Thursday, March 31, 2011

The key to peace within

The key to finding peace during panic and stressful situations is in being able to not react to our thoughts and feelings.

Like many people, I have known this and been striving for this for a long time.  But my personal experience with Missy Vineyard in Amherst, MA, has taught me this in a new way that convinces me more and more, every day, that it is true, and it really works when I practice it.

Once the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated and stress hormones, etc. are coursing through the bloodstream and panic is causing whirring thoughts, etc., the effects of that activation cannot be stopped.  The effects must be accepted ("karma" needs to be played out; "we reap what we sow"; "all actions have a consequence", etc.), and they simply need to be allowed to run their course through our system.  As psychophysically uncomfortable as it may be, this usually only takes about 15-20 minutes.

The wonderful thing is that it IS possible to turn off the spigot instantly, so that more of those stress chemicals don't get poured into our system.  We can observe and be aware of the effects and consciously choose to stop activating the SNS.  Instead, we can activate inhibitor neurons which send messages to other neurons to stop sending their stressful messages, through our mindful willpower.  Non-reacting "non-doing", although quite subtle and simple, is a very powerful activity!

The way to "do" it is to:
  • Recognize what is happening: there are natural causes for everything I am experiencing, and it's very far from being all my fault!
  • Remember that the pre-frontal cortex (PFC--the area forward and up in the brain, behind and above the forehead) is in charge of my body-mind-emotions, and am in charge of the PFC.  It IS possible for me to rise above this scenario and change the scene inside me, even if it doesn't happen instantly.
  • Observe physical sensations and emotions, but understand that reacting to them by dropping my awareness into lower areas of brain and body will impede my ability to change them, and the flow of negativity will continue on.
  • With forceful energy and quiet determination, I choose to stay forward & up in the PFC, observing the downward pull from above, but absolutely refusing to fall down into it again.  NO!!
  • I am separate from my body and emotions.  I feel both, but I am not reacting to that feeling.  All I'm doing is staying focused on keeping my awareness forward & up, and telling myself things like, "I feel _____, but I am not reacting to that," and simply, "I am not reacting," and I patiently let things work themselves out down below.  
  • I know that if I stop interfering with myself, "The right thing will do itself."

If changes need to occur in our outer situation, we will be much better equipped to effect positive change when our body is not experiencing SNS activation.  We will be able to see and consider various options, and then make the best choice from among them, when we are not being ruled by fear.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In the midst of heated conflict

I think most people wish they could be calmer when confronted with conflict.  I am always thrilled when my Alexander Technique skills help me deal with conflict in a more constructive, healthier way than I would have without them.

When aggressivity is flying and words are being hurled, it is natural for us to fall into the fight-flight-freeze ("startle") response, as an evolutionary form of self-protection--and also because we unconsciously tend to mirror what goes on around us in other people.  And yet, in most situations (especially when there is no real physical danger), the best response for our health as well as for improving our relationships is likely not to fight, not to flee, and not to freeze.  When we manage to inhibit the startle response, we can think more clearly and direct our responses with greater calm, using our rational minds.

Just now, I found myself as an actor on the set during the scene of a fairly typical domestic verbal conflict (we have two young boys).  I kept feeling my body gearing itself up to react by fighting, fleeing, or freezing, but my logic told me that none of those instinctual responses would serve me--or my family--best in the long run.  Luckily, I was not in a stressed state to begin with (inner stress always makes conscious responses more challenging when we're confronted by conflict), and I was able to successfully practice what I preach.

What I did was quite simple, and it worked!  Thankfully, I was able to stay calm, quiet, and collected, sticking to my intentions with consistency and inner strength, despite loud protests from outside. Hurray!

