This week I went looking for words. I found hundreds of them, at the cashpoint, on buses, in shop windows and open spaces. A chorus of adverts and notices shouted for my attention and instant action:
Touch screen to begin
Start the adventure
Get the app
Find your new job
Do something you love
Please say hello
Call our team today
Now available here
Open all day
Open every day
Same day service
Buy one get one free
Have you swiped your Nectar card?
Clean up after your dog
I don’t have a dog, but came home overwhelmed by possibilities. The next day I went out again, on the lookout for things not to do:
No ball games
I couldn’t find as many of them, and I didn’t have to (not) do them immediately. Instead this was about keeping me in my place, ensuring my behaviour and my body stayed within boundaries. I had less freedom in the outside world than I thought. Still no dog.
The Alexander word for ‘not doing’ is inhibition. I’ve struggled with it and find it hard to put into practice or describe, but it’s central to becoming a teacher. I think it’s about habit and choice. If we automatically obey an instruction or react to a stimulus, we’re more likely to do it in our habitual way. Habits are what we want to move away from, because they encourage us to act or move unthinkingly, without paying attention.
By ‘not doing’ we allow ourselves breathing space between stimulus and response. This gives us time to choose how to react: we can do nothing, carry on with what we intended, or do something else altogether. But in the pause for thought we’ve allowed a moment to make a conscious choice, and that’s the key.
My sample of words on the street is just a fraction of the shout-outs for action we come across each day. ‘Doing’ is seen as positive, natural, a necessary part of everyday life – otherwise how would we ever achieve anything? It’s also time-bound, deadline-driven, urgent. The idea of ‘non-doing’ seems largely negative and constraining, even lazy and out of step.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s difficult to explain or understand Alexander’s ideas, because they run so counter to prevailing thinking. There seems little room for the Alexander concept of not reacting, stopping and pausing or for seeing ‘non-doing’ as a welcome chance to catch our habits on the hop before they take over.
The only instruction I came across where the mainstream and the Alexander world were in unison was a road safety slogan. The three words made me smile, breathe and pause:
Stop. Think. Live.