Thinking Out Loud No. 15
Restarting habits, productivity is magick, and the dissolution of the Self
It's been some time! May I be the last one to wish you all a Happy New Year. Full service will now resume.
In this newsletter I talk about:
How to restart a habit routine
Productivity is modern day magic(k)
Alexander Technique and the dissolution of the Self (seriously)
How to restart a habit routine
Let's be honest, the winter holidays are a usually an unmitigated disaster for habits. We eat delicious, but horribly unhealthy food, we stop exercising, we drink too much and we sleep in late.
Okay, maybe it was just me, I don't want to cast any aspersions. No ketogenic diet, no daily meditation, no alarms and, since my knee injury in Korea, no exercise. And very little writing (but plenty of thinking).
But this is January! The month of casting aside our transgressions and climbing back aboard the good ship HMS Habits.
Easier said than done though, isn't it? Having fallen back to a low standard, it seems amazing that I was able to demonstrate that level of discipline, motivation and organisation in the first place. It seems like an overwhelming task to do it all again.
Fortunately I have the solution: make it difficult to fail and restart the habits one at a time. It's so tempting to think I can pick up where I left off: the full gym routine, preparing lots of healthy home-cooked meals, sitting in silence for an hour every day. And all at once!
No. Instead, I've chosen to treat myself compassionately, not oppressively, and remember that it took time to build those habits in the first place. I'm satisfied with picking one at a time and setting the bar for success low. Meditation for 5 minutes is better than nothing. Focusing on no other habits while I transition back into keto is fine. I'll get there.
For more on this, I recommend this video from YouTuber Thomas Frank. And if you're in the same place then I wish you luck! You'll get there too.
Productivity is modern day magic(k)
Aleister Crowley, the English occultist and ceremonial magician, defined magick as "the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will." He put the k in magick to distinguish occult magic from performance magic, in case you were wondering.
(It's worth clarifying here that my knowledge of magick pretty much ends there: this is not some big and surprising reveal about my belief systems.)
I love this definition of magick, because it elegantly captures how I feel about productivity. Productivity is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.
Linking productivity with magick makes special what has become mundane. We outline our daily plans, write to do lists, check off actions and review our weeks. If we're interested in productivity then we're curious to explore the processes themselves. If we're not then it becomes just another background part of work and life that doesn't get much attention.
But it's not just a discipline to be enjoyed by special interest groups who geek out over task management apps. It's not just a necessary evil that helps us do our jobs better. Productivity is the fundamental way we take abstract thoughts from our inner worlds and change our outer world to reflect them. This is a big deal!
I care about the long-term survival of humanity, because I believe there's so much more to be explored and discovered. That's why my professional life focuses on energy system transformation and removing carbon from the atmosphere.
I make my plans and I maintain my to do lists, because I have a will and want to cause change to occur in conformity with it. And there's something very special about my, and your, ability to do that. It's magick.
Alexander Technique and the dissolution of the Self (I'm still serious)
I've been writing a lot more about Alexander Technique on Twitter lately. This is absolutely the last thing I expected when I re-engaged with Twitter, because Alexander Technique is pretty niche and very hard to describe.
For some reason, though, I seem to have found myself in a community that responds well to it and wants more. This excites me, so I'm happy to oblige.
Here I want to expand on a Twitter thread I wrote where I went from the basics of Alexander Technique all the way to what I believe to be some of its most profound implications.
First: the backstory. F.M. Alexander, originally from Tasmania, started his career as an orator who would perform Shakespearean recitals. After a while of doing this he started to lose his voice while performing. He went to doctors, who advised rest.
While resting helped a bit, he would lose his voice again whenever he returned to speaking on stage. In fact he realised that he only lost his voice when speaking on stage. This led him to the conclusion that there was something context-specific about speaking on stage that was linked to him losing his voice: he was doing something differently on stage that was causing his vocal problems.
Intrigued, he set up a system of mirrors at home that would allow him to observe himself from multiple angles while speaking. By doing this he noticed that whenever he went into 'Shakespearean orator mode' he pulled his head back and down, straining his larynx. This clearly wrong behaviour even felt right and natural to him.