Here are some helpful ideas for the next time you find yourself in the midst of heated conflict:
  • Keep your awareness forward and up in the area behind and above the forehead.
  • Notice the instinct that wants to give in to the fight-flight-freeze response.  You might feel muscles tensing, disturbed breath, raised heart-rate, panic; emotions of fear or anger; a desire to leave the room or to speak without thinking, etc.
  • Keep your awareness forward and up inside your brain.  Tell yourself firmly, "Forward and up." Keep returning to this; forward & up awareness is the key to the whole process! 
  • From that area in the forehead, keep telling yourself, "I am not reacting.  I want to not react.  I am not reacting.  I don't have to react," etc.
  • Other helpful thoughts: "I am not fleeing," "I am not fighting," "I am not freezing".
  • Make "forward & up" and not reacting your top priority, over whatever the specific details of the conflict are, no matter how much other people try to get you to react (and they will!).  
  • Not reacting with a startle response is not the same as not responding.  Not reacting is an excellent response; it is responsible (response-able).  You can respond with logic and compassion while remaining forward & up and not reacting.
  • Having the self-control to stay forward & up without reacting to triggers is a skill that requires a great deal of practice.  Practice it when you are away from trigger situations, and you will gradually reap the rewards as you are able to put it into practice in more diverse and challenging situations.
  • Congratulate yourself when you are able to not react, and enjoy what it feels like to exercise self-control from above! This is what it means to "rise to the occasion" and "overcome yourself".

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Loving what we do

Yesterday, there was a very nice interview on NPR with Alexander teacher and musician Josephine Gray.  I was thrilled that she was given the opportunity to educate the public on the great benefits that the Technique offers to all people in pain, not just musicians.  Here's the link:

In the last month or so, I've given two workshops to over 100 brass and wind players who are studying to become professional musicians at the UC-College Conservatory of Music, and one to several dozen high school musicians.  I told each class that most professional musicians experience a significant amount of pain while playing their instruments.  One of the faculty members present, who is a member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, interjected by emphatically stating, "100% !"

To each of the three classes, I asked the same question, "How many of you do not experience pain while playing your instrument?"  Out of a class of about 80 brass players, two raised their hands, and one of those asked me if fatigue counts.  Out of a class of about 30 wind players, no one raised a hand.  Out of a class of several dozen high school students, one faculty member raised his hand, and he asked me about fatigue.

When asked why they play a musical instrument, the universal response always comes down to their love of making music.  No matter how much pain we experience, there is always a part of us that loves what we do.  Unfortunately, over-focusing on the physical sensations of pain can sometimes obscure our sense of pleasure, so that we forget the deeper meaning that motivates us to continue onwards and upwards with our chosen activity, with joy.


Whether you are a musician or not, while you engage in your chosen activity:

  • Can you pay attention to any pain or discomfort with self-compassion, but then widen your focus to include the joy inherent to what you are doing?
  • Can you get in touch with the reasons that you love for what you are doing--even if part of you is resisting doing the activity, and even if you are experiencing pain?
  • Can you focus on deeply enjoying what you love about your activity, giving it to yourself as a gift, letting the positive fruits of your activity affect and move you?
  • When we love something deeply, it is natural to want to share it; it is in the nature of Love to be communicated.  Can you calmly share your deep love of your activity with the space around you and everything within that space, near and far--even if you are alone?
  • Can you notice what is going on inside your body, yet remain gently focused on your intentions to connect yourself and surroundings to the Love inside you, through your activity?
  • Can you create an expanded field of awareness, where your enthusiasm for what you do can co-exist with pain?
With constant trust in our good intentions, peaceful and patient acceptance of the current conditions, an open mind and heart, and awareness of the whole self that can move and be moved by Love, there is abundant hope for the most painful of conditions to be transcended.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A new day begins

New day.
New morning.
New life.
New meaning.

hmmm....what does that mean??
I wonder!

With an open mind and open heart, I wonder.

Quiet, still, silent,
I observe and wait.

The thoughts come, and I inhibit my reactions to them.
All together, one after another.
Saying, "No" to my reactions.
I do not have to react.
I do not have to think.
I do not have to decide what to do next, because something larger than my verbal, thinking mind already knows what to do, where to go, how to be, how to think, how to not-think.

I allow myself to trust my whole Self, and let this Being-ness carry me through my day.
I know that I am larger than my thoughts.
Something grand and spacious...mysterious...
I do not really understand--but I know that I don't have to.

Opening to the mystery of my own being
with trusting, patient curiosity,
a new day begins.

I smile.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rising sun

A metaphor from Alexander teacher Missy Vineyard:

"Let the sun rise above your horizon."

