Last time we talked about the quality of your attention and asked, “Have you ever noticed the 2 typical modes in the way we use our attention?” In the one mode, discussed last time, we tend to be heavily and exclusively focused on a particular task, often to the exclusion of all else. The other extreme is when we “mind wander”. Our attention is definitely not “on the job” and we are operating on auto-pilot. An example: You decide to swing by the shops on the way home to get some milk, but then find that you are pulling up at home having followed the usual (habitual) route and having not visited the shops. This exemplifies a sort of “absence” of self, you are not really in the “driver’s seat” but rather operating out of blind habit. This may work, as long as nothing out of the usual crops up, but it is not really conscious or awake.
This is often how we perform many habitual activities, eg how we sit at work, or in the car, or how we respond in a particular situation. It becomes completely automatic, and curiously, it has a corresponding physical correlate. Your body becomes “heavy”, “dead”, un-responsive. (Again, this scenario, repeated day in and day out for years has an effect on the postures that become fixed into our way of being as we age).
Rather than this lack of focus, we want to cultivate a light, active, diffuse field of attention which is more inclusive (of our environment as well as ourselves), in which we are interested in information around us. This allows us to be more present in ourselves as well as in what we are engaged in. Eg Rather than either your field of awareness shrinking to the size of the screen in front of you, or else just drifting on auto-pilot, take an active but non-doing interest in the space around you, and the physical contact you are making with the chair. You can cultivate this much more useful, responsive and awake quality of attention.
Something we do not generally give much attention to (nor should we have to) is our breathing. Yet years of slumping or tension create restrictions in this most vital of functions. Your breathing reflects your habitual posture. Breathing regimes which don’t take this into account do not address how we breathe when we are not thinking about it (which is most of the time!).
It is interesting to reflect that the Alexander Technique began with one man’s breathing problem. Initially he described his work as “respiratory re-education”.
When we slump or hold ourselves with excess tension or both (it is possible!), the ribs cannot move naturally or in coordination with the diaphragm. In allowing the back’s natural length without effort, we simultaneously provide the conditions in which the ribs and diaphragm can move easily and be responsive to the demands we place eg being vigorous vs sedentary. Ideally we work towards the conditions of natural springy length as our way of being. A simple way of supporting this and helping to free the breath is to practice “active rest”, otherwise known as semi-supine.
Lie on your back on a firm surface (eg a carpeted floor) with your head supported so that it is not falling backwards and with your knees raised. This already places a very gentle stretch on your back. Just lie there, with the intent to be as quiet muscularly as possible. Gradually, you may reduce muscular excess while allowing your back to lengthen and to fan out. Don’t be in a hurry, but do be consistent! (I.e. daily) As you allow length and breadth, everything involved in moving air in and out can operate with progressively less interference.
Semisupine – the formal daily practice of Semisupine is something we recommend as time dedicated to being still (ideally 15 – 20 mins daily), yet wide awake, attentive, and engaged in schooling your intent. There are a couple of times of day when you can very constructively extend this : when you first get into bed before going to sleep, and when you wake up but before getting out of bed. When you go to bed, lie on your back, head on pillow, knees raised, and give yourself a moment to come to neutral, and then review your directions – your intent to allow a free neck so that your whole torso can lengthen and fill out. This way you take a moment to “unkink” before sleeping, perhaps letting go of any disturbing thoughts in the process, and reviewing and recommitting to your intent for length and space as the last thought to take into sleep. On awaking, adopt the same position described above for a moment or two before arising, again setting your general intent for the day (free neck, length and space) and setting yourself on the right track from the first. More