The Case of the Modern-Day Knack / A Zhuangzi for Thinker-Doers

David Lindsay


c. 2022. All rights reserved.

The Zhuangzi, a book about transformations, is not immune from its subject. The versions available to me as a teenager (Legge, Burton) gave the impression of a mystical work about figures endowed with otherworldly skills. When I returned to it recently, inspired by the posts of Liam Kofi Bright,[1] the message was quite different. In the newer translations (Graham, Ziporyn), it had been recast as a work of great depth, as varied and nuanced as any work worthy of inclusion in a philosophical canon.[2]

It didn’t take long, however, before I began to wonder if the scholarly community had perhaps overcompensated in its zeal to revive the “serious” Zhuangzi. Here is Chad Hansen summarizing the “knack experience” that had once so enamored editors:

The tales often highlight the tranquil state that accompanies behavior that skillfully follows a natural path. The performances look and feel effortless. The spontaneity of the flow along a natural path gives performers the sense that their behavior is “world ­guided” rather than internally controlled. These behaviors become second­ nature. We move beyond anything like sub­vocalizing instructions, deliberating or reflecting—and yet we are concentrating intently on the behavior. The range of his examples reminds us that such satisfying states of performance can be experienced in even the most low caste and mundane of activities, including butchering, criminal skills, as well as in the finest of arts, and philosophy.[3]

So far, so good. However, there seem to be two lines of interest that, even in such a multivarious collection as the Zhuangzi, stand out as incongruous: one about access to the dao [道] and another that raises skeptical questions — a doer’s Zhuangzi and a thinker’s Zhuangzi. Hansen continues:

Another feature of this theme is the observation that such expertise in performance always comes with some kind of limitation – not least that each example is a different person with a different knack. There is no shortcut dào that gives you a knack at every activity… And above all, the valorization of this kind of specialization in an art pulls in the opposite direction of Zhuangzi’s encouragement to broaden and enlarge our perspectives and scope of appreciation. (Emphasis added.)[4]

Many scholars, understandably wary of mystical claims, have chosen to concentrate on Zhuangzi as a philosopher of language. People are right not to want to be pulled in different directions, and the author gives them ample opportunity to scoff at the “bear hanging” and “bird stretching” exercises practiced during his time.[5] On the other hand, re-reading his book again with the advantage of a few of my own free and easy wanderings, I was reminded of a tradition, completely removed in time and space, that seems to arrive at the same “world guided” behavior Hansen describes.

Compare, for example, Hansen’s description of the Zhuangzian knack experience to this one:

[W]hen the network of muscle pulls is perfectly in balance and the [pianist] is able to maintain that system in a coordinated state while executing a specific motion, then the act of raising the hand occurs as if by itself, with a minimum of distortion and without any sense of effort. The movement of the arm is no longer experienced or sought after as a deliberate act but occurs effortlessly in the context of a coordinated whole. He doesn’t deliberately attempt to hit notes, but releases his hand in response to a clearly thought-out conception. To initiate activity in this way is to achieve effortless performance…When the pianist performs the act of playing with a perfectly controlled mechanism, action feels strange and disembodied, as if one has lost direct control of the body and it moves of its own accord.[6]

This quote is from Ted Dimon, co-founder of the American Society for the Alexander Technique and director of the Dimon Institute in New York City.[7] A brief survey of Dimon’s publications will not give the impression of a mystic. His latest book, The Anatomy in Action,[8] is devoted almost entirely to an explication of the muscular system. His website is likewise almost entirely void of metaphors. Yet the passage is remarkably reminiscent of knack experience as related in the Zhuangzi.  

Given this striking resemblance, I thought it might be useful to revisit the foundations of the Alexander Technique to see what other anachronistic connections it might make to the Zhuangzi, not just in terms of knack stories, but also to see if anything in it engaged Zhuangzi’s philosophical concerns writ large – to see, basically, if there might be an extant explanation of the knack that, in Hansen’s words, “would not be refuted by the skeptical arguments that Zhuangzi directed against the Confucians.”[9]

The Alexander Technique has been interpreted in various ways since its introduction, just as the Zhuangzi has.[10] In this essay, I draw mainly from Alexander’s book The Use of the Self, with special attention to the chapter “The Evolution of a Technique,” which describes the genesis of his method. As for Zhuangzi, my sharpest attention will be on his idea-heavy Inner Chapters, as translated by Brook Ziporyn (2009) and Angus C. Graham (1981).[11] This choice leaves out large swathes of both traditions. Alexander did not teach his technique in the same way that he learned it, and there is much of interest in the Zhuangzi beyond the Inner Chapters. My idea is to focus narrowly on the core insights of the innovators, such that the comparison can be expanded upon later if need be.

