(While I'm on vacation — from teaching and blogging — I hope you enjoy this piece from my website archives.)
As a youngster, I was a bit of a smart-aleck. One of my sisters would ask me a perfectly legitimate question: “Do you know where my pink hairbrush is?” “Yes,” I’d answer, with my characteristic supercilious pursing of the lips guaranteed to drive my siblings insane, “I know where your hairbrush is — it’s in the world.” I delighted in wasting my sister’s time by providing information that was not specific enough to actually be helpful.
Other than by annoying my little sisters, I liked to amuse myself with nerdy activities like writing out my return address on envelopes in what I fancied to be its properly complete version. Writing the tiniest characters I could manage, I crammed all of this onto the upper left corner of my envelope:
5403 Rolling Rd
Milky Way Galaxy
Now I was wasting my own time (and ink), by providing much more information than the Postal Service needed to get a letter to me. (Not that it wouldn’t serve me in other situations to comprehend my precise place in the scheme of things.)
Most systems — those pertaining to everything from residential addresses to locating hairbrushes to the flow of energy in my body — can be viewed at varying levels of hierarchy. We have to decide what level of this hierarchy gives us the most useful information about the problem we are trying to solve.
For example, if I have a new student who asks for directions to my teaching studio and I provide a picture of the Milky Way Galaxy with a little arrow pointing to the location of our solar system, I will be waiting a long time for that student to show up.
If, on the other hand, I give the new student my address, and then go on to tell her that when she enters my front door she will take six steps to the left and enter the studio door, take three more steps, and then take a seat in the chair that is 3 feet from the window and 4 feet from the bookcase, she will probably seek out a different teacher. Even though I have given her usable information, it is too precise for the situation. I come off as an anal-retentive freak.
Let’s say I have figured out the proper degree of positional information to provide my new student, and she’s sitting in my chair, ready for her first lesson. Now I have to make a choice as to what level of her energetic organization to deal with.
I know that ultimately, all her energy comes down to the states of vibration of the subatomic particles making up her body, but I do not know how to perceive this vibration under my hands. Nor could I hope to change these vibrations through my intervention, too gross by many, many orders of magnitude. I might as well try to determine the weight of a sesame seed using my bathroom scale.
Many other hierarchical levels of my student’s structure are beyond my perception and intervention: interactions between her atoms, molecules, cells, even organs. Though I believe that by working as an Alexander teacher, I can bring about changes at these levels — improving digestion, refining the firing of motor neurons, maybe even tweaking the uptake of neurotransmitters — I am not conscious of directly acting upon her small intestine, her neurons, or her molecules of serotonin. Thus far in my development as a teacher, these phenomena occupy a level of subtlety beyond my grasp. (Note: Since writing this, I have learned how to work directly with a person's organs using a technique called Visceral Manipulation. I've gone a level deeper!)
At the other end of the hierarchical range, I can err by intervening at too crude a level. Walter Carrington (a respected teacher taught by F.M. Alexander) warned against this mistake, advising teachers not to attempt to bring their students into visual symmetry or to directly reposition a student’s spine or other body parts. Into this category of overly crude interventions we can also put such misguided breathing advice as asking our students to breathe into particular parts of their torsos or to breathe in a particular rhythm.
Between these outer ranges of incomprehensible subtlety and brutish over-doing lies the hierarchical level (perhaps levels?) at which the Alexander Technique enables us to bring about change for our students — change that will potentially encompass ALL the levels of a student’s hierarchical structure, from the rhythm of her breathing to the rhythm of vibration of her atoms.
Carrington instructs us that the proper level of intervention for us is our students’ state of “going up.” Through our hands we can identify when a student is going up and when she is not. Through our teaching we can then intervene in her thinking to produce changes in her body (and her energy) that we can feel, see, and otherwise experience through our senses.
Alexander has given us a means to indirectly bring about change for our students — real change that permeates every level of their being. Our entree into this complexity is at the relatively easily perceptible level of postural reflexes. We mustn’t waste our time — or that of our students — by attempting to intervene at the wrong levels of our students’ systems.