Yesterday I worked at my computer nonstop for about six hours. Except for getting up to make some lunch, which I ate at my desk while I worked, I mostly stayed parked in my chair. This is not optimal, and I don’t recommend it. When I finished, I had a burning pain in my upper back, at the crux where the vertical spine meets the horizonal should girdle (C7 - T1 for those who like anatomy). This is a popular gathering spot for tension, as my AT teacher Alan used to say. I recognized the pain and knew it would dissolve within a matter of minutes once I changed activities and brought some kind attention to it.
I also recognized how I had created the conditions for this discomfort to arise: Endgaining. Endgaining is an Alexander term for getting ahead of ourselves, pushing forward no matter what else might be happening in the present. Endgaining causes dysregulation in the body, the result of dysfunctional thinking. There are many examples of endgaining in our culture: No pain, no gain. Lean in. Just do it. We are rewarded for reaching the goal, not for the way we get there.
I got a last-minute green light for a class I’m teaching, which starts next week. Because there is so little time to get the word out, I reordered my priorities and set about writing up the course for the website, social media, advertisers, and printed materials. I did this with a happy attitude of enthusiasm and interest. I was also dealing with technical issues left over from the previous day’s website and email crashes, I was using a new design template, and I had landscapers doing some work in the garden outside my window, which was loud from time to time. I must confess that I only paused once or twice during these many hours to check in and see what was happening in the present moment. I didn’t follow my own advice or engage in the mindful ways of being that I know. I just wanted to make sure I completed the several tasks I had set for myself, come hell or high water.
Oh sure, there were moments where I was aware that I was endgaining, and I had passing thoughts like, “I don’t need to push so hard” or “how am I breathing and can I rebalance myself in this chair?” Honestly though, I think I just brushed most of these little enlightened moments away in favor of “gettin’ ‘er done.” The result was a literal pain in the neck.
I am so grateful for that pain. Without it, I wouldn’t have realized how much I’d been endgaining. This is the “canary in the coal mine,” as one of my students once said. It’s a fabulous friend whose only job is to point out how misaligned with the moment I’ve become. I could have accomplished what I needed to without the strain and the resulting discomfort. Based on my experience of slowing down when I’m in a hurry, it’s even possible that I would have finished sooner.
What I really missed out on was the power of awareness to provide me with options. If I had stepped back even a bit, allowed my pushy little mind to make space for the urgency I was feeling, I might have made different choices. I might have taken more breaks, stood up and stretched or moved around, or simply recognized the mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety that was fueling my actions. I don’t know that I would have slowed down physically, but my work would have been lighter, easier, more of a pleasure to accomplish.
Awareness = Choice. It’s an equation I have experienced many times under a variety of conditions. Until we’re aware of something, we cannot make authentic and fresh responses, but remain reactive in our fixed ideas. If I want to change a habit, I must first know it thoroughly, catch it as it arises. We are always making choices; yesterday I chose to ignore whatever signals my system was sending me and I opted to push through. There was a small amount of conscious awareness as I made that choice, but mostly the choice to ignore the signals shoved them back under the radar.
Where’s the freedom in that? Tomorrow is Independence Day, and today I’m reflecting on the fact that true independence comes from the agency to act independently of our deeply conditioned reactions to life. The good news is that, after 30 years of practice, my bodymind tends toward balance and ease, even when I’m resolutely refusing to pay attention. That’s why the pain can dissipate relatively quickly and why I was able to wake up a little and begin again to be present to myself.
It’s why, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve been relating to the task with more awareness and better choices, so that I feel free and easy and can wish you independence from the oppression of your habit of endgaining.