Interview with Walter Carrington

walter210pxIn the Interview with Walter Carrington by Sean Carey, Walter describes a plethora of events on the training course with F.M. including personal stories, clarification of historical events, and practical lessons- mostly from Alexander himself.

Walter was attracted to the work by the transformations he saw in his mother and friend who had taken lessons from Alexander. There was a common theme of some of the trainees (including Walter) of being young men with not much of an idea what they wanted to do with their lives; the training course seemed new and interesting to them.

Walter talks extensively about the problems on the first training courses, while simultaneously defending Alexander. He quotes F.M. as saying, “All they were doing was going around imitating me like a cartload of monkeys!” According to Walter, Alexander expected the trainees to read the books and figure it out for themselves. When the trainees realized that they wouldn’t be taught they were disenchanted, and similarly so was Alexander when he realized they were so clueless. Reflecting to my own training I do remember after the first year (all I had originally planned to complete) thinking that I hadn’t learned anything about how to teach the Technique, even though the following two years were mostly the same in practice. I think this, wanting to find out what it was really about, kept me coming back. Strangely, there is no secret; only further refinement. Sometimes I joked, “I realized that somehow I became an Alexander teacher while I was busy working on myself.”

Walter provides many insights into the development of the Technique, both F.M.’s own personal development and his own additions as well as the additions of the other teachers of his generation. He says about the use of the hands, “It was only gradually that he [FM] began to find more and more that it was what he did with his hands that counted. As long as he made the right kind of soothing noises it didn’t seem to matter what he said.” He admits that F.M. never said where to put or how to use the hands; which kept with his minimalist approach. The advantage of having such an approach, according to Walter, is that the students learn most this way. Another interesting point is the connection of Delsarte to the origins of Alexander’s work. While most teachers admit that Alexander’s discovery and development of the technique as outlined in his books is pure fantasy and that there is no way he could have created the technique from nothing, very few teachers ask questions about his influences.

Walter does tell to the best of his ability the origins of the procedures, most of which were not of Alexander’s invention. Particularly of interest is how the saddle came to be used in the case of a child without the use of her legs. Crawling, which was developed by Dart and incorporated into training by Carrington, was a point of contention; he was defensive of crawling (or creeping as they say in England), as it was a criticism of his style by other schools of thought in the AT community at the time. He criticizes the wide stance that Patrick Mcdonald had students use, saying that it makes it easier for the students to get in and out of the chair but students learn less about inhibition and direction. He also warns against straightening the back against the wall (Dr. Barlow). The stories clarifying infighting between teachers from the first training courses litter the book and are a pretty big waste time as the people in question are all dead and the quarrels have little relevance to the principals of the work.

Walter points out that it was only by chance that table work was created at all; that at some point someone had the idea that the assistant teachers ought to put people on the table instead of always laying people on the floor. Also interesting is that Alexander had little to do with the development of table-work and that it was mostly the assistant teachers. While on the subject of tables, Walter objects to massage stating, “Massage is a terribly bad thing except for the most superficial kind of massage” adding that deep massage can actually damage tissue and make working with people on the AT more difficult. He had similar feelings about Rolfing.

There are long sections devoted to examining Alexander’s life views. While interesting, these kinds of questions have an undertone of suggestion that F.M. Alexander was some kind of Jesus type character who knew the truth and therefore should be emulated. Not only is this obviously false, from what I can gather about Alexander he would have wanted nothing of the sort; I believe he would have wanted people to figure their life views out for themselves. Carrington and Alexander both had an attitude toward religion that can be summed up as, “I don’t know.” A some-what related point that Carrington makes is, “FM always contended that it’s almost impossible to know what’s right, but that one could with time practically establish what is wrong and then set-up measures to avoid it.”

Among Alexander’s views explored were his views on other modalities such as Reich’s work, Osteopathy, Freud, and the Bates method. He was strongly opposed to all of them for separating the whole into parts and/or being an unproven theory being worked out on people (rather than a method derived from practical work and its theories coming from said work). While he may have been “right” in both cases, the attitude did not help the spread of his own work and often alienated the work from others; such was the case with Feldenkrais.

