Habit and Identity

Posted by Jeanne Barrett on March 3, 2009 in Uncategorized

We know ourselves by our habitual reactions, invisible as those habits might be.  The mental chatter, muscular responses and emotional textures that we bring to daily life is how we define ourselves. We sometimes even value ourselves by perceived effort rather than by our ease.

There is a story of a little girl with many physical challenges having a lesson with F.M. Alexander.  After he had assisted her in restoring an overall balance of tone, she exclaimed to her mother, “Mummy, look!  He has pulled me all out of shape!”.  She no longer recognized herself in a changed and improved condition, and even believed she was worse despite clear improvement.

One of my pupils observed during her lesson, “My outline has been softened”. The interference that was previously a given state had eased, and the edges between her and not-her had also eased.

My habitual way of being in the world shifted dramatically with my injury.  This was not an example of suddenly improved use, but of suddenly challenged use.  The activity levels,  strength, and associated mind chatter that informed who I was went off-line.  As I move through the world now, my identity is suddenly ephemeral, unfixed, undefined.  Underlying habits of being have been revealed as they can no longer have physical expression.  It is when we relinquish a habit (or are forced to do so) that we become fully conscious of the habit’s breadth and power.  Invisibility is the nature of habit.  When it is gone, we perceive its ghostly remains.

This is an opportunity, of course, a chance to allow my “outlines to soften”, as my pupil so articulately expressed.  I could end-gain my way back to a familiar sense of self, with great effort, but that seems to run counter to the offered opportunity.

I miss myself as I believed I was, and I am doing my best to be open to the new self I will be, with an unfamiliar shape, new mind chatter, and a possibly softer edge between me and not-me.  No doubt my previous habits will resume to some extent.  My intention is to choose elastic response over habit as much as I am capable, and to bring all this experience to my teaching.

And, I fully intend to run joyously on the wet sand in Kauai in the pre-dawn, with stars reflected in the surf, by December!

Looking Down/Going Up

Posted by Jeanne Barrett on March 2, 2009 in Uncategorized

Weather cleared in Seattle for a few glorious hours today.  The mountains to the east and west emerged, banks of clouds raced on the southern horizon, and clear fresh light washed every view in blue.  Happily for me, my friend Ann kindly accompanied me on a snail walk to the local grocery store.  Her good company and patience reassured me as I faced the scary adventures of crossing a thoroughfare with briefly timed “walk” signs, and stepping up and down some steep curbs.  It was a very pleasant walk without any incident, and I learned a few lessons en route.

For obvious reasons, I look down at the sidewalk for any sneaky cracks.  I also need to look at curbs as I step up and down to allow my stiff leg to swing appropriately, and to take weight without losing my balance.  However, looking down does not mean going down!

Early in study, many Alexander pupils mistake the direction of “sending the head up and forward” to indicate a position of the head, when the intention is quite the opposite.  Pupils will sometimes be afraid to look at stairs as they descend, for instance, in case that is “wrong”.

We send the head up and forward not by doing a position but by un-doing any internal or muscular positioning.  The head, as long as we are not fixing or collapsing into a position, moves up and forward of the back.  You can’t place it there, as that would be fixing.  It’s a determined, dynamic non-interference (best learned in Alexander lessons, by the way).  And, since “up” is not one interpretation or position, not an answer but a question, the head has myriad options to move up and over and around the top of the spine, if we can just allow it to do so.

We are designed to be able to easily look up at the stars or down at the sidewalk or around to that sudden sound behind us.

So, as I walked with visual awareness of the ground, up and forward could continue to inform me.  I didn’t move any faster, but I did experience ease.

Fear and Widening: an Alexander snail

Posted by Jeanne Barrett on March 1, 2009 in Uncategorized

F.M. Alexander brilliantly described our instinctual/habitual responses as no longer adequate for the complexity of modern life.  He proposed, and developed a technique for, a new evolution in human response, a means of constructive conscious choice that could inform all activity, whether the activity is described as primarily “mental” or primarily “physical”.  He saw no separation between the aspects of human responses, and described his work as the “use of the self”.

Through careful and long term self observation, Alexander identified the “startle pattern”.  Simply put, the startle pattern means pulling the head down and back and contracting the limbs into the torso in response to a stimulus, resulting in overall narrowing and shortening in stature.  Interior volume and respiratory capacity is thus reduced, which also diminishes elastic support for the entire body.  Increased anxiety is also observable with narrowing and shortening, as the nervous system registers decreased overall support.

