the process or result of mental activity
A new way to think about thinking
It has been a long time since becoming intrigued and quite fascinated with the idea of mentation, this critical word. Unfortunately, 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. Even more interesting is where I first discovered it. No one was familiar with the term in a survey of around twenty people. It can be found, however, in a book of tarot.¹ Often laughed at or feared as a parlour game or something more sinister. It is, in truth, an earnest attempt to explore the human condition that is too often overlooked by those with only a passing knowledge of this otherwise fascinating approach to human understanding. The sword cards in the tarot represent 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 above and below the level of consciousness. The very nature of our thinking is at once a handy tool or a hammer we beat ourselves with. This article will briefly explore how the Alexander Technique work can improve mentation.
The mind is like a vast world; just like the world, there is much to explore. Most of us will naturally be ill-equipped to deal with its enormous diversity. After all, schools do not teach us about mentation. In the tarot, the Ace of Swords is the first card we see; it deals with new ideas, new beginnings, new projects, new plans and breakthroughs². Here we can begin to explore how we can start to think about thinking. What is our reaction to new beginnings? Most of us are very nervous, excited, frightened, and worried. A client was moving after 37 years happily in a lovely home. How could she not be worried? Her thinking will affect her experience. Is she experiencing a brutal ending or a new beginning? Are thoughts that are operating below the level of conscious awareness niggling her? Like little crabs were biting her toes on the beach. At this point, it is helpful to become aware of mentation. How are we thinking? Otherwise, we will have a negative experience and worse our behaviour, and our responses can lead to worsening outcomes. Another client started smoking because he had 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, where there is only fear and worry. On the surface, it appears easier to live with this worry rather than pierce it and explore deeper why we feel this way or change our mental activity to be more helpful.
How can we influence our thinking better?
The question then becomes how 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 other modalities. And, of course, for our purposes, the Alexander Technique.
A quick study of the brain will show us that we have an amygdala. The brain region is primarily, although not exclusively, 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 adverse flooding of the brain’s rational part, 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, we are exploring 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 and to use our brains well. However, it will only sometimes have developed emotional intelligence, a more fundamental element of thinking that needs a more nuanced approach. Frequently our thoughts are driving themselves. We lose control of mentation. We slip into unhelpful thinking and hostile mental activity—worry—anxiety, or pointless thoughts, leading to depression or a generally negative outlook. 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 30-50% of daily life engaged in thoughts unrelated to the immediate task.³ In 2020, a study published in ‘Nature’ found that we have over 6000 new thoughts daily. Unsurprisingly we can quite easily live without most of these.
In ‘Lao Tzu’s,’ Tao Te Ting’ an ancient book of wisdom, he suggests 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. Nevertheless, it is an essential skill to improve mentation and one that comes naturally to those who diligently practice 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 will not 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 the body. It is a way of thinking. In the end, the 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 and finding the appropriate techniques. Arguably, this is not 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. Over many years, many people have complained that stopping thinking is a near impossibility. Speaking with my six-year-old, we discovered that he, too, had joined this infinite crowd; when we were discussing meditation, he professed that he could not stop thinking. How should it be so? Indeed, this impossibility of quieting the mind 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.
Breathing is Thinking
There is a relationship between thinking and breathing, which plays a big part. Note that, in the tarot, the element of **air represents mentation. Think of the difference in your breathing when a gun is pointing at your head or perhaps lying on a sunlounger on vacation. We can see here that the quality of thinking is inextricably linked to the quality of breathing. It is a physiological reality that how we think and breathe works together. Consider a wise teacher, calm and connected, explaining exciting knowledge. Then consider the emotive expression of the fanatic or demagogue. Rational thoughts or helpful ideas will always be delivered through a calm breath. This becomes our objective when working on improving mentation, ensuring that as we think, we do not have responses that excite the nervous system and throw us off balance. Instead, we try to remain present to practice good mentation—clear and helpful thinking.
Feeding the mind
Additionally, to improve mentation, we must consider ***Svadyaya. Or self-study. Spending too much time reading books about heavy subjects, artillery, war, politics and action thrillers will undermine mental activity. Our mentation will not be travelling along harmonious routes. Too much time spent on social media looking at all those ‘amazing lives’, you are cooking envy and depression into your mind. It is better to read something or watch something with beauty or uplift. Still, read those dark books that are enjoyable. However, temper your mind, and work on mentation. Read ‘Happiness’ by the Dalai Lama or other books that do not create stress. Healthy brain food. Look at nature programmes and the like to fill the mind with inspiration. Sit and allow the mind to empty and breathe calmly for a few moments. Alexander’s Technique works to naturally addresses these issues over time. With repetition and valuable 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 well-being. Become aware when the mentation is harming us. We become more conscious and more conscientious. We learn to say no or stop when the mind starts to become hyper or hostile with overthinking.
There is an actual deficit in our society with regard to this idea of mentation. We are not learning to think healthily. We do not cultivate an understanding of mentation, which has led to a profuse amount of mental ill-health. Most people will suffer from this at some point. An understanding of mentation will help us escape this unwanted suffering. We must teach ourselves how to use our minds and think better inside our heads. It is not helpful to think all day long in words. If we can learn to switch off the mind and allow it to be empty of words, we can experience a different mind and body. Sadly, lack of mental and physical unity, the root cause of much anxiety, has reached epidemic proportions amongst adults and children. It is essential to seek help to address this critical issue before the mind causes unnecessary pain. 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 undoubtedly set you on the path to better mentation. We must, above all, review and improve mental activity. This article has been a relatively short introduction to mentation. I want to put this idea into people’s minds, so they realise a possible area for growth. Over the years, it has helped and inspired a much more helpful approach to this thinking business. It is, without a doubt, central to mental health today.
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.