Hello Dr. Dimon,
I was at the talk in London at the Friends Meeting House, 17th May, you were raising things that have interested me ever since I became aware of the technique. Thanks for coming over A further question that interests me is, what about the study of linguistics in all this? A cat’s paw is completely of the whole cat, because of language, it’s a challenge for us to say that about our human arm. For me the awareness gained by practicing the Alexander Technique seems to counter and resolve some of the problems we have with language and consciousness, which so easily separates things up into compartments or disparate threads, taking us away from the whole of ourselves Also, in our approach to life, again it’s language that, amongst other things, gives us the difficulty of orientating us to ‘ends’ and fixed points, rather than to the ‘means whereby’ we can develop and progress. Alexander saw this ‘end gaining’ habitual thinking as a universal fault in modern humans which could be worked on by his suggested conscious awareness and control Alexandrian ‘Direction’,'inhibition’ and ‘mind wandering’ are all language aspects of our consciousness What are your views in this area? Is there anything I can read about this?
Thanks for your interesting questions. You’re quite right that in our use of language, we tend to separate the organism into parts, and as you know, Alexander tried very hard to get away from dualistic language–in fact, he begins three of his books with a discussion of the inseparability of mind and body, so important did he think these issues were.
You asked about where you might be able to read more about this issue. In philosophy, Spinoza addressed this problem, as do some of the pragmatists, who tried to use new language to describe the body/mind in unitary terms. Dewey, of course, rejected mind/body dualism and was a big supporter of Alexander’s concept of mind/body unity and tried to develop new language for describing problems of behavior and awareness–for instance, in his concept of habit in Human Nature and Conduct. Perhaps the most famous work on linguistics and philosophy on this subject is Gilbert Ryle’s book, The Concept of Mind, in which he debunks the notion of mind as a separate entity, and shows how the separation of mind and body occurs as a kind of error in thinking. Recent work in neuroscience tackles the mind/body problem in really interesting ways–in particular, Damasio and Oliver Sacks make fascinating reading on the subject.
Having read a good deal about the mind/body problem, however, I have not found very much that is helpful on this score because this sort of writing is, after all, just theory, and theoretical discussions of mind/body unity do not tend to reflect a very real understanding of mind/body unity. The real problem is that, when it comes to knowledge of ourselves, we are still quite ignorant about what unity really means. So if you don’t mind, I’d like to say a few things about this issue.
Let me say, first of all, that not every problem is psychophysical in nature. I have heard people say that, because mind and body are unified, mental illness can be solved by addressing our use, which is nonsense. Mental illness is really not a psychophysical problem in the sense that we mean. It may be organically based and is in this sense psychophysical–that is, psychochemical; but it isn’t psychophysical in the sense that back tension is psychophysical. So it is rather dogmatic to assert that, if a problem is psychophysical, our work can solve it.
Secondly, it is also useless to say, on philosophical grounds, that everything is psychophysical. Some problems really are physical–like a broken arm; some really are emotional (like mourning the loss of someone you love), and some really are mental–like worrying about paying your mortgage. Not everything is psychophysical, and it is perfectly fine to refer to some problems as physical or mental and serves no good purpose to call everything psychophysical.
But what do we mean when we say something is “psychophysical”? This refers to the fact that when one performs an action or engages in an activity, the process that takes place in the organism is not purely physical or purely mental but involves both elements. If, for instance, I type some words on my computer keyboard, this activity involves both a mental element (seeing the keys, thinking of words, having an idea of what I want to communicate) and a physical component (contracting muscles in my arms and fingers).
Now at a theoretical level, this idea is rather obvious. Most scientists would agree with this statement as a matter of course, since the mind is not some “thing” that operates the body, and the “body” some thing that gets operated by the mind; there is simply a nervous/muscular system that works as a total system, whether we are speaking of physical or mental acts. But understanding what “psychophysical” means in practice–that is another issue entirely. When, for instance, someone’s back hurts and they say that they deal with it by practicing yoga or getting a massage, that person is betraying a lack of understanding of psychophysical unity, since the back problem is related to activity and cannot be adequately addressed by simply treating the muscles or performing exercises. And just about everyone–scientists included–has this attitude. So the first thing that psychophysical unity means is that certain problems that appear to be physical are in fact caused by our own activity, and if we really want to solve the problem, we must learn to stop doing the harmful things we’re doing.
The problem is that, when we suffer from a use-related problem such as tension in the legs or back, we don’t really believe we are causing the problem in our own activities. This is the real meaning of psychophysical unity–that you can’t separate what is apparently a physical problem from what we are doing in activity. This is why Alexander insisted on the need to stop consenting to performing actions the way we have always done them, as perhaps the central and most difficult problem of his work. It isn’t enough to “direct” the leg muscles, to be aware, or to have lots of lessons, if when you return to activity you do the activity as you have always done in. We have to learn to stop what we are doing in the most fundamental sense, which means that we must learn to stop in the most fundamental way, and then learn to bring this into our daily activities.
Alexander’s work, then, is not simply a method for using the body better, and this is the real meaning of the mind/body problem. Because Alexander’s work is so universally seen as a method of body awareness and posture training, we have not really conveyed the real meaning of his discoveries. Underneath the apparent problem of misuse of the body is the more fundamental problem of habitual behavior and how to make it more conscious.
To articulate this problem, I borrowed the term “ideomotor action” from psychology when writing my first book, The Undivided Self. Because of the difficulty of communicating what mind/body unity really means, I made this the central concept of the book because it conveys very clearly the idea that, when we perform an action, the action is part of a total pathway of activity that involves an idea as well as a motor act, and that this total pathway is habitual and unconscious and must be made more conscious. It is not enough to practice a method or to think of our work as a method, since no method can mean anything as long as we fail to recognize the underlying problem that it is intended to address. Understood properly, the study of use constitutes nothing less than a new field of study–the study of the awareness and control of action. And the concept of mind/body unity is at the core of this field and of understanding its significance in education and development.
I hope this helps to answers some of your questions, and I look forward to speaking further with you about this,