by Michael Ostrow
A person feels depressed. He reminds himself of all the bad luck and humiliations he has suffered in his life, and looks forward to years more of the same. What is it that makes that feeling of depression seem so solid and real?
Someone gets out of bed and his body feels heavy and sore. He thinks to himself that old age and gravity are weighing him down. Is it so certain that external factors, such as gravity and age, are causing this feeling?
Two people argue over politics. They are both convinced they are right. Where does this feeling of certainty come from? Can both people be as right as they feel?
There is a common element to all these situations – a background feeling tone that is usually unnoticed which joins a concept or image to “solidify” it and give it life and reality. This background feeling tone is something that is not recognized by our culture or by most approaches to self-improvement, whether from the “somatic” or the “psychological” angle. The Alexander Technique is a unique way of broadening and deepening our attention so that it can be attuned to the level of this background feeling. This deepened attention, in turn, gives us the freedom to not be stuck in old reactions and old self-images that hold us prisoner. What is the nature of this background feeling?
When we are born, our bodies and minds are in an open, fluid relationship between the “outside” world and what is “inside.” The spine and the postural muscles of the back support the body and are the organizational center of movement and stability, while the rest of the musculature works in coordination with the spine, at rest when not needed, and fluidly working when called upon. This pattern of fluid coordination is associated with an accurate “kinesthetic sense”, which is the internal radar that allows us to accurately monitor how our bodies move and relate to the world around us. When our kinesthetic sense is operating accurately, we are immediately alerted to excess tension, and to any departure from an open sense of general alertness, both to our “bodies” and the world around us. There is an unconscious background awareness of being securely supported by the spine, along with a sense of being, “present,” “centered,” and ready to respond with our full resources. So, at the physical level we are supported and fluid, emotionally we are secure and alert, and mentally we are ready to put ourselves into what needs to be done at the moment.
Any disturbance to this finely tuned system will lead to diminished vitality and alertness, decreased physical coordination and fluidity, and emotionally to distress and a lowered sense of well being. A rough way of getting a feel for this level of our being is to contrast your experience of being on vacation and feeling very at ease and relaxed, versus being stressed and harried by a hard day at work. When stressed, every little thing causes you to react with irritation, whereas, when more at ease, the same problem might wash over you. The difference is your underlying state of being.
How do we lose touch with this finely tuned system?
As we grow up we begin to interfere with the natural, integrated pattern of spinal support. This interference starts to happen as we imitate many of the bad patterns of our parents and peers, and as we are buffeted by emotional trauma and the contradictions of our upbringing. Repeated stress and trauma gradually lead us to try to avoid or resist painful experiences. We begin to create what we call “tension,” or, more accurately, patterns of neuro-muscular activity which are unnecessary and which represent an interference with our overall design.
One could call this tension a “substitute support system” or more simply a “substitute spine”, because it gradually replaces the natural support of the spine. We end up “doing” more and more as we abandon the spinal support for efforts we make to protect ourselves from painful experiences. Since this happens at such a young age, this “substitute spine” is not conscious, and it feels natural and “right.” It forms an unconscious, distorting feeling tone, which disrupts our kinesthetic sense, and we lose the clear background awareness that allows us to be attuned to ourselves and our environment. It is as if, instead of an open, panoramic, emotionally neutral field of awareness, the field splits into small, tight nodules, which are associated with various negative emotions of fear, anger, etc. Our emotional life then becomes grounded in this background of tension, and we become like the person in the example above having a bad day at work. Since this background feeling is unconscious, the feelings it supports are perceived to come from the outside world, and we feel a victim of outside forces.”
Let us take the first example I gave above – someone who feels constantly depressed. There are at least three obvious elements involved here: 1) a concept, for example, a negative self-image (“I am a loser, a failure”); 2) an emotion associated with the concept (a feeling of “depression”); and 3) a bodily reaction to the concept (typically in this case, a literal depression – a sinking of the chest and drooping of the shoulders, and diminished breathing capacity). But there is really a 4th element 4) the background feeling, the final nail in the coffin. The physical reaction to the depression is interwoven with the whole “substitute spine,” and so cannot be simply identified or “let go of” because it has become so much a part of “who we are.”
There are many approaches, such as cognitive therapy, which teach people to be aware of and change their negative self-concepts. But the problem is, they leave out of account the fact that, once a person has experienced a negative feeling for some time, this feeling has become part of their fixed, distorted, and stressful background pattern of tension. This fixed pattern, in turn, reinforces, and gives “life” to, the negative image or feeling. Even if someone has success in having fewer negative thoughts, they will still suffer from the lowered vitality and sense of stress that has been created by years of living with this background pattern of stress. The background tension is not fully accessible by simply changing ones thoughts - it's physicality must be clearly experienced in order to let go of it. Otherwise it acts like a force field, or black hole, which pulls everything into it and makes it nearly impossible to perceive anything outside of its gravitational pull. Causality is reversed - rather than seeing the negative feelings as a result of what one is unconsciously “doing” with one’s mind and body, it is felt to be the result of objective problems with oneself or the world.
By using very precise hands on work, the Alexander Technique helps to awaken the innate support system of the spine and its postural muscles, which helps to “undo” the tension of the “substitute spine.” Every experience of freedom from the “substitute spine” leads people to have more detachment from what seemed fixed and inevitable, and makes it possible to have an experience of life without the background tension which supported the negative feelings. As one becomes more sensitive and alive, it becomes more and more possible to free oneself from the whole background feeling tone, which hitherto seemed simply to be “my life.” The kinesthetic sense is re-awakened, allowing one to re-discover the alert, alive, and emotionally neutral background feeling tone, and turn one’s attention forward to living their life, instead of backwards towards focusing on their “problems.”
This represents a truly transformative process, in which it becomes possible to transcend our culturally created, habitual sense of self, stuck in the past, and become an autonomous creator of one’s own life. We cease to identify ourselves with the fixed patterns of our background feeling tone, and realize that our real self is a fluid, evolving process to which we can attune ourselves in the moment-to-moment process of our lives.