I believe the infighting between “similar” methods is related to the infighting between the first generation teachers and it certainly didn’t help any of the parties involved. On the whole, I was disappointed to see how much of the interview was concerned with these matters. That being said, the interview does offer an intimate view into the work of Alexander through Walter’s unique perspective.

Friction: An under-appreciated aspect in relating with objects & people

pushing-thru-resistance1-300x207Friction is often considered a dirty word in the context of relating one person or thing to another. In the Thesaurus, next to friction you will find: conflict, opposition, hostility, resentment, disagreement, antagonism, resistance, erosion, and so on. Many people will also make an association with pain and difficulty when thinking of friction in their lives.

In my experience, friction is a key indicator of the quality of contact or connection (relationship) between two objects (or people).

What I consider to be a good quality bow hold/grip (I’m not a huge fan of the standard terminology by the way) is one that the friction of the skin of the fingers against the wood of the stick and frog is enough when force is applied through the arm to initiate movement of the bow or change direction of the bow. This type of friction is known as Static friction: friction between two or more solid objects that are not moving relative to each other. When this friction is established you can hold the bow without any squeezing or gripping of the bow with the muscles of the hand and doing less gripping actually increases friction. A 2012 study has demonstrated the potential for a negative coefficient of friction, meaning that a decrease in force leads to an increase in friction. This contradicts the common belief that an increase of normal force improves friction.

I’d also like to point out that the shape of the hand is much less important than the quality of the contact. Amontons’ second law of dry friction states that: The force of friction is independent of the apparent area of contact (the amount of surface area contact doesn’t really matter).

Friction between two objects that are moving in relation to one another(kinetic friction or sliding/rubbing) results in a release of energy. According to the law of conservation of energy, no energy is destroyed due to friction, though it may be lost to the system of concern. If we return to the bow as an example, if sliding occurs there is a loss of energy that would otherwise go into the string (probably in the form of heat). This release of energy can deteriorate the relationship and even the wear on the objects themselves.

Since we are looking at friction in the context of relating to people and things, we will call moving independently of the person or thing too little friction. When there is too little friction a solid connection is never established. The two objects can become completely separated or crash into each other violently.

Just the right amount of friction fosters a responsive connection that acts to unify the two objects in such a way that they can move together or in opposition to one another without losing energy or loosening the bond.

It is my belief that these principles go beyond the physical realm. For example: a couple that challenges each other to grow individually is a healthy form of friction. Too much friction in this relationship and the bond can become heated and deteriorate, too little friction and there is not enough of a bond between the two, allowing for them to move apart and/or occasionally bump into each other. With just the right amount of friction the two are responsive to each other’s movements and can move together or apart(in their interests and development) and simultaneously balance each other’s differences and needs. These dynamics can be found in all relationships.

Over the years I have learned not to fight or run away from friction, but rather to let myself meet and be challenged by it. This creates an internal condition of healthy working.

When working with the Alexander Technique, it is possible to undo changes in the shape of the body resulting from trauma and/or bad habits of using one’s self with extremely subtle manipulation from a teacher. I found the following physics principles to be insightful in the process: The change of an object’s shape is called strain. The force causing it is called stress. Stress does not necessarily cause permanent change. As deformation occurs, internal forces oppose the applied force. If the applied stress is not too large these opposing forces may completely resist the applied force, allowing the object to assume a new equilibrium state and to return to its original shape when the force is removed.

That new equilibrium state is what we are constantly trying to find, and it is an ever moving target. An AT teacher can help you learn to guide your own internal forces to oppose the forces of habit that are disturbing your equilibrium and keeping you from achieving your goals and full potential.