Even within these limitations, such an approach poses challenges. While Alexander tells his story in a more or less chronological sequence – sometimes in plodding detail! – Zhuangzi makes daring leaps, with frequent shifts in point of view and tone, opting sometimes for storytelling, others for argument. For the sake of clarity, I’ve retained the order of Alexander’s exposition, interspersing passages from the Zhuangzi in italics where they seem to resonate. Indented paragraphs indicate points where I speak for myself. I apologize in advance if the reader is occasionally left to reassemble a puzzle. If it’s any consolation, the comparison does eventually show that a knack experience consistent with Zhuangzi’s account can be integrated into his more openly philosophical arguments.

* * *

F. M. Alexander is often thought of today as the originator of a method for reducing stress due to poor posture. I believe this characterization is misguided. In my view, what sets the Alexander Technique apart from other approaches that fall, rightly or wrongly, under the vague headings of mindfulness or body awareness is a) its attention to first-person, first-order interactions between mind and body in the midst of activity and b) its staunch refusal to infer anything about those first-order interactions. Unlike many practices that espouse paths to wisdom or well-being, these restrictions also lend themselves well to the epistemic concerns of philosophers.

As a stage performer (technically, an elocutionist) in late 19th century Australia, Alexander began to have trouble with his throat and vocal cords. “[N]ot long after,” he writes, “I was told by my friends that when I was reciting my breathing was audible, and that they could hear me (as they put it) ‘gasping’ and ‘sucking in air’ through my mouth.”[12]

In Chapter Six, Zhuangzi mentions different kinds of breathing, including gasping. “The mass of men,” he writes, “breathe from their throats. Submissive and defeated, they gulp down their words and just as soon vomit them back up. Their preferences and desires run deep, but the Heavenly [natural] Impulse is shallow in them.” [13] In the same passage, Zhuangzi contrasts gasping or gulping with “breathing from the heels.” I don’t find a good explanation of what breathing from the heels might mean, either in the Zhuangzi or in the Yinshu, a roughly contemporaneous medical treatise,[14] but the mention of gasping marks an auspicious beginning.

In hopes of eliminating the problem with his voice, Alexander turned to the medical community. He was given various remedies, some of which helped… until he returned to the stage, when his gasping returned. “Is it not fair, then,” he asked his latest in a series of doctors, “to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening [the night of a recital] in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?”[15] The doctor had no answer, so Alexander embarked on a sustained exploration, using mirrors to study his movements, into what he was actually doing.

When presented with a question to which he had no answer, Alexander shut himself in. While seclusion is a well-known stereotype of esoteric pursuits, I find only two examples in the Inner Chapters where it’s chosen specifically as a means of discovery – in Chapters Four and Chapter Six, where Yan Hui reports his findings to (a fictitious) Confucius.[16] In Chapter Four, one line in particular stands out. Yan Hui says, “Before I find what moves me into activity, it is myself that is full and real. But as soon as I find what moves me, it turns out that ‘myself’ has never begun to exist.”[17] In this respect, Yan Hui and Alexander are both isolating themselves and asking “what moves me into activity?” – one prosaically, the other in more sweepingly metaphysical terms.

The problem, Alexander observed, was that he pulled his head back, depressed his larynx and gasped whenever attempting to speak at recital volume, and to a lesser extent when he spoke in a normal speaking voice. Unable to identify which of these caused the others, he first sought an answer to this question.