I like this image very much.  If I imagine the sun is high up in front of me, this gives me a clear sense of where forward and up is in space.  But not only does it give me something positive to aim towards (created by my mind), it also gives me the sense that there is something wonderful for me to receive (also created by my mind).  The real sun gives us light, warmth, joy, life, and beauty.  So does the idea.

May your day be inspired by the idea of the sun!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Our "control center" in the brain

The brain is, in a certain sense, the "control center" for the rest of the body.  Our mind's awareness can be placed anwhere, including in the brain and other parts of the body.  Because the brain is the source of messages sent via the nervous system to other parts of the body, if we wish to have better conscious control over ourselves (body, movements, emotions, etc.), it makes sense to place our awareness in the brain.  The part of the brain behind and above the forehead is called the prefrontal cortex (PFC).  This is the area of the brain that sets goals, makes plans, inhibits and directs action.  This is the "driver's seat", or the "airtraffic control center" for having constructive, conscious control over the rest of us.

  • Experiment with placing your awareness in different parts of your body.  Notice what happens to the rest of your body and/or your mood as you focus on one part.  Don't try too hard, just observe. It is possible to "concentrate hard" on a part of the body with an intense focus, or with a light and gentle, open awareness.
  • Do you notice a difference between focusing on the prefrontal cortex (area of the brain behind and above the forehead) with (a) a forceful, intense concentration, and (b) an open awareness with a very subtle, gentle touch?
  • With your awareness remaining subtly placed in the PFC, can you very gently open up this awareness of being "forward and up" in your brain, to extend outwards in a forward and up direction?  
Rising up to the PFC with gentle, open awareness takes practice and constant renewal of intention.  But the effort is well worth the rewards!  Knowing how to live consciously in our physical "control center" means that we are well-situated to be in the "driver's seat" of our entire life, and it is an essential element to  learning constructive conscious control of the individual, which is what Alexander strove to teach with his technique.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Mental Attitude

Alexander spoke of the mental attitude being of primary importance; real learning and fundamental change can't take place without the calm receptivity that comes with having an "open mind".  The rational faculty cannot be fully objective or fully functional without a mind free of preconceptions, open to all-possibility.

"If you believe what you have always believed,
Then you will think what you have always thought.

If you think what you have always thought,
Then you will do what you have always done.

If you do what you have always done,
Then you will get what you have always gotten."
(author unknown)


If you want to get something new, different, better...
You will need to inhibit an underlying belief--stop believing it.
Two of the most important beliefs to inhibit/prevent are "That's not possible" and "I can't".

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Stop pushing yourself

  • How frequently do you push yourself to do something when part of you really doesn't want to do it?
  • How often to you push yourself to finish something when your body is telling you that you should stop now, even though you're not done?
  • How much do you rush through an activity just to get it done and out of the way, so that you can go on to do the next thing?
  • How often does something inside of you tell you to do something or not do something, but you ignore that feeling and keep doing or not doing it anyway?

What would happen if, in each of those cases, you were to simply stop everything just for a few seconds and let yourself have a moment of peace within yourself, during which you could consider that you actually have a choice about what to do next?  Might there be a better option available that is different from your habitual response?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"I am not shouldering any burdens"

Imagine that you have the proverbial weight of the world on your shoulders.
Imagine what that feels heavy it is...  Are you collapsing under the weight?  Or tensing against it?
Now imagine that a good friend comes over to you and knocks that burden off of you.
Imagine how your shoulders can float up towards the sky now that they are free of burdens.

Most of the time, we are pulling ourselves down with our thinking, or fighting to hold ourselves up.
Let's use our thinking in a positive way to stop that, so that we don't have to carry the imaginary weight of our burdens anymore.

"I want to stop carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders."
"I am not shouldering any burdens."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Set your sights higher!

The visual system is higher in our head than we usually realize, and changing how we map it in our conception can have a positive effect on our whole organism, even lifting our moods as we literally "set our sights higher".

Take your time to think though each of the following steps slowly:

  • Think, "I want to stop interfering with my vision."  
  • Think of the visual system as a horizontal plane connecting the eyes through the head to the visual cortex in the back of the brain. 
  • Now, imagine that horizontal plane being a bit higher...even higher.  
  • Let the eyes take on a receptive quality, allowing light to enter; imagine the light traveling in through eyes, through the head to the back of the brain.  
  • Let the eyes be lively and moveable with curiosity, not staring fixedly at any one spot.  
  • Expand your awareness of your peripheral vision. 
  • Remember to keep thinking of the horizontal plane of the visual system being higher than it seems.

