Monday, November 09, 2009

Giving Directions

Alexander was adamant - you must first think one thing, then while continuing to think of this, you think a second thing, then while continuing to think those things, you think another and so on: this whole process Dewey called Thinking in Activity and “anyone who does it will have what a new experience in what they call thinking” (FM in UOS Ch 1).

However, FM was only adamant about that in his discovery story that he recorded into writing during his first training in 1929~33. He was not adamant about this all his life - in fact he came to the point, which he never recorded in his writing, where he believed we must stop this process of “giving directions” as quoted by Walter Carrington in his diary:

“At tea FM said that he had, at last, decided that we must cut out in future teaching all instructions to order the neck to relax or to be free because such orders only lead to other forms of doing. If a person is stiffening the neck, the remedy is to get them to stop projecting the messages that are bringing about this condition and not to project messages to counter-act the effects of the other messages.”

Given the continuing fondness for “giving directions” in our Alexander community, it is surprising to me that this opinion of Alexander’s is not more widely known for being the heretical recantation that it is. If Alexander thought we should stop “giving directions” why are we still doing it?

Well, for good reasons, chief among them being that we all suffer from varying levels of attention deficient - an increasing chronic problem in our modern world. Our quality of attention is at the heart of the issue of “giving directions” so it is worth digressing a little by pulling out some information that has been utilised by meditators for thousands of years to achieve levels of attention that can deliver extraordinary powers of insight and well being to understand how we might intelligently understand what this whole process of “giving directions” is all about.


Omniscience is the quality of knowing all things in every moment, of being able to have your attention with every sentient being in every moment, without discrimination of past, present and future. It is a totally incomprehensible concept to our dualistic minds, but in the Buddhist analysis of reality, those that achieve this quality of attention are called realised beings, for they are able to simultaneously know the conventional truth of dualistic existence as existing within the absolute truth of non-duality or dharamkaya.

We - being those that have consciousness - all possess the ability to realise this, and it comes about by the removal of the obstacles and afflictions that suffocate our knowing. Our consciousness is defined as having two qualities: that of knowing, and of luminosity. Neither of these have any material form - consciousness is considered a formless phenomenon - yet in human beings, gross consciousness does exist in dependance upon organs that are essential for the arising of different categories of consciousness: the consciousness of seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling and knowing.


Unless we are omnisciencent - and I don’t remember meeting anyone who was - our capacity to know something fluctuates depending on where and how we direct our attention. Attention is not a faculty that requires any effort on our part. From the moment of our birth, to the fading of our life, attention is filtered by our intention. We place our attention here or there depending on our intentions.

So our attention is driven by our intention, but the two are easily confused. Attention is not something we can turn on or turn off. Can you stop seeing? Even if you close your eyes, you still see something. Even while you sleep, you hear things. Attention is not the same a being conscious of something - that is intention at work. Attention it is simply to ability to receive information. Or that is how I am asking you to consider it for the sake of these ideas.

We receive huge amounts of information every second and we are totally unable to intentionally place our attention on all of it at once. So we must be selective, and that selection is directed by our intention, which in turn is powered by our interests, our desires, our passions.

We can direct our attention any place we like - so how do we decide where we want it to go? Well, as I said, if we have a passion for something - a person, a hobby, a food - then our intention calls us to pull up any information that exists in relation to that object. If the desire is out of control, it is very hard to decide to place our attention somewhere else. We obsessively look information about the person, food and activity we desire.

So part of the ability to bring attention under our direction is to tame the unbridled passions that afflict our consciousness. In the absence of these afflictions, in the presence of satisfaction and contentment, a wonderfully new question might arise in our consciousness: what will I place my attention on now? What do I intend to study now?

Alexander suggested that the most profitable candidate for this newly freed intention is the primary control in the use of our self - intend to pay attention to that by directing it in every activity. Hmm. How does that work?

Intention is fuelled by knowledge, which itself is the product of being able to distinguish one thing from another thing within a holistic framework. When a dancer watches another dancer, they have their attention on things that we, the non-dancer, do not even know. They have educated themselves, so their attention can be placed in ways that we can not do. However, we see everything they see - that don’t see anything extra. So in my analysis of attention and intention, our faculty of attention functions with no limitations compared to theirs, however their intention is vastly different to ours.

Being that they have studied dance for so long, when they direct their attention, they direct it in ways that we can not possibly do. They make distinctions between things that we do not even know you could make distinctions between. The placement of the hand at this angle instead of another angle during the dancing of a flamenco dance, is simply not something we can pay attention to because there is no intention to do so.

Intention is the key, and Alexander made a case for placing your attention on your use of your self, and he proposed a method for doing that. That method is his idea of “giving directions” but this is an intention, it has nothing to do with attention.

But people use their intention to see if their attention has been able to make the change that they were hoping to make based on an experience they had previously. If I use intention this way, I interfere with attention. If attention was a person, it would answer you like this:

“What do you mean is your back still hurting in the way it was a minute ago? I am telling you everything I know. All I know is what you are already doing, so why are you asking me if I can tell you something I just didn’t tell you?"

So intention is not something that looks back, not even for a second. Attention is the report of the intention, of “what just happened” and it is already a settled matter. It is history, be it only a milli-second ago. Intention on the other hand is directive to the future, even one second into the future. So “giving directions” is something projected into the future, something that is not “known” while intending it.

And we can educate ourselves around this intention - second by second, day by day. That is why the repetition of words is meaningless without the company of a vastly growing reservoir of distinctions of intention in relation to our use. The words only exist because our faculty to maintain attention with our intention is so dismally poor.

So by reminding ourselves to stay with the intention by a skeleton or words - or by wordless imagery or any other method that can hold our attention to our intention - then we are growing, However, searching into past experience does not give us much new to consider - it can actually decrease the acuity of our intention, it does not enhance it. Which is why intention is needs to be a fresh something projected one second forward, seeking more information through experimentation with thought, while attention is always the report of that one second - and can not be shaped by anything other than intention. The report is necessary - to shape the next intention. The two dance together, but dwelling mostly on one (trying to feel out what is going on) or the other (chanting words like a machine) do not work. The process starts with intention, it always must, while attention is being directed towards the object you are considering - the Use of the Self.

This seems impossible to most people—they can not believe that the mere throwing of an intention into the future will change how they co-ordinate themselves. Which, when you think about it, is nonsense of course. We do this all the time, but not it seems when our intention is around the co-ordination of our self through the activities of our day.

If this is all making no sense to you, maybe I am too tired to be writing. I am getting a little confused myself - but a reason to write all this was to dig deeper into my own thinking and fault it. I can now - I hear lots of arguments against what I just wrote, mainly of the clarifying kind.

Anyway, signing off as my bullet train is now approaching Kyoto. Maybe I will re-write this to make more sense, maybe I won’t.


  1. It does make sense to me Jeremy and it also helps me in my Alexander Technique journey. Thank you

  2. Enjoyed this very much, Jeremy! VERY clear.

  3. Thanks Jessica - actually, I just re-wrote the end by adding more. I'd run out of steam by the time I got there, but I spruced it up thanks to your post. (And I cired a lot reading your book on the plane from Boston)


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