Concept Corner: Sensory Awareness Training

Concept Corner: An on-going series of essays that deals with various concepts in the work. 

Last time we talked about the issue of giving verbal orders and why we don’t teach the giving of specific verbal orders in the ITM. This time we will be looking at another controversial area of distinction between the ITM and much of the rest of the Alexander world as we look at the issue of the direct training of sensory awareness as part of the process of learning Alexander’s technique. 

Past experience and the reporting of others has led me to believe that a great deal of time and effort is spent in lessons and many training courses on directly helping students to be more accurately aware of what they are doing while they are doing it. Often trainees and students are asked to pay a great deal of attention to what they are feeling in any given moment. The purpose behind this policy seems to be based on both certain traditions in teaching and the idea about making feelings trustworthy again to be found in “Evolution of a Technique”. 

We understand the origins of this idea and approach to learning, but this is a practice that we cannot endorse. While this may seem heretical to at least some of our colleagues, this policy—like almost every policy in the ITM--has its basis in what Alexander wrote. In the ITM, we eliminate or minimize the amount of time spent in training awareness directly because, in the light of what Alexander told us, it is the only policy that makes sense. 

In Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Alexander told us that “before we can make any real attempt to reach a satisfactory state of awareness (in order) to know ourselves, we must cultivate…an increasing use of the process of reasoning in conscious endeavour.” So, obviously, according to Alexander, the appropriate place to begin the process of reaching a “satisfactory state of awareness” is not in training students’ sensory awareness directly but in training them to use their reasoning processes in activity. 

Alexander tells us in The Use of the Self that “in the technique that (he advocates) for the building up of a conscious direction of use…(his technique’s) employment demands that instinctive reaction (by such things as feelings) be inhibited and superceded by reasoning processes. I have found,” he continues, “that in this process of acquiring a conscious direction of use my pupils gradually develop a higher standard of sensory awareness or appreciation of what they are doing.” 

Not only does this demonstrate that the process of training awareness directly cannot be the same thing as Alexander’s technique for building up a conscious direction of use (Alexander clearly distinguishes between the development of awareness and the process of acquiring a conscious direction of use), but that the appropriate means for acquiring improvement of one’s sensory awareness is as a by-product of learning to use one’s reasoning processes. According to Alexander, then, training people to employ his technique should not only start with training them to use their reasoning processes but should continue with training them to use their reasoning process. 

More importantly, Alexander identifies as the last necessary step in developing his technique for changing the use of himself in activity as a significant change in process. As he tells us in “Evolution of a Technique”, he had decided early on not to “trust to (his) feeling for the direction of (his) use, but (he) had never fully realized all that this implied.” He discovered that he not only had to give up the use of his “feeling” for guidance, but that he had to give up the use of his “feeling” for immediate judgment about his condition and progress as well. He found that the simple act of trying to “feel” how he was doing something while he was doing it brought his old habitual use into play by causing him to revert to his instinctive misdirection. He tells us that “if (he) is ever to succeed in making the changes in use (he) desired, (he) must subject the processes directing (his) use to a new experience, the experience…of being dominated by reasoning instead of feeling.” If this statement is true and this new experience is essential to Alexander’s technique, then the process of paying attention directly and immediately to what one is doing while one is doing it would be contrary to Alexander’s technique. 

Finally, Marjory Barlow has reminded us in many places about a quotation of F. M.’s that she has thought of as her favorite quote: “When the time comes that you can trust your feelings, you won’t want to use it because you will have something that is much more reliable.” 

It is clear from this that Alexander believed there was a process for change that was superior to guidance by even a trustworthy feeling sense. After all, instinctive guidance by a trustworthy feeling sense is still instinctive guidance and, therefore, unacceptable to Alexander. It is clear from what we have written here and elsewhere, that the alternative, more reliable process that Alexander preferred to instinctive guidance by even a trustworthy feeling sense was a reliance upon his reasoning processes to bring him safely to his ends. So not only would Alexander use his reasoning processes to acquire an improved sensory awareness, but, in the end, even after his feeling sense instincts could be trusted once more, he wasn’t going to use them. He was going to use his reasoning processes instead. 

In the ITM, we believe that there is no need to take either the time or the attention required to train awareness directly for three reasons. First of all, awareness will be unavoidably trained and improved as an indirect by-product of training the reasoning processes. Secondly, the use of the feeling sense for guidance or immediate judgment is contrary to Alexander’s stated technique. And finally, Alexander tells us that we aren’t going to use our improved sensory awareness in directing ourselves anyway. There is just no point in taking time and energy to improve a tool you aren’t going to use, particularly if that same tool will be improved indirectly by the processes that you are going to use. Therefore, in the ITM, we don’t spend either time or effort on training students’ awareness of themselves directly.