the process or result of mental activity
A new way to think about thinking
It has been a very long time since I became intrigued and quite fascinated with the idea of mentation, this extraordinary word. It is not in common usage. Which reflects a fault that goes right to the heart of our culture. With all the stress and anxiety prevalent in society today, it is quite astonishing that such a key concept is not apparent anywhere you look. Even more interesting is where I first discovered it. Not in our universities, schools or even from any psychology books I read. Most people I have asked don’t know the word. It first popped up, for me, in a book about the Tarot.¹ Often laughed at or feared as either a parlour game or something more sinister. It is a very serious attempt to explore the human condition that, in my opinion, is too often overlooked. The sword cards in the tarot are used to symbolise our experience of thought. What is the journey of thought? How can we better influence our thinking? Mentation asks us to consider what happens when we have stuff going on in our minds. Both below the level of consciousness and what we are aware of. The very nature of our thinking is at once a very useful tool or a hammer we beat ourselves with. In this article, I want to try to explain how mentation can be improved by the Alexander Technique work.
The mind is like a huge world and just like the world, there is much to explore. Most of us will naturally be ill-equipped to deal with its huge diversity. After all, they don’t teach us about mentation in school. In the tarot, the Ace of Swords is the first card we see and it deals with new ideas, new beginnings, new projects, new plans and breakthroughs². This illustrates well how we can start to think about thinking. What is our reaction to new beginnings? Most of us are very nervous, excited, frightened, worried. A client of mine is moving after 37 years happily in a very nice home. How can she not be worried? Her thinking will affect her experience. Is she experiencing a difficult ending or a new beginning? Are there thoughts operating below the level of conscious awareness niggling her? Like little crabs biting your toes on the beach. This is the point where we must become aware of mentation. Otherwise, we will have a negative experience and worse our behaviour, our responses can lead to worsening outcomes. Another client started smoking because he was having to move. Interestingly, and perhaps why people steer clear of the tarot altogether, is the fear of cards like the last sword card (mentation card). It represents painful endings as a kind of death, which of course they are. But only metaphorically. We should not fear them, we should understand them as part of life. With the right mentation, we see a new beginning, currently, there is only fear and worry. On the surface, it appears easier to live with this worry rather than to pierce the surface and explore deeper why we feel this way. Or change our mental activity to be more helpful.
How can we Influence better our thinking?
So the question then becomes how do we organise our thoughts? There are many techniques for sorting out our thoughts, feelings and anxieties. Psychoanalysis, CBT, other therapies, religions, various yoga practices, meditation and many more modalities besides. And of course for our purposes the Alexander Technique.
A quick study of the brain will show us that we have an amygdala. The region of the brain primarily associated with emotional processes. We need to learn to think without the amygdala flooding the cerebral cortex, undermining rational thought. Through calm thinking, we influence the valence and intensity of emotions. This amygdala is not solely associated with negative flooding of the rational part of the brain, though it often can be through the arousal of the fear reflex. Preparation of the fight or flight reflex. (see article) https://alexandertechnique.tv/2015/09/08/the-fear-reflex-fight-or-flight/)
Essentially what we are exploring here is how we can influence our thinking, not the content necessarily but the quality. A good education goes a long way, allowing us to have clear thoughts. To use our brains well, but it isn’t going to touch on some of the more fundamental elements of thinking that need a more nuanced approach. Oftentimes our thoughts are driving themselves, we have lost control of mentation. This is unhelpful thinking, negative mental activity. Worry. Anxiety or just pointless thoughts, leading to depression. Using the Alexander Technique we learn to stop this excitation of thought. Calm the body and calm the mind. Improved mentation.
Humans engage in spontaneous thought with an astoundingly high frequency. Daily experience sampling techniques estimate that humans spend between 30-50% of daily life engaged in thoughts unrelated to the immediate task at hand.³ In 2020 a study published in ‘?Nature’ found that we have over 6000 new thoughts a day. I would suggest that we can quite easily live without most of these.
In ?Lao Tzu’s,’ Tao Te Ting’ an ancient book of wisdom, it is suggested that to have a full mind we must empty it first. Allow the mind to be free. Empty it of words. Clear it. Easier said than done. But it is an essential skill if we are to improve mentation and one that comes naturally to those who practice diligently Alexanders’ method. Far too many people have an interior life that does not serve them well. Mentation can either lead to a positive result mentally or a negative one. Young people can fall into a trap. How do we ensure they won’t end up suicidal? Which can be the result of the wrong kind of thinking. Bad mental activity.
Using the Alexander technique we are surprised to find it is more about thinking than it is about the body. It is a way of thinking. In the end mind and body are not separate. Learning to become more psychophysical? is the beginning of improving our relationship to thinking.
It is a common misconception that mental activity has to be controlled by somehow working on the mind, finding the appropriate techniques. This isn’t impossible, but it is far more practicable to work first on the body and allow the mind to relax like the muscles in the body. Many people over many years have complained to me that stopping thinking is a near impossibility. My six year old just joined that crowd when we were discussing meditation and he professed that he could not. How should it be so? It is surely this impossibility of quieting the mind that is at fault here. During meditation, it is necessary to learn to prevent the constant chatter of the mind. Not easy. Focusing on calming the body will be more effective. Alexander Technique deals directly with this.
There is a relationship between thinking and breathing which plays a big part. Note that the tarot cards that represent mentation are symbolised by **air. Think of the difference in breathing when a gun is pointing at your head or perhaps lying on a sunlounger on vacation. The quality of thinking is inextricably linked to breathing. Consider a wise teacher, calm and connected explaining a piece of interesting knowledge. Then consider the emotive expression of the fanatic or demagogue. Perhaps it can be said that rational thought or helpful thought will always be delivered through a calm breath. This is our objective when working on improving mentation, to ensure that as we think, we are not having responses that excite the nervous system and throw us off balance.
Feeding the mind
Finally, it must be concluded that to improve mentation we must consider ***Svadyaya. Or self-study. If you spend all of your reading time on books about heavy subjects, artillery, war, politics and bloody thrillers then clearly the mental activity is not going to be harmonious. If you spend too much time on social media looking at all those ‘amazing lives’ you are cooking envy and depression into your mind. Better to read something or watch something that has an element of beauty or uplift about it. Still read those dark books you love, of course. But work on your mentation. Read, ‘Happiness’ by the Dalai Lama. Healthy brain food. Look at nature programmes and the like as a way of filling the mind with inspiration. Or just sit and allow the mind to empty and breathe calmly for a few moments. Alexander Technique is developed in such a way that it naturally addresses these issues over time. With repetition and useful practice, we become more relaxed. We are less inclined to do things that disturb our newfound equilibrium. We know what it is we need to do. Take a break when we feel stress damaging our sense of wellbeing. Become aware when the mentation is harming us. We become more conscious and more conscientious. We learn to say no, to stop, when the mind starts to become hyper or negative with overthinking.
There is a real deficit in society of any understanding of mentation which has led to a profuse amount of mental ill-health. Most people will suffer this at some point. It is an understanding of mentation that will help us to get away from this unwanted suffering. We need to teach ourselves how to better use our minds, how to think better inside our heads. It is not necessary to think all day long in words. If we can learn to switch off the mind and allow it to be empty of words then we can experience a different mind and body. Lack of mental and physical unity, which is sadly the root cause of much anxiety, has reached epidemic proportions amongst both adults and children. Let us not wait until the mind is broken to seek help for it. Our minds are the children we must love and nurture. With improved mentation, we can help others, our children, our friends and family and ourselves to enjoy a better life. Using the Alexander Technique will certainly set you on the path to better mentation. We must above all review and improve mental activity. This has been a short introduction to mentation. It is my hope merely to put this idea into people’s minds so that they realise a possible area for growth. Over the years it has certainly helped me to be careful about this business of thinking.
¹Tarot For Tomorrow” Emily Peach
?Tseng, J., Poppenk, J. Brain meta-state transitions demarcate thoughts across task contexts exposing the mental noise of trait neuroticism. Nat Commun 11, 3480 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17255-9
?Tao Te Ching Ch’u TA-Kao Mandala Books
?FM Alexander wrote that it is impossible to separate mental and physical activity. However, this is rather the problem for most that they do. The Alexander Teacher has to correct this in the pupil.
*Collins English Dictionary
**The Air Element (Suit of Swords)
***In Hinduism, Svadhyaya is a Niyama (spiritual observance) connoting introspection and “study of self”. Reading inspiring spiritual texts is Svadhyaya.