Updated: May 17
Q: How much of your brain is dedicated to consciously calculating your physical response to something?
Try estimating the number of times you think about how you desire to come across to others. For example, someone is speaking to you and you want them to believe you are interested, so you contort your face and body in a conscious effort to depict what you imagine "paying attention" and "being interested" looks like. Our motives to convince the person that we are interested might be completely genuine, but we have gotten used to putting on a show. We THINK about THE "correct" or "appropriate" response to the situation instead of simply allowing our behavior. In a conversation, we may think about generating these "false" responses every few seconds. Every few seconds we are taken out of the conversation and introspectively process the question, "what does listening look like? It looks like [this]. I should do [this]," and then we tune back in to what is being said. All the while, our bodies are instructed to carry out these artificial orders and we hope the person does not notice us calculating. Most of the time, we do not even notice it ourselves.
This is common especially in our modern society for many reasons, and it is also extremely taxing on the mind, body, and spirit as a whole system. In The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski writes, "we are nature's unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex." The implication is that the success or failure of this experiment depends on the human ability to create or impose a delay between stimulus and response. An obvious indicator that there is an issue with this experiment is the phrase "I'm too much in my own head.". Why is this such a familiar statement, and how do we instinctively know it's a problem?
I have been experiencing Alexander Technique in my voice lessons for the last few months and reading up on the subject, and it has shed a new light on this problematic, introspective way of being. The central theme of the technique is not to train a new standardized behavior, which is the practice of most dogmatic and conventional teaching, but to continuously learn to identify and strip away the things we have imposed on ourselves so that the self can work naturally and our reason can function without distraction. In other words, you go beyond simply learning to ignore that calculating little voice in your head that tells your body what to do, because you actually realize that your mind and body are not separate and that they already know how to act as one if you'd only let them.
Like so many living in modern western society, I developed habits that were harmful to the unity of my body and mind and believed they were separate entities. These habits were based on and rewarded by cultural norms that were "the right way to be". To have good posture looked a certain way. To focus and work hard looked a certain way. Singing looked and sounded a certain way. From birth we never stop printing onto our minds the archetypes of what it looks like to be happy, be interested, feel concern, feel fear, be a good student, feel confident and we naturally emulate them so that we may be accepted as members of a society. This is perfectly normal biology, but when the organism is part of a society like the one I grew up in, one that reinforces and rewards things like consumerism and homogeneity, the archetypes begin to feel like prison guards surrounding our sense of self.
We don't learn how to learn or think for ourselves. Our education idealizes and tests according to strict standards. Reciting and memorizing reinforces this idea that we ourselves are not thinking, creating beings but are instead obligated to a certain code of conduct. We have become robotic, terrified of rejection, obsessing over the most minsecule mistakes. But many don't realize that this is not the only option. In some eastern cultures such as in Japan, students are encouraged to make mistakes in front of each other and support one another to navigate to the solution with patience. The child is then rewarded for their dedication to the effort rather than simply evaluating the outcome.
We have a conditioned desire for goal achieving instead of allowing for the learning process to gently and spontaneously take us to the goal. Western culture tends to compartmentalize and refine certain areas while leaving others out, instead of working as a whole towards the goal. We go to specialists for pain in one area of the body instead of looking at the whole system. Basically, this unique experiment by nature, in reference to the rational intelligence mentioned earlier, has created a dissociated, compartmentalizing, result oriented person who knows they need to "enjoy the journey" more.
We’re told to stand up straight with our shoulders back because it shows strength and confidence. Animals don't do this unless threatened, but we have learned to posture in this way when there is no threat present. Consequently, the stress from this ongoing "on guard" state becomes conditioned in our bodies and minds, and many of us behave in a defensive and prepped way without our awareness throughout our whole day. We’re taught that pain and suffering is the path to success, so instead releasing tension, we idealize it. Most of our day jobs promote this, as we do repeated and standardized tasks in unnatural positions for hours, weeks, and years at a time. No wonder things like anxiety, depression, OCD, chronic back and neck pain, breathing disorders, and hypertension are so difficult to treat.
