Habit, an essay rooted in Alexander Technique

I.

To begin from a beginning, when I was a teenager I read a little book by the father of American psychology, William James, called Habit. In 19th century psychology, pioneered by Wundt in Europe and developed by James in Cambridge, Massachusetts, habit was the core theory behind behavior. Thinking was labeled cognition and was used to override habits. Willpower was labeled conation and was also used to override habits. Nothing has changed except that conation has become an obsolete term. There are still a few psychologists trying to rescue conation from the ash heap, but it is quite clear that they have been failing.

Enter Freud. He wanted to be famous. He needed to make a discovery, to show that he could chart the unknown. He was also a cocaine addict, and while he was high he did have fantastic thoughts about that unknown country, the mind. I consider it one of the tragedies of the 20th century that his essential ideas continue to infect us. Oh, the power of the word: ego, superego, id, psyche, narcissism, Thanatos, Oedipus complex, penis envy, repression, resistance, transference. This was a vomited slime of drug-addled psychobabble that evolved into personality disorders, addictions to anything and everything, refrigerator mothers, personality tests (especially the pernicious Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory), the autism continuum, and the endless idiotic horrors of the DSM, presently in its fifth edition. And to this day psychological researchers and clinical psychologists virtually never refer to habit in any of their theories. Why? Because at heart so many of them are still infected by the Freudian dogma of historical effects on behavior. Not all psychologists are trapped in the Freudian bubble, but sadly, many people still are. I say it plain: it does not matter what caused you to develop your HABIT. This essay will present a different approach to the problem of behavior and emotional reaction, leading to an understanding of how See Saw Swings was created, and how it works to set the student free of rigid HABIT.

II.

Happy people are comfortable with their behaviors and contented with themselves. Miserable people constantly regret their behaviors and tend to dislike themselves. “Narcissistic” individuals are criticized for being contented with behaviors that cause distress to others. People with substance addictions have to deal with a physical dependence on the substance and an underlying “psychological” dependence. I am hereby laying out the idea that there can be no such thing as a “psychological” dependence on anything because nobody has ever been able to locate a psyche. Anywhere. In anybody. In place of “psychological”, I propose to replace it with HABITUAL. Such a simple truth, that habits rule our lives, our behaviors, both at the individual and cultural levels. See Saw Swings, by virtue of its repetition and inner logic, was designed to challenge the student’s HABIT, because as long as the student is playing habitually, he or she will make no progress in the quality of their tone and intonation. Why? Because when playing habitually, none of us has any idea what we’re doing!

Virtually everybody acknowledges that we are creatures of habit, with little understanding of anything we do or say. We also, universally, accept that we have many habits, some that we like but many that we want to “break.” (This is sweet nectar for the mind, to think about habits. We are all familiar with the desire to change an eating habit, a social habit, poor study habits, laziness habits, ad nauseum ad infinitum.)

I have spent more than thirty years immersed in the ideas of F.M. Alexander and his followers. It is only through these countless hours of study and exploration that I have come to this most simple of ideas. This idea is so simple that most readers should slow down and think carefully before having any kind of habitual reaction to it. Please do not reject this idea without subjecting it to careful consideration. Remember, I have been coming to this idea for over thirty years now, tested both on myself and on many hundreds of violin and viola students of all ages.

Obviously, the idea is in the title. Note, as you reread the title, that the word, the powerful, simple word, is in its singular form. Think about that for a moment.

One central HABIT rules each of us, all the time, except for those moments when we awaken and apply conscious consideration to our movements, actions, and words.

So obvious this is that why should I say it? I say it because in clinical psychology there is no virtually no recognition of the power of HABIT. The simple truth has been buried for a hundred years under layers of psychobabble.

III.

Is it possible then that every habitual action we take is controlled by a central HABIT? Could it be that the Freudians labeled this central habit, THE EGO/SUPEREGO/ID?

Once upon a habit, researchers performed an experiment on lab rats, er, no I mean undergraduates, which convinced the kids that they were either popular or unpopular. No surprise that the popular kids performed better on puzzles than the “unpopular” kids. Common sense, neh? But not common sense it was to label the cause as “ego depletion.” OMG. How can you deplete a thing that cannot be located? There is not a single area of the brain or body that can be described as housing or being an “ego.” However, and here is the main thrust of my argument, supported by working with hundreds of string students over the decades…

EACH OF US HAS A HABIT, AND THE HABIT IS REAL. IT IS A SUIT OF CLOTHES HIDDEN BENEATH OUR SKIN, COMPOSED OF NERVES, MUSCLES AND TENDONS CONDITIONED TO CAUSE US TO BE THE WAY WE ARE, EVERY DAY, UNTIL WE REPLACE IT.

How obvious it is that the “unpopular” students felt their essential HABIT degraded, and once that HABIT was degraded, they performed poorly indeed. I have had this happen to me too many times in lessons with incompetent teachers who could not help me play better, so they degraded me, which immediately made me play worse. “You play everything out of tune,” says the shabby teacher, and of course the student is deflated and plays more out of tune. The positive approach is to begin by training them to play the first note in tune. Then the first two, then three, and so on and so forth. You train good intonation by addressing the student’s ear and helping them hear the difference between in tune and out. You train the student by addressing the quality of his movements, so that he can better control his fingers as they negotiate the fingerboard. By addressing each element of performance separately, patiently, and with kindness, the teacher trains the student how to practice at home in order to improve their intonation. After enough repetition, the poor intonation habit will be replaced by a new technique. HABIT rules each of us. See Saw Swings is a text designed to help both students and their teachers to change their HABIT.

The very word, habit, refers to a suit of clothes. Nun’s habit. Riding habit. This nexus of brain cells, nerves and muscles is real, and if a stroke destroys enough brain cells without causing death, it will also destroy part of the central HABIT. This explains why after being stroked out many people have a personality change as well as having to relearn walking and talking. The HABIT is real. Any time you find yourself thinking about “ego,” replace “ego” with “HABIT” and I predict it will make sense. It also gives the individual greater control, provided that the person has a strategy for replacing the old HABIT with a new technique. This essay will go there, farther down. My experience changing violinists’ habits using the principles of Alexander Technique has led me in this direction. It led directly to the creation of See Saw Swings. And it is important always to differentiate between your central HABIT and the many particular habits that branch off from that deeply anchored root system.

Therefore, when that psychologist with his lab rats (students in Psych 101) followed Freud down the rabbit hole of ego and “ego depletion,” he ignored the easily verified fact that the “unpopular” students had just had their central HABIT severely wounded. Yes, a HABIT can be sliced and diced, and when it is, it feels like you are bleeding inside. And it hurts. We can all remember the hurt.

(End of Part III. Tune in later for the continuation of HABIT)

1 thought on “Habit, an essay rooted in Alexander Technique”

  1. Your connection between James and Freud to Alexander and then to See Saw Swings is so clear and logical! I also like that you described ego as invisible but habit as very detectable, which I don’t think anyone could dispute. I’m wondering why repetition and inner logic don’t work for someone whose habit seems to be narcissism. Maybe there’s no motivation to break the habit? Maybe there’s no knowledge of what to use to replace the habit?

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