The Quality of Nothing

Drawing of William Shakespeare running by my daughter, Robin Eloise Mazzanewitter.

Drawing of William Shakespeare running by my daughter, Robin Eloise Mazzanewitter.

F.M. Alexander, founder of the Alexander Technique, loved Shakespeare and made his initial discoveries while working on solving a vocal problem that occurred when he performed public recitations of Shakespearean texts.  There are Shakespeare quotes here and there that highlight quite nicely some aspect of the technique and when I recently saw King Lear at Theatre For a New Audience in Brooklyn, a phrase in the play struck me.  It got me thinking about a common way of talking about the technique, in particular about the idea of "doing nothing", so in this post I will talk about nothing.

The word "nothing" appears throughout King Lear in the contexts of bravery, cunning, despair, and likely others that I'm not thinking of at this moment.  At one point The Earl of Gloucester speaks of the quality of nothing in a conversation with his son, Edmund.   This statement has particular meaning within the scene, which I won't go into here, but will rather discuss what we can glean from the phrase on it's own and how it relates to posture and how we use our minds and bodies.

Alexander Technique teachers often suggest to their students that they do nothing and when students are on the right track, they often report that they feel like they are doing nothing.  Can we really do nothing or is this suggestion more of an encouragement to do less?  Students are told to think rather than do, but will they succeed in changing their postural habits if they think in the same way that they think about a grocery list or mathematical computations?  What is meant by "thinking"?

Gloucester talks about the "quality" of nothing, but can nothing really be a lack of anything if it has a quality?  The way I think about it is that "nothing" in terms of Alexander Technique is relative to whatever we're accustomed to doing.  What might feel like nothing (ie no effort to stand, for example) in lesson #2 may feel like quite a lot of effort in lesson #10, simply because the student is aware of another layer of extra habitual holding or compressing (ie "doing") that they previously weren't aware of.  The thinking that we learn in Alexander Technique lessons replaces the excessive doing, but it's the quality of thinking that's what counts.  It's a tuned-in, conscious, embodied thinking with an intent.  You know where up is, for example, and so you decide to go up to your full height and you have a clear sense of what that means.  You don't have to make it happen, you just allow it to happen.  

Having gotten into a regular exercise routine, I've been thinking about the relationship between exertion, putting more demand on ourselves, and simultaneously heightening this quality of nothing through directional thinking.  I feel stronger, I'm building muscle, and I'm exerting myself, but I feel even more like I'm doing nothing.  Nothing in the sense of less excess effort to hold myself upright and to move.

When we "do nothing", we allow for something quite substantial.  We expand and take up all of our space.  Our backs become elastic, flexible, and strong.  We can use our limbs without hurting our backs.  We're more dense and grounded and at the same time, light and full of breath.  We feel present, alert, and confident and simultaneously quiet and observant.  Through this practice, what at first seems like nothing becomes something quite extraordinary . . .or incredibly ordinary . . . depending on how you look at it.  In any case, certainly natural.