Teachers of the Alexander technique talk about something called the “kinesthetic” or “proprioceptive” sense (“proprio” like “appropriate”):
The Alexander Technique educates the student’s sense of kinesthesia or proprioception. This sense is used to internally calibrate one’s own bodily location, weight and to judge the effort necessary for moving. The Alexander Technique also educates how to more fully carry intent into action with reasoning and constructive thinking techniques. These may demand a re-evaluation of the priority and value of motives that drove the goal-setting of past habits that the student must resolve. All Alexander teachers advocate the value of effortlessness and practical structure.
Turns out that in modern life, it’s easy for the kinesthetic sense, the sense of how your body is supposed to align and move in a concerted way, to get out of whack:
Alexander Technique teachers believe that humans have a built-in proprioceptive blind spot: people become habituated to repetitive motions. Repetitious circumstances lead people to create habits as they adapt and learn. These habits are both deliberate and non-deliberate responses that include physical movement patterns, coping and learning strategies. The advantage of adapting is that behavior and learning becomes simplified; it becomes possible to meet a given stimulus or interpretation of circumstances with a ready-made reaction. As a person adds one habit onto another, the disadvantage is they may train themselves to also repeat unintentional side effects – the tension, over-compensation and cumulative stress that the Alexander Technique addresses.
Adapting has a further serious drawback: habits diminish sensation. Using the habit decreases the importance of paying attention to perceptual differences. Also, sensory systems can flood from accommodating too many contradicting habits and intentions. From disuse or flooding, perceptual sensitivity shuts down and eventually becomes dull and untrustworthy, just as skin becomes numb if the same spot is rubbed. Loss of perceptual awareness encourages mistaken interpretations for the need to choose a particular response. In a panic, all opposing habits can fire off at once, pulling in all directions, sometimes without the person noticing it has happened.
So with all of the traumas and adversity that we encounter in growing up and growing into modern life, our sense of how our body fits together and what it feels like when it’s moving efficiently can become, well, something we can’t rely on.
This is also true of our “acting” sense, or, without wanting to get too pious about it, our “sense of truth”. Most of us don’t survive childhood with our ability to abandon ourselves to play and pretending intact, and with the ability to gauge the fullness of the leap we have made. As actors, most of us need to develop that sense through our training. We need to have the experience of getting in touch with our own needs and bringing those needs to bear on the fictional situation of another. Then we need to have it again, and again, and again. Over time, if we do that with the guidance of someone who can help us achieve that, we will begin to acquire a sense of what it feels like to be plugged into our own need and vulnerability on the one hand, and simultaneously present and responsive to our partner on the other.
As actors we hear a lot about “being in our heads”, and we know that “in our heads” is not where we want to be. True, but this can also be a little misleading. An actor can be fully engaged in what they are doing with their body, their breath, and their voice, and have some “chatter” going on in their minds about how well the scene is going or some mistake that was just made or some tough moment that is coming up. This is entirely normal, and just because we have such thoughts does not necessarily mean that we are “in our heads”. That commentary is going to be there most of the time. It becomes troublesome when we allow it to distract us and worry us. If we can let it be without being phased by it, it probably won’t land us “in our heads.”
When I meet with prospective students, I have a set speech, my “spiel”, that I do about the class. I make a point of connecting with the student as I do the spiel, making eye contact and using the sounds of the words to create the images I want to create for the student. Sometimes, as I am speaking about some topic pertaining to the class during the spiel, some thought about something a student said or did in class in the preceding week will be triggered, and a whole train of thought will embark, even as I continue talking. However, my body “knows” how to do this speech; I have been doing it for five years. When I eventually shake off the full train of thought and return my full concentration to the person I am speaking to, I see that he or she is unwavering in their attention, and fully engaged in taking in what I am saying and processing it. They have not registered at all that my mind was momentarily elsewhere. It’s not that I was “mechanically” saying the words, because I was sustaining the eye contact and continuing to say the words meaningfully. My “self”, in the sense of Alexander titling his book “The Use of the Self”, was fully engaged in interacting with my interlocutor even as my mind was momentarily elsewhere. The fact that my mind was momentarily distracted meant nothing about my engagement with the person I was speaking to.
Other times, the thought that arises while I am speaking becomes so powerful and compelling that I do become distracted, and when I am supposed to move from one subject to the next, I instead stop briefly and stare into space. I then shake it off and return to the task at hand. In this case, what my mind was doing was definitely interfering, but that was the exception, not the rule. The thing that had occurred to me had to be very compelling indeed to take me away from talking to a prospective student about a class. And so it is with the “chatter” that goes on in an actor’s head: that it’s there is not a problem; it’s only a problem when we allow it come on. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, as the man said.
As we achieve greater degrees of absorption in the role we are playing, the chatter may recede, and we will have more thoughts appropriate to the character we are playing. But we don’t control our thoughts entirely, although we can direct them. That’s one of the things that makes spontaneity possible. But because we don’t control them fully, we can’t assume that because they don’t always pertain to the world of the scene, but rather, often, to how we think the scene is going, that we are necessarily “in our heads”. That’s simply not what “in our heads” means.
I think I’m going to leave it there for now.