By Mike Cross
The fact to be faced is that the human self was robbed of much of its inheritance when the separation implied by the conception of the organism as ‘spirit,’ ‘mind’ and ‘body’ was accepted as a working principle, for it left unbridged the gap between the ‘subconscious’ and the conscious. I venture to assert that if the gap is to be bridged, it will be by means of a knowledge, gained through practical experience, which will enable us to inhibit our instinctive, ‘subconscious’ reaction to a given stimulus, and to hold it inhibited while initiating a conscious direction, guidance, and control of the use of the self that was previously unfamiliar.
I suggest that only those who become capable of translating into practice what is involved in the procedure just described can justly claim to have experienced detachment in the basic sense. — F. M. Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, 1946
Practice of Detachment in Zazen
In Buddhist sitting practice, called zazen in Japanese, the given stimulus is the instruction to sit upright. The formal instructions for zazen laid down by the founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan, Zen Master Dogen (1200-1254), center upon the command “Just sit upright. Do not lean to the left, incline to the right, slump forward, or arch backward.”
For most of us, the instinctive reaction to this stimulus is to stiffen up or to brace, fixing the joints and holding the breath in the process. The more clearly we see it, the more possible it may be to inhibit this reaction, along with the false attempts at self-organization which are its offshoots.
To initiate a conscious direction of the use of the self that was previously unfamiliar may involve the wish to sit upright without fixing, keeping all the joints as open and free as possible, beginning with the sub-occipital joint where the head sits on top of the spinal column.
This process requires trust, because it entails opening up to the unknown, abandoning the false security of holding and fixing. Again, it requires clarity, especially in regard to timorous responses to the stimulus “Just sit upright.”
The Secret Is in the Preparation
An ideal way to develop this clarity and trust, and hence an ideal way to prepare for zazen, is to practice Alexander’s procedure of inhibition and direction in sitting and standing, under the guidance of an AT teacher. Having experienced how conscious inhibition and direction make for a freer use of the self in rising from a chair, thereafter, to counter any tendency to stiffen in zazen, we can simply think of sitting ‘as if to stand.’
The secret is not in the movement of standing but in the readiness to stand. “The readiness is all.” Therefore, even with legs crossed in lotus, it may help to think of being able to pivot freely, ‘all in one piece,’ on the sitting bones so that the head being released forward and up, against the back lengthening and widening, could lead us up into standing.
Learning Clarity in the Moment
Alexander arrived at “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 every-thing he attempted to do. This place, or this moment in time, was the instant that a stimulus to activity reached his consciousness.” – Marjory Barlow, F.M.Alexander Memorial Lecture, 1965.
The stimulus “Just sit upright” tends to trigger a stiffening reaction which, if practiced, becomes a habit that feels familiar and right. As we endeavor moment by moment to shed this habit and to transcend this feeling, the clarity of our consciousness of stimulus and response is greatly enhanced by freedom from ulterior motives or extraneous wishes.
Learning to Trust New Means
“In learning the Technique, the pupil must learn to stop doing, to leave himself in the hands of the teacher, neither tensing nor relaxing. Further, any emotional involve-ment in trying to learn what to do, or in what is going on, should be avoided. The best results are gained when a pupil can dissociate himself from what is happening, as if standing on one side watching someone else being taught.
“Alexander named the opposite of this kind of behavior ‘end-gaining,’ i.e. the desire to bring about the end in view however wrong the means might be. He demonstrated that the quality of means employed brings about the kind of end arrived at, and that poor means invariably bring about a mediocre end. He showed that if a new kind of result was wanted, a new set of means would have to be used.” – Patrick MacDonald, The Alexander Technique As I See It.
Learning to Let It Happen
“Non-doing is, above all, an attitude of mind. It’s a wish. It’s a decision to leave everything alone and see what goes on, see what happens. Your breathing and your circulation and your postural mechanisms are all working and taking over. The organism is functioning in its automatic way, and you are doing nothing.
“If you’re going to succeed in doing nothing, you must exercise control over your thinking processes. You must really wish to do nothing. If you’re thinking anxious, worried thoughts, if you’re thinking exciting thoughts that are irrelevant to the situation at hand, you stir up responses in your body that are not consistent with doing nothing. It’s not a matter of just not moving–that can lead to fixing or freezing–it’s a matter of really leaving yourself alone and letting everything just happen and take over.
“This is what we’re aiming at in an Alexander lesson, and if we’re wise, and we understand, it’s also what we aim at in our own practice of non-doing. It is something that requires practice. Like most other things in life, it isn’t some-thing that you can achieve by simply wishing to do so, by just thinking, ‘Well, I will now leave myself alone and not do anything.’ Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out like that. The whole process requires a lot of practice, and a lot of observation. Out of this process a tremendous lot of experience is to be gained…” — Walter Carrington, Thinking Aloud.
Mike Cross spent many years in Japan, devoting himself heavily to Zen sitting practice and working as a translator. For the first 12 years of his Zen practice, he concentrated on getting the spine to lengthen vertically. Since beginning Alexander work in 1994, he has gradually incorporated the direction for the back to widen, with quite unexpected results. He is co-translator of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, in four volumes available via Amazon. His website can be found at www.the-middle-way.com. His email address is CrossMA@compuserve.com.
Alexander’s books, the books by Patrick MacDonald and Walter Carrington, and a great many other books and videos on the Alexander Technique can be found at The Alexander Technique Bookstore (USA) in Association with Amazon.com or at The Alexander Technique Bookshop (UK) in Association with Amazon.co.uk.