Can you continue this receptive, larger, higher mode of vision as you move around the room?  Does the quality of your movement change if you drop back into your habitual way (lower, more fixed, narrower focus) of using your eyes? 

Monday, March 21, 2011

The speed of thought

Yesterday morning, I woke up after a terrible night's sleep with the largest full-moon in 18 years (beautiful!).  The lack of sleep combined with habitual pre-travel anxiety set my mind racing at high speed around all sorts of problems, both real and imagined.

As I prepared myself for the day, it occurred to me that I was listening to myself talking/thinking inside my head, and that the speed of thought was quite fast.  I got curious about that, and remembered a lesson I had taught recently, in which we had worked on slowing down the speaking voice while reading out loud.  The lesson was very effective, as well as enjoyable.  I wondered: what would happen if I could slow down my thinking voice?

Try it yourself:

  • Decide to pay attention to the verbalized thinking that goes on in your head for a period of time today (you could be doing something else at the same time or not).
  • Can you slow down the speed of the words as you think?  How slow can you get?
  • What happens to your state of mind?  Your movements?  What does it feel like?
  • What happens if you speed up your thinking?

Much of our verbal thinking is an unnecessary expenditure of energy.  I had often thought about how I can positively affect the content of my thoughts, but noticing the speed and realizing that I can affect and change that in a positive way has been very interesting to me.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

We are human Beings

We are human beings, not human doings.
Being has precedence over doing.
I love my actions when they express my Being, or lead to it, because Being is effortless and essentially graceful (full of grace), but 'doing' without Being is not.
Being is Non-Doing, a special 'noun-verb', an action verb with an emphasis on internal, not external, activity.  Being, or Non-Doing, is a state, but it is an active state, not a passive state.  An active state requires our attention, but not our 'doing'.

This is not just an abstract philosophical concept.  This is a concept to be embodied and lived.  We are human Beings that live!  To 'live' is also an action verb, but it requires no external action.

To become more fully alive means to become aware of our human Being-ness.  It does not mean more doing.  We 'do' enough 'doing' already.  We don't have to 'do' life; we need to 'BE' life.  Being is synonymous with Consciousness, and to be conscious of this is Bliss!

Practical application:

  • What are you doing right now?
  • Are you aware of the Being part of you that is doing whatever you are doing?
  • Think of the Being part of you as the vertical dimension of your body, and the 'doing' part as the horizontal part, including your arms.
  • Let the vertical Being dimension have precedence in your awareness over the horizontal 'doing' part as you act (let your movements be in the background of your awareness, and your Being be in the foreground)
  • Now think of the Being part of you as the internal dimension of your body, and the 'doing' part as the external dimension of your body, as you move
  • Notice if these thoughts have an effect on your mood, or on the quality of your movement.  Are you perhaps a bit calmer, slower, more observant?
  • Stop for a moment to contemplate your Being throughout the day, and then take that heightened awareness into your activities

Friday, March 18, 2011

Life is a choice: illustration

At any given moment, we have an infinitude of choices before us.  Some of the choices may be conscious, but most are not.  When we become aware of some of our choices, we realize that we have the freedom to choose in which directions to go.  Even if we decide not to choose, letting others or our own habits take over, that in itself is a choice.  If we decide to make conscious choices, we become empowered by our freedom instead of shrinking from it, and our life develops with a clearer sense of direction, instead of being tyrannized by our narrowing habits of unawareness, lack of clarity and focus.

What are you doing right now?  
What are you consciously choosing to do right now? 

