mindfulness

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]

Five Limbs

Lately during sitting meditation, I often feel my jaw clenching. I notice it as I "come back" to the present moment when my mind has wandered. Frequently my wandering thoughts are future-oriented: planning strategies, reviewing a run-down of tasks to be accomplished, ruminating on what will happen, imagining conversations with people, that sort of thing. I'm beginning to think that the future itself makes me tense (which is odd, since it doesn't actually exist and never will). It is certainly a relief to stay in the present moment, easier to feel relaxed right here, right now. This doesn't just happen in meditation, I clench in many situations: driving in rush hour traffic, reading a contentious thread on social media, picking up the phone to make a difficult call, hearing Donald Trump speak. It can happen when I'm watching an exciting show on TV, or pulling weeds, or even when I'm enjoying something pleasurable.

From Atlas of Human Anatony, by Frank H. Netter

So I release my jaw a lot, sometimes multiple times a day, and it is always interesting to notice what has triggered this stress response. As with meditation, it's almost always when my mind is spinning out stories about the future. These stories are fueled by anxiety, regardless of whether the content is positive or negative. I don't know about you, but when I think ahead into the future, it's never with a sense of ease and faith in the outcome; worry infuses my thinking. This has become so commonplace that I barely notice it -- except when I feel that tension in my jaw.

This is what one Alexander student calls "the canary in the coal mine," an obvious physical symptom that gets your attention and calls you into awareness of a larger situation. A student of Vipassana might call it a "mindfulness bell," waking you up to what's real, right now.

Whenever I notice this jaw clenching, I let it go. It's a simple solution that works every time. There's nothing subtle or complex about it. I feel that pressure in between my teeth, a tightness just below my ears, and all I have to do is let it drop, peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth and let it rest on the bottom.

Yet I hear people saying that they have trouble letting it go, that they have tried to relax and stop the clenching, but they can't seem to do it. Releasing the jaw is easy to do, when you know what it is you want to release. Here are some facts that are important to understand if you want to ease your jaw tension:

  1. The jaw is not part of your head. It's attached to it, yes, but is quite separate from the skull. AT teacher Barbara Conable rightly points out that the mandible (jaw bone) is an extra added feature of the main frame of our skeleton. We have five limbs: two legs, two arms, and one jaw. Web Jaw B&W
  2. One jaw. Not two, as many people think. There is no "upper" jaw, that's the bottom of the skull. Touch the roof of your mouth with the tip of your tongue; you are contacting the bottom of the skull. There's a guided meditation that I can no longer listen to because the teacher keeps asking me to "relax your lower jaw and soften your upper jaw." Huh? That's anatomically impossible. (This is a person with a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Go figure.)
  3. Releasing jaw tension is an opportunity to cultivate patience. It's a little like housework -- you do it once but pretty soon you're just going to have to do it again. The masseter muscles are said to be some of the most powerful (uterus muscles are the strongest), and they are part of an old and well-established reflex that makes us bite down when under attack or afraid. It requires patience to accept that the jaw is going to keep tensing up and it may take many mindful moments of release to change this pattern.

So pause now. Tune into your head and how it sits on top of your spine at the neck. What can you sense in your jaw? If it feels tight (or even if it doesn't), breathe in. As you breathe out, allow the jaw to drop (toward the ground if you're standing, toward your lap if you're sitting). Breathe in again, and on the next out breath let the tongue fall into the bottom of the mouth and let it rest there. Will the neck and throat widen? May your neck and shoulders soften and become easier?

Welcome back to the present moment. Please remember to include all five limbs as you move through your day.

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.