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Human Activity ~ Watching and Wondering


Pamela Blanc

Presented at the 2011 International Congress for the Alexander Technique
Published in the Congress papers, 2012

This Continual Learning workshop, meeting for an hour and a half on two consecutive days, was inspired by two quotes.

I had these quotes printed in large type on single pieces of paper to display (post in
front of room) for the group to read and I used them and kept them up to be referred to.

“Human activity is primarily a process of reacting unceasingly to stimuli received from within or without the self.”

F.M. Alexander The Use of the Self
Centerline Press, April 1984 [1932], p 42

“We discovered that the therapy (Alexander Technique) is based on exceptionally sophisticated observation, not only by means of vision but also to a surprising extent by using the sense of touch.”

Niikolaas Tinbergen
Consulted July 2011

According to Tinbergen “the old method of ‘watching and wondering’ about behavior …can indeed contribute to the relief of human suffering – in particular of suffering caused by stress.”  He emphasizes the importance of open-minded observation.

Reading Tinbergen’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in which he praised F.M. Alexander for his “old method of ‘watching and wondering,’ stimulated my thinking.

Was I observing my own behavior from this perspective of wondering, of being curious? Was I encouraging this quality of observation in my students’ learning process? Was I primarily observing myself solely on a physical level?

According to Alexander “the so-called “mental” and “physical” are not separate entities.”

F.M. Alexander The Use of the Self
Centerline Press, April 1984 [1932], p 5

I began to observe myself more closely in semi-supine.  I began to observe my whole self, not just my physical or my mental but my whole self.  For me, this includes physical, mental, and emotional. I now call it Active Rest (Blanc, The Congress Papers, From Generation to Generation, Volume 1, 2008)

The intention of this workshop was to:
Revisit an aspect of F.M.’s process ~ self-observation
Ask questions and be curious
Stimulate our thinking & explore ways of working on ourselves as
Cultivate these skills in our students
Improve our own hands-on teaching


I asked the Continual Learning workshop participants to pair up.  One laid down in semi-supine and the other observed. The point of focus was to be curious; to watch and wonder; to observe, as much as possible about themselves without judgment.  I talked them through the process of Active Rest (see hand out below).


“Watching & Wondering”

10 Minutes – Lying down on your back, with knees bent, and a book under your head for support.
The process: 
Observation of your Self (physically, mentally, emotionally)
Observe how your body is in contact with the floor.
(Scan 9 points of contact-your head/shoulders/2 sides of pelvis/2 elbows/2 feet).  Verbalize out loud
Observe what thought(s) is dominating your thinking.
Verbalize it.
Then ask is it conducive to your best use or does it interfere with your best use?
Put this thought(s) in a box labeled “curiosity”-be curious that you are thinking this thought.
Observe what is dominating your emotions.  Name it.
Is it conducive to your best use or does it interfere with your best use? Know that emotions, like thoughts, pass through us.  We are not our emotions or our thoughts. 
Inhibition – The space between stimulus and response; the
space in which you have an opportunity to make a choice. Choose to set aside the above thoughts & emotions while you proceed with your 10 minutes of Active Rest. In Neuroscience inhibition refers to messages sent from the brain to prevent/stop muscular excitation.
Direction – F.M. Alexander, “…the process involved in
projecting messages from the brain …and conducting the energy necessary…” 
Begin to give your Self directions by thinking of allowing your neck to be free of any unnecessary tension, to allow your head to release away from your spine, to allow your back to release into length and width, to allow your knees to release away from your hips and to allow your feet to be
present on the floor.  Repeat this. – Allow your thinking to both circulate your energy and to stop unnecessary excitation of your musculature.
Towards the end of your Active Rest spend a few moments facilitating your exhalations by whispering an Ah until the exhalation is easily completed.  Choose not to “take” in the next breath but rather allow the breath to arrive.  Repeat this a few times.

Make a decision to complete your Active Rest.  Come to standing observing the relationship of your head/neck/back. 

© 1998, 2011

Let me explain here it is very important to understand that we are only observing ourselves:  observation of ones body touching the floor; observation of ones thoughts; observation of ones emotions. 

I am not suggesting or encouraging wiggling the body, replacing the thought with another thought, or changing the emotion!  I am only suggesting that we observe these things as part of the whole.  Do not try to fix it, find a solution, or substitute something in its place.  Simply ‘watch and wonder,’ observe yourself and verbalize what you observe.  Putting it into words seems to take it to a more conscious level. 

Point of clarification:  I do not ask my students to say their thoughts/emotions out loud to me.  I ask them to silently make a sentence stating the thought and then silently identify the emotion.  The point is they are learning to observe themselves not tell me, the teacher, what is on their mind.  I ask my students to do Active Rest at home on a daily basis.  In their home practice I encourage them to say their observations out loud.  And, if for example, they observe their emotion to be one of anxiety, I ask them to put it on a scale of 1-10.  Is this anxiety at a 10 or is it perhaps a 3? Then, be curious.  Isn’t it curious when I have this thought, I experience anxiety at this level.  This is what that level of anxiety is like in my system. 