Zhuangzi also asks himself about causation and correlation in the body, albeit without the motivation of an ailment. “It seems that there is something genuinely in command,” he writes in Chapter Two, “and that the only trouble is we cannot find sign of it. That as a ‘Way’ it can be walked is true enough, but we do not see its shape; it has identity but no shape. Of the hundred joints, nine openings, six viscera, all present and complete, which should I recognize as more kin to me than another?”[18] He is unable to resolve the question of its identity, except to say “if there is a genuine ruler among them, then whether we could find out facts about him or not would neither add nor subtract from his genuineness.”[19] This is in the context of the larger force that moves all things – Heaven, which in context means “nature.” 

Zhuangzi and Alexander approach the question of causation and correlation in the body in a similar manner. Following the European tradition, we would say Alexander is using ordinary inductive reasoning. Zhuangzi introduces his thoughts on the matter with the word zhi [知], a flexible term that Ziporyn translates here as “to know”and elsewhere as the “understanding consciousness,” on the proviso that it can also carry connotations of discernment, cleverness and skill in judgment. Generally speaking, in using one’s zhi, one employed shi-fei – where shi [是] means “(that) is it”or “right,” and fei [非] means “(that) is not” or “wrong.” In the Warring States period during which Zhuangzi wrote, the term shi-fei came to indicate a style of debate between opponents, and as such served as an important foil for many of his philosophical points. In this passage, of course, Zhuangzi is conducting an internal inquiry, rather than engaging in a public display of skill. Nevertheless, the principle of shi-fei – that’s it, that’s not – remains implied in his query about a genuine ruler, and seems readily applicable to Alexander’s parallel question as well.

After some months, Alexander found that the variable over which he had control was the pulling back of his head. If he was able to prevent this, the gasping and depression of his larynx did not occur.

Once Alexander identified the head-neck relation as the culprit, he was no longer interested in controlling his breath. (Even later, when he applied his findings to vocalization, he explicitly designed his technique to leave the respiratory process to its own devices.)[20] In fact, he seems to have been fairly lucky, because in the ensuing years he found that the head-neck relation was the governing factor over muscular activity throughout the body, in both himself and others. He eventually gave this head-neck relation the term, the Primary Control.

I find no mention of the head-neck relation in the Inner Chapters. Just before relating the knack story of Cook Ding, Zhuangzi notes that life “tends toward the current of the central meridian as its normal course. And this is what enables us to maintain our bodies.” In a related footnote, Ziporyn elaborates that the Chinese word for central meridian – du [督] – literally means “controller” and that, in the context of traditional Chinese medicine, refers to “a current of energy that runs vertically through the center of the human back.”[21]

The terms “controller,” “Primary Control” and “genuine ruler” are obviously similar. But Zhuangzi shows little interest in traditional Chinese medicine, and there is nothing to indicate that Alexander even knew of its existence.

In identifying his head-neck relation as the determining factor, Alexander had secured a first beachhead in his inquiry. However, the solution to his woes was not so simple as mere identification. Whenever he moved his head forward (in relation to his neck), he tended to lift his chest and narrow his back, which in turn depressed his larynx and brought back his hoarseness. Searching for a position of his head that didn’t strain his voice, he discovered that it should go straight up while tilting forward (not forward in space but freely tilting forward from the top of the spine), which resulted in his stature lengthening and his back widening. Even then, however, when reciting, he eventually returned to lifting his chest and narrowing his back. “This made me suspicious,” he writes, “that I was not doing what I thought I was doing.”[22]

In Chapter Two, Nie Que and Wang Ni are debating whether it is possible to agree on one thing that is right for everyone. When the argument seems to lead to the impossibility of knowing anything, Wang Ni refuses to admit that he knows even that much. “How,” he asks, “do I know that what I call knowing is not ignorance?” [23] While this sentence is much like Alexander’s, Zhuangzi is headed somewhere else: the conversation is concerned with the relativity of right and wrong for different beings. Wang Ni replies: “People eat the flesh of their livestock, the deer eat grass, the snakes eat centipedes, hawks and eagles eat mice. Of these four, which ‘knows’ the right thing to eat?”[24]

Each being knows what’s right for them, and what’s right for each being depends on their particular circumstances. Thus, one cannot know a single thing that’s right for everyone. It would appear that both Alexander and Zhuangzi – at least so far as Wang Ni speaks for him – think that humans will do what presents itself as evidently right for them. But then Zhuangzi takes a different tack…

 Wang Ni goes on to lament that “the trails of right and wrong are so hopelessly confused. How could I know which is right among them?”[25] The problem thus is not one of doing what is evidently right for oneself – which could signal a straightforward return to a natural state – but rather one of not immediately knowing what is evidently right for oneself. The solution given by Wang Ni is essentially Stoic and somewhat inconclusive: one should become impervious to such things.

