Living the Questions - Part II / by Ariel Carson

In Part I of this series we explored how real change necessitates moving toward the unknown; how moving toward the unknown is inherently vulnerable; and how in our culture, living in the vulnerability of the unknown is associated with weakness rather than strength.

In this post I aim to introduce how the Alexander Technique has given me an embodied framework to feel safe, free, and strong as I look to embrace change daily, and am therefore consistently moving toward and living in the unknown.

But full disclosure -- I almost didn’t write this post.

Trying to explain the Alexander Technique to someone who has never experienced it is like trying to describe the color red to a blind person. The Alexander Technique is an experientially based hands-on technique, and if you have any interest, I recommend you find yourself a certified teacher for a series of lessons before you read any further. You can’t change what you don’t know, and having a certified teacher help you become aware of what you may be missing, in order to guide you in a new direction, expedites the process of change for yourself.

That said I’ve given it my best go, because these concepts are important to me, and have helped me find some semblance of peace in this wild and crazy time.


Safety First

In order to feel free and strong in the unknown i.e. the future, we must first feel safe in the present. How do we do that? Many of us exist as though we are under constant threat. This may have been the case one or many times in our past, but is it the case right now?

Feel the ground underneath you in this moment. Let your eyes take in the light, shadows, and colors of the space around you. Hear the sounds near you, and those far, far away. Now ask yourself, “Am I under threat right now in this exact moment, or am I safe?” Notice how your mind-body may be holding on to the idea that you are not safe right now. Is your neck tight? Are you holding your breath? Are your toes and feet pulling away from the ground?

As you continue to ask the question of yourself, “Am I safe in this exact moment?” if the answer is yes, see if you can let every cell and molecule of your body know that this is so. As your mind-body begins to understand and believe that message, see if you can allow yourself to further open into the support of the ground, and to allow yourself to notice even more of the space with your eyes.

If you begin anticipating the future, notice how that affects your body, and come back to the question, “Am I safe, am I okay, in this exact moment?” When you regularly practice cultivating a sense of safety in the present moment, before you know it, the present becomes what was once the future, and you are moving into what was formerly unknown without any of your preconceived anticipatory notions about what threatening experience you assumed was around the corner.

Freedom through Beginner’s Mind–Body–Self

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
— Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki

Those of us familiar with Zen Buddhism likely know the concept of Beginner’s Mind also called Shoshin.

Beginner's Mind refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. (source: Wikipedia)


In the Alexander Technique we extend this attitude from our thoughts to our entire mind-body-selves in any activity. Approaching how we do what we do with fresh eyes every time we do it, allows space for fresh solutions to emerge. Where we were once ruled by habit, or an assumption that there was only one way to be, now there’s a whole world of choice. And when we consciously make new choices, or at least are aware that there are choices to be made instead of just inevitable outcomes, this gives us a sense of freedom.

For example, in one of my first experiences with the Alexander Technique, I did an exercise where I observed how I moved to pick up a ringing phone. After a round of self-observation, my teacher helped me become aware of and release unconscious and excess tension in my body, and I was asked to repeat the activity of answering the phone applying her specific suggestions. The difference between the first and second rounds was revolutionary. In the second round I experienced an entirely new sense of effortlessness.  If I had said, “Listen lady I’m pretty sure I already know how to pick up a phone. I do it all the time,” I never would have known that degree of freedom in my mind-body-self was possible.



Strength in Embodied Non-Attachment

A problem cannot be solved by the same consciousness that created it.
— Einstein

We aid our Beginner’s Mind-Body-Self when we release attachment to having the right answers and assuming we know the “right way” of doing things. When we assume we know what we’re doing, we become attached to one way of doing it. It becomes a habit, and we take for granted that there are many ways to complete a given task until we run into problems that necessitate change, for instance pain and injury, or overwhelming stress and anxiety.   

Think of a time you knew with every fiber of your being you were right about something. Now notice how you feel in your body. Our attachment to doing something the right way has physical correlates.

So if change is what we want, in order to have a new experience, we have to let go of exactly how we’re going to go from point A to point B, and let go of our preconceptions about what point B looks like. We also make space for what we may have formerly deemed failure along the way. We re-frame it simply as more information for this journey we call life, and we are strengthened because we aren’t afraid of getting things wrong. We’re no longer restricted by and frozen in our attempts to be perfect. 


Try this:

  • Without any preconceived notions, micromanaging, or planning, send a message to your neck and shoulder muscles to release or quiet down.
  • Send the message again and allow whatever wants to happen, happen, without trying to make it happen.
  • Send the message again and see what happens without worrying about how to do it, or how to get it right.

Every time we use our minds to send a message to our bodies, we consciously pause, and in this pause we leave space for the "not knowing". I want to release my neck, but I'm going to allow myself not to know how that's going to happen. I just send the message and see what transpires. Because if I plan or anticipate or micromanage the release of my neck I will inevitably be feeding old and familiar habits. Leaving space for the not knowing creates space for a new release and muscular organization to occur.

These are some of the primary concepts we learn to embody in the Alexander Technique. We practice feeling safe and supported in the present moment; we allow ourselves not to know how to do something, and let go of trying to get things right. And then we practice the most basic activities like sitting, standing, lying down, and maybe a little walking. Over time as our process deepens, and we learn more of how these principles manifest in our whole selves, we can apply these principles to anything.   

Example: There’s a foreign object on the floor of the hallway I walk through frequently. If I’m aware of the hallway in the present moment as it’s unfolding instead of what it’s usually like, or what I assume it to be, I’m more likely to spot the object and avoid tripping over it.  

Example: I don’t know how my boss will react when I ask them for a raise. So throughout my whole mind-body-self I’m going to practice feeling safe, let go of preconceptions about how they are going to react, and not be attached to them reacting any particular way.

But if we leave space for not knowing, then how can we tell if we’re headed in a good direction? How can we be confident in the actions we take? If real change means we must not know or be attached to the answers, then how can we get anywhere? After all, what we don't want is "embracing the unknown" to mean we all just sit here like motionless blobs waiting for someone else to take action. 

Keep your eyes peeled for my next post on how the Alexander Technique gives us structure within the freedom of not knowing.

As always your comments are welcome below.