Here's the important part: when he tried to stop himself from doing this, he found that he couldn't. Try as he might, whenever he started speaking as if on stage, his pattern of habits would kick in, outside of his conscious control. This observation is what put him on his course to develop Alexander Technique – an educational process that brings the cessation of such automatic habits into conscious control.
In the world of AT this is called 'inhibition', which pre-dates Freud's use of the word. The best way I know to describe inhibition is to lean on Viktor Frankl:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl.
Inhibition, then, is the skill to widen the space between stimulus and response – a path to freedom. Freedom from what? From unhelpful and oftentimes damaging habitual patterns of being that have built up over the course of our lives, through no fault of our own besides a lack of awareness of this process happening. I'll give you two examples.
One – You're a child at school. A teacher yells at you to 'pay attention'. What do you do? You respond with muscles. You furrow your brow, you sit up more straight. You're anxious so your breathing becomes shallow. What do muscles have to do with attention?
Two – It's your early teens and the idea of 'cool' enters your mind. You want to look cool, perhaps a cool walk? How does a cool person walk? Your conscious mind intervenes in your walking. 'You' start 'doing' walking, where before it was natural. A new habit is formed.
Over time we forget we've done this: we confuse the finger that points at the moon for the moon itself. These patterns become part of who we are. Try concentrating really hard without tightening any muscles in your face, particularly around your eyes, or without breathing any differently. Isn't it difficult?
We have endless internal stimuli that trigger this kind of 'unnatural' habitual behaviour. We walk, sit, stand, talk and breathe in the suboptimal ways our conscious minds once learned to do these things.
But there's another way: to stop all that and get out of your own way. Your system knows how to walk, sit, stand, talk and breathe without 'you' getting involved.
"If you stop doing the wrong thing the right thing does itself" – F.M. Alexander
This can feel...strange. You catch a ball flawlessly, elegantly and with no effort, but it's like you watch it happen. You set an intention to catch the ball and your hand and arm just reach out, perfectly. When we enter such a state naturally we call it "beginners' luck".
For those familiar with Taoism, such spontaneous action may sound familiar as wu wei. Alexander Technique, then, is a 'western' framework in which to explore and cultivate non-doing. That's my belief anyway.
There's a particular state of consciousness that comes about through practice of Alexander Technique – a kind of very pleasant, wide open three dimensional spatial awareness. We use similar language to that used in Zen. The barriers between Self and the world break down.
I have a theory here inspired by Alan Watts, who describes in a video (at timestamp 6:30) the idea that what we think of as ourselves, the 'I' that lives in our bodies looking out on the world, has a physical felt correlate:
"It's a chronic habitual sense of muscular strain which we were taught in the whole process of doing spontaneous things to order." – Alan Watts
Consider all those micro-habits: how we walk, how we stand, how we sit. Even the pattern of muscular tension we hold in our faces and around our eyes while we think (again, what do muscles have to do with thinking?). He contends that sum total of all that is what I feel as 'I'. An ‘I’ which, according to many traditions, is an illusion.
This is powerful. If true, it explains so much about my experience with Alexander Technique and how it allows for change. By learning how to stop doing all of those habitual patterns, I loosen the grip of ego/Self/I entirely. I'm able to find new opportunities for change, because I'm literally no longer bound by the limits of my identity.
That ended up being longer than I expected, so I'll leave it there for now. Thanks for sticking with me!
Media of the week
I've decided to take up painting. Foolishly I mentioned this on Twitter and somehow committed to painting (and sharing) 100 paintings. This is my first. Don't worry I won't share them all here.
My girlfriend very kindly bought me a subscription to an online art school as a birthday gift (the Virtual Art Academy). As I was reading through some of the getting started materials, this part stood out to me:
"After four years of study you will have some understanding of the ideas expressed in this course unit but you will still have questions. After a lifetime of study it will be even clearer, but you still will not fully understand it." – Barry John Raybould
To me this is a wonderful reminder that learning and integrating new skills and knowledge is the art of a lifetime. I'm going to take this experience differently from my others. There are no goals, no pressure, no expectations. Just a lifetime of exploration and play.
Until next week!
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