Non-doing

Nothing Doing

Last week Tina Fey did a satiric sketch that caused some controversy, because it appeared that she was telling people to stay home and do nothing in response to the neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies and marches. Personally, I thought it was funny and edgy social commentary, although I agree that some of what she said was problematic. I don't think she was seriously advising us to do nothing about fascist bullies, but either way, sometimes doing nothing is a really good idea. I am fascinated with the strong negative reaction to this sketch, and to the general idea of "doing nothing." This is an option that makes most people a little anxious, something they find nearly impossible to choose. It set me to thinking about the differences between the Alexander principle of non-doing (also an instruction in Vipassana meditation practice), the process of undoing, which happens as we drop our habitual patterns of use, and literally doing nothing.

David Cain at Raptitude wrote a wonderful essay this week about rediscovering the long lost thrill of doing nothing, and it reminded me that this was a regular feature of my childhood. I have lovely memories of lying under a tree and just staring up at the leaves and the light patterns between them, or sitting and watching clouds. Cain describes doing nothing as, "just being in the room and not doing anything in particular, usually while reclining your body in some way, with no regard for the time and no idea of what to do next. Real idleness."

When was the last time you allowed this? Don't we feel compelled to be productive or at least distracted by activity all the freaking time? Unless we build this into our days it isn't likely to happen. So I look for chances to not do. When I take the train into Philadelphia, for instance, I don't allow myself to do anything once I get to the station, except walk from the car to the platform, and then I just stand there. I'm not exactly waiting, not meditating, I'm just being. I might notice the sky, hear the birds singing or people chatting, maybe notice how my body is. Simple.

It doesn't have to take a large amount of time, either. 15-20 minutes is about as much as anybody needs. Look for spaces in your day where you can do nothing for 5 or more minutes, practice this consistently, and see what results you get. Most people find that it's a big relief to unhook from the need to accomplish anything and get anywhere.

The concept of non-doing in the Alexander Technique has more in common with the Buddhist notion of non-striving. F.M. Alexander discovered early in his experimentation with psychophysical functioning that balance, ease, poise, and overall coordination are reflexive, built into us already, and are most powerful when allowed to operate freely. Perhaps our most common interference with this is our tendency to over-effort. Instead of cooperating with ourselves, we think just a little extra push will help. This has been conditioned into us so deeply that it takes some time to recognize when we are doing too much, to discover the way of non-doing. As F.M. famously said, "the right thing does itself," if we can learn to trust it.

Undoing is how I think about the process we each go through as we let go of old, fixed patterns of thinking and behaving, as well as how I and many of my students describe what happens in an Alexander lesson as the patterns of holding and tension release and one begins to feel more open, expansive, and whole. Gradually, as consistent change occurs, the old ways just fall apart and disappear or only show up every once in a while. Another word for undoing might be "awakening." I always feel like a good AT lesson wakes me up to myself, to present moment reality.

I don't have to do anything to "get" that, either, except be there.

 

[Photo by Katherine Squier from Texas, USA ([1]) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

Don't Do Something, Sit There

Are you sitting right now? Chances are good that you are. You might be standing and reading this on your phone or tablet, or you could be lying back on a couch or your bed. But you're probably sitting, and if you are, let me ask you something: Did you choose the way you are sitting, the arrangement of all the body parts? For most of us, the answer is no.  Sitting is so common, and we have been doing it for so long, that we really pay almost no attention to it until something hurts, or until someone asks us to notice. (Did you change your position when you read the question about choice just now? Bet you did.) We tend to "set it and forget it" when we collapse into a seat, where we immediately turn to whatever activity we are doing -- desk work, eating, watching TV, waiting for and riding the bus or train. 

Here's an important fact that might surprise you: sitting is an activity. It seems like the cessation of an action -- walking, for instance -- but it's just a different way of balancing the body in activity. My Alexander teacher, Alan Katz, used to say, "sitting is standing in a different position," and I am constantly helping folks discover that their sit bones at the bottom of the pelvis are like a second set of feet. These bones are shaped like little rockers on a rocking chair, and the way we allow them to support our weight can be the difference between pain and ease in our bodies. 

