In January, I scored a really great notebook and a pack of my favorite pens on clearance. My nine-year-old son, while happily composing stories in his new notebook with new pencils, asked, “What are you going to do with that notebook, mom?” I thought and replied, “Well, I have stories and books that I want to write, too. I think I might start writing them in this notebook.” After looking at me for a moment, he wisely asked, “Well, why don’t you do it now?”
I thought about the reasons for my delay in starting the book, which has been percolating for more than two years. I already blog, so I have some material ready to go, I’ve already drafted an outline. What’s the problem? Why can’t I keep going?
I think one reason is my discomfort with being in the process.
You see, I like to start new things. It’s exciting, full of promise and potential. Finishing things feels good, too.
Oh, but all that space in the middle…that’s the hard part. I’d rather just get it done.
I see this tendency in so many areas of my life. The process is challenging because you don’t know where you’re heading. You don’t know if the tack you’re taking – whether that’s how you practice, how you write a book, how your career unfolds – is going to work, in the end.
F.M. Alexander called this tendency to rush through or ignore the process “end-gaining.” For me, understanding end-gaining has been one of the most illuminating parts of the Alexander Technique. We end-gain for lots of reasons: we’re busy, we think we don’t have time, or maybe we’re really excited about the potential of the finished “product.” Sometimes we’re so reliant on (or unaware of) our habits that we don’t see other options.
But I think, for me, it’s sometimes because the process is a messy place. It’s neither here nor there. It’s usually unfamiliar and to be honest, it just might not turn out the way I hope.
Often, we think we know what the “goal” is – in work, in life, in cooking dinner, in making music. We want to know the answers and get the final results without taking the time to quietly and mindfully pay attention to a situation, a relationship, or a phrase of a song. We get ahead of ourselves. This is end-gaining.
After my 15+ years of engagement with this work, I really think end-gaining is at the root of so many of our problems. We want to get out of the chair now, we want the project to be completed now, we anticipate and rush toward the high note now, we want to know now what role a person we meet will play in our life, we want the kitchen to be clean now… you get the idea. And often, we don’t even enter the process – or we do so in a hurried, inattentive way – because we don’t think it’s as important as the goal, the “end.”
But the process is the only place where work, exploration, and enjoyment can take place.
Sometimes we miss the process altogether because we’re busy and distracted, and we aren’t aware of the opportunities right in front of us. Case in point: last week, I arrived to my studio in a typical morning rush, with barely a couple of minutes to spare before my first lesson. Then I saw a text from that student, informing me of an emergency and their need to cancel. My initial thought was self-critical – if I’d given myself enough time to check my messages before leaving, I could have stayed at home and worked on this post on my computer, at my table, with tea. I briefly considered driving home, and then back for my lesson an hour later, but this felt like a waste of time. Then I thought of the the ways I could use this time, and the resources I had available – the smartphone in my bag, my binder with music for my afternoon rehearsals, and the stack of looseleaf paper I keep in it. I’d been complaining that I didn’t have time to adequately prepare for those rehearsals, or to write this blog. I considered the sunny window in my studio, and the little table in the corner. It occurred to me how lovely it would be to sit at that sunny table, with my paper and pen, and my thoughts, and my music, and see what the process brought.
You see, that “I don’t have time” thought kept me out of the process. I was rushing, hurrying from one appointment or task to the next, not realizing that I really do have moments of space in my life to do what I need.
So I sat with my paper and pen, and I wrote most of what you’re reading now. I stayed in the process, noticing what was in front of me, and my choices. It changed my entire day from one of stress and hurry to one of ease and energy, despite a very full schedule.
I am inspired this week by a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks who were recently in residence at the University of Indianapolis, creating a sand mandala for world peace over five days. They meticulously released fine streams of colored sand onto a board, painting a beautiful, detailed design. After five days, when the mandala is completed, they ceremonially brush the sand away. The “end” – the product – isn’t the point, or at least it’s not something to cling to. It’s their attention and presence in the process that matters.
All products or ends – a sand mandala, a performance of a piece of music, a meal, a state of mind or body, a relationship – are impermanent. The way to work with, celebrate and enjoy them is to be in the process.
The process can feel uncomfortably uncertain, and there’s always the potential that you won’t end up with the result you initially desired. In my experience, though, the result is usually even better than you imagined.
This process, called in Alexander’s terms “the means-whereby,” is the root of our work in the Alexander Technique. It’s why we aren’t looking for a “right posture” in lessons, and why we encourage curiosity and attention rather than aiming for a correct form. The outer form will take care of itself if we stay in the process. The beautiful choral blend will happen if we stay in the process. The outcomes that we need will come to be, if we can just stay in the process.
PS – Do I teach Alexander Technique because process-oriented thinking comes naturally to me? Quite the opposite! I’m a huge end-gainer. I want to be where I think I should be NOW, in life, in my career, in music, in everything. I do this work because I have found that the Alexander Technique is the best way for me to be physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally present. It’s self-care for my entire self. It causes me to enter into the process, which is the only place I can live the life I want to live, and do the work I want to do.
Have you had an interesting or illuminating experience with being in the process? Have you experienced first-hand how end-gaining keeps you from being at your best? I’d love to hear from you about it!