There is a powerful exercise instantly available to those who seek greater awareness of themselves and deeper understanding of what is going on around them. Yet how seldom we turn to it, so deeply engaged are we in bettering ourselves or beating out the competition.
I was reminded of this shortcut to presence by an aha! moment at the recent Alexander Technique intensive week at North Carolina U. School of the Arts. Day after focused day, in class after class, we attempted to let go of the many habitual ways we interfered with our own freedom of movement and postural responses by letting the head sag into a favorite forward slump or pulling the shoulders back in an attempt to be super-straight. On the last day I suddenly realized that if, instead of correcting my stance or criticizing any childish internal reactions or longing to be better than I am, I simply entered into the state of uncertainty, confusion, and mixed messages — to stand there in the midst of it, acknowledging it, sensing it, and feeling it — a gradual change would take place. If I could stay long enough as witness, the reorganization of thoughts, reactions and the body’s strained position would happen all by itself.
“Eureka!” I thought. “Here’s the Rosetta Stone that can replace my busy drive toward making myself better than the flawed person I am.” But as anyone who attempts it will find, it’s not an easy shift to make. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable to stay there in the newly discovered imbalance that we almost never try, even if we’ve heard about it for years!
I first learned of this approach from Jeanne de Salzmann, who led us in the Gurdjieff teaching for many years. She would invite us to “stay in front of the lack,” suggesting that when we wake up to a moment of being lost to ourselves, we stay with the impression that we are not how we want to be, instead of immediately trying to change it. The moment I see something I don’t like in myself I could stay in front of it, as if looking into the mirror of my thought or action, rather than turning away toward some comforting shift of improvement.
Frederick Matthias Alexander also based his powerful technique of neuromuscular reeducation on this simple idea, saying that “when you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.” When I stop tensing or end-gaining in my usual way, mental or physical release occurs all by itself. What’s more, a subversive folk adage affirms it as well: “Don’t just do something; stand there!”
So that’s the good news. If we want to revolutionize our spiritual life, to become more present to who we really are and what we are doing, we could give it a shot, even today. As Jim Hollis said in his book, CREATING A LIFE: Finding Your Individual Path, “Will is focused intention, and, given enough effort, will in time wear away virtually all obstacles.”