Sitting is so basic to our lives that significant time is typically spent in Alexander lessons learning (or unlearning) how to sit. This is because we spend a great deal of time in chairs, yet paradoxically we are not designed for this sitting activity, at least not for long hours. So much has been written and said about how learning the Alexander Technique can help you sit comfortably and with less strain. Here's a recent discussion of how we relate to chairs when we think about sitting, and this helpful blog post describes a teacher trainee's experience getting her hair done, and the challenges of sitting at the wash basin and in the stylist's chair. If you have a half an hour to listen, I recommend this interview with my colleague Ariel Weiss, who describes how to apply the AT in order to sit comfortably anywhere.

Are you still sitting? Here are some things to attend to, some ways to bring awareness to what you are doing.

  1. Stop whatever else you were doing (except reading this). You can add that back in after you rebalance yourself.
  2. Notice where your feet are. Let them be resting on the floor with the soles under the knees, at a 90 degree angle. It's great when the knees are level with the hips, but this is not always possible.
  3. Scoot forward on your seat so that your back is not leaning against anything. Adjust your legs and feet if necessary. Notice how the weight goes into your bottom.
  4. Access the integrity of your spine; allow it to rise up from the base, all the way up to support your head (it is as high as your inner ears, at about the level of your cheekbones). Please pay attention to the word "allow" here. You do not need to pull up, you only need to not pull down. If you are slouching, sense into your spinal column and let it lengthen up toward to crown of your head. 
  5. Rock back and forth on your sitting bones. You will discover how leaning forward or falling back have a big effect on your neck, your solar plexus, and your lower back. Rock until you feel centered.
  6. From this new centered place, resume whatever you were doing (maybe just reading this). What are you aware of  in this refreshed arrangement of parts? Can you maintain some of that awareness even as you eat/read/watch/work?

 

 

 

Which looks more comfortable?

A lot of learning in the Alexander process is about not doing anything "extra" when we move. Even something simple like bringing hands to the keyboard or a fork to the mouth typically includes a lot of unnecessary collapse or strain or effort. Master AT teacher Marjorie Barstow demonstrates this beautifully in a short introductory video. Skip to about minute 5:00 to see her in action, from a seated position.

One great thing about the fact that we sit so much is that we have countless opportunities to pause and notice what we are doing, and then make a new choice. This is mindful sitting, which is not just for meditation. Every time you bring awareness to how you sit, and then ease up on your body and find a more balanced way, you are repatterning your neuromuscular system, literally reshaping your brain's pathways. You will feel less exhausted as a result, because you are doing less work and becoming more dynamic.

The best way to learn this is to have some Alexander lessons. Being guided out of deadening habit and into lively wakefulness is enjoyable and practical. 

At A Time Like This

Be softer with you. You are a breathing thing, a memory to someone, a home to a life. -- Nayyirah Waheed This is a good week to know the Alexander Technique. Reeling from the worst mass shooting in our history (not counting incidents of sanctioned genocide) and the attack on our LGTBQ brothers and sisters, we are presented with an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness, to cultivate awareness of life just as it is, without fixing or changing it, without needing it to be different in any way than exactly how it is.

This is important, because when violence and injustice thrust their way into our collective lives -- and this seems to be happening with alarming regularity now -- we want to lash out or shut down or tighten up or collapse in a heap. Sometimes all at once. But the Alexander Technique teaches how to pause; to stop whatever impulse wants to be acted upon and just notice, simply be with whatever is arising. Perhaps the impulse will be acted upon anyway, maybe it's the right course of action, whatever it is. The stopping and noticing is what matters, however. Stop resisting, stop managing, stop being pushed around by your reactivity.

Now, I'm not saying that we passively accept the horrors that surround us as in any way inevitable. We can unlearn our violent ways, just as we can unlearn poor postural habits. But change happens most effectively from a clear place, a place of power with rather than power over, from groups of individuals who can act in the present moment, together in unity. An intention to meet life on life's terms, moment to moment, is a prerequisite for that power and clarity.