“Widening” is a direction that is often baffling for Alexander students.  Like all Alexander directions, one can’t do widening.  One can, instead, dynamically refuse to narrow and request widening.  Refusing to contract arms and legs into the torso, and asking for width at the tops of the arms and tops of the legs gives an experience of being more connected to the ground, and of being more elastically supported by an overall balance of muscular tone.

All of this applies to my experience yesterday of going out for a snail’s pace walk on my own.  My fear of falling, and of not being adequately supported by my injured leg, as well as a general wobbliness, stimulated an instinctual response of narrowing (pulling arms and legs into my torso in a protective manner).  However, I know better, so I stopped, over and over  (now the world’s slowest snail, but never mind) and said “no” to narrowing, and requested widening.  This resulted in an immediate increase in ease and support.  As I would approach a potentially scary challenge, like crossing a street (stepping down and up curbs, feeling the need to hurry), I would take time to inhibit narrowing, and ask for widening.  Perhaps the biggest stimulus to narrow was in fact the hurry mode.  Yet, if I refused to hurry, since hurrying narrowed me, my pace actually increased!  I am sure I still looked like a snail with a cane, but who cares.

It was a lovely walk, a week and two days after my injury.  I heard many birdsongs, saw a flicker tapping on a telephone pole, spotted snow drops and crocuses and observed trees in their pre-leaf mode.  Two dogs stopped to watch me (their person was in a hurry, and thus oblivious) and I waved at them.  They wagged and dog-smiled.  I widened further and experienced the full support of my respiration.

Keeping the Picture Big

Posted by Jeanne Barrett on in Uncategorized

My students are familiar with the instruction to “keep the picture big”.  By this I mean: refuse to focus on being “right” in the activity, or upon any specific sensation, or on the end result of the activity.  Extend attention and intention beyond the sensed self, so that perception is both softened and enlarged.  See something outside yourself and beyond your current experience so that you are not fixing on how you are now, but allowing a new way to be. Quiet reaction to stimuli and sensation.

When I fell and fractured my patella, I went immediately into shock (dilated pupils, nausea, ashen demeanor and a fair degree of hysteria).  My entire experience of self became defined by waves of extreme pain.  No Alexander thinking even occurred to me at this point; I was in survival mode, as was necessary

However, once Marty brought me to the Emergency Room, I began to think again “keep the picture big”.  This translated into noticing the photographs used as decor (a lovely photo of three black bears in an old, mossy forest calmed me especially), and learning the name of each doctor, physician assistant, nurse and technician, then greeting each by name.  The result was that I was perceived as a relatively calm person despite the urgency of the injury.  (It didn’t hurt that my blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels were all as normal.)  The medical personnel became people to me, not just roles and tasks, and I became a person to them, not just a condition.  I give great credit to the humane and skilled people who assisted me, but I know that I felt better, and was most likely easier to treat, by “keeping the picture big”.  Focusing further on the pain would have only increased my nausea and anxiety and complicated my interactions.

Another notable benefit of “keeping the picture big” while in a medical environment was that nearly every medical person was curious about my work and, with few exceptions, showed sincere interest when I described it.  The discussion, and attention, went beyond my “broken” condition to an interest in how I would apply Alexander skills to my recovery.

Pain management, and movement with pain, absolutely require “keeping the picture big”.  If I focus on the sensations in my knee (and interpret those sensations), I pull my entire self down, panic further (my interpretations being consistently dire) and generally stiffen and collapse on every level of my self.  If I attempt to protect the knee (which usually requires stiffening) in any manner, the same result occurs:  I lose an overall elastic sense of possible response.

If, instead, I can extend my intention and attention, the result is far more productive.  For example, if I am standing, and my knee hurts, I can think something like the following: “my knee really aches, so a more elastic response would help me.  I’d like my heels to drop, my entire back to come back, and my head to go up”.  Then, of course, I don’t check if these requests happened, nor do I in any way make them happen.  I go on expanding the picture: noticing my brain state, seeing the room, watching light come through the windows, quieting myself.  The pain may take its time to diminish, but I am quieter, and the pain is only part of my picture rather than the entire picture.  An elastic overall response becomes possible even with pain.

Onward and Upward (but slowly)

Posted by Jeanne Barrett on in Uncategorized

A continuing theme for the teacher training course which I direct is:  “increased demand requires an increased elastic response”.  As a trainee learns to take the weight of a pupil’s leg, for instance, the trainee is guided in refusing to stiffen or collapse, and in dynamically allowing a whole elastic response in themselves as they accept the weight.  There are limits, of course, to the demands we can impose and still have an elastic response.

I am currently redefining my limits in terms of demands to which I can respond elastically, discovering new skills in coordination, and facing deeply set habits that have been masked by my typically hyper-active self.  In fact, the restless way of being that is my habit and my coping mechanism is currently unavailable to me.  Since I can’t utilize well hewn pathways, new neural connections and unfamiliar modes of response may have some chance of developing.  I am in a large scale Alexander lesson, in which the unfamiliar is atmospheric, and new experience is the only choice available, even if it is not the choice that feels “right, familiar or even preferable.

Demands increased significantly yesterday when I actually left the apartment, went down (and later, up) 3 flights of stairs, got in the car (a major project requiring split-second timing on Marty’s part in lifting the stiff leg and swinging it into the car), and went to my office building.  All of this required allowing a coordination of self that was new and challenging.  My pace, for example, was glacial.  Paint dries faster than I climb a flight of stairs.  Lots of time to consider my use.  Slow is not a familiar or comfortable state to me, and feels completely wrong, of course.

While at my office building, I had an excellent acupuncture treatment from Yoshiro, which calmed me, relieved pain, lowered inflammation, and brightened my spirits.  Afterward, Marty kindly served as a guinea pig for chair and table turns, so I could get a sense of the organization of self required for me to put hands on and move people.

Teaching is an activity that always requires my best use of self (which is why I like it!).  The new demands of a fully extended leg and the potential for pain amplified the need for inner quiet, a big picture, and thinking with the whole self.  The challenge, as teaching carries on, is to continue to remain quite and lively, and for me now, to refuse to react to the potential of pain, and to enlarge the picture further with the student included.  The cycle of inhibition and direction goes ever onward.

I was overjoyed to be quite capable of sitting and standing Marty with ease, as well as giving him a table turn without any pain or problems.  The solutions for coordination seemed to “do themselves”, thus demonstrating the Alexander instruction to “let the thing do itself”.

Three legged stair races anyone?  I am off pain meds, using a lovely maple cane and willing to climb.

Applying Alexander principles to injury and recovery

Posted by Jeanne Barrett on in Uncategorized

The Alexander Technique refines specific skills of intention and attention as applied to all activities.  These skills apply, and are even more crucial to, the process of recovery from injury.

I fractured my left patella in a fall.  The fracture required emergency surgery to wire the patella back together.  I left the hospital with a huge splint that immobilizes my leg from ankle to upper thigh. Although I could bear weight, crutches were initially a necessity to pain management.

Of course, applying Alexander direction to all my movements became paramount.  Thinking “on the ground springing up” seemed almost humorous in my non-elastic condition of self, but helped tremendously in using crutches, transitioning to sitting or to lying down, and to the simplest of activities, all of which had become challenging.  Although my left leg was stiffened by a splint, the remainder of myself could remain elastic.  I could still have a balance of tone with what was available to me.

The most important inhibition was in my thinking and self concept.  I came home from surgery in a state of stunned depression, sourced in thinking of myself as a damaged person.  Without denying my injury, I changed my thinking and self concept to that of a person recovering with intelligence and skill.  Depression faded, and I began to see this experience as an opportunity.  This is a process, not an end point, just as chair work in an Alexander lesson is a structure for attending to the means-where-by, not a project for sitting and standing.  Challenge replaced defeat.

The pain meds (Oxycodone) presented another opportunity for attention and intention.  Instead of viewing the meds as a necessity, I began to see them as a tool for continued mobility and needed rest. And since, as am Alexander Teacher, I am accustomed to observing my mind chatter, I noticed when the drugs began to take too much precedence.  This was evidenced by disconnected thinking, a surreal sense of self, and disturbing dreams.  I immediately started tapering dosage and frequency so that I was using the drugs rather than the drugs dominating me.