and internal command. I have been interested for some time in paradoxical injunctions, the understanding of which comes from formal logical analysis of paradox. Psychologists who have heard of paradoxical injunctions know of them as figuring in the 'double bind' theory of schizophrenia of Bateson, Jackson, Haley, and Weakland. What is meant by a 'paradoxical injunction' can be seen most clearly in the command "Be spontaneous." Such an injunction is logically crazy. The person commanded cannot obey.

Deliberate spontaneity in a framework of obedience is not spontaneity. If you try to obey you haven't done as commanded.

I think that a fairly large range of commands share some of the properties of paradoxical injunctions. For example, the command "Adopt your natural body" is not crazy in the same logical sense as a paradoxical injunction, but is crazy nonetheless. And impossible to obey. A number of what I call natural dispositions are similar. For instance, a command to "Love X" is crazy. You fall in love. Love happens to you. You cannot obey a command to love. I have just begun trying to work out what sorts of commands can be obeyed and what sorts cannot. You can obey a command to kill; you cannot obey a command to hate (although you can be worked up to hate or can work yourself up to hate—just as you can work yourself up to love).

If you will accept for a moment that the end the Alexander Technique wants to gain is the recovery of the natural body then Alexander's central discovery was that such an end cannot be gained by doing. Alexander demonstrated this over and over again; Alexander teachers can demonstrate it to anyone curious. It is an enormously important finding that shows the futility of many other approaches.

Commands and Natural Dispositions

Alexander's proscription against end-gaining often is taken as a principle or way of life and applied broadly. I think it does have broad, but by no means universal, application. A command, either from another or from yourself, to do something, often is a command to gain an end. Some ends can be gained by obedience to command, some cannot. You can obey a command to kiss X, you cannot obey a command to love X. What is the difference? I am not far enough along to be able to answer with confidence. Because I find it both theoretically and socially attractive I would like to be able to say that I can identify a class of natural dispositions that, like the natural body, can only be expressed spontaneously. In other words I hope in time to be able to identify a class of natural dispositions as impervious to command, to end-gaining, as are our natural bodies.

The Effect of Civilisation on our Bodies

What does civilisation do to our natural bodies? All sorts of things. In terms of my developing theory it subjects them. One means of subjection is to provide standards, either implicit or directly enjoined, of how to sit, and walk, stand and otherwise use our bodies. I've already mentioned that what I think civilisation did to Alexander's body was provide a teacher who insisted, or examples that persuaded, that he adopt particular postures. We also use our bodies to defend ourselves from civilisation's demands and commands. Most bodies I see appear submissive, are tight around the neck and shoulders as if anticipating a blow. Wilhelm Reich used the powerful metaphor "character armour" to describe what he saw.

Alexander learned how to provide, to establish conditions that allow the natural body to spontaneously emerge. To experience your natural body again is exhilarating and in learning theory terms should be powerfully reinforcing. Why is something so powerfully reinforcing so evanescent? Why is it so often difficult for pupils to learn to provide conditions themselves in their workday life?

The question brings me back to the subject of this panel. Civilisation subjects not just bodies, it subjects people. The effects of civilisation's commands are registered not just in our bodies, but in our whole person. Can anyone who believes in mind/body unity expect to have a free body and a subjected mind?

Freeing the Mind and the Body

Since first reading Alexander some twenty years ago I have been living a paradox of my own. I long have had a strong dislike of conscious control. The dislike is strong enough that it prompted me to abandon acting, something I had enjoyed enormously. I abandoned acting because I became persuaded that I would need to go through a long period of being highly conscious—not just on stage but in everyday life— before I could once again experience the spontaneous acting that drew me to the career in the first place. Years later, in spite of my distaste for conscious control, I was drawn to the Technique because it sounded right to me. I hoped that a period of conscious control would allow me to recapture my natural body and drop the conscious control. But is it possible? Or must I, for the rest of my like, work consciously on myself in order to experience free functioning?

My answer now is that, so long as the rest of me remains subjected, my body can be only temporarily freed. But, if my guess concerning natural dispositions works out, I can see a time when Alexander teachers might use the means of not-doing, of indirection that works with the body on what I have been calling natural dispositions. When Alexander teachers learn to free the mind as well as the body they will have a means of demonstrating mind/body unity. Of course, freeing the body does affect the mind, does free to some extent the rest of the person. Whatever the position on the mind/body problem that is not in question. However, in most cases a freed body is not in itself sufficient to create a free person.

Mind/body unity will remain a theoretical hope so long as one part of us subjects—enjoins, directs, commands—another part of us.


Those who heard my talk may find some of this unfamiliar. I spoke from an outline as I usually do. This is written from the same outline, but incorporates recent reflections.


Don Mixon has published numerous articles in journals and as chapters in books. His book Obedience and Civilisation was published by Pluto Press (London) in 1989. At present Mixon is writing a book on the psychology of freedom.

Dr Mixon has been interested in the Alexander Technique since reading Tinbergen's Nobel Prize acceptance speech printed in Science in 1974. He completed one year of Joe Armstrong's first Alexander teacher training course before leaving Boston in 1979.

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