“Are you stressed? Are you so busy getting to the future that the present is reduced to a means of getting there?”
(Eckhart Tolle 'The Power of Now')
As our lives become more and more frenetic, many people are embracing 'Mindfulness' as a way of reducing stress. Computers, laptops, tablets and the ubiquitous mobile 'phone may facilitate our daily tasks but they also create and feed an insatiable need to be constantly available and 'connected' - to our friends, to the internet, to work. We may be able to react swiftly to whatever arises but how aware are we of what is happening around us - and within ourselves - as we respond? Are we freely choosing what we do as we chat, text, email, surf the web or rush from A to B? Or are we on auto-pilot, simply reacting to whatever comes our way? How connected are we really to our moment-by-moment experience?
One of the reasons that mindfulness is having such a profound impact is that there has been a great deal of scientific research into this (secular) form of meditation. A growing body of evidence now confirms the power of this particular practice to change lives. The pioneering work being done by Dr.Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts’ medical school has been to rigorously test this form of meditation and develop Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR.
So how and why should we practise being 'mindful'? And what does this have to do with the Alexander Technique?
Although they are different practices both mindfulness and the Alexander Technique share an approach in which awareness of ourselves in the present moment is cultivated to help reduce our ‘reactivity.’ Put simply, mindfulness is awareness.
One technique used in mindfulness meditation to develop awareness is through ‘scanning’ the body part by part. This is done in a non-judgmental way (that is, without mental commentary) scanning for sensations such as pressure, throbbing, tingling, pain, tension or even a neutral feeling. If the mind wanders – as it invariably will to think, to plan, to remember – then attention is gently returned, again and again, to the body. There is no intention or ‘goal’ to try and change the sensation, rather the practice is to observe and allow whatever is present.
This is similar to the Alexander Technique, in which we learn to notice where we are holding tension in the body but to say ‘no’ to it. During my training to become an Alexander Technique teacher one of our visiting tutors, Jean Clark, wore a T-shirt reading: ‘Mind the Gap’ beneath which were the words: ‘Between Stimulus and Response’. In both the Alexander Technique and mindfulness we learn to become patient observers of our own experience - of the self - in the midst of life’s myriad distractions (stimuli). In so doing we are able to create this ‘gap’ in our habitual thinking and have real (conscious) choices in how we respond rather than operating in a more knee-jerk and habitual way.
Through the process of observing ourselves in either practice we develop greater awareness of the present moment and are able - by indirect means - to change our habitual responses to situations, people or things. Each time we remember to bring our attention back to the breath or to the body, we strengthen the habit of mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation as a daily practice is a valuable complement to the Alexander Technique, itself a mindful practice! Both help us to observe our experience with an open curiosity and to choose consciously how we react to it.
As Buddhist monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana writes:
“Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices skilfully made lead to freedom.”
Sherborne Alexander Studio