Connecting Links

IreneTaskerfmalexanderbooksConnecting Links is a transcript of an informal talk given by Irene Tasker in 1967. By this point Irene had over fifty years of experience teaching the Alexander Technique. She had a unique position as a teacher of Montessori who applied the Alexander Technique to her teaching of mostly ‘disabled’ children with tremendous success. A proponent of the technique in the field of education, she had close ties to John Dewey and was herself a connecting link as she was instrumental in the writing and editing of the majority of Alexander’s books.

In the talk she describes the largest takeaway from her work with Montessori as observation and attention to the ‘means whereby’ recalling, “I learned from Montessori that my function as a teacher was primarily to observe and, according to what I observed, to provide each child with material best suited to him at his particular stage, and then acting as his guide, to give him the least help necessary to enable him to educate himself.” She stresses repeatedly through the talk the importance of giving the means, not the ends. I can’t help but compare this to my philosophy of teaching the viola where my main goal is to teach my students how to practice, how to figure out problems on their own.

Ms. Tasker’s descriptions of the writing and editing of F.M.’s books was a very interesting section in the talk. I had no idea that she and Ms. Ethel Webb had worked so extensively on them and they deserve added credit. She seemed to be a bit defensive about some criticism of Alexander’s books that were circulating at the time stating, “On the question of repetition, F.M. was insistent that you had to say things over and over again if you wanted them to sink in.” She also very fairly asserts that, “I think it is true to say that there are some people who prefer to know first about the Technique and from what they read decide whether or not to know it. Equally, there are others who are not interested to read about the Technique and the philosophy with it, until they know the effects of the working of the Technique upon themselves.”

A point that comes up in the talk has been bouncing around my mind, as I enjoy writing about the AT; to express concepts previously unexpressed in language is bound to be problematic and that writing which concerns itself with truth requires work to understand. I often find that only after I experience a truth, that I can recognize and appreciate it.

There is a wonderfully charming and heartwarming account of Ms. Tasker’s application of the Alexander Technique at the “little school” as well as other teaching positions she held over the years. She stresses the importance of applying the work to speaking advising, “I don’t think too much importance can be placed on the application of the work to speaking” adding “I think it should be part of the training of Alexander teachers. It is true that we teach with our hands to convey sensory experiences, but it is speech which conveys the ideas of which the sensory experiences are the counterpart.” Reflecting back on my training, I wish more emphasis was put on this, it took quite a while before I felt I could keep my inhibition and direction going while speaking and was often tempted to work in silence. We certainly did not spend the kind of time Alexander did working with speaking from what I can gather from the accounts of the early trainings.

I can’t help but relate to Ms. Tasker’s experience with the work. She describes taking the concept of inhibition to an extreme and F.M.’s response, “The other extreme of too hasty reaction, [F.M. went on] is drift.” I find this point to be one of the most difficult in practicing the AT. It seems Ms. Tasker did also as she mentions, “To keep the delicate balance between refusing consent to wrong doing and giving consent to the new doing seems to me the never-ending task for us all, both in our own use and carrying over that use into teaching.”

I love her response to the ever present question of progress in the AT: “We tend to speak of the ‘work’ and ‘the progress of the work’ forgetting that ‘we’ are the work.” I take that to mean that the collective body of Alexander teachers and students working (inhibiting and directing) will determine any progress in the work as a whole, not the perfect image or breakthrough scientific theory of the Technique.

Although the talk is nearly fifty years old, it seems as relevant as ever. Perhaps Ms. Tasker and I are kindred spirits as her emphasis on “not knowing”, that we [teachers] are the learners, and using Technique to connect the different parts of our understanding so we are more than the sum of the parts reflect my own values.

The Alexander Technique

theatliebconnThe Alexander Technique by Judith Leibowitz & Bill Connington opens, not with a technical definition or theoretical/philosophical description as many books on the Alexander technique do, instead the authors choose to begin with a relatable list of a variety of imaginary people with stress related ailments asking the reader what they have in common followed by a very straightforward explanation that excess tension and stress are direct results of misuse of the body. They even go so far as to list a number of conditions that can be alleviated by using the Alexander Technique.