At the moment, as I consider what I am consciously choosing at the moment, I realize that I am choosing to write this blog, and I spontaneously begin to notice what I am doing with myself.  I move my fingers, use my eyes, smile, breathe, continue sitting in the chair, keep my legs crossed, notice the effect of the leg-crossing on my use, notice some discomfort creeping up to my awareness, let my arms release a bit, let my neck be free, breathe, feel the floor under my one foot, notice the chair under my sitbones, let my neck be free, remember where up is, let my torso lengthen and widen, let my knees aim forward and away, and I notice that I have more choices before me:

I could continue to sit in this way as I write, or I could move to a position that would give me more mechanical advantage, and relieve some of the stress on my system.  OR, I could continue observing the effect that the leg-crossing has, and improve the use of myself as I stay in this position.  OR, I could just ignore everything other than writing here.  I can't help noticing the increasing tension in my neck as I continue to write, so I am choosing to move myself into a position with both feet on the ground.  But, first I am stopping, because I know that rushing into a new position will just mean more unconscious movement with a less-than-positive result, so I am choosing to wait, giving myself time to think it through first.  That instantly helps me breathe better, and the tension in my neck releases.

I am smiling.  Letting my neck be free, so that my head can be freely poised on the top of my spine, aiming forward and up, I let my whole self expand with freely moveable joints, and I let my legs move so that my feet are now both on the ground.

I pay attention to the space around me.  I hear noise from upstairs, and I turn to look out the window for a moment, noticing the light.  I breathe.  I feel gratitude for my life.  I shift in the chair, and I realize that I no longer want to be writing here.  Enough for now.

Laughing, I realize that I have a choice: I could just stop now after I quickly finish this post, OR I could finish it later, OR I could write a bit more, OR I could do nothing.  I choose the last option, and I stop writing for a moment......

For a short blissful moment, I just sat here and nourished my soul with non-thinking/non-doing.  Happier now, I smile and choose to finish up this blog now and post it.

This was an illustration of one way I practice the Alexander Technique when I choose to do so!

Unblocking creativity

It is normal for me to go for long periods without practicing my violin, particularly if I don't have a performance coming up.  Sometimes it's days, sometimes it's weeks...  I have a set of concerts coming up in Boston next week with Adastra, my duo, but it has been hard for me to get motivated.  I have not really enjoyed heart just wasn't in it like it usually is.  Somehow, I just wasn't connecting with the music, and practicing felt like a chore, without my really thinking about why.  I became a master-procrastinator!

Last night, as I began to practice late in the evening, I suddenly understood in a deeper way something that I already knew: when emotions are blocked, creativity suffers.  Before picking up the violin, I had spent a good, unhurried amount of time thinking through some challenging, personal life issues, and coming to some healthy realizations.  I finally let myself feel some emotions I had been blocking, and I let them move through me, really feeling them with my whole self, without holding onto them or resisting them in any way.  I just allowed them to be there and move through my system with full acceptance.

When I picked up the violin afterwards, my heart and soul were in it, and the love of music flowed through me once again.

What a relief!!

  • When emotions are blocked, creativity suffers.
  • Dealing with "negative" emotions is not a waste of time and energy; blocking them is.
  • Just a little bit of paying attention to our emotions, noticing them and expressing them, can go a long way towards renewing joy.
  • When "negative" emotions aren't expressed, creativity gets blocked.
  • Expressing "negative" emotions (expressing them = getting them out somehow) is healthy, and it can be done in many ways, even alone in silence.
  • When "negative" emotions are allowed to be felt and expressed, they can pass through the system very quickly (sometimes within seconds!), often carrying pain out along with them.
  • A lot of our pain is caused by blocking our emotions, in a futile attempt to either prevent them from being there, or to hold onto them, consciously or unconsciously.
  • Pain can be a positive wake-up sign, telling us that we need to let our emotions flow freely.
  • "Negative" emotions are not always negative.  There is--or at least was--a good reason for everything!
  • Not allowing all feelings to be deeply felt and expressed (let go of) is a big habit that most of us have, and all of us could do better without.

Alexander Technique has taught me to take the time to stop, observe, inhibit (stop doing a habit), and direct myself into a more conscious, constructive direction.  This process has renewed my creativity in so many unexpectedly wonderful ways!!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What can I want?

"I can" and "I want" are very powerful words.

What can I want today?
Do I really want that, or do I want something deeper, bigger, or simpler?
What obstacles are there to overcome, for me to achieve what I want?
What can I stop doing/thinking to help myself focus on aiming towards what I want?
What positive, constructive thought(s) and/or actions might help me to aim towards my goal?