Breaking Vicious Circles


Professor Frank Pierce-Jones describes the  phenomenon of the vicious circle so eloquently in the introductory chapter of his book, “Body Awareness in Action” (later called “Freedom to Change”)

Escape from the Monkey Trap.

“It is said that a simple way to trap a monkey is to present him with a nut in a bottle. The monkey puts his paw through the bottles narrow mouth, grasps the nut, then cannot withdraw his paw because he will not (and hence cannot) let go of the nut. Most people are caught in the monkey traps of unconscious habit.”p4

I think that this is such an interesting metaphor. There are three strong elements represented.   The first is having tried a strategy that fails, that we continue with it against all reason.   Einstein is widely sourced as saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results.” The poor monkey is at an impasse. It cannot retract its arm and it cannot have the nut. Surely it would recognise this?

Like that monkey, I continue to expose many of my chronic patterns as doing the same thing over and expecting different results. Why do I do this? Generally, it’s because I am focused on symptoms that I am experiencing rather than observing the patterns around those symptoms. When I recognise that each bout of the same physical ailment has the same language, the same voice tones,the same posture, the same complaint, it’s a shock to recognise that I am doing the pattern of my ailment. When I intervene by changing my responses all my symptoms tend to quickly dissipate. It gives me an insight into how the way I respond is directly influencing my state of health. A student who came to me recently quite suddenly said,” I’ve been a pain in my neck.” She realised that the gripping that she had habitually employed in her neck muscles was the reason that she was experiencing neck pain. It was a great breakthrough. Nevertheless, I have had to constantly remind her to become aware of that pattern. She forgets that she is doing it, even though it causes significant discomfort.

The second element is the “nut”. Everyone wants the nut but how many consider the “means whereby” they can get that nut. Theatre director Peter Brook (in his book called “The Empty Space”) called this phenomenon the difference between “product” and “process”. He claimed that much of modern theatre is bogged down by needing to have a successful product. Consequently the whole creative process is ignored which leads to what Brook calls “the deadly theatre”.

I see this product and process issue a great deal in organisations that I advise as a consultant. They want to tick off  their compliance and lower their LTI’s (Lost time injury rate) but this quite often becomes an end in itself, and loses meaning and relevance for workers who are not involved in a meaningful process. Their experience is having to follow safety procedures from which they are totally disenfranchised. Safety becomes yet another constraint in the mundanity of the everyday work life. It’s a terrible and ludicrous outcome in a society that values the lives of its workers.

The final element in the metaphor is lack of awareness. That monkey is trapped with its hand in the bottle. Surely, it would realise its plight and let go. Alas no.  What would it take for the monkey to realise and free itself.  At one logical level all that monkey has to do is let go of the nut. As I understand it, to achieve this the monkey would have to have a new awareness of itself and its context. It would have to travel into the future (with its mind) to understand the consequences of its current response. It would have to become aware of the predicament that it was now facing, possible entrapment.  Then it would have to make a decision against its driving instincts to food.  Can you see why people say that Alexander Technique is a simple skill that’s incredibly difficult?

The tools for breaking vicious circles are not exercise, muscle development and stamina. Instead it is awareness, decision making and action against the habits of a lifetime that allow for new solutions. When those new solutions occur, it seems to many of us as if a miracle has taken place, but not so. Alexander has discovered a reliable process that can be used by anyone to develop constructive strategies to meet life’s demands. It opens up new possibilities for individuals and for the collective humanity.

I am amazed at how often I am met by the vicious circles of my habits in all the dealings of my life. It took me a while to understand that my learned behaviours, my habits operated constantly in my life at every level of my response and activity not just where I was experiencing pain.  Alexander Technique has been instrumental in opening up choice in my life and in allowing me to breaking vicious circles. This has not led to a product-the new improved Michael, instead it has led me into a process of discovery that continues each day of my life.