Many modalities preach awareness, however, few directly improve specific awarenesses. The authors assert that Alexander’s technique heightened his awareness on many levels; including (from the Introduction):

  • kinesthetic- He became aware of (1) the feelings and tensions in his body and (2) his body in space.
  • visual- He saw his habits more clearly.
  • structural- He had greater knowledge of his anatomy and movement.
  • intellectual- He was more clearly aware of his thinking process.
  • emotional- He saw how he interacted and behaved with other people and his environment.

The book has a warm, personal and relatable style, detailing the personal journeys of Judy (who overcame many aspects of Polio) and Bill (who overcame personally learned mal-coordination to hone his skill as an actor). After the authors’ stories the book moves into case studies of many Alexander students which are more akin to personal stories of transformation from students than scientific case studies keeping the tone personal. Along with the theme of personal transformation, there seems to be an interest in childhood development as the later crops up repeatedly throughout the book and it’s importance is stressed; the authors on the subject, “We have to overcome our schooling and conditioning, which was of a goal-oriented or “end-gaining” nature that often leads to a fear of learning and of succeeding.”

Another theme that is recurrent is mindset. The authors assert that mindsets or beliefs create muscular holdings in the body and that leaving one’s self alone is key. They cite Zen in the Art of Archery as an accurate description of the Alexander process and go on to describe the relationship between the principals of the AT; Inhibition, Mental Directions, and Sensory Awareness (in that order). They detail the primary directions and their meaning. Interestingly, the direction, “and let my shoulders widen” is given equal value to the other directions.

The authors make a case for learning basic anatomy stating, “Because the mental directions refer to the anatomical structure, understanding the structure will help understand direction.” The authors make a case against visualization which is interesting as many teachers do not follow this advice, “Unlike some teachers, we do not ask our students to think of their bodies as balloons filled with helium, or to imagine the tension draining out of their bodies like water down a sink drain- in other words, we do not work with what is usually known as visualization.”

In the next chapters on mind-body connection and self-image & psychological factors there are more stories from the authors about how the AT accelerated progress in psychotherapy, relating the experience to the work of Reich. There are also many more stories of personal transformation related to those topics from students keeping with the overall personal and relatable tone of the book.

Some interesting tidbits to put in context of time are the questions, “How much does an AT lesson cost?” and “How often should I take lessons?” The answer to the former is $30-70, which means the cost hasn’t risen all that much since the book was written in 1990. The answer to the later is also interesting as she mentions that Alexander would tell people to come for a “course of lessons” meaning five lessons a week for six weeks. The authors advocates for three lessons a week for two weeks, two lessons for two weeks, then a lesson per week citing financial and time constraint changes in the average person since Alexander’s death. Also interesting is the advice to get a referral from your doctor and send in an insurance claim/reimburse form for your Alexander lessons; I wonder what the success rate for this practice is.

Following this is a section on what happens in lessons which in addition to the overall style and tone of the book make it an excellent introduction to the Alexander technique. The authors note that group classes are more economical but, “You must remember that the hands-on help is the most important part of the lesson.” Also in this section is useful information for student and teacher, “The Alexander teacher never forces a change upon a student but asks the student to think the directions so that messages are sent from the student’s brain through the nervous system to the muscles.”

The second half of the book contains “The Leibowitz Procedures” which Judy developed while teaching actors at Juilliard. While Judy notes that the Leibowitz Procedures and the Alexander Technique are not the same thing, they include many of the movements a teacher would guide a student through in an Alexander lesson. The section opens with instructions on how to observe yourself accompanied by a long list of questions leading to awareness of specific parts. This is then taken into activities including speaking, sitting at the computer, writing, talking on the phone, driving, climbing stairs, lifting heavy objects, vacuuming, carrying bags, sleeping, and gardening.

Following this trend Judy takes the procedures and applies them to sports and exercise activities such as weightlifting, swimming, biking, aerobics, walking, running, golf, tennis, dancing, skiing, riding, horse riding, and yoga. Judy mentioned earlier in the book that one of the purposes of the book was to offer a chance for the many people who don’t have access to an Alexander teacher nearby something to work with on their own. The Liebowitz Procedures are some of the best instructions for self-study that I’ve come across, however there is much less of a chance for success without a teacher’s hands as the authors admit.

