F. Matthias Alexander on the impossibility of separating "physical" and "mental" operations in our conception of the working of the human organism.
Let’s get psychophysical!
I first learned about psychophysical unity from the books of F. Matthias Alexander. This is where the name of the blog came from and the principle is central to the movement practice I teach.
Ideas and techniques claiming to improve the mind-body relationship are pretty common nowadays, especially since the influx of Eastern and other methods to the West during the twentieth century. But Alexander was one of the few westerners talking about this stuff over 100 years ago.
He actually used the term “psycho-physical” back in the day but I have thrown out the hyphen and put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Here are some extracts from F. Matthias Alexander’s four books.
“In the adoption of "physical exercises" and of the various methods of "mental healing" as specific remedies for human ills, man made an arbitrary attempt to separate the psycho-physical organism into parts which he defined as body, mind and soul.
Now to separate any organism into parts and then to expect it to function satisfactorily is an unreasoned proposition, as unreasoned as it would be for instance to expect to obtain the best results from any other machine, by separating the gear mechanism from the explosive and steering mechanism.
Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (1923) ; p44
“At this juncture I wish to make clear the sense in which I use the word psycho-physical. The term psycho-physical is used both here and throughout my works to indicate the impossibility of separating "physical" and "mental" operations in our conception of the working of the human organism. As I wrote in Man's Supreme Inheritance, " In my opinion the two must be considered entirely interdependent, and even more closely knit than is implied by such* a phrase." Hence I use the term psycho-physical activity to indicate all human manifestations, and psycho-physical mechanism to indicate the instrument which makes these manifestations possible.
Psycho-physical activity must not, however, always be considered as involving equal action and reaction of the processes concerned, for, as I hope to show, the history of the stages of man's development reveals manifestations of human activity which, at certain stages, show a preponderance on what is called the "physical" side, and at other stages a preponderance on what is called the "mental" side.
I am forced to use the words "physical" and "mental" here and throughout my argument because there are no other words at present which adequately express the manifestations of psycho-physical activity present at these various stages, not in any sense because the "physical" and the "mental" can be separated as such. I wish, therefore, to make it clear that whenever I use the word "mental," it is to be understood as representing all processes or manifestations which are generally recognized as not wholly "physical," and vice versa the word "physical" as representing all processes and manifestations which are generally recognized as not wholly " mental."
Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual; p2
“For, as we have already indicated, in the beginning of things there must have been unity, and it was a strange lack of reasoning that permitted men to make a false division in an organism that can be satisfactorily developed only as an indivisible psycho-physical unity.
Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual; p49
“I must admit that when I began my investigation, I, in common with most people, conceived of "body" and "mind" as separate parts of the same organism, and consequently believed that human ills, difficulties and shortcomings could be classified as either "mental" or "physical" and dealt with on specifically "mental" or specifically "physical" lines. My practical experiences, however, led me to abandon this point of view and readers of my books will be aware that the technique described in them is based on the opposite conception, namely, that it is impossible to separate "mental" and "physical" processes in any form of human activity.
This change in my conception of the human organism has not come about as the outcome of mere theorizing on my part. It has been forced upon me by the experiences which I have gained through my investigations in a new field of practical experimentation upon the living human being.
The letters I receive from my readers show that a large majority of those who accept the theory of the unity of mental and physical processes in human activity, find difficulty in understanding what the practical working of this theory of unity implies. This difficulty is always coming up in my teaching, but it is possible during a course of lessons to demonstrate to the pupil how the mental and physical work together in the use of the self in all activity. Repeated demonstration of this kind brings conviction, but since the number of pupils one can take, even in a large teaching practice, is naturally limited, the opportunities for giving this demonstration are comparatively few, and I have therefore decided in this book to start at the beginning and relate the history of the investigations which gradually led to the evolution of my technique. I shall give as fully as possible the actual details of the experiments I made, telling what I observed and experienced during the process, as I believe that by so doing I shall be giving my readers the opportunity to see for themselves the train of events which finally convinced me
(1) that the so-called "mental" and "physical" are not separate entities ;
(2) that for this reason human ills and shortcomings cannot be classified as "mental" or "physical" and dealt with specifically as such, but that all training, whether it be educative or otherwise, i.e., whether its object be the prevention or elimination of defect, error or disease, must be based upon the indivisible unity of the human organism.
If any reader doubts this, I would ask him if he can furnish any proof that the process involved in the act, say, of lifting an arm, or of walking, talking, going to sleep, starting out to learn something, thinking out a problem, making a decision, giving or withholding consent to a request or wish, or of satisfying a need or sudden impulse, is purely "mental" or purely "physical."
The Use of the Self (1932); p.1-2
“The one-sided development which had taken place in the human organism. For unbalanced psycho-physical development connotes unsatisfactory equilibrium in all spheres, and unsatisfactory equilibrium is ever associated with fear. As we have seen, since man's entry into the civilized state he had been developing more rapidly on what is called the mental side, whilst on the so-called physical side there was actual deterioration. He had thus been building up within himself two forces, as it were, the one working against the other, until it was almost as if he had developed two separate entities, the " physical" and the " mental." It was the conflicting demands of these " separate entities " which caused the interference with psycho-physical equilibrium…
Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual; p 46
“We are beset with contending and dis-organizing forces in the working of the psycho-physical organism of each individual, inasmuch as we are developing so-called "mental" processes at a rapidly increasing pace never before experienced, whilst attempting to employ them side by side with so-called " physical" processes which for years have become less and less satisfactorily controlled and directed, the result being a lowering of the standard of psycho-physical co-ordination.
Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual; p153
“Therefore, we must turn our attention once more to that psycho-physical process which we call habit, including developments which have their origin in consciousness as well as those which spring from the subconsciousness.
Man’s Supreme Inheritance (1918); p.39
“Every living human being is a psycho-physical unity equipped with marvellous mechanisms, and it is through these when set in motion by the stimulus of some desire or need that all reactions take place. Every reaction, therefore, is associated with a particular manner of use of these mechanisms and, because of the closeness of the association, it is this manner of use that constantly influences all manifestations of human activity, whether labelled manual or mental.
The Universal Constant in Living (1946); p.3
“The separation of the organism into parts by the anatomists and the physiologists is very significant, because it has prevented them from recognizing the importance of trying to gain a knowledge of the normal as well as the abnormal working of the postural mechanisms. Had they done this they would have seen that the psycho-physical controlling part is inseparable from the working of the other parts, and is as responsible for the misdirected use of specific muscles and tendons or groups of muscles as it is for that co-ordinated working of the postural mechanisms as a whole necessary to the normal use of these mechanisms.
The Universal Constant in Living; p.114
“I am offering a psycho-physical approach to the problem of translating ideals, theories, and beliefs into practice, and have shown that this calls for that fundamental change in the use of the self by means of which the standard of general functioning is raised and psycho-physical defects and ills, whether fears or any other emotional reactions, are overcome. This means psycho-physical reconditioning, and such reconditioning cannot be effected by means of ideals alone, any more than man can live by bread alone.
The Universal Constant in Living; p.166
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