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to unre¬‚ective habit, so that one can consciously do with one™s body what
one really wants to do. Such freedom is not a native gift but an acquired
skill involving mastery of inhibitory control as well as positive action. As
Dewey puts it, “True spontaneity is henceforth not a birth-right but the
last term, the consummated conquest, of an art “ the art of conscious
control,” an art involving “the unconditional necessity of inhibition of
customary acts, and the tremendous mental dif¬culty found in not ˜doing™
something as soon as an habitual act is suggested” (MW11:352; LW6:318).
These inhibitory dif¬culties, which he ¬rst came to recognize through his
Alexander training, Dewey described as “the most humiliating experience
of [his] life, intellectually speaking” (LW6:318).
Inhibition™s crucial role in freedom ¬nds more recent support from
experimental studies in neuroscience (introduced by Benjamin Libet)
showing that motor action depends on neurological events that occur
before our conscious awareness of deciding to make a movement, even
though we feel that our conscious decision is what initiated the move-
ment.20 One experiment shows that, on average, 350 milliseconds (ms)
before the subjects were conscious of deciding, or having an urge, to ¬‚ick

20 See Benjamin Libet, “Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will
in Voluntary Action,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8 (1985): 529“66, quotations from
529, 536; “The Neural Time-Factor in Perception, Volition, and Free Will,” Revue de
M´taphysique et de Morale, 2 (1992): 255“272; “Do We Have Free Will?” Journal of Con-
e
sciousness Studies, 6 (1999): 47“57; “Can Conscious Experience Affect Brain Activity?”
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10 (2003): 24“28; and P. Haggard and B. Libet, “Con-
scious Intention and Brain Activity,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (2001): 47“63.
Body Consciousness
198

their wrists, their brains were already engaged in preparing the motor pro-
cesses of making the movement (such brain activity known as “readiness
potential”). It then took an average of about 200 milliseconds from the
conscious decision to perform the movement to the actual act of moving,
of which time, just before the ¬‚ick, there is up to about 50 milliseconds of
neural activity descending from the motor cortex to the wrist. If voluntary
acts of movement are indeed initiated “by special unconscious cerebral
processes that begin . . . before the appearance of conscious intention,”
then how can we speak of conscious control of movement and conscious
exercise of free will? Libet, however, af¬rms such conscious voluntary pow-
ers, precisely through our inhibitory ability to “veto” that act between its
conscious awareness and actual implementation: “the ¬nal decision to
act could still be consciously controlled during the 150 ms or so remain-
ing after the conscious intention appears” and before its “motor perfor-
mance.” Free will, on this account, amounts essentially to a free “won™t.”
Though the general concept of voluntary action and free will should
not be limited to this inhibitory model (with its focus on unsituated
“abstract” experimental movements and a razor time-slice of 150 ms for
decision), Libet™s ¬ndings lend scienti¬c support to Alexander™s empha-
sis on inhibition for exercising conscious constructive control in motor
performance.
Not only essential in restraining problematic habits, inhibition is also
necessary for the very effectiveness of somatic re¬‚ection that allows us to
observe our behavior accurately so that we can inhibit the problematic
habit and replace it with a superior mode of response. We cannot reliably
change our actions if we do not really know what we are actually doing,
yet most of us are very unaware of our habitual modes of bodily behavior.
Which foot do you use when taking your ¬rst step in walking; which of
your legs bears the most weight in standing; on which buttock do you
more heavily rest in sitting; where do you initiate the action of reaching
to pick up a cup “ in your hand, elbow, shoulder joint, pelvis, head?
We are not at all inclined to pay attention to such things, because as
active creatures striving to survive and ¬‚ourish within an environment,
our sustained attention is habitually directed primarily to other things
in that environment that affect our projects rather than to our bodily
parts, movements, and sensations. For good evolutionary reasons, we are
habituated to respond directly to external events rather than analyze our
inner feelings; to act rather than to carefully observe, to reach impulsively
for our ends rather than holding back to study the bodily means at our
disposal. Inhibitory power is therefore needed even to break our habits
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 199

of attending to other things so that we can sustain a focus on re¬‚ective
somatic consciousness.
Such consciousness can better discern underlying somatic sensations
and unnoticed movements when it is free from the in¬‚uence of effort-
ful action, since such action (like any strong stimulus) provides its own
strong sensations that raise the threshold needed for other somatic factors
to be detected. This point, articulated in the Weber-Fechner law of psy-
chophysics, is obvious from ordinary experience. We hear sounds in the
silence of night that we cannot detect in the noisy bustle of rush hour. It is
much harder to notice the slight pressure of the hat you are wearing as you
vigorously shovel snow than when you are calmly at rest. The same prin-
ciple underlies zazen meditation. Performed while simply sitting quietly
(and thus often characterized by its masters as “just sitting” “ shikan taza),
its position of tranquil absence of effortful, end-seeking action allows one
to concentrate more clearly, ¬xedly, and exclusively on one™s breathing
and thus cease the mind™s habits of associative thinking.21 Of course,
zazen paradoxically requires its own effort of concentration and mind-
ful inhibitory control to achieve its meditative activity of inaction that
master D¯ gen describes as “sitting ¬xedly, think of not thinking,” just as
o
Alexander work involves effortful thinking about not acting.22 Inhibition
is especially dif¬cult when dealing with thoughts of action, since the very
thought of an action naturally tends to elicit that action.
How exactly does the Alexander Technique deploy inhibition in its
reconstruction of habits and mastery of conscious control? Its distinctive
educational use of inhibition is not directed only narrowly to the par-
ticular action of misuse that needs correcting but is instead instilled as
a general principle that can be applied also to other actions and thus
globally guides the proper use of self that the teacher wishes to instill in
the student. Take the case of a golfer who habitually takes his eye off the
ball by lifting his head. His Alexander teacher will not simply tell him to
inhibit his head lifting and ask him to swing while inhibiting that lifting.
She will instead instruct him positively about how to position his neck and
head when swinging and then tell him that when she subsequently gives
him these guiding orders to hold himself in that way when swinging, “he
must not attempt to carry them out”; “on the contrary, he must inhibit the


21 As D¯ gen puts it, “to seek the pearl [of enlightenment], we should still the waves” because
o
¯
the pearl will be hard to see in turbulent water. See Dogen™s Manuals of Zen Meditation,
trans. Carl Bielefeldt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 183.
22 Ibid., 181.
Body Consciousness
200

desire to do so in the case of each and every order which is given to him” (CCC,
152“153). Rather than react in the commanded way, the student “must
instead project the guiding orders as given to him whilst his teacher,
at the same time, by means of manipulation, will make the required
head readjustments and bring about the necessary co-ordinations, in this
way performing for the pupil the particular movement or movements
required, and giving him the new reliable sensory appreciation and the
very best opportunity possible to connect the different guiding orders
before attempting to put them into practice” (CCC, 153).
This method, moreover, trains the student more deeply and extensively
to inhibit the tendency of direct “end-gaining” that encourages bad habits
and is so detrimental to self-observation and self-use, while instilling in
its place the habit “of attending instead to the means whereby this ˜end™
can be attained” (CCC, 153; cf. US, 28“33). By asking the student to
rehearse but not to follow the guiding orders, the teacher also diminishes
the performance anxiety of the student who in most cases will have a habit
of feeling psychologically pressured when asked to perform any end of
movement that is assigned to him by his teacher, who in the context of
instruction is an authority ¬gure. Relaxed from the demand to perform,
the student can better concentrate calmly on the postural means and
how they feel when the teacher provides them to the student through
her physical manipulations. Through this attentive training he will even-
tually learn how to project to himself these guiding orders or means. Once
these directions seem suf¬ciently digested, the teacher will then instruct
the student that the guiding orders can be responded to through actual
performance of the act commanded. The student will then continue to
project the guiding directions to himself but at the same time will pause
for a critical moment of decision on the basis of which he would either
implement the action as directed, or refrain from it, or would instead per-
form a completely different action, all the while projecting the guiding
directions. In this way, “the means whereby” can be clearly distinguished,
pursued, and appreciated as a (provisional) goal or end rather than
being totally subordinated to the initial end of action, preoccupation with
which encourages the bad “end-gaining” habits that foster misuse of the
self.
Based on his own experience of self-transformation and his subsequent
work with others, Alexander claims the initial focus for such training of
postural coordination should be in the head and neck area. For it is there
he identi¬es the “primary control of the use of the self, which governs the
working of all the mechanisms and so renders the control of the complex
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 201

human organism comparatively simple.” “This primary control,” Alexan-
der continues, “depends upon a certain use of the head and neck in
relation to the use of the rest of the body, and once the pupil has inhibited
the instinctive misdirection leading to his faulty habitual use, the teacher
must begin the process of building up the new use by giving the pupil
the primary direction towards the establishment of this primary control”
(US, 32). As explained above, the pupil will then project this direction
but not act on it; instead, he will let the teacher™s hands bring about the
corresponding desired posture or movement which “though unfamiliar
at ¬rst, will become familiar with repetition” (ibid.). Once this primary
control is established, the fundamental key to coordination has been
achieved, so the teacher can then give further directions to the pupil
(e.g., how to use his wrists in swinging). But the pupil “must keep the primary
direction going, while he projects” these secondary directions “and while
the teacher brings about the corresponding activity” (US, 33). As long
as the primary control is maintained, Alexander asserts, the individual
will be able to use himself more consciously and skillfully, thus enabling
him to learn with greater speed and ease whatever speci¬c modes of
somatic “means whereby” he or his teacher discovers. The insistent focus
on the primary control is why the Alexander Technique does not deploy
the body scan, since focusing elsewhere would be “detracting from the
primary control, namely, monitoring the head-neck relation.”23
Alexander equated “this primary control” with Rudolph Magnus™s
important discovery (in 1924) of an anatomical “central control” in the
brain (US, 32) that governed the righting re¬‚ex and all other re¬‚ex
postural coordinations, a mechanism Magnus called the Zentralapparat.24
Though having frequently emphasized the importance of head and neck
posture in his earlier work, Alexander had not used the term “primary


23 Though I noticed this from my own experience with Alexander work, I am quoting in
con¬rmation from an e-mail message (March 26, 2003) from Galen Cranz, an Alexander
practitioner who also inquired for me among her colleagues. Cranz is the author of a ¬ne
book, The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design (New York: Norton, 2000), which
applies Alexander™s principles to provide a rigorous critical analysis of this common
instrument of sitting, which though seeming so innocent can be surprisingly injurious to
our posture and health.
24 Rudolph Magnus, K¨rperstellung (Berlin: Springer, 1924). Alexander did not know Ger-
o
man and had to rely on explanations and translations from his medical friends for his
impression of this book, which was not published in English translation until 1987 as Body
Posture: Experimental-Physiological Investigations of the Re¬‚exes Involved in Body Posture, Their
Cooperation and Disturbances (Spring¬eld, VA: National Technical Information Service,
1987). My parenthetical page references are to this English edition, hereafter K.
Body Consciousness
202

control” until Magnus™s theory became well known. He thus may have
introduced this term precisely to give his own theory more scienti¬c cred-
ibility through identi¬cation with Magnus™s research, of which he never
demonstrated a substantive understanding. Dewey, always concerned with
the scienti¬c respectability of Alexander™s work, was keen to endorse this
identi¬cation, while also suggesting that Alexander™s discovery was prior
and more powerfully potent through its personally experienced knowledge.
“Magnus proved by means of what may be called external evidence the
existence of a central control in the organism. But Mr. Alexander™s tech-
nique gave a direct and intimate con¬rmation in personal experience of
the fact of central control long before Magnus carried on his investiga-
tions. And one who has had experience of the technique knows it through
the series of experiences which he himself has. The genuinely scienti¬c
character of Mr. Alexander™s teaching and discoveries can be safely rested
upon this fact alone” (LW6:317).
Magnus de¬nes the Zentralapparat as “a complicated central nervous
apparatus that governs the entire body posture in a coordinated manner”
and that is located “in the brain stem, from the upper cervical cord to
the midbrain . . . This is the apparatus on which the cerebral cortex plays,
as complicated melodies are played on a piano” (K, 653). It provides, in
other words, the basis of unre¬‚ective postural stability and re¬‚ex coor-
dination that enables the higher purposive action that “can be carried
out only when the cerebrum is intact” (K, 4). There are obvious resem-
blances between Alexander™s notion of primary control and Magnus™s
Zentralapparat, for both focus on the head and neck area and serve as
a primary coordinative control on which further coordinative behavior
needs to be based. But there are also clear differences between the two
notions. Magnus identi¬es an anatomical mechanism in the brain stem,
while Alexander is speaking of a behavioral use of holding a certain postu-
ral relation between the head and neck and the rest of the body. Magnus™s
control is concerned with automatic, unthinking re¬‚exes, while Alexander™s
is instead a function of re¬‚ective conscious control that highlights rational
thinking, distinctively conscious inhibition, and methodical awareness of
one™s will in deliberative action, all of which go beyond the Zentralapparat
because they require the intact cerebral cortex.25


25 Magnus notes that without an intact cerebral cortex, an animal with a functional Zentralap-

parat can right itself, walk instinctively, and give re¬‚ex responses to external stimuli but
cannot initiate voluntary action, which Magnus calls “spontaneous movements”; “external
stimuli are required every time to set the animal in motion” (K 4).
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection 203


IV
Discomforts of Alexander™s Postural Theory
Though never seriously engaging the research of Magnus and other sci-
entists, Alexander™s work was touted by Dewey as cognitively superior to
theirs because it treats the whole live organism in real-life situations “ that
is, “ordinary conditions of living “ rising, sitting, walking, standing, using
arms, hands, voice, tools, instruments of all kinds,” while physiologists
study isolated body parts or actions in “arti¬cial” laboratory conditions.
In the same way, the anatomist™s mere theoretical knowledge of mus-
cle coordination is contrasted with Alexander™s concrete performable
expertise of achieving and teaching coordination, which, Dewey claims,
is knowledge “in the full and vital sense of that word” (LW6:316“317).
This defense, however, does not vindicate Alexander™s failure to seriously
address current science pertaining to posture, movement, and mind.
There is no reason why a practical, experiential somatic approach cannot
also express, explain, and enrich itself by usefully deploying the best of
contemporary scienti¬c knowledge, as we ¬nd, for example, in the work

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