In November 1965, Marjory Alexander Barlow, first generation teacher and niece to F.M., delivered the Annual Memorial Lecture for STAT*. This 6 part series is the transcript of that address.
*“In 1958, the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) was founded in the UK by teachers who were trained personally by FM Alexander. STAT’s first aim is to ensure the highest standards of teacher training and professional practice.” (STAT website)
The Teaching of F. Matthias Alexander
By Marjory Alexander Barlow
So far we have explored Alexander’s work in its application to our faulty muscular habits and general misuse of the body, and seen how we may build up a stable good use which is under our control.
Let us now examine some applications of his principles to other spheres of our experience, and see if we can catch some part of the vision of its importance which inspired him throughout his life.
He understood, as perhaps no one else has done, that here was the possibility of a different quality of living, which could help resolve many of the difficulties of life which we bring on ourselves through lack of awareness and control. He was very modest about his part in the discoveries, and often used to say, “If I had not discovered the work some other poor chap would have had to go through all that, because the need for it is so great.” This attitude is probably common among creative people. Once the poem is written, the music composed, the painting finished or the scientific discovery made, the creation assumes its own life, and its originator feels a certain detachment towards it.
The Alexander Technique will work wherever it is applied. It is not magic, but does its job at the point of application. How deeply it is applied depends on the aims and wishes of the person concerned. If the aim is to get rid of a pain in the back it will do so effectively by bringing into consciousness the “wrong doing” which is producing the pain. If the aim is greater awareness of habitual reactions in other departments of the self, it will work there too, and by the same process. We are all bound in the prison of habit. We have habits of thought – unexamined fixed opinions and prejudices which determine our behavior without our realizing it.
We are also the victims of emotional reaction. These are very powerful driving forces.
A young pupil of my husband’s, when she first realized the importance of these things, burst out, “Oh, I see, Dr. Barlow, this is a life-sentence.”
Alexander’s favorite way of describing his work was “as a means of controlling human reaction.” Under this basic umbrella can be included every form of blind, unconscious reaction, and here we come to the whole question of self-knowledge.
The muscular bad habits of misuse harm only oneself – unconscious habits of thought and emotion harm oneself and other people, because they determine our reactions to everyone else. It could be said that we use other people to practice our unconscious bad habits on.
The greatest misery and misunderstanding we experience is often in this field of personal relationships. Of course, these inner emotional states are mirrored in the way we use ourselves – states of rage, anxiety and fear – to take only the most obvious examples – are there for the world to see by the unmistakable bodily attitudes. This is also true of more subtle inner conditions such as depression, worry and hopelessness. In some ways the constant and deep reaction-patterns are more obvious to other people than to ourselves.
I sometimes think that there is a wry sense of humour lurking somewhere in the background of the Universe permitting this tragicomic state of affairs, where certain characteristics of a person are known and clearly seen by everyone, except the person himself.
There is a thing known as “the state of the world.” In whatever part of time a man’s life-span is set down there must always be large, terrifying problems, known as “the state of the world.”
In primitive times wild animals and marauding tribes were probably the main worries – apart from the weather; later, perhaps the plague, persecutions, lawlessness and lack of respect for human life. In this things haven’t changed much – and always there is war.
An individual can do little about these large issues. On a small scale, but nearer home, there is the problem of other people; most of the time they just don’t behave as we think they should. Again there is little that we can do about it, although we waste an enormous amount of energy trying to make them alter.
Where then can we affect anything? We have been told many times in the course of history, by wise men, that the chaos in the world is only a reflection of the chaos within us – writ large.
Alexander taught that there is one main field of work for each of us – work on ourselves to gain more light on our unconscious habits – work to use more constantly the one place of freedom we have, the moment of the impact on us of a stimulus, so that we increase the number of moments when we choose our reaction, instead of being driven by habit to react as we have always done in the past. For this we must be there – present and aware, at the crucial moment, to inhibit before we react.
We have no freedom in dictating the state of the world, we have only limited control over the events that happen to us, but can develop control over the way we react to these events.
The freedom in our environment and in regard to other people’s reactions is also limited, but we can have some control over the nearest bit of our environment – ourselves.
Alexander used to chide us for always trying to change and control the big things instead of changing the small things that were in our control. The inscription at Delphi, “Know thyself,” sums it up.
Down the ages we can see that all the real teachers of mankind have tried to make people understand this point; that change can only happen in the individual. We know that fundamental new ideas have always started with one person and spread slowly and gradually as more and more individuals receive and understand the new knowledge.
The vision Alexander had of the possibility of individual evolution in the development of consciousness and awareness was the mainspring of his life’s work. It is this aspect of his teaching that places him in the direct tradition of the great teachers of humanity. It is this side of his teaching which could so easily get lost. It is a not unreasonable supposition that many whose reported teachings have come down to us, also gave to people of their time practical techniques for carrying out the teaching. If so, most of this has been lost and forgotten, and we are left with reports and writings which today often have little meaning for us. It is interesting – apropos of all this – that a pupil of mine, a doctor, once remarked that Alexander had rediscovered the secret of Zen for our time.