Information vs Experience

We are living in the information age. Since the advent of the internet we have gained access to a virtually infinite trove of information, and with smartphones becoming ubiquitous we have access to this information nearly all the time. As a result, we’re using our own skills of retention and recall much less. Pretty much everyone over 30 remembers having to retain information- and realizes how quickly that skill is fading- in a generation or two we’ll become more and more dependent upon our ‘external brains’. We run the risk of losing skills we’ve spent all of human evolution developing.

But information is not a substitute for experience. An easily understood example is, the difference between reading travel sites and walking the streets of a new city yourself. Or learning how to drive- even when you’ve seen someone do it, and understand the concepts, until your own hands and feet move the heavy machine, it can defy explanation.

Part of the reason there isn’t a satisfying explanation to the question ‘what is the Alexander Technique?’ has to do with this; it was discovered and refined through experience. F.M. Alexander himself taught people how to improve their own stature and poise with little explanation, but with a gentle guided touch. If a picture is worth a thousand words, well-directed contact might be worth 10 times that. And there is no app for it.

John Cleese, actor and comedian has said “I find the Alexander Technique very helpful in my work. Things happen without you trying. They get to be light and relaxed. You must get an Alexander teacher to show it to you.” He resists the desire to explain it and recognizes that it should be learned through personal experience. In this interview Cleese, talks about his pre-show ritual - describing the practice of constructive rest. By explanation alone, it may not sound like much, but in practice it is a restorative and clarifying experience.

At the 11th International Alexander Congress this past week in Chicago, Roshi Joan Halifax, zen priest and social activist, talked about a relationship she has with a Nepalese yak herder. He was assigned to help her navigate the rocky and challenging terrain when she arrived in Nepal to study. Halifax said they could not speak the same language, but that he was gifted with a somatic empathy. He was attuned to her every movement as she would navigate her way around precarious and difficult passages and was there to prevent a fall even before she felt unsteady. She described his awareness of her as ‘magic’. But also noted that many parents possess this skill, and nurses. Somatic empathy is not dependent on language, or vision, or hearing alone, but something deeper, more primal and unique.

While we’re leaping forward into the future at the hyper-speed of the digital age. It might be useful to remember our multifaceted humanity. We need to feed all our senses, and remember the value in learning with our whole selves. We learn more effectively through personal experience than simply being told, or reading, or watching, or hearing about something. Very few people have ever learned to play music from a book, or improved their tennis game simply by watching others play. The more we value information over experience, the more we give up part of what it means to be human.

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