The book concludes by stating that the Alexander technique is a tool for living and will help you deal with any life situation, but that you must give yourself plenty of time. As Judy had a hand in training most of the teachers that trained me, I can clearly see her influence in their teaching. It’s interesting to me to note the points where my trainers departed from her methodology as she didn’t have a cookie-cutter process. It’s clear through her writings and her influence on several generations of teachers that her commitment to the principals and skill made her a master teacher of the Alexander technique.

Positions vs Conditions

ImageTwo aspects of life’s balancing act that we must constantly grapple with are positions and conditions. The two are often at odds with one another, although they don’t have to be.  Whether referring to a position of the arm in relation to the viola or an appointed position (otherwise known as a job), if the condition(s) of the mind-body are not in the required state that the position demands, the position will be exceedingly difficult to “hold on” to and may cause physical, mental, and emotional distress if the position is held for too long (if it is even obtainable in the first place).

Most people associate positions with rigidity, stiffness, and holding – however, this does not have to be the case. The typical approach in learning to master a position is to do it (force ourselves into a shape) as best we can and hold on to it as long as possible with hopes that we will eventually build enough stamina to stay there for long periods. What we are usually doing at this point is practicing our misconception of what the position requires (also known as our habit).

While we may build stamina in holding a rigid pose, the advantage of the position (why it was thought up in the first place) is probably being negated by this excess tension. In fact, if moving into a position without first creating satisfactory conditions is the habitual response to the stimulus of any activity, not only will any mechanical advantage of the position be lost, the result may be worse than if he or she was in no particular position at all during the activity.

I can’t even begin to count the number of music students I’ve seen trying to find the “perfect position” for the instrument (or hands, arms, etc.) without taking into account what they are doing with their bodies. The students that do bring the body into the picture typically impose a posture that to the untrained eye looks upright and erect, however, underneath the skin there often is a ball of knots. This rigid forced upright may look and sound better than a collapsed posture but it won’t look, sound, or feel nearly as good as natural upright; something which is not imposed on the body. Natural upright emerges when the postural mechanisms are un-interfered with.

How does one achieve natural upright and improve conditions?

One must first value freedom of the joints, maintaining one’s length and width between the joints, and allowing energetic flow through the whole system; and prioritize those values above the molding of the body.

To translate that back into the career example, one must value freedom of thought (keep an open mind and don’t act habitually), honoring and balancing every aspect of the job, and connecting all of the different aspects of the work.

If one continually values positions over conditions, he/she will eventually find that they are unable to do what is required of them in a satisfactory manner. Take for example a violist whose habit is a little slump and has decided to force herself into an upright playing posture advocated by a teacher. To her teacher she looks pretty good externally, but internally there is no sense of flow, her joints are held, and her muscles are stiff and shortened. Instead of stopping the downward pull of her deep postural muscles (improving conditions) she creates a new habit of hauling herself out of the slump with the superficial external muscles. Essentially one group of muscles is fighting another to stay upright, and anytime she needs to move the muscles that hold her in her position have to be overwhelmed by the muscles moving her. She notices that her intonation has suffered and holding herself up is incredibly exhausting. She goes on practicing the new posture and gains endurance; however nothing seems to improve other than her ability to stay in the posture for longer periods.

Take the member of an organization that was only appointed to his management/administrative position for political reasons. He has no practical experience (unsatisfactory conditions) doing the job he was hired to do, but his father donates large amounts of money to the organization. He proceeds to make a mistake that costs the company a large contract and they have to fire several low-level employees. When the company fires the individual, his father ceases to donate any money to the organization.