This is radical self-care: pausing to ask, "How is it with me right now? Empty CupWhat do I need? What will help me replenish?" At a times like this, many people rush into trying to rescue others, wanting to comfort and care for the wounded and hurting. This is usually well-intentioned, and the body-mind will tolerate it temporarily, but day after day, unless self-care is primary, depletion and burnout are the result. 

Luckily, pausing to do a self check-in takes virtually no time, and the ways to care for the self can be simple and easy:

  • slowly sip a cup of your favorite coffee or tea while doing absolutely nothing else;
  • lie down in constructive rest for 5 or 10 minutes;
  • walk and/or sit in nature while doing absolutely nothing else;
  • call a trusted friend and share one true thing you are feeling;
  • take a break from social media and other technology-based activities;
  • sit comfortably and just breathe;
  • rub your palms together vigorously until you feel some heat, then place your palms over your eyes, let the heat melt away the tension;
  • turn toward your feelings of vulnerability and honor them.

Self-care is primary. That means it comes first, always. It's not indulgent or selfish, it's not "extra" or a luxury, it is not something to get around to eventually, when you get those other people and tasks taken care of. It is the difference between serving a community with love and strength and becoming a burden to someone yourself.

oxygen-mask-227x300Put your own oxygen mask on first, people.

Alexander lessons offer a way to learn and practice the pause and the awareness, to unlearn the reactivity. There is also therapeutic value. When you come for a lesson all twisted up with grief, sorrow, anger, fear, confusion, and all that jazz, you find relief. It's a relief to drop that for a little while and just be present for what is, as it is.

Sometimes (un)learning is too much and all you want is the tender loving care. That's what Somatic Release is all about. Less participation and more pure letting go and being cared for. 

You certainly deserve it, and as odd as it may sound, the world needs it. We need us well.

Primary Engagement

I voted today, in my state's primary election. I'm grateful to those who came before me, who fought, suffered, and even died so that I might cast my ballot at the local fire station with my neighbors.  Because it's election season, I'm hearing a lot from a lot of people about what makes a good citizen, how to nurture an informed citizenry, and what forces are at work in our culture right now that make that more difficult. We are certainly in an upheaval, aren't we? I see this as a time of great transformation, on a fundamental level. That naturally feels like a disaster, but it's also an opening. You may know that the Chinese character for crisis is the same for opportunity. Both can be true simultaneously. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this the "full catastrophe" of living.

F.M. Alexander, in his exploration of human psychophysical functioning, discovered an organizing reflex which operates either well or poorly, depending on the relationship of the head and the spine (specifically the neck, or cervical spine). In Alexander lessons, we rediscover this reflex, which Alexander called the primary control. It is “primary” because when it is operational everything else falls into place. It is a “control” in the sense that a steering wheel on a car is a mechanism for controlling the direction of the car.

For years I resisted using Alexander's term, because I had a problem with the word "control." My experience of lessons was a letting go of the need to control; freedom was established by non-doing, allowing the body-mind to find its own way, and trusting my inherent balance and coordination. I didn't accept that there was control in this, but I was wrong. It just wasn't my direct control that was operating.

Ever had a movement experience that was so unified, so much in the flow, that it felt like the running/walking/biking/swimming was doing itself? Your primary control was fully operational. A healthy relationship between your head, neck, and back was possible, and it triggered this organizing reflex, which then in turn clarified the relationship of all the parts to the whole.

When I allow my primary control to shine brightly, everything falls into place and living is easier. This feels important today, because of this huge (some would say "YUGE") fundamental change we are experiencing in the U.S. and globally. Knowing that we are born to be balanced and coordinated in movement gives me permission to engage both my primary control and my primary political process with integrity, curiosity, and even a little hope.

[To learn more about how Alexander lessons can help you, go to the AT page.]

