The Illusion of Effort
F.M. Alexander, Byron Katie, and Robert Rabbin, three renowned, awareness-based educators, all illuminate the fact that the usual way we perceive ourself, and our behavior, is through our thought process which these three deem to be an unreliable source for acquiring a sense of personal reality. Specifically, what their outlooks have in common is a perspective that human beings misperceive reality due to faulty thought patterns. I attribute this misperception to what I call an “illusion of effort,” meaning that even though it may feel like our thoughts and efforts are what make things happen in our life, this is an illusion. A familiar component of our effort is an ongoing mental recording that consists of relentless strategies and predictions regarding our individual life stories. Because we take these to be true, we cling to them fiercely. Though we do not generally consider thinking to be a form of effort, this inner dialogue carries with it an intense amount of wanting and straining.
Alexander, for one, was wary of depending on thoughts and feelings as honest indicators for determining one’s actual state of being, as he saw them as habitual, and he did not trust habit. As a result, he warned his audience against relying on what felt familiar and right. His skepticism grew as he witnessed people, mostly adults, automatically applying high levels of tension and effort in their reactions to everyday pressures, including carrying out the simplest of activities. He deduced that humans, excluding young children, subconsciously assume they need effort to respond to any stimuli, and eventually alleged that this customary exertion actually detracts from one’s goals and intentions. A major cornerstone of his work was his declaration that effort is a primary culprit of human malfunction and inefficiency, and he subsequently dedicated his professional life to teaching people how to approach all of their activities with inner ease, and freedom from habitual response patterns.
Katie and Rabin discuss effort primarily with regard to thought, and highlight the irrelevance of thinking to the living of one’s life. Katie purports that there is no point arguing with reality because things in life occur beyond our control, despite our planning and belief systems.2 She further states that there is nothing for us to do to resolve problems because we are not the doers.3 Rabbin, in his relaying of Hindu Baba Muktananda’s teachings, similarly promotes that thinking is not necessary because everything in life just happens.4 He professes that a creative force directs our life as it does the tides and the planets and remarks, “We see only our own movie, and nothing we do within the movie will ever impact the situation because they are fundamentally different,” meaning that our thoughts do not assist or determine outcomes to situations.5 This harkens to Katie’s message when she claims that the “stories” in our head are inadequate reflections of what is actually true in our life.6 Both practitioners emphasize the difference between thought and reality, thought being the way we think about things and reality being what actually happens.
These three bodies of work, in addition to aspects of Buddhism, endorse an abandonment of “doing” as a way of life, and instead advocate an approach of “non-doing.” Alexander Technique teachers commonly refer to this doing as “interference,” and help their students notice ways in which they get in their own way. They foster an attitude of effortlessness which on a practical level allows one to react to the demands of the day with less physical and mental application.
My own work stems from an assimilation of all of these teachings, as well as my experience with Transcendental Meditation. My personal discovery, and what has brought me to the expression of this text, is the recognition that regardless of any thought I am ever having, my body is still always doing whatever it is doing. This has led me to appreciate that there is no cause and effect relationship between thought and action, despite our cultural conditioning that preaches a direct link between the two. Though the overall message of my practice relates more specifically to Katie and Rabbin’s than to Alexander’s, it is because of his findings, and my training in the Alexander Technique, that many of my explanations are oriented in the manner they are. Additionally, though in the public arena Alexander’s work is mostly known for helping people with physical issues, he maintained a psycho-physical umbrella in his discussion of habitual behavior. He essentially encouraged people to resist (say no to) the habit of life, which at its core includes our thinking process, which he in fact believed was a root cause of the general “misuse” of ourself.
As an Alexander Technique teacher for 17 years, and a dancer for over 40, I have had the wealthy opportunity to pay close attention to my body’s relationship to the space around it, and to the present moment. In my teaching I often tell students there are two states we can be in: thinking and awareness. Thinking is where we are used to residing, while the state of awareness requires a shift of attention that avails us to our senses of touch, sight, sound, taste, smell, and kinesthesia. This last sense (sometimes referred to as the sixth sense) enables us to feel our body’s weight resting on a surface, and to perceive where we are in space.7 For example, if you lift your hand above your head and close your eyes, you know where your hand is in relation to the rest of you.8 In my work I have spent an abundant amount of time accessing these states, predominantly my kinesthetic and touch senses.
Through the mindful practice of dwelling in these places I began to notice that for any moment in time it is physically impossible for my body to not be where it is, doing what it is doing. I first noted this reality for a shoe or a chair situated in a room, as for any given moment it is physically impossible for objects such as these to not be precisely where they are, until and if they are not. Being that we are as much forms of matter (contained whole objects of mass that possess weight) as anything else, I concluded the same truth for myself as for the shoe and the chair: “I must be where I am if I am,” or “I must be wherever my body is.” A sub-factor of this latter statement is the acknowledgement that there is no part of me that is not my body. Though our thoughts can have us believing otherwise, they too are contained inside of our physical structure, even if it can feel like they exist outside of us. Though we can split our attention, we cannot split our body!
Following all of these conditions, I moved on to claim that it is physically impossible for me to be doing something other than what my body is currently doing, as there is no other “me” to attend to some other demand. This addresses the discrepancy I often find between my thinking and my behavior when my thoughts are telling me I should be managing my time differently. I can never manage my time differently because I only have one body to act with, and if it is busy doing the thing it is doing, then that action is my only option for that moment.
The message behind all of these realizations is my basic tenet that we are only our body, and therefore, actions are always, only physical, even the act of thinking, which, too, is executed by the body. Furthermore, anything we ever do is mandatory, once it is happening. This means that any thought I ever have that argues with my “physical reality” (my physical activity in the moment) will be incorrect. Finally, it has become apparent to me that all human behavior is involuntary, because if we do not have a choice but to be doing exactly what we find ourself doing, then we can deduce that our actions happen outside of our desires (as there are certainly times when the two do not line up). Simply put, something else directs our behavior that is not our will, which is what classifies it as involuntary.
The psychological relief for me in all of this is that first, there is never anything for us to do to change anything in our life because we are not the doers, and second, our actions are always correct in their occurrence, no matter how disturbing. Even if we want to improve our condition in some way we cannot, unless and until our body moves into an activity that addresses the issue at hand. Again, the emotional freedom here comes from the removal of pressure to figure out how to fix our problems.
Five major points I try to make in this book are: (1) Actions are physical, and thus, can only be executed by the body. (2) Whenever we check in with ourself we will always, already be in a state of activity. (3) We must always be doing whatever we find ourself doing despite what our thoughts may be telling us. (4) All of our behavior is involuntary, and therefore, not personal. (5) There is never anything we could be doing other than what we are doing.