A first step in learning the Technique often consists of ceasing to ‘do’, i.e. refraining from performing an activity in the familiar, habitual manner. For F. M. Alexander this was the first step in evolving the Technique; he identified the loss of his voice as something he was ‘doing’.
‘Is it not fair, then,’ I asked him [his doctor], ‘to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble.’
During the process of evolving the Technique he found out that he could not combine ‘prevention’ with ‘doing’ (partly because he was not doing what he thought he was doing), but had to refrain from the idea of doing anything at all in order to maintain the prevention. This process has since been a hallmark of learning and practising the Technique.
No real progress in the overcoming of faults can be made until the pupil consciously ceases to will or to do those things which he has been willing and doing in the past, and which have led him to commit the faults that are to be eradicated.
The terms ‘do’ and ‘doing’ are featured in all of F. M. Alexander’s books. Alexander is also quoted for using ‘doing’ in his teaching. For example, Walter Carrington quotes Alexander:
He’d very often say to someone at the beginning of the first lesson: ‘Now, I don’t want you to do anything as you understand doing.’
Several of Alexander’s teaching aphorisms refer to ‘doing’, e.g:
Doing in your case is so ‘overdoing’ that you are practically paralysing the parts you want to work.
The word ‘doing’ may be used with two different meanings:
- performing an activity, whether it is with good use or not, e. g. ‘do the dishes’;
- performing an activity without the employment of inhibition, frequently involving too much muscular effort.
The change from one usage to another without clarification is a potential source of confusion. For example, Alexander in a lesson said:
How can an order be anything but ‘doing’ – but not doing as you understand doing.
The term ‘non-doing’ first appears in 1925 and may have been suggested by John Dewey. In a lecture Alexander said:
When Professor John Dewey read the MS [manuscript] of my last book, he came in to me one morning and said, ‘Alexander, I am delighted that you hit upon that wonderful principle of non-doing in your technique.’ You see, I do not work any of these things [out] as a theory. Anything I have done, I have worked out as a technique. He [Dewey] said, ‘I am delighted that you have come upon this principle of non-doing.’ He had just come back from China and he said, ‘I find that that was the philosophy of the Chinese philosophers 3,000 years before Christ, but they had not the counterpart and hence the difficulties in China today.
In the same lecture he refers to the ‘the non-doing principle’. In Alexander’s books the term ‘non-doing’ only appears in UCL, in the 4-pages section ‘Withholding action or non-doing’:
In my work we are concerned primarily with non-doing in the fundamental sense of what we should not do in the use of ourselves in our daily activities; in other words, with preventing that habitual misuse of the psycho-physical mechanisms which renders these activities a constant source of harm to the organism.
Walter Carrington, in his 1946 diary, writes:
At tea FM said that he had, at last, decided that we must cut out in future teaching all instructions to order the neck to relax or to be free because such orders only lead to other forms of doing. If a person is stiffening the neck, the remedy is to get them to stop projecting the messages that are bringing about this condition and not to project messages to counteract the effects of the other messages. He said that the implied contradiction had worried him for a long time but, after working on Hallis this morning, he saw that it must be changed so all orders in future will be framed so as to emphasise ‘non-doing’.
Alexander is only quoted twice for using the term ‘undoing’:
You cannot lengthen a human being really, but you can in the sense of undoing the shortening.
What you feel is doing is ‘undoing.’
Difference between undoing and non-doing.
As ‘non-doing’ is the same as ‘withholding action’ it is an active process of inhibition, in the sense of inhibiting the instant (and therefore habitual) reaction to a stimulus. Non-doing may be considered purely preventative whereas undoing may be considered as undoing misuse which has already occurred. In practice there is no clear demarcation between the two; non-doing and undoing may occur simultaneously.
Non-doing is therefore an activity and not a passivity:
It is a curious anomaly that acceptance of the theory and practice of non-doing should be comparatively easy in attempts to help the self in external activities, but so difficult in similar attempts connected with internal activities. Such help involves a form of non-doing which must not be confused with passivity, and which is fundamental because it prevents the self from doing itself harm by misdirection of energy and uncontrolled reaction; it is an act of inhibition which comes into play when, for instance, in response to a given stimulus, we refuse to give consent to certain activity, and thus prevent ourselves from sending those messages which would ordinarily bring about the habitual reaction resulting in the ‘doing’ within the self of what we no longer wish to ‘do’.
Patrick Macdonald referred several times to doing and non-doing in his writings. For example:
On stopping doing: In Alexander’s sense ‘stopping doing’ means stopping that which leads to over-activity. It does not mean collapse (relaxation), for this is a doing of a different and even more harmful kind.
Of course, non-doing is a kind of doing, but it is very subtle. The difference is that, in doing, you do it, whereas in non-doing, it does you.
The long and short of it is that we, as teachers, require that certain activities should, as we say, ‘do themselves’. This we call ‘non-doing’. On the other hand, any activity that interferes with this ‘doing itself’ we call ‘doing’, and it is the aim of the teacher to get the pupil to inhibit it.
Walter Carrington emphasises a non-doing attitude in many places in his writings.
Lying down is very much about non-doing. You lie down not to do.
The whole fundamental principle of the Technique is to get people to stop doing things.
He discusses ‘non-doing hands’ in Personally Speaking. See also:
‘Attitude’ by Walter Carrington.
‘What I teach and how I teach it’ by Walter Carrington.
‘An interview with Walter Carrington’ by John Nicholls.
‘The first twelve lessons’ by Robin Skynner contains a criticism of the usage of the term ‘do’ and ‘doing’.
‘Don’t do it, but do the don’t’ by Jean Fischer discusses the different meanings of ‘do’ and ‘doing’ in the Alexander literature, and on avoiding confusions such as equating ‘non-doing’ with ‘non-activity’.
‘The Alexander Technique, non-doing, and expanded awareness’ by Cécile Raynor.
‘Doing and non-doing in coordination, rhythm and sound’ by Pedro de Alcantara argues that non-doing is not the result of relaxation but of many tensions brought together to serve a common goal, providing two examples of this from music and from acting.
In AT teaching non-doing is sometimes elevated to an activity in itself, where people are instructed not to react to anything, and to be as still as possible, mentally and physically. This is seen as a practice which can facilitate 1. a general undoing and/or 2. inhibition and non-doing in everyday life. Non-doing has also been described as when an activity apparently happens by itself.
For a selection of F. M. Alexander quotations on do, doing, non-doing, see the Mouritz Key Concepts Library.