Then they begin to give themselves their directions, including those of inhibition.  Observing.  ‘Watching and wondering.’  Our process is to calm the system by means of conscious inhibition and direction, not to fix it.  I cannot emphasize this too much.  Our process is to calm the system by means of conscious inhibition and direction, not to fix it.

Partners then changed places.  After all had the experience, they walked around the room ‘watching and wondering.’  Perspectives were changing. 

Participants shared their experiences and I encouraged them to go through the same process when they were sitting or standing. 

I then shared and posted the following quotes:

“When the Use of the Self was first published in 1932, the British Medical Journal called it a classic; a classic of scientific observation.”

Dr. Wilfred Barlow in introduction to The Use of the Self 1985 edition

“In The Use of the Self we find not only a very special type of self observation but also the willingness to question our preconceptions and to realize that what seemed right yesterday, might not be right today.”

Dr. Wilfred Barlow in introduction to The Use of the Self 1985 edition

After we exchanged our thoughts from the morning experiences, I gave them this overview of what we would be considering during our two mornings together.

Things to consider:
Exceptionally sophisticated observation
A willingness to question our preconceptions
Watching and wondering
Reacting to stimuli
Stress – Is it the stimulus or our response to it?
Giving and withholding consent

I encouraged them to do Active Rest at least one time between the end of today’s class and the start of tomorrow’s class.

On the second morning we began by reflecting on how the first morning influenced their thinking.  Individuals reported that they thought about the process during the plenary session, i.e. what was dominating her thinking, what was she observing about herself?  Another said it took him to a new level of self-awareness and saw great benefits.

I suggested the participants consider holding the question in mind: 
Is there a distinction to be made between awareness and self-observation?

Then, I asked them all to lay down in semi-supine and I talked them through the Active Rest process. This is their second time in two days to experience it and they are growing more familiar with ‘watching and wondering’ “what is dominating their thinking” and “what is dominating their emotions,” as well as how their bodies are in touch with the floor.

We then did the process while sitting. 

Then I posted the following:

F.M.’s Procedure

~ Inhibit any immediate response to the stimulus

~ Consciously project the directions for the
“primary control”

~ While continuing to project these directions,
make a fresh decision whether or not to respond to the stimulus

~ Respond, continuing to project the directions.

Source unknown, (1970s USA) paraphrases F.M. Alexander
The Use of the Self, Centerline Press, April 1984 [1932], p 33

We then played what I call the ‘Alexander Game’ – I gave them a stimulus, i.e. to raise their right arm and they thought through the above procedure before doing the act.  I suggested various stimuli for them to respond to.  Then I invited one of them to give the group a stimulus.  This went on quite pleasantly for 15 minutes or so with examples of stimuli being:  turn your head to the left, raise your left arm, stand up, move a foot.

Then I asked the participants to pair up again with one sitting in a chair as ‘student’ and the other standing beside the chair as ‘teacher.’

I suggested that we would do the ‘Alexander Game’ by having the ‘teacher’ give their ‘student’ a stimulus to respond to, i.e. lifting an arm.  But, stopping them before they even began, I asked them to consider Active Rest, i.e. what did they observe about what part of them was touching the floor/chair; what did they observe were their thoughts (in the role of student or teacher); what did they observe were their emotions; pause; give directions; do a whispered ah.

Then play the “Alexander Game” with your ‘student.’

Partners exchanged roles, ‘teacher’ became ‘student’ and ‘student’ became ‘teacher’ and we had another go at it.   Now they were layering one on top of the other their own self-observations as well as giving and receiving stimuli by means of F.M.’s procedure.

We ended the class with them sharing their experiences with each other, enjoying the process of ‘responding to stimuli’ and ‘watching and wondering.’

Other quotes I shared and posted the second day were:

“You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.”

F.M. Alexander Articles and Lectures,
Mouritz Press, 1995, Teaching Aphorisms, p.207

“Living up to the work; Not an easy task.”

Marjory Barlow An Examined Life,
Mornum Time Press, 2002, p.unknown

“During our training with Marjory Barlow she often said to us, “If you haven’t taught your pupils to work on themselves you have failed as a teacher.”

Adam and Rosemary Nott
Afterword, Alexander Technique: the Ground Rules
Marjory Barlow in Conversation with Sean Carey, 2011

“There is so much to be seen when one reaches the point of being able to see, and the experience makes the meat it feeds on.”

F.M. Alexander Articles and Lectures,
Mouritz Press, 1995, Teaching Aphorisms, p.205

“You can observe a lot by watching.” 

Yogi Berra, American Baseball Player/Catcher 1950s
Consulted July 2011

“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice.  

And, because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change until we notice how our failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

Scottish Psychiatrist, 1927-1989

Participants shared how insightful and useful this approach to working on themselves was.  It stimulated their thinking and gave them ideas of how to work more effectively with their own students and the importance of teaching the skill of self-observation.