Take the tenured professor that has a great deal of knowledge and experience but she is teaching at a third rate school and the students can’t even begin to grasp the material she wants to focus on. The professor becomes uninterested in teaching due to the lack of stimulation and her students suffer. In the music world this happens often as the number of positions and good students are so limited. Perhaps a very talented student chooses to go to this third rate institution for the exceptional teacher; however, this puts the student in a worse position to improve his conditions.

In all of these examples it is clear that if we force ourselves (or others) into positions we are not ready for, we can harm ourselves and others. However, if the conditions are satisfactory, positions offer a wonderful framework with which one can work on his or her self.

Grow to your full potential within the construct of the position. Keep yourself free enough that you don’t get stuck in the position. Maintain balance between your needs and the demands being put on you. If thought of in this way, positions can provide improved stability, efficiency, and accuracy.

Body Learning

LB-body-learningBody Learning by Michael J. Gelb was one of the first texts I read on the Alexander Technique, as it was required reading in the very first group introduction to the AT class I took. Upon re-reading it I see now why my teacher and so many others recommend the book to people with little or no experience with the AT. The book contains all of the core concepts of the Alexander Technique with minimal pontificating on possibilities of the future of mankind and other dense topics that plague many AT books, including ones written to be introductions. Also somewhat important in an introduction to the Alexander technique, which can sometimes be seen as a strange and esoteric practice, is the fact that Michael Gelb carriers some weight as an author from his other books which lends itself to the AT; not to mention the many endorsements by well-known individuals in related fields and a foreword by Walter Carrington.

I don’t remember being very taken by the book when I read it in college except for a few points here and there which were revolutionary for me at the time, mostly to do with observing without judgement and the effects of trying to be ‘right’ vs letting the right thing do itself. Being such a stereotypical Westerner, anything resembling Zen was far outside my experience except for the times I’d stumbled into it while practicing the viola. The author quotes F.M. Alexander, “Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their right is right.”

As I read the book more recently, I was interested in the book as a potential teaching tool for my students. Right off the bat, I have to say I love the title and cover photo. As with his other books, he shows off his cleverness with double-entendre (ex. Thinking for a Change). I was more than satisfied with the descriptions of Alexander, the detailed timeline of his life and the development of his work, as well as his organizing the principals into ‘operational ideas’ which comprise the first two sections of the book. Mr. Gelb repeatedly makes it known that it is essential to work with a qualified Alexander teacher as the book does leave one wanting something to practice. At one point he describes the “ultimate Alexander exercise” as picking up your phone and making a lesson appointment. In all fairness, there are questions designed to broaden ones awareness at the end of each chapter but the book is hardly a do-it-yourself guide- the primary focus seems to be on building awareness which is the first and arguably largest step.

In fact, I get the sense that Mr. Gelb may be intentionally leaving certain explanations vague as to let a teacher fill in the blanks with hand-on experience (the best way to learn the work). He moves very quickly through many concepts and one is left with a general idea of the technique without a lot of specifics about the inner workings, which again may be best for the beginner as it is somewhat well-known amongst Alexander teachers that a lot of theoretical knowledge of the technique can actually slow learning in the practical sense, the two must be cultivated together, organically.

The author sums up what is commonly known as the mind-body problem quite concisely by stating, “[so long as we keep in mind that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.] Most personality problems are the result of conflict between these parts. Our bodies tell us one thing, our thoughts another and our emotions yet another (for example, I want to eat some cake; no, I shouldn’t, I’ll get fat; I feel guilty about eating, and so on.)” Another favorite quote of mine from the author illustrating that habits are always there but we can choose not to indulge, “I use to be characterized by a raised chest, tight stomach, set jaw, and hunched shoulders- the classic male defensive-aggressive posture. Now I am free to save this for special occasions!”

Mr. Gelb moves from the principals of the AT into a section “Learning how to Learn” which contains relevant ideas to the AT such as, how children so easily learn, fear, cultivating attention, experimentation, and non-interference vs effort. He then uses a number of illustrations of himself applying the principals of the technique to learning skills including: singing, juggling, teaching, riding a unicycle, speed reading, writing, running, swimming, public speaking, and Aikido. This is the best part of the book in my opinion as it shows the AT in action vs concepts out of context. While his explanations of the concepts earlier in the book are sometimes only adequate, the personal stories of his application of the technique are very useful and entertaining. The only exception to this being the section on Alexander work and organization change as he never bridges the gap between philosophical ideas and practical applications; although it is a cute look at the subject of organizational change through Alexander jargon, showing how organizations behave like organisms.

In Body Learning, Michael Gelb also manages to bring together most of the gems from many of the authoritative Alexander Technique texts; you would normally have to wade through many pages and chapters of dense writing to find these otherwise, and that’s asking a lot of someone who isn’t terribly invested in learning the technique. You could argue that this is the best aspect of the book, as many of the source materials are out of print and there is no shortage of explanations of the principles and applications of the work available nowadays, perhaps this was different when the book was written in 1981.

Overall, Body Learning is a worthwhile read to anyone interested in the Alexander Technique, even those with a lot of experience as the wonderful quotes, application descriptions, and pictures alone make it worth reading; it also makes a great gift to friends who are curious about the technique. The organization of the book also lends itself well to the group class setting as you can have a class per section in the book, giving the next section as homework to speed-up the understanding, and reduce the amount of time in class spent on explaining the concepts so you can get to the most important part- the hands-on work.

Can Laziness be a Virtue?

lazy3I have always held the belief that I am lazy. I procrastinate, spend more time watching TV than I should, and will often go to great lengths to avoid doing work that I don’t want to do.

Interestingly, in my efforts to avoid work I often end up doing more work in one form or another. One of my most recurrent habits around this is getting home and throwing my clothes on the floor because it feels like less work than putting them away, however I then have to go and pick them up later and inevitably have to wash them or iron them because I was avoiding the less labor intensive work upfront.

I often feel paralyzed, as so much of my mental processing power is being consumed by worrying about needing to do whatever the specific thing is, that I don’t have any room left for the task. The fear of the difficulty involved in the task, fear of the unknown in doing the task, fear of the unknown resulting from not doing the task, among others; also can be paralyzing. As a result of this, everything I do manage to accomplish suffers, not to mention the physical toll of the added stress.

My usual response to noticing these tendencies is to jump on my own case. In my mind it goes something like, “You lazy good for nothing! Get to work! You are worthless!” and so on- with many variations.

laziness - Just a derogatory word for efficiencyOne day I stumbled on a little “demotivational poster” (right). It is a picture of a doorstop still in the package, being used as a doorstop with the caption reading, “Laziness: Just a derogatory word for efficiency.” At first I thought it was simply funny and cute, but it got me curious about the nature of laziness as I have always strived for efficiency of movement in viola playing and I kind of liked the idea that I could change the way I framed my beliefs about myself; so I began investigating laziness.

The following excerpts are from the Wikipedia article on Laziness which I found fascinating and drove me to look deeper:

“Leonard Carmichael notes that “laziness is not a word that appears in the table of contents of most technical books on psychology… It is a guilty secret of modern psychology that more is understood about the motivation of thirsty rats and hungry pecking pigeons as they press levers or hit targets than is known about the way in which poets make themselves write poems or scientists force themselves into the laboratory when the good golfing days of spring arrive.”

“Frédéric Bastiat argues that idleness is the result of people focusing on the pleasant immediate effects of their actions rather than potentially negative long-term consequences.”

“Hal Cranmer writes, “For all these arguments against laziness, it is amazing we work so hard to achieve it. Even those hard-working Puritans were willing to break their backs every day in exchange for an eternity of lying around on a cloud and playing the harp. Every industry is trying to do its part to give its customers more leisure time.”

Going back to the “demotivational poster,” there was a silver lining in my version of laziness: The desire to accomplish tasks with minimal effort/maximum efficiency. This sounds quite Alexandrian to me, and F.M. was far from what I would consider lazy.

So I set out to define laziness in my own terms and this is what I came up with:

Laziness is a misconception of the method/process of least work required to complete a specific task. This often leads to extra work because associated with this misconception is the temptation to skip steps in an attempt to gain the result.