So, if we spend the majority of our time in this modified and conditioned form, then how much is really left of our own natural response? This is why we "soul-search" or "try to get out of our heads". This is why we idealize people with poise, absent of this awkward tension who seem to live in the moment and float like a butterfly. When these psychophysical patterns become our every day state of being (aka habits), we unknowingly and chronically suffer. When the mind is conditioned to believe that it is the captain of the body, and that the body is simply a passive, animated vessel possessed by the mind, which we drag around and watch decay, the yearning for "wholeness" can never go away. We need to allow the body to inform the mind but more so we need to stop thinking of them as separate.
Old habits die hard. We believe what we are doing is the right and natural thing to do because we have done it forever and watch others doing it as well, which creates a feedback loop for what it is "appropriate behavior" and we actually believe it feels right. After many years of singing, I am just now starting to realize what singing actually feels like instead of "trying to sing". I'm learning that when I speak with someone I don't have to worry about looking interested because if I simply allow myself to give them my attention, I will naturally show signals of listening. I'm learning that when I wash my hair and my upper back begins to hurt, it's because my elbows are too far out to the side which is causing pressure on my shoulders, so I pull them inward instead carrying on with the behavior and feeling paranoid that I'm developing arthritis. When I'm feeling anxious about something, I realize that I am holding my breath and the buildup of CO2 and lack of oxygen is not helping so I allow myself to breath in order to have a better cognitive ability to remedy the thing causing the anxiety. When I run and feel pain in the left side of my knee, I take smaller strides and keep my feet better under my body to alleviate the strain. It takes intense awareness, sensitivity, and curiosity to shake yourself out of a cycle and recognize that the behavior may not be genuine but instead is the result of years of bad conditioning. Everyone knows the pain of saying something you don't mean or holding a posture you think looks good but is extremely uncomfortable.
Training my awareness to notice when this phenomena is happening, and inhibiting my habitual response to that stimulus, has allowed me to better "do" naturally instead of predetermining what I "will do" or "should do", or falling into what I "have always done". When we repeatedly rehearse actions, the genuine response is lost and is reflected in an uncoordinated system of the mind, body, and soul. To let your system determine moment to moment what is actually needed and to maintain a deliberate renewal of desire to experience that moment in a new way each time will suspend your whole being in a finely tuned reflex state which relieves the self from feeling trapped in a Truman Show-esq reality.
Like the bodybuilder who, when bracing to lift a weight, creates excess tension in their muscles in anticipation of the effort needed to lift that weight, we are creating excess tension in our body and mind as a whole when we interrupt our state of being to "brace for" and "impose a perceived state of being". The idea took me a few months to grasp, but once I did I noticed this philosophy ripple through all aspects of my life, not just in singing or performing. I began to withhold definitions from moments and things and just allowed them to be without judgement. First I began to pay attention to when I was imposing a state of being on myself, or in other words, when I was trying too hard, and then prevented myself from reacting at all in an effort to see what else "showed up". What I found was that when I reserved myself from making an artificial response, I was able to focus my attention back into the moment and allow for a genuine response to arise. Because I did not exert the wasted energy and concentration on carrying our that artificial task, my body had the space and time to do what it wanted to do instead of what it thought it wanted to do.
This natural reflex state is easy to see in animals and very young children. A stimulus occurs, they react, and then quickly return to their resting state. Their minds are not obligated to years of societal conditioning on how they should look or act when startled or when resting. Everyone has seen a baby cry and then laugh within a moment's time. They are simply reacting with no intention to depict. Fear, anxiety, fatigue, and pain all show postural deviations from the normal resting state, similar to those seen in children and animals when they are startled. Shoulders up, neck tensed. When one falls into a period of depression, pain, or fear, the physical disturbance often lingers past the point when the difficult period ends and we habitually carry this in our bodies in an unbalanced way. In Body Learning, Gelb states that if we can "learn consciously to contact our balanced resting state, we increase the possibility that our actions will be fresh responses to the moment rather than predetermined by the unnoticed remnants of our past." And that sounds very liberating to me.
Reference Body Learning, An introduction to the Alexander Technique by Michael J. Gelb for more on this.