The Mind-Body Myth / You Are Not Your Brain

When I hurt my foot I don't think I have a hurt foot, I consider that I am hurt. I see it all the time, when someone is in pain they mentally separate that part from their being, as if it's an alien entity.

It's probably at least a generation since we culturally believed in Descartes' duality of body and mind. Now it's the accepted norm that the mind and body are connected. But don't two things that are connected need to be separate entities? Saying the mind and body are connected is still hanging on to dualism. It's like saying someone is a little bit pregnant, or dead! You either are or you're not. They're either separate or they're not. To escape dualism the mind and body need to be seen as a functional and indivisible whole, a "mindbody" if you like, or even more simply, your Self.

This is the supposition on which F.M.Alexander (the originator of the Alexander Technique) based his work over 100 years ago now. He didn't coin the idea, there was even an educational establishment set up in New York, by the then well-known Thomas sisters, called "the Conservatory of Psycho-Physical Culture, Elocution and Dramatic Art" at the turn of the last century. Alexander was probably well aware of this as he had a passion for the theatre, and he certainly observed it to be true from tireless experimentation on himself and his pupils and frequently wrote about psychophysical unity.

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So what are the benefits of experiencing yourself in this way? For me it changes my perception and awareness of myself to help me use myself as a whole better. I don't think of myself as the Adrian in my head that controls peripheral parts of my body. You don't have to impose thought on your body to move or have good poise, you just need to get out of the way of this wonderful unified system and let it do what it does best, whilst maintaining awareness of it. You don't just move your body, but your Self, your body and mind aspects together. Whenever you move, whenever you contract or release a muscle, this involves your whole organism. Not just 'affects', but involves. As Lichtenberg, an 18th century Natural Scientist, remarked: "When I remember something, even my thumb is involved!" (He was arguing against Descartes' dualism.)

When I hurt my foot I don't think I have a hurt foot, I consider that I am hurt. I see it all the time, when someone is in pain they mentally separate that part from their being, as if it's an alien entity. But placing that pain in a sea of surrounding support has profound effects on healing, reconnecting your sense of wholeness. It's not simply your back, shoulder or arm that hurts. You hurt. You hurt physically, emotionally, intellectually.

You'll be familiar with the outward manifestation of mind in simple everyday body language. You communicate as a whole. It's often said that communication is eighty percent non-verbal (although that's not strictly true). We instinctively know this and our language often expresses it with phrases like "having a gut feeling", or someone being "stiff necked" (not in common use these days, a bit biblical). Being nervous isn't simply an emotional mental state that affects your body, the butterflies in your stomach are part of an overall pattern. Listening to and being aware of the physical aspects of your emotions can really help you fully process your emotions. This is the basis of Gestalt Therapy, which although a talking therapy such as psychotherapy, is the only other modality I'm aware of that fully embraces psychophysical unity.

Cognitive scientist Guy Claxton is now expressing this view of psychophysical unity as part of a new field called embodied cognition, which is an excellent description of what the Alexander Technique is too. To jump on the mindfulness band wagon I started calling the Alexander Technique embodied mindfulness for a while, but I think I prefer cognition. There's a common misconception that the Alexander Technique is about showing you how to move, sit and stand "correctly", but it's really about being able to do these things freely, and that's only possible by truly using your embodied cognition.

"You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension." - F.M. Alexander

This blog was originally posted here.

The Alexander Technique has been clinically proven for back pain via an NHS funded, gold standard randomised trial. It was performed by Southampton University and their results were published in the British Medical Journal.

It is also endorsed by, a lottery funded organisation.

World wide resource for the Society of Teachers of The Alexander Technique: