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.
In learning to use yourself better, ie, how to improve postural support, breathing and movement, paying some attention to how you do what you do is inescapable. How to pay attention? How do we remember to remember? The first thing is a decision that it is worthwhile doing so! Often pain triggers this decision. Pain is a reminder to pay attention to how you are doing what you are doing. And fundamentally, whatever you are doing, postural support, breathing and movement are always part of it! It’s easier and less uncomfortable to pay yourself some attention and not be in pain, than not to pay attention and end up in pain. I am, of course talking about attention informed by the sort of sensory-motor information which you get through Alexander lessons.
Once we have made that decision, which is a sort of commitment to oneself, we may need to find triggers, e.g. transport, whatever form it takes. You can use every time you get in the car, or when you walk, or ride your bike, as an opportunity to include yourself, as well as your environment, in your attention. Regular activities like eating a meal, brushing your teeth, exercising, putting on makeup, or shaving present another opportunity where you have plenty of “processing power” available to pay attention to you self and your manner of doing whatever it is. As you train yourself to approach a trigger activity with an attitude of attention, then attention gradually becomes easier and you can extend it further. Initially it requires a lot of thought, and gradually it becomes easier to continue to be present with yourself in the act of doing other stuff as well. You are working on the way you are using yourself; postural support, breathing and movement are the basis of every activity.
A common comment that we hear is about the challenge of “remembering to remember” – renewing one’s attention and attentiveness to oneself. Generally speaking, if we have undertaken to learn the Alexander Technique, ie learn to use ourselves better, with less strain, it is because something, usually painful, has driven us to give it our attention.
For example, perhaps a recurrent “back attack” has been recurring more frequently, such that it becomes impossible to ignore. We are driven to consider our own role: “What am I doing in the way I move, balance, maintain posture etc, that may be behind the recurrent back issue”?
If we are misusing ourselves, improving that misuse can remove the strain-producing causes of many back problems. But that misuse, your way of applying yourself across all your activities, is a habit, something that is present 24/7. It may encompass compensatory maladaptations to trauma or on-going adjustments that generate strain and injury.
How can we remember to pay attention often enough to create change in our nervous system and in our muscles? You need to build it into the everyday acts of life: driving the car, sitting down at the computer, going for a walk. Build it into small activities like brushing your teeth. If the phone rings, can you stop, and remember your Self before you move to answer it? You have time! It need only take a blink of the eye, to allow one’s neck to release, to allow length and space, and then to release into movement, rather than tightening into movement. Light, easy Attention, informed with a clear Intent!