by Witold Fitz-Simon “Invisibilia” is a new radio show/podcast from NPR that combines science and personal stories to explore the unseen forces that shape our behavior. In their episode “The Secret History of Thoughts,” they use the story of an unfortunate young man who is suddenly overwhelmed with violent thoughts as the medium through which to look at the way the mental health profession has evolved its understanding of thoughts and the way they do or do not define us.
In the segment “Dark Thoughts,” we meet “S,” a normally easy-going man, who is triggered by a film he watches into seeing violent images over and over again. He begins to identify with them to the point that it begins to impact his life, causing him to withdraw more and more. The piece is a story of his search for help as he attempts to understand and deal with his thoughts, and through it, we are introduced to three major ideas about thoughts and their significance to the whole person. According the piece, the first stage of "thought history" grew out of the work of Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, and those who follow his ideas, the content of "S's" thoughts would be an indicator of a problem in his psychological make-up. They revealed some inherent quality about him. The second stage grows out of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which would say that "S's" thoughts do not say anything particular about who and what he is. Instead, they would be the result of some form of prior conditioning or stimulus, either internal or external. Whereas in Freudian psychoanalysis, patients go through an extended exploration of their lives, thoughts and feelings, in Cognitive Behavioral Therapies, the patients are given strategies to directly challenge and deal with the thoughts. A more recent "third wave" approach is Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, where the patient is taught to allow the negative thoughts to just be and, in so doing, disarm their power to contribute to negative side-effects such as depression and addiction.
Though not a form of psychotherapy, the Alexander Technique has its own way of dealing with negative thoughts that ties in quite nicely with some of these ideas. F. M. Alexander was one of the first Westerners to realize that mind and body were all part of the same, larger whole of the individual person. A person's thoughts are a part him or her as are their arm or leg. Your arm is part of you, but it is not in any way all of what you are and can be. The same can be said of your thoughts. As part of the larger whole of who you are, your thoughts have an impact on both the structure and the physiology of your body. A thought can create the constriction and tension of anxiety as much as it can create the lightness and freedom of joy.
The Release of Inhibition
Alexander originally called his technique "Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual" (the title of one of his four books). The name is a bit of a mouthful, but with it he was attempting to convey how it is possible to live consciously and constructively. This is to say, we each have many instinctive or habitual ways of thinking, reacting and being, but as thinking, rational people, we have the capacity to choose. Do we live at the mercy of these instincts and habits, or do we live with a mindful, embodied relationship to ourselves and our environment?
One of Alexander's great discoveries was that of inhibition, although his use of the word is very different to Freud's. Alexander's "inhibition" refers to our capacity to neurologically inhibit our responses to a stimulus. We can choose to react habitually or we can pause and let the habitual reaction go. It is a release of energy, of tension, which can bring the body and mind back to a state of ease and poise.
The American Center for the Alexander Technique is home of the oldest training program in the United States. If you are curious about finding out more about the Technique and how it might be able to help you find poise and ease in your daily life, contact one of our teachers in your area.