 

There is No Try

Now that Way Opens Center is on Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, I am learning how best to take advantage of these social media venues.  It's a little daunting, but the Alexander Technique shows me how to learn something new by slowing down, observing, and experimenting.     When there is something I don't understand, if I remember to notice the tension that arises around "not knowing," I can release it before it begins to cloud my brain with panic-based messages about how stupid I am. I feel this tension in my neck and behind my eyes; other people get upset stomachs or jaw pain or sharp headaches. I observe myself striving to understand a new way of doing something, using different controls, and in the striving, I tighten. So I let go of trying at the same time I let go of the tension in my neck. I have had plenty of opportunity to practice this lately with my new android phone. I had my old cell phone for nearly five years, and the same SIM card since 2000 (the guy at the cell phone store could not believe it).  My muscle memory with that phone was awesome--I could access information and make calls (even play games) without having to think about what buttons to push.      With the new phone I am very, very slowly getting the hang of it. At first I had to pay 100% attention to even answer an incoming call or place an outgoing one. It is a challenge to edit my contacts, all of which got lost in the transfer of my ancient SIM card. (oops!, said Phone Store Guy.) I downloaded my gmail contact info, but all the phone numbers are gone and need to be restored. I still don't know half of what this phone can do; I only know what I need it to do, and even that not so much.      I realize that some people reading this might be internally rolling their eyes and thinking that this middle-aged person is a techno doofus. They'd be right.  To be fair, however, I think everyone gets anxious when they have to learn something new, even if it is something they are excited about learning.

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Bodymind experiment:  Think of something new you had to figure out recently. Choose a physical activity, not an intellectual concept. It could be how to use a mechanical device, or it could be learning travel directions to a new location, like a friend's house or a doctor's office. How about an activity like assembling furniture from IKEA?  That can be an adventure. Maybe you've been given some new physical therapy exercises to do, or you've taken up yoga or tai chi or running. There are many everyday examples of needing to learn something complex in a short amount of time.

Take a moment now and think back on your experience of trying to understand something new. How did that feel emotionally?  What thoughts went through your mind while you practiced this new task?  See yourself in this experience clearly, picture it in detail. Begin to notice your physical response in this moment as you remember the experience of trying to learn something new. What do you observe?  Is your brow furrowed? Are you holding your breath? Grinding your teeth?  Locking your knees? Clenching your abdomen? Where do you feel the most effort in your body?

How do you talk to yourself as you try to learn the new movement activity?  If you're like me, you probably hear comments such as, "I'm a total idiot" or "this phone (computer, traffic, bookcase) sucks!"  Feelings of frustration can be internalized ("I'm stupid") or externalized ("this phone is stupid"), and often a combination of both. My mind lies to me at times like this; I have thoughts like "I hate learning new things" (not true) or "I will never figure this out" (almost never true) or "you're so old" (not quite true, and irrelevant). Guess what? Tense thoughts create tense bodies. Tense bodies don't function well, making one feel clutzy and inept, leading to more physical tension, and on it goes into the viscious downward spiral.

When we can notice this happening, we have a choice. Whether unclenching muscle or mind, the most important thing is to stop.  Slow down.  Step back, take a look around.  Take a breath.

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     So it's important to let go of striving, especially when taking in new information, or learning an old skill in a new way. Of course it's helpful to have a goal in mind (being able to answer my incoming calls is useful), but each step along the way is what really matters (first I have to recognize my new ringtone before I can even think about answering a call). Alexander called this "end-gaining" -- the pushy efforting I do to accomplish something that gets me ahead of myself and out of balance with reality.      Instead, I can practice "non-doing". Non-doing allows me to function naturally and automatically from moment to moment. It helps me notice and let go of the tension in my neck and the pressure in my eyes, and release the need to gain any particular end.  The non-doing way of being simultaneously opens my field of vision and sharpens my mental focus, thus making it possible to understand what I need to learn about the task or object at hand (swipe down the touch screen to get the call. oh.)      And my neck and eyes feel better too.

Watch this very short inspirational video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQ4yd2W50No