Michael Ashcroft

How to be Superman

"Superman" by Mexicaans fotomagazijn is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

First of all, I ask that you watch this one-minute video.

None of this will make any sense if you don’t.

What was that like?

When most people see this for the first time, they go ‘wow’. Why? What makes this clip so powerful?

There’s something about Reeve’s way of being that makes him captivating – so captivating that you can’t help but pay attention. It's not his deeper voice. It's not his more upright posture. There’s something else going on.

Where Clark seems to use muscles to pull himself down, Superman floats up to his full height effortlessly.

Where Clark takes up less space – the way you might when you don’t want to be noticed – Superman is naturally self-confident and comfortable with being seen.

Where Clark narrows his awareness forwards and down, Superman is aware of the entire space around him.

Dropping the Clark Kent disguise and becoming Superman looks effortless, right? That’s because it is effortless: it’s literally the absence of effort. What remains is an elegant, confident and compelling poise. It’s almost a relief when he transforms, as if this is the way things are really meant to be. And that’s exactly it – this is the way things are meant to be.

It’s a lot like the moment when Keanu Reeves transforms from ‘Mr Anderson’ into ‘The One’: his final fight scene with Agent Smith in The Matrix is a masterclass in effortlessness.

These two performances have something in common. Both Christopher Reeve and Keanu Reeves studied something called Alexander Technique. This is how Clark Kent becomes Superman and how Mr Anderson becomes The One.

Although many people who have heard of Alexander Technique think it’s just about improving posture and reducing back pain, it goes so much deeper than that. At its core, Alexander Technique is about learning to decondition yourself from habitual patterns, to unlearn ways of thinking and being that no longer serve you. To be without trying.

Alexander Technique lets you tap into something you’ve already experienced, but inconsistently. It’s the sublime moment when you throw something effortlessly – without thinking at all – and it lands precisely where you wanted. You didn’t think through everything you’re going to do. You didn’t consciously move yourself like your body is a puppet and you’re the puppeteer. Throwing just happened and it happened flawlessly.

It’s also the same experience as beginner’s luck, when you don’t have any expectations that you should know what you’re doing. You don’t believe you need to get anything right and it just works.

But then you try to do it again, you start to care about getting it right, and the part of you that thinks starts interfering. The harder you try to replicate that beginner’s luck, the worse it gets, because whatever you try is not what you actually did the first time when it just worked.

“Trying is only emphasising the thing we know already,” said Frederick Matthias Alexander, the originator of the Technique. You have no idea how you landed that shot so well, so all your trying is just emphasising the wrong thing.

The same problem shows up in other places in life too. Notice how when you try to think, you tense your eyes and furrow your brow – but none of that helps with thinking. When you try to listen, you tense around your ears, cock your head and move a bit closer. None of that helps with listening. Like your understanding of these words right in this moment, these things happen by themselves.

Alexander Technique contradicts our society’s cult of trying. Our default narrative is, “Try really really hard and you’ll get good results. No pain, no gain. People who don’t try are lazy.”

But what I’m saying is that you can try less hard while achieving even better results. I’m not talking about doing nothing at all. I’m talking about not wasting energy on things that not only don’t contribute to the full living of your life, but can actively harm it.

Because trying comes so naturally to us, we don't realise we're doing it, and we don't know how to stop.  It’s hard to stop trying because anything you try is still trying!

Alexander captured the way out of this trap: “When you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.” Don’t try to think. Instead, learn to stop doing the things that get in the way of thinking and just let thinking happen by itself.

Alexander Technique, then, is about learning how to stop doing the wrong things and to access and trust the part of you that knows what the right thing is. Sounds amazing, right? “Michael, you simply must tell me how I can learn this amazing skill!”, I hear you cry.

In the past, if you talked to me about this and wanted to learn more, I would have suggested going to see a teacher (like me) in person. Alexander Technique is traditionally taught in person and through touch. But that’s not always accessible and – as you may have noticed – there’s a pandemic right now.

Since I love being contrarian, I believe it’s possible to teach this online. Alexander himself didn’t have a teacher. He figured it out himself using nothing but mirrors, patience and the scientific method.

I’ve been playing with different ways of presenting the key ideas online, connecting them to other relevant disciplines and listening carefully to what resonates with people.

I want to figure this out because I believe that widespread knowledge and application of the Alexander Technique could unlock our individual and collective potential.

Viktor Frankl said it well:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Alexander Technique gives us the tools to notice, expand, and ultimately live in that space between stimulus and response. It unlocks our growth and our freedom.

I want everyone to have access to that.

Want to follow along as I figure out how to do this? Get the latest updates via my new Alexander Technique newsletter.

Want more?

I publish a regular newsletter called Thinking Out Loud, which covers things like stuff like building in public, Total Work, solarpunk, carbon removal, sense-making, building communities, creating positive narratives for the future, identity and various other things.
400 subscribers can't be wrong!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.