Alexander, for his part, was still determined to untangle the trails of right and wrong. Bringing in two additional mirrors, he confirmed for himself that he could not maintain his head position or continue to widen his back whenever he tried to speak. When he thought he was doing what was evidently right for him, he was, in fact, not. “When I realized this,” he writes, “I was much disturbed, and I saw that the whole situation would have to be reconsidered.”[26]

It only got worse. The next thing he noticed was that he was also curling his toes down in such a way as to interfere with his balance. He recalled the advice of an acting coach, who had advised him to “take hold of the floor with his feet” and realized now that he had followed this advice without actually knowing what it meant. Not only was he doing things he didn’t mean to do, but he had “cultivated”[27] habits that actually furthered his misuse.

Two points followed from this line of thought. First, there was a mismatch between a linguistic description – “take hold of the floor with your feet” – and how he actually carried it out. He had assumed that he would be able to carry out any advice given to him in language form simply by executing it according to what felt right. Second, since he had always carried out actions in this way, his habits were far more widespread and more deeply ingrained than he had originally thought.

Zhuangzi tends to gloss over the subject of habit, as when he associates “gulping down words” with “preferences running deep” – a connection is made, but he explains it no further. The traditional commentator Wang Fuzhi adds the qualifier of immediacy: The mass of men “come forth immediately in response to every stimulus.”[28] Guo Xiang, the first editor of the Zhuangzi, comes much closer to Alexander with his concept of “traces,” which accrue in a person as deliberate activity and interfere with the spontaneous self-so. The similarities between Guo’s interpretation of the Zhuangzi and the Alexander Technique on this point suggest fertile ground for further exploration. [29]

Having seen firsthand how strongly he held to his habits, Alexander still assumed that it would be enough to know this – and in fact, now that he knew it, that he could simply will the correct response. But this only led to a new confusion. “In actual practice,” he notes, “I found that there was no clear dividing line between my reasoned and my unreasoned direction of myself, and that I was quite unable to prevent the two from overlapping.”[30]

In the opening of Chapter Six, Zhuangzi considers – in his own voice – two intermingled sources of activity within himself. “To understand what is done by the Human [as opposed to what is done by Heaven, or nature]: that would be to use what your understanding understands to nurture what your understanding does not understand…. However, there is a problem here. For our understanding can be in the right only by virtue of a dependence on something, and what it depends on is always peculiarly unfixed. So how could I know whether what I call the Heavenly is not the Human? How could I know whether what I call the Human is not really the Heavenly?”[31] (Emphasis added.)

This is a problem of a different order from simply seeking what is evidently right. Taking on the perspective of others may be difficult to admit for reasons of, say, pride (or other obstacles), but concerning one’s own actions there is a confusion, because there is actually no other perspective to take but one’s own.

“Let us say instead then,” Zhuangzi continues, “that there can be ‘Genuine Knowledge’ only when there is such a thing as a ‘Genuine Human Being.’”[32]

The Genuine Human Being, like the genuine ruler, does not settle easily anywhere in the Zhuangzi. I think in this case Zhuangzi is not able to take a skeptical stance any more than he is a perspectivist one, and is rather formulating a hypothesis. The condition for Genuine Knowledge, he says, is that there must be a Genuine Human Being. This being asserted, he is required to give an account of the necessary attributes of such a being, which comes across as curious – because, being unable to take the perspective of this being, he can only provide conjecture.

The passage on the Genuine Human Being concludes with a kind of axiom that supposes a preferred state of balance: “In their one-ness, they were followers of the Heavenly. In their non-oneness, they were followers of the Human. This is what it is for neither the Heavenly nor the Human to win out over the other. And that is what I call being both Genuine and Human, a Genuine Human Being.”  