Taking a look at the definition of work is helpful in understanding this concept.

Work = Force x Distance (W=Fd)

If we skip steps that we later have to complete, we are increasing the distance it takes to get from the beginning to the end of any given task. Let’s look at a very basic example. Say we need to get from A to D and the distance between each letter is 1 distance unit. If we take the most direct route it will look like this:

A – B – C – D = Distance of 3

But if we skip B and we must move linearly, it will look something like this:

A – (skipped B) – C – B – C – D = Distance of 5

Anyone who has forgotten to pick up milk on the way home has experienced this. We do it to ourselves frequently and often subconsciously. When this happens we dramatically increase the work needed to get from A to D; in the above example: W=Fx3 vs W=Fx5.

While we are still looking at work (W=Fd), it’s important to note that excessive force also significantly increases work. Let’s say we are trying twice as hard as necessary to get from point A to point B; it would look something like W=(Fx2)d vs W=Fd.

I soon discovered that my personal definitions of laziness were at odds with one another. On one hand was essentially work avoidance and on the other was striving for efficiency. These two mix like oil and water. You can’t be efficient if you do no work. You can only increase efficiency in a system where there is an abundance of force, otherwise you must add force to the equation.

This made complete sense in relation to my physical patterns of use. I’m a slumper and need to do what feels like more work than my habit to be upright. In reality I have a habit of pulling myself down which is more work than supporting my spine in natural upright, but my perception is that being upright is more work.

lazy2Work avoidance feels good in the moment because we faultily perceive efficiency. This is one of many examples of how what Alexander described as faulty sensory awareness (or debauched kinesthesia) is deeply rooted in our belief systems and behaviors (and it’s a two way street).

Perhaps most interesting; whenever I do get around to the task at hand I almost always find that however difficult I anticipated the activity being, it’s never that bad; and I am often pleasantly surprised by how fun it is to do work when I approach it with the right mental attitude (one of curiosity).

A note about procrastination: Sometimes even when I want to do a task desperately I often forget to do it. I have found forgetfulness to be a defense mechanism to avoid painful experiences. The tasks I most often forget are the ones that I anticipate will cause me mental or physical anguish (even if those fears are not based in reality). At this point it’s generally helpful to tell myself that it’s okay to be afraid, and ask, “Is there really anything to be afraid of?”

This essay came out of a question I asked myself, “Can laziness be a virtue?” I believe the answer is yes if we change our definition of laziness from work avoidance and create the following conditions:

1) Inhibit the desire to avoid work. 

You can’t get something from nothing, so unless your desire is to do nothing you must do work. It is interesting that the world’s major religions strongly warn against laziness in the form of work avoidance.

From Wikipedia:

One of the seven deadly sins in Catholic thought is sloth, which is often defined as spiritual and/or physical apathy or laziness.

In Buddhism, the term kausīdya is commonly translated as “laziness” or “spiritual sloth”. Kausīdya is defined as clinging to unwholesome activities such as lying down, procrastinating, and not being enthusiastic about or engaging in virtuous activity.

The Arabic term used in the Quran for laziness, inactivity, and sluggishness is kَsَl‎ (Arabic: كَسَل‎.). The opposite of laziness is Jihad al-Nafs (Arabic: النضال ضد الذات), i.e. the struggle against the self, against one’s own ego.

2) Hone your skills of perception to the point that you can tell the difference between required work and unnecessary work.

We must check in with others to sharpen our own skills of perception, as reality it relative. Don’t be so sure of yourself that you are not open to being wrong about your views of yourself and the world around you. Don’t be afraid to do the wrong thing in an effort to find the right. Find an Alexander teacher!

3) Properly conceptualize the activity and strive for efficiency (remove what is unnecessary).

Once you discover the extra things you are doing, stop doing them. F.M. once said, “When you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.” Strive to do less in any given activity (while still honoring the requirements of the task); repeat. In this way, laziness can become a virtue.