Practice and Results: Facing a Challenge

Think for a moment about the last time you faced a challenge. It could be minute 37 of spinning class (that was me today!), it could be learning a piece of music with a difficult passage, it could be a stressful situation at work…

Whatever it is, YOU HAVE A CHOICE about how you approach that challenge.

How do you deal with hurdles, roadblocks, or quagmires in your path? Do you push forward, head-strong, determined to bust through the hurdles by sheer effort of will? Do you turn around and ignore the challenge for as long as possible? Or do you pause and then glide effortlessly through the challenge without anxiety?

During the last several weeks of my class at IU, we were looking at end-gaining – that’s Alexander-jargon for being totally focused on results, or the “ends” of an endeavor. When we become results-oriented in our thinking, we forget about the process. We forget to allow free movement, and instead do what we hope isn’t too tense, if we’re even thinking about our Use at all (Use is the how of our movements and state of being). Whatever we’re doing – whether it’s gardening, learning music, biking, or working at a computer – we are constantly practicing, and what we practice gets laid down in neural pathways, eventually becoming a habit if it is done without awareness.

We can choose to practice effort or to practice ease.

I created this chart for my class in April. Assume that you intend to get from point A to point B. Somewhere between A and B is a challenge, represented by the purple line. Your path is indicated by the black line running between A and B.

Effort Indirect Path

The first time you encounter that challenge (insert your own particulars here), you have some choices – do you effort your way straight through, or do you take an indirect path? I say “indirect” because that’s how it can seem – that you’re not headed for your destination at all. For example, in lifting something heavy, do you focus on the goal of lifting that weight at any cost, or do you bring your attention first to the how? Do you use all the muscular effort you think you need, or do you allow your neck to be free and your back to lengthen and widen so that you eventually can find the strength and stability to lift the weight with ease?

If you look at each line, you’ll notice that the effort needed the first time was concentrated around the challenge itself. You’ll also notice that the indirect path was pretty loopy – it took some thinking and attention to figure out how to do this new thing without increasing the effort. In both cases, you still got to point B, no matter how long it took.

Now imagine that you’ve practiced this new thing 25 times. Each time, you may anticipate the challenge, and in the effort-ful path, you may start adding effort earlier, either unconsciously, or because you remember how hard it was and you’re “getting ready.” In the indirect path, you remember that the challenge is coming up, but you choose not to react…and when you get to the challenge, you still take a detour, but it’s less extreme than the first time.

After 100 repetitions of weight-lifting, digging with a shovel, practicing a musical passage, tricky conversation or whatever you have… the patterns may become extreme. In the path of effort, you’re prepared: You know this thing you’re about to do is HARD, so you get ready. You go into the activity using lots of effort, and you use it the whole time. You did it, but it was SO MUCH WORK…or you might be in pain, and not enjoying the activity as much as you used to in the beginning. In the indirect path, you’re also prepared…by not preparing. You’ve practiced effortlessly navigating the challenge so many times that when it arrives, it takes thought, but less effort than ever, and even less time. You have more creativity, awareness and presence in the moment, because you’re not devoting all of your energy to the hard labor of the activity.

Are you convinced? Do you want to use less effort to achieve terrific results?

Start by not focusing on the results at all.

Be in the process.

Practice doing less, even if it “feels wrong” at first. Your brain is calibrated to your habits, and when you start to use your whole-body intelligence, you may be surprised at how little you “feel” the work.

Stop in for an Alexander Technique lesson, where we put this process into practice in every moment. You’ll thank yourself for taking the time! I would also love to hear how this process of indirect thinking works for you.

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