Most of Us Live on Autopilot…

By Constance Clare-Newman

We really are creatures of habit. You’ve heard it said, but have you ever really thought about what it means to spend so much of your waking life on automatic?

We are a collection of our habits to such an extent that we are not fully present to ourselves during much of our lives. Most of us don’t realize how much time we spend on automatic pilot. That’s the point of being on automatic—you don’t have to think about it, feel it, or even notice it.

Of course being on automatic helps us go through life quickly and efficiently, and enables us to concentrate on complex tasks. But there is a cost: we miss out on big chunks of our lives. We are not fully present to ourselves—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

The recent boom in “mind-body” practices shows how much we desire to be embodied and awake. Tens of thousands of people practice yoga and meditation and take classes in a wide variety of mind-body methods.

Yet fundamentally, when we think of mind plus body, we are still separating our selves. When we take a yoga “exercise” class, we are working with the body; when we meditate, we are working with the mind. Of course this is an oversimplification. In the best yoga classes, there is much emphasis on intention and state of mind. And in many meditation classes, the emphasis is also on bringing the body into awareness.

These practices are wonderful teachers, but you can take mind-body integration even further. You don’t have to wait for the next yoga class or meditation retreat to practice wholeness. You can be awake to your holistic, undivided self as you go about all of the activities of your daily life.

The Alexander Technique is an educational process that has been teaching people to come back to conscious awareness and choice for over a century. While students learn the principles of the Technique in one-on-one lessons with a teacher, they actually practice the Technique throughout their day. Well known in performing arts circles, the Alexander Technique is becoming popular among people from all walks of life who want to come off autopilot and live life more consciously.

How It Began

In fact, the Technique was developed by an actor whose unconscious habits caused him to develop a chronic hoarseness that nearly ended his career.

FM Alexander (1869-1955) was an Australian actor whose recurrent onstage hoarseness could not be fixed by all the medical professionals he visited. To solve his problem, he studied the use of his own instrument—himself—with the low-tech biofeedback of three-way mirrors. What he found was that his use of his vocal mechanism was connected to his overall postural state, which was connected to his overall emotional state, which was connected to his thoughts, which were connected to his vocal mechanism, and so on. He found that his habitual tendency to tense and contract as he began reciting was so deeply ingrained that the harder he tried to change it, the more contraction he experienced. He slowly developed a way of not responding to the stimulus of reciting, but using the split-second gap between stimulus and response to redirect himself into a state of ease and subtle expansion.

Alexander was able to do something most of us haven’t been able to achieve: to come off autopilot and no longer be a creature of habit. As he recovered his voice, he experienced other unexpected improvements in health, posture and mental attitudes.

With the intensity of an eccentric genius, Alexander’s continued study of the use of his voice led him to study overall human function in all endeavors. He gained some fame in teaching others what he had learned and began to develop a systematic method of teaching a better “use of the self.”

His move to London in 1904 brought the interest of prominent scientists and intellectuals of the day, and Alexander continued for the rest of his life developing and researching what he termed the “psychophysical self” and ultimately a more “conscious control of human reaction.”

Today we take for granted the paradigm of the holistic self awakening to consciousness. Practicing the Alexander Technique is one way thousands of people come off autopilot and into true freedom of choice and spontaneity.

How It Works

Alexander students usually take a series of 10 to 30 private lessons in which they learn the principles and skills of the Technique. Alexander teachers are highly trained in observation of movement, postural patterns, and individual reactions to life’s challenges.

In early lessons, emphasis is on postural states and basic movements which are fundamental to the overall state of being. When people are on autopilot, they typically go through life in a state of structural contraction or collapse. By encouraging the whole self to soften and enliven into expansiveness, students experience a fuller sense of the self and a freer quality of movement. As students progress, they bring their particular activities (running, yoga, knitting, gardening, hammering, keyboarding) into lessons to explore. Some students are most interested in applying the Alexander Technique to their emotional or intellectual reactions, and with practice, these can be the most rewarding changes.

Three Main Principles

The three main principles of the Alexander Technique are simple, but not easy. Awareness, inhibition of automatic reaction, and direction of conscious intention can be applied to any activity.

Awareness: The first stage in learning the Technique focuses on developing a more refined kinesthetic and proprioceptive awareness that includes both the self and the environment. Even in your first lesson, you can begin to expand your awareness of physical sensation. Practicing proprioceptive awareness as you perform routine activities, you become more fully present to what is happening in the whole self (mental, physical, emotional, even spiritual) as well as to your surroundings. Acting from an awareness of self and the world around you is the opposite of running on autopilot.

Inhibition of automatic reaction: You can’t change a habit you don’t notice. And a habit is much like an automatic reaction—something you do immediately, without thinking. Once you become aware of the habit, whether it is muscular or mental, you have the possibility of changing it. You can practice inhibiting the automatic reaction. As you practice the Alexander Technique, you learn to bring awareness to that tiny window of time between a stimulus and your response. It’s as if you can magnify that split-second moment—so that your typical reaction can be interrupted, or inhibited, and a new response can be initiated. For instance, if you usually react with a tight jaw and raised shoulders when your boss asks you for another report, you might, instead, allow a moment of stillness and openness before responding, and then choose not to contract or tighten. You can give yourself a moment to make a conscious choice, and respond with a sense of spaciousness, whether or not you choose do the report that day.

Direction of conscious intention: When you have paused and allowed yourself to not respond in the usual way, then you can re-direct yourself toward another choice. Alexander students practice directing conscious intention by sending a clear message from the brain to the mechanisms responsible for action. So often when we are faced with a challenge, our typical reaction is one of contraction. This is part of the fight-or-flight response and is useful in moments of emergency, but not so useful when it’s time to address a group of colleagues about a proposed project (or respond to your boss’s requests). Instead of the usual uncomfortable, sweaty experience, you can inhibit your automatic reaction and send your body messages of ease and expansion. If you tell yourself to allow your head to float spaciously on top of your very long and easy spine, with soft knees and breath moving through you, you may even have fun during the presentation.

As you learn to use these principles, you acquire a sense of clarity, centeredness and choice. Ultimately, you become better at living holistically with effectiveness, ease and spontaneity.

Then you decide—when to turn off your autopilot switch, turn on your awake switch, and tune into being more fully alive.

Constance Clare-Newman is an AmSAT certified Alexander Technique teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique