On wanting to be different by staying the same.

Whenever we have a problem or symptom our immediate feeling is usually that we would simply like it to stop. Even if we are conscious that there are things we are doing which are contributing to it, a lot of the time what we really hope for—deep down—is that there is something we can do to make it go away so that we can carry on just as we were before. In other words we want to change so long as we don’t have to be different! That’s understandable, but unfortunately things are rarely that simple—we are wholes, and all the parts and aspects of us are linked and work together. A specific problem is often a surface manifestation of a much bigger pattern. Even if we get rid of the symptom that is bothering us, the fundamental cause will still be there and will eventually cause the problem to recur, or a different one to appear in its place.

It’s human nature that when people come to Alexander lessons often part of them is determined to hang on to the way of being which is at the root of the symptoms which have brought them there. We love what is familiar and hate to let it go because it feels safe. “I will do anything”, they think, “so long as it does not involve giving up my favourite habit.” 

I once had a pupil who was a very ‘driven’ type of person. He came to have lessons after many years of working his way up the corporate ladder and was feeling stressed and overwhelmed; in addition his hands had started to hurt from typing and he was worried they would get so bad he wouldn’t be able to do his job anymore. As a result of his worry he was having trouble sleeping. I worked with him lying down for a bit and suggested that, at least during the lesson, he stopped trying to get things right or to achieve anything at all and that he just allow things to quieten down. We carried on in silence for a little while. “How do you feel?”, I asked after some twenty minutes had passed. He looked surprised: “Really good! I feel quite different, calmer and relaxed”. And it was true: a quality of peace and quiet awareness had entered the room.

But then this energy changed. He started to ask for concrete things to do once he had left the lesson—he wanted to know what he could busy himself with to hang on to the lovely feeling of relaxation. I suggested that this desire to be busy and occupied with things to do all the time was a big part of the reason why he was so stressed and tense, and that since overdoing things was one reason he was there, maybe just to be gently thinking about doing less and letting go a little would be a good place to start. But his lifelong habit was to address any problem by frenetic activity. He wanted something to do, whereas what he actually most needed in order to solve his problem was to STOP. But any approach to solving a problem that did not involve busy activity felt wrong to him, and because his problem had become so distressing, doing what felt wrong in relation to it was a frightening thought. 

We talked about this over several sessions but it was some time before he was willing to really try out what I was suggesting. Gradually he came to realise that his approach was self-contradictory. He wanted to relax by doing more and this doesn’t make sense! In time he found that the world didn’t end when he was able to let go of his need to be busy and in control at all times. He also found to his surprise that as he became more centred and relaxed in himself he achieved more, not less. 

A lot of the time when we are compulsively busy we are not accomplishing nearly as much as it feels that we are. Paradoxically as we do less of this we find that there is now more mental space (and more physical support from the body) to dedicate to achieving what we want. We also find that the habit which we felt was such a central part of ourselves is not really part of our core self at all, but is just something which we learned a long time ago and have since hung onto. Letting go of it we feel more like the person we really are.

So the bad news is that sometimes we really do need to let go of something we are attached to if we want to get rid of our symptoms. The good news is that letting go will benefit us in surprising and unexpected ways. It involves a shift in how we act in the world—and it’s absolutely worth it!