This is a transcript of a speech given by Dorothea Wallis to STAT in the 1950s. Wallis argues that, “However important the part of conscious thought and control in the Alexander Technique, they are only aspects of a whole personality and not independent entities … for education is a matter of the whole personality.”
Note: For posting convenience, “Habit and Choice” has divided the speech into three parts, and created sub-titles for each part.
HIDE OR SEEK
By Dorothea Wallis
Part One: I Hear the Bell
The ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE is designed to teach one to use one’s body rationally and economically instead of unconsciously and inappropriately. It teaches the basic principle that there is a particular state or “body-scheme” in which the parts of the body are so related and muscular tension is so distributed that each part and the whole is enabled to be and to function at its best.
Alexander came to define this scheme by patient, concentrated self-observation, by finding out where the misuse of himself led to inefficiency and then freeing himself of his “bad old ways” by deliberately directing himself according to the rational scheme that made for the most effective manner of use. His personal achievement in doing this led him to assume that to apply his technique was specifically a matter of conscious thought and control.
However important the part of conscious thought and control in the Alexander Technique, they are only aspects of a whole personality and not independent entities. To treat them as such, and ignore the whole of which they are a limited aspect, would be to impair any process of re-education; for education is a matter of the whole personality. Alexander’s emphasis on the unity of body and mind recognizes this, but his claim needs to be substantiated by a fuller understanding of the kind of changes his process of re-education involves in terms other than the strictly physical in which he himself gives a detailed account.
In “physical terms” it may be said that a central theme of the Alexander Technique is to learn to inhibit one’s usual reactions to any stimulus, and by ordering oneself into a relatively balanced position to react deliberately with only a suitable kind and amount of tension. When I hear the bell ring, I may habitually be shocked into an apprehensive state of overall tension. According to Alexander’s teaching I try to inhibit this reaction of my neck and head as the centre of control, direct it into a freer state and, having reduced my state of irrelevant tension, walk to the door. These physical changes may be an observable fact, but such an amount of what happens seems to be so inadequate as not to be a description of a real person or real event at all. It is a kind of theoretical construction which bears little resemblance to reality. It is as informative a description of myself and my reaction to the door bell as a purely statistical description of a group of people is of their character as individuals and their relationships to each other.
The apparently simple incident of a bell ringing and my going to answer it, far from being a single incident – with a simple “stimulus-response” pattern – is one thread in a closely knit complex of time and place, myself, my past and expectations. A single stimulus may be a useful idea, but does not exist in normal life (if ever even in experimental conditions) just as “a bell” can never ring. If one is to understand what the Alexander Technique tries to do, it seems essential to recognize this. The idea of a single stimulus and response seems to me as much an obstacle in the way of understanding the technique as in other ways it may be a help. It is an obstacle because it makes incomprehensible the state of general tension in which I normally go to the door when the bell rings. This can be understood when, instead of the bell being thought of as “a stimulus” and my reaction as “a response,” they are seen in their particular context as details of a total personal world. Superfluous tension in one’s behavior is obviously not due only to poor judgment of what is demanded of one by the physical environment. The way in which one uses one’s body is as much a response to one’s mental as to one’s physical situation. To change one’s response to the inner situation may be far more difficult than changing one’s reaction to the external world. It is much harder to admit feeling very small and vulnerable inside, but to decide not to stand huddled up and speak in an evasive way as one is accustomed to do, than it is to make the adjustment which is necessary when going from a steep to a shallow flight of steps.