This axiom is no easier to puzzle out than the rest of it. The skeptic might suppose that “one-ness” means simply to dismiss the distinction between the Human and the Heavenly doer. But in that case, there would be no problem, and Zhuangzi specifically notes that there is a problem, which would be resolved by the existence of a Genuine Human Being.

I would provisionally argue that the Genuine Human Being is best understood, not as a cultivated state of mind, but rather as the hypothesized iteration of an archaic human, a mostly “autonomous nervous system human,” which the central nervous system has since come to dominate, and in whom the ability to “say” is just beginning to appear.[33] My interpretation is consistent with:

a) the Genuine Human Being sometimes being referred to as “of old.”

b) the abiding interest in the Zhuangzi in returning to a prior state, whether it be the Ancestor of all things, or “not yet existing.”[34]

c) Genuine Human Beings seeming to lack an understanding consciousness (zhi) almost entirely. (“Oblivious, they would forget what they were saying” and “Their understanding was a temporary expedient, arising only when the situation was unavoidable.”)[35]

d) the Genuine Human Being sometimes not being referred to as “of old,” which allows for the possibility that the Genuine Human Being is part of who we are, now obscured because, in Zhuangzi’s memorable phrase, “saying is darkened by its foliage and flowers.”[36]

If this is the case, the question can be posed: How can I know that some form of activity in my body originates from my uncultivated original knowledge as distinct from originating from my understanding consciousness?

*  *  *

In what was becoming an experiment of many months, Alexander’s attempts to untangle the source of his actions were still leading to naught. Undaunted, his next approach was, when considering an action, to inhibit its execution, by which he meant “not carry it out.” Verbatim: “[I]t would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything in response.”[37]

In a Zhuangzian context, “refusing to do anything in response” can only be read as a form of “not doing” or wu wei [無為]. Specifying further is less straightforward. While not-doing clearly looms large in history of Daoism, I find only two[38] explicit references to it in the Inner Chapters in the narrow sense of suppressing specific actions:

In Chapter Three, Cook Ding describes how, prior to undertaking the complex action of carving up an ox, his “understanding consciousness, beholden to its specific purposes, comes to a halt” and the promptings of his spirit taking over.[39] This is quite close to Alexander’s aspirations as stated thus far.

In Chapter Seven, Hu-Tzu, relating his meeting with the shaman Lieh-tzu, says, “I should think he saw me as I am when I hold down the impulses of Power.” And the following day: “the impulses were coming up from the heels. I should think he saw my impulses towards the good.”[40] “Holding down” and “impulses coming up from the heels” also suggest something akin to Alexander’s program of inhibition, but starting from the heels rather than the head. (In the same tale, Hu-Tzu mentions nine reservoirs, of which these are two. Elsewhere, Zhuangzi also refers to a Heavenly Reservoir, on which more shortly.)[41]  

Alexander’s idea of not carrying out an action, of wu wei, eventually became quite nuanced. Rather than simply telling himself to inhibit (to not do) x, he developed what he called the directions. That is, he began to rehearse the ideal responses as he had come to identify them thus far — letting his head tilt forward and his neck lengthen, letting his spine lengthen, and his back widen — without any attempt to execute either them or x, but rather devoting himself to thinking these ideal responses in sequence and then, additively, all together. This part of his procedure constituted the directions. Only after some time would he then allow himself to attempt x, still continuing to project the directions throughout the action — a combined procedure he named the means-whereby, which he contrasted with the unconsidered habitual activity of end-gaining.

While Alexander had confidence that the means-whereby would lead him to success, it also afforded him a way of testing his theory, because he could now identify the moment or moments in the midst of an action when the directions failed and his habits reasserted themselves. Using the reappearance of habit as a kind of limiter, he could break an action down into its constituent parts, then stop and try again as soon as he found himself pulling back his head.

Recall that Yan Hui, in relating his progress to Confucius, reports that before I find what moves me into activity, it is myself that is full and real. But as soon as I find what moves me, it turns out that ‘myself’ has never begun to exist.” This suggests an inquiry that, as with the means-whereby, is engaged in finding a threshold which, when crossed, will result in a radically different kind of activity. It also suggests that such a threshold can be crossed.

