On Choice and Change

Many people fundamentally believe that people can’t change. Someone who is emotionally closed off will always be that way. Someone with violent tendencies will always be a danger. People who can’t seem to hold onto money will never learn to save.

I think we all want to make changes for the better. What are New Years resolutions if not promises to ourselves to become better this time around? There are thousands of ways we would like to become better people, but when it comes down to it, change is hard because of our habitual reactive responses to stimuli. Unthinkingly and without awareness we lash out when our buttons are pushed in a certain way. We lock into the outcomes of past experiences and assume that this time will prove to be no different. And much of the time without knowing it, we fulfill our own prophecy with our repeated actions.

It may seem like we are not in control – that fate continues to push us around in circular patterns, and sometimes this is the case. But I will bet most of the time we are unconsciously choosing the outcome ourselves.

We don’t have a choice in what circumstances may arise, but we are constantly choosing how we respond to them. It certainly feels like quitting smoking, losing weight, or being content with a job or a relationship is out of our hands, but we are constantly making the choice to light up. We are choosing to be frustrated with our boss or significant others.

It’s not that we don’t want to change. It’s not that we haven’t made a strong commitment to changing. And it’s not that we aren’t strong enough to do it. When an event happens, our response is usually immediate instinctive, so willpower is not the problem. The problem is that we’ve never been introduced to a clear, step by step approach that helps us change some of our unhelpful instinctive reactions. This is what the Alexander Technique provides.

I’ll put it out there. I struggle with anxiety. I take things WAY too seriously and let my dread, distress, and general unease get the better of me. When I allow this to happen, I not only make myself unhappy, but I make things more difficult for the people in my life who love me. In the past I’ve tried anxiety meds, I’ve gotten angry at myself and talked to myself about it in negative ways. I’ve talked to myself about it in positive ways. I’ve tried relaxation exercises.

As you can imagine, none of those things helped me in the least.

However when I can put a pause between-the-thing-that-is-happening and my reaction to it, I am leaving a space, a moment for something new to happen. I am leaving room for choice.

Real change begins with the way we function physically.

The weight of the world is on her shoulders.
He looks really down today.
John just lights up a room!

It’s not an accident that these sayings are colored by physical characteristics like heavy and light. Our physicality is not only linked to our emotional and mental states, it directly influences them in a major way.

So when I talk about putting a pause between an event and a response to an event, I don’t mean just in thought.

Try this: The next time your co-worker or your partner does that frustrating thing, or the next time something unpleasantly unexpected happens– stop. Just for a moment. Come back to your whole self and become aware of the present moment, the space around you, the sounds and smells and feel of the room. Scan your body, paying special attention to your neck. Are you tightening you neck or your jaw or your shoulders? What’s happening to the muscles in your face? In your hands? In your back or your legs? Notice the physical tension and see if you can let some of it go, coming back to a sense of length, allowing for the breath to simply come in and go out.

Now choose. How would you like to proceed?