We are living in the information age. Since the advent of the internet we have gained access to a virtually infinite trove of information, and with smartphones becoming ubiquitous we have access to this information nearly all the time. As a result, we’re using our own skills of retention and recall much less. Pretty much everyone over 30 remembers having to retain information- and realizes how quickly that skill is fading- in a generation or two we’ll become more and more dependent upon our ‘external brains’. We run the risk of losing skills we’ve spent all of human evolution developing.
But information is not a substitute for experience. An easily understood example is, the difference between reading travel sites and walking the streets of a new city yourself. Or learning how to drive- even when you’ve seen someone do it, and understand the concepts, until your own hands and feet move the heavy machine, it can defy explanation.
Part of the reason there isn’t a satisfying explanation to the question ‘what is the Alexander Technique?’ has to do with this; it was discovered and refined through experience. F.M. Alexander himself taught people how to improve their own stature and poise with little explanation, but with a gentle guided touch. If a picture is worth a thousand words, well-directed contact might be worth 10 times that. And there is no app for it.
John Cleese, actor and comedian has said “I find the Alexander Technique very helpful in my work. Things happen without you trying. They get to be light and relaxed. You must get an Alexander teacher to show it to you.” He resists the desire to explain it and recognizes that it should be learned through personal experience. In this interview Cleese, talks about his pre-show ritual - describing the practice of constructive rest. By explanation alone, it may not sound like much, but in practice it is a restorative and clarifying experience.
At the 11th International Alexander Congress this past week in Chicago, Roshi Joan Halifax, zen priest and social activist, talked about a relationship she has with a Nepalese yak herder. He was assigned to help her navigate the rocky and challenging terrain when she arrived in Nepal to study. Halifax said they could not speak the same language, but that he was gifted with a somatic empathy. He was attuned to her every movement as she would navigate her way around precarious and difficult passages and was there to prevent a fall even before she felt unsteady. She described his awareness of her as ‘magic’. But also noted that many parents possess this skill, and nurses. Somatic empathy is not dependent on language, or vision, or hearing alone, but something deeper, more primal and unique.
While we’re leaping forward into the future at the hyper-speed of the digital age. It might be useful to remember our multifaceted humanity. We need to feed all our senses, and remember the value in learning with our whole selves. We learn more effectively through personal experience than simply being told, or reading, or watching, or hearing about something. Very few people have ever learned to play music from a book, or improved their tennis game simply by watching others play. The more we value information over experience, the more we give up part of what it means to be human.
It feels a little antithetical to extol the virtues of analog while using my laptop, but analog blogging is beyond my scope a this point so please guide me if you have any suggestions! It also feels hypocritical since, full disclosure, I was a quick convert to digital organization diving in as fast as I could. I stopped wearing a watch once I was carrying my flip phone everywhere, and tossed my alarm clock. This I was grateful for since I always had a contentious relationship to my alarm, and the variety of ring tones to choose from seemed to open up a world of exciting possibilities.
But recently I started wearing an analog watch again, because I realized that checking my phone for the time, now provokes checking my phone generally, and captivating my attention. I also noticed when I am teaching, reaching for my phone to check the time in my clock-less classroom pulls my focus and interrupts the class far more than just a glance at my wrist. Especially if there were notifications. I can resist the impulse -but the trigger of distraction is still getting activated. It's also interesting that the benefit
of an analog clock face can't compare to a digital when it comes to thinking in intervals. I break units into 15 and 30 minute lessons and find tracking quarter and half hours at-a-glance is much simpler based on a circle rather than seeing numbers and calculating.
I also was an early convert to taking notes and keeping my calendar on my computer or tablet. I recall thinking, wont it be great when we can keep everything in one place and it was for a little while. But once smartphones took over, barely even 10 years ago, the convenience of having everything in one place led at least in my experience to a kind of leveling-off of significance, and an incredible kind of uniformity of interactivity that I am not sure is in our best interest. We check our phones to look up something specific, or create edit an earlier draft and before we know it we're down the rabbit hole, unsure why we picked up it up to begin with.
With note-taking, both as student and teacher I have noticed there are many benefits to handwriting. With small children fine motor skills are more effectively honed by grasping a pencil and developing the dexterity to create individual letters. And learning how to write them helps to identify them in reading. Fingertips on keyboards use less of the body, and therefore actually make less of an imprint on the mind. There is a more physical experience writing the word 'dog' than to type the letters d-o-g. And with analog note-taking we can break the form more quickly for emphasis, highlighting, connections, and references back by our own unique ways of doing so. Sure, these things are possible with keyboarding as well but only within the structured container of our word processing software of choice and rarely as speedily or with as much freedom of expression.
The process of committing something to memory is actually improved by writing text out longhand. When memorizing lines, acting students are often students are advised to write out everything they say. Take the time to go through the script while learning the text and write out every word. Simply slowing down the process of thinking about the words, thoughts, and story makes a more lasting impression than just reading aloud. And also, the action of pen to paper turning the shape of each letter into each word creates a very different somatic experience than typing.
But what I've also noticed is when looking something up, going back through notebooks seeing notes written is a snapshot of time, and is memory jogging in itself. More so than searching through digital documents, searching by keyword, and then seeing all the information visually with no variation from the prior project, or season, or year of learning.
Think about the last time you received a handwritten card or letter. Chances are it felt far more personal and thoughtful than how we typically communicate by default now. And, it is. It is more conscious and more considerate. There are a few people in my life who still send cards in the mail. One of whom has a birthday this week. It's not something I do with any sort of consistency anymore but I'm inspired to. There is a value so much greater than cost of postage and a significance that texts and email lack.
Near the end of the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers, "Won't You Be My Neighbor" - there was moment he said "I don't think anyone can grow unless he really is accepted as he is". This resonated very strongly with me and relates to a concept I work to impress upon my students.
Life a process of moving forward through time. We are shaped by circumstances and experiences and our reactions to them. We are the sum of all our experiences and greater than the sum of our parts. We are all uniquely flawed, striving, struggling and figuring it out as we go. Learning is entwined with living if you're fully engaged in it. And learning is done through trial and error.
The young actors I teach, come to school filled with passion to express themselves through story and character. They are sometimes perplexed when asked to shift the focus to themselves, to learn more about their own unique individual complex selves. 'There's an idea that acting is putting something on, rather than revealing something about yourself' says a colleague of mine who teaches first-year actors. These young men and women begin training their voice and bodies to do what is asked of them imaginatively - but many times overlook (or undervalue) what's going on in their minds.
I spend several weeks every term emphasizing the importance of 'nonjudgmental' observation. The second we start thinking right vs wrong, good vs bad, we leap to 'fix' it. Or start criticizing ourselves, or freeze. The more students value perfectionism over discovery the harder it is for them to them to be open to the unknown. In fact it's rather impossible to do so.
According to Mr Rogers, "the most important learning is the ability to accept and expect mistakes, and deal with the disappointments that they bring." What if we were able to value the error part of 'trial and error' just a little more. I think many of us just stop trying, out of some idea that too many errors is an indicator of not being good enough. We don't deal with the disappointment of struggle well at all. We want immediate (and perfect) results.
My first Alexander teacher's advice was "let be what is". When I was in graduate school, I had terrible back pain, I had a lot of defenses and an answer for everything. All of which was getting in my way, none of which was I told to change - just let be. Let myself alone and stop trying to be perfect or control every outcome. The more accepting I became of being 'in process' the less I needed to get it right, the more open I was to growth and change. And then to my surprise, everything changed.
Through the practice of the Alexander Technique, students develop more awareness of their unique habits of 'misuse'- both physical and mental- that interfere with optimal functioning. Most of us, in our stressful modern lives collapse through the spine when sitting or lock the knees when standing, for example. Traditional AT teaching focuses awareness on the balance of the head on the neck and how it affects everything else. But habits of mind can cause just as much held tension. Worry can lead to holding breath, or grinding teeth. Self-critical thinking can twist us in knots just as if we were being scolded. The body responds to and holds on to experience both real and imagined whether we are conscious of it or not.
Our own habits are as unique as our fingerprint however and it takes time to become familiar with them, and even welcome them more fully to the experience of being alive. Frequently when we learn something new, there is a leap right after discovery (of a 'problem') to correcting it immediately (finding a 'solution') - but slowing down the whole process and accepting what we find rather than immediately running away from it is actually more effective. The habit of rushing to a result, what Alexander called endgaining, is so common in every aspect of our lives it's hard to see how it gets in our way. It is also often unconscious, and sometimes misguided, and frequently related to past moments or events and not what's happening in the here and now.
On the spectrum of human behavior few could argue that Mr Rogers didn't rise to a level of excellence that could be considered nearly perfect. But he likely wouldn't agree, because he valued each imperfectly unique individual. If only we all could.