Previously, we saw an instance where it is difficult to know whether Zhuangzi is rejecting the ability to distinguish between sources of agency or is rather simply expressing uncertainty. In Chapter Two, there is a similar passage where he appears, at least on the surface, to be skeptical about getting any epistemic purchase on “not-yet-existing.” Following an argument of regress, he finds that each step to establish a moment prior to being only serves to give this moment of “nothing” existence through the assertion itself. The intimation is that one cannot distinguish “not-yet-existing” from merely saying these words. [42]  Yet we also see his own character Yan Hui asserting the distinction as accomplished, at least to the extent that a self can not-yet-exist, in a context that reads as congratulatory. Here, then, we’re given a positive example for believing that Zhuangzi’s arguments do not necessarily culminate in outright skepticism so much as stop at hard questions.

Thus far, Alexander had a) isolated the cause of his problem, b) tried to remedy this problem directly, c) realized that his idea of what he was doing was incorrect, d) noticed related problems and tried to solve them directly as well, and e) tried to solve these problems by not immediately carrying out his idea of an action. So, when he tried to solve these problems by elaborating the means for finally carrying out his action, was he successful?


When it came time to add an action (speaking) to projecting the directions, he persistently stopped projecting the directions. His familiar way of speaking was simply too strong. “Clearly, he concluded, “to ‘feel’ or think that I had inhibited the old instinctive reaction was no proof that I had really done so, and I must find some way of ‘knowing’…This meant that I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong.” [43] (Emphasis in the original.)

In the passage where Wang Ni asks, “How do I know what I call knowing is not ignorance?” he follows it with the opposite, “How do I know what I call ignorance is not knowing?”[44]

As with Zhuangzi’s quandary over Heavenly and Human doers, there’s more to this second question than it appears. Previously, we saw that the reduction to a single perspective obscured the difference between two sources of activity in an individual. We’re now in a position to see that this reduction of perspectives imposes an additional limitation on “that’s not it” — on fei.

 A section in Chapter Two finds Zhuangzi giving a more extended discussion of shi-fei. For every “this,” he says, there is a “that,” for every right, a wrong. But each wrong is right from the perspective of another. Therefore, he proposes that we let “both alternatives proceed,” a move he also calls Illuminating the Obvious. If one does so, one can then situate oneself at the fulcrum between alternatives, and choose from among them according to the context of the moment – the term for doing so being yinshi [因是] or “right by circumstance.”

During the course of this argument, Zhuangzi alludes to a familiar paradox of the time, associated today with the logician Gongsun Long, and recasts it as a “horse is not a horse.” As Ziporyn interprets it in a footnote, the paradox arises from pointing: one can point to something, but one can never point to pointing. Indicating a horse, then, is caught up in pointing, and is therefore not the horse itself. Zhuangzi answers the paradox by saying: “[Y]ou can use the act of indication as an illustration of the unindicated that belongs to all indication, but that is no match for using the unindicated itself as an illustration of the unindicated that belongs to all indication.”[45]

Many readings of this dense sentence are possible, but Alexander’s inquiry diverges at the phrase “using the unindicated itself as an illustration.”

Faced with any dispute, Zhuangzi says, one should admit “that” as well as “this,” the wrong as well as the right. This is a fundamental idea for a perspectivist reading of his philosophy. Yet this method will certainly fail in a case where one is looking for something unindicated that cannot be illustrated.

Alexander begins by thinking he can point to the problem and then point to the solution, and then thinks he can point to a different solution, but he’s brought to a halt when he comes to realize that he must do what feels wrong. Unlike different candidates for what is right, which can at least in theory be formulated, a specific action that is expected to feel wrong cannot be illustrated in advance (in the sense that it’s unknown by definition) by others, or even by oneself, and therefore resists the shi-fei mode of inquiry entirely.

