The Dharma of F.M. Alexander

The Alexander Technique: A Skill for Life by Pedro de Alcantara.  The Crowood Press.  128 pp.

I have never thought of the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism as the esoteric observations of a few ancient teachers.  I think of them as the truth about life.  The first canto of the Tao Te Ching, for instance, comes as close to stating my understanding of theology as anything I’ve ever read—I was astonished when I first read it—and the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, especially the basic truth of suffering, seem as obvious as the law of gravity, though no one else had formulated them before.  That teaching states a fundamental fact of human existence.  You can ignore it, but I don’t see how you can disagree with it.

We shouldn’t be surprised when someone else discovers the same truth independently.  It seems to me, for instance that Wilhelm Reich, especially if you combine him with his disciple Alexander Lowen, saw something about the way the body was important in getting at psychological truth and eliminating neurosis.  The perfect orgasm wasn’t the only way, but it’s certainly worth a try[1]Gestalt Therapy, as I remember it from many years ago, understood the importance of the present moment, and of living mindfully.  It seemed an overly self-conscious method of meditation.  The elusive system called Sensory Awareness, invented by a woman who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and decided to isolate herself and observe the functioning of her body, creates a practice that is very much like what the Buddha describes in the Satipatthana Sutta.  Observe your body in everything it does, in its simplest movements.

But I have never discovered anything so much like my practice of Soto Zen—which I have been doing for over twenty years—as the Alexander Technique, at least as it is expressed in this book by Pedro de Alcantara.  I’m a complete novice at the technique itself, having taken only three lessons.  I was deliberately trying not to read about it, because I tend to over-read, with anything I do.  But my teacher recommended this book as a succinct introduction to the whole technique.  And I have to say, I don’t know if de Alcantara has ever studied or practiced Buddhism, but this is a great dharma book.  It expresses what I see as the essence of Buddhist practice.  It doesn’t mention sitting, but you couldn’t read a better book about true Buddhist practice.

One central thing, for instance, is that Alexander made no distinction between the body and mind.  They are considered one entity, which he refers to as the self, and how you use the self, how you handle the body, is vital to the practice.  Our normal ways of handling the body, the bad habits we have developed over a lifetime, tend not to be the best ways; the technique makes a distinction between “normal” (the way we usually do things) and “natural” (the way the body is handled in nature.  The way, for instance, that an animal inhabits its body).  The key to everything for Alexander was the way we handle the head, neck, and shoulders, the Primary Control: “Let your neck be free, to let your head to forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen, all together, one after the other.”  Everything in the Alexander Technique follows from that.

The key to practice the technique involves “inhibition,” a word with bad connotations for Freud but one that is key for Alexander: you inhibit the normal response in order to discover the natural one.  That requires a constant relaxed attention; it is essentially a mindfulness practice.[2]  But the most fascinating thing in the book is the relationship that it describes between the mind, and the body, between thoughts and feelings.  I’d thought these things for a long time, but had never really expressed them, and never heard anyone else quite say them either.

For many years I’ve thought that the primary function of meditation practice, of mindfulness practice in general, is to bring the mind and body together, to make them one (as the Alexander Technique says they actually are).  We tend to think that an event happens in the world, we have some feeling about it, and then our physical state reflects that feeling.  We feel fear and we tighten our stomach, our hearts begin to pound, our palms begin to sweat.  But Alexander says that those physical symptoms are the fear; they come first, and we then give them names like fear, or anger.  In order to deal with a feeling, we can do so strictly physiologically.  We feel fear, but if we use our body differently, the feeling disappears.

(I learned that years ago, on my own, when I was dealing with stage fright.  The feeling in stage fright is that we can’t get our breath; we keep trying to inhale and get more air, but can’t seem to do that, and get more and more panicky.  What has actually happened is that we have tightened our body in the abdomen, so we’re not exhaling properly, and old air is staying in our lungs.  We can’t “get any air” because our lungs are already full.  Instead of trying to inhale, we need to fully exhale.  Once we do that, we can get air again, and our symptoms of stage fright disappear.  The whole thing is physical, rather than psychological.)

The ultimate goal of the Alexander technique—as of spiritual practice—is freedom from being jerked around by our reactions.  For many years I have sensed, for instance, that when someone speaks to me harshly, or flips me the bird in traffic, my immediate response is physical; it happens automatically, after long years of responding that way (it is, in other words, “normal”).  But through years of spiritual practice, long days sitting on sesshin, I’ve learned to sit with physical feelings and not react to them; if I don’t immediately react, I can wait, and respond more intelligently.  I’m acting out of freedom rather than habit.  That kind of freedom is the goal of the Alexander Technique as well.

“For most people,” de Alcantara says, “every perception leads automatically to a more or less pre-set (that is, habitual) reaction.  The person who reacts in this way is often unaware of the reaction taking place, and of its quality as a bodily reality and emotion. . . . Alexandrian inhibition makes it possible for you to wait before reacting, and to choose your reaction. . . . The greatest benefit of this approach is that it allows you not to react at all, if you so desire or if the situation does not warrant a reaction from you. . . .

“The Alexander Technique is not the only method of dealing with your choices and the emotions that animate them and that are in turn fed by them.  It does not matter how you acquire the twin abilities not to react and to choose your reactions, but you will not be a free, healthy, and happy person until you do so.”

I think that the Alexander Technique is fundamentally a spiritual practice, and that this is a dharma book.

I also think that zazen is a fine way to practice the Alexander Technique.

[1] And sitting in the Orgone box was a fine way to engage with the energy of the universe, except that you could forget the box and just sit down.

[2] I asked my teacher if the “natural practice” ever becomes “normal,” that is, if it becomes the thing we normally do.  She said yes, but said that by the time that would happen, after five or ten years, you realize that the mindfulness itself, the constantly paying attention, has its own value, and you want to do that for its own sake.