Zhuangzi does not leave us entirely in the dark regarding that which is un-point-out-able, but turns again to hypothesis: “When the understanding consciousness comes to rest in what it does not know,” he writes in Chapter Two, “it has reached its utmost. The demonstration that uses no words, the Course that is not a course – who ‘understands’ these things? If there is something able to ‘understand’ them, it can be called the Heavenly Reservoir – poured into without ever getting full, ladled out of without even running out, ever not-knowing its own source… This is called the Shadowy Splendor.” (Emphasis added)[46]

In the Heavenly Reservoir, we get a description of a reliable resource, never overflowing and never depleted. However, we learn nothing about accessing such a resource. The closest we come in the Inner Chapters to a descriptive path to the Heavenly Reservoir is in Yan Hui’s description in Chapter Six of “sitting and forgetting,” which involves a “dropping away of my limbs and torso, a chasing off of my sensory acuity, which disperses my physical form and ousts my understanding until I am the same as the Transforming Openness.”[47] Unfortunately, this method does not include any mention of the activity that we saw in Chapter Four (“what moves me into activity”), nor does it provide a litmus for knowing that the transformation to Openness has indeed occurred. And there, for Zhuangzi, the matter seems to end.

Alexander had certainly come to rest in what he did not know. He did not know in advance what an action would actually be if performed wrongly, and he could not simply inhabit the perspective of his nervous or muscular system to find out. As he formulated it, what he needed was some way to maintain the directions past the moment where his habit refused to play along, some failsafe barrier in his mind to make sure he would actually carry out an unknown action. In his words, he needed “concrete proof that my instinctive reaction to the stimulus to gain my end remain inhibited.[48] (Emphasis in the original.)

His plan thus became to continue to project the directions, resolving to not go through with his stated action (speaking), and then he would consider some other action altogether, such as lifting his arm. With all this in place, he would then, at the last second, allow himself to pursue this new end, continue with his original end or not respond to either.

This worked! When Alexander chose to speak in the face of two alternatives (a different movement, or no change), he was able to do so without pulling back his head, not just once or twice, but reliably thereafter.

This final procedure, which came to be called the “flanking maneuver,” required thought on several levels at once. (And indeed, as he admitted, it “proved difficult for most pupils to put into action.”)[49] But more importantly, it was a different kind of attention. In addition to directing his thoughts continuously through the course of a single action, the final, crucial step was to expand his view beyond that action. In other words, he ensured he would do the “wrong thing” (where habit was deemed “right”) by extending not-doing across a range that was larger than a single end.

When not-doing exceeds a single end (and the directions are maintained), the wrong is allowed to pass and can become right by circumstance – without ever being pointed out.

There is a passage in Chapter Six which, if Zhuangzi means to associate a constantly changing body specifically with physical movement, shows that he agrees with the principle behind the flanking maneuver, even if he doesn’t offer a first-order description. “Now,” he writes, in his own voice, “the human form in its time undergoes ten thousand transformations, never stopping for an instant…People may model themselves on [the sage] but how much better off are those who bind themselves equally to each and all of the ten thousand things, making themselves dependent only on each transformation, on all transformation!”[50] (Emphasis added.)

In Alexandrian nomenclature, this would mean directing while inhibiting the change between ends sought, over and above a single, individual end.  Whether such a change could be considered a Zhuangzian transformation only if it were a choice between not responding and responding to one of the two proposed ends – that is, whether introducing a choice between two different transformations interrupts his ontology of the larger dao embracing all creation – raises questions of free will that are beyond the scope of this inquiry.

*  *  *

Notice that Alexander ascribes the outcome of his endeavors not to the defeat of reason, but to its success. Rationality is a constant theme in his writing. This is not our normal idea of rationality, however. He uses his “understanding consciousness” until it fails, and ends up with a form of understanding that’s carefully arranged to stay out of the way.

His view of habit can be confusing in this regard as well. Throughout his campaign for the advance of reason, he describes habit as instinctual and so seemingly aligns it with nature, which reason must control. Yet he also identifies habit as the passive, unexamined result of reason’s pursuit of its own ends. By the same token, the non-habitual responses of his body are not constructed from his conscious thoughts. He doesn’t reason that lengthening the neck allows the back to widen. He observes it, and follows that observation to the next. Never during this process does he ever attain anything like the perspective of his muscles; the understanding consciousness does not become the body. Something remains permanently foreign to his understanding consciousness.[51]

With this clarification, we might hazard a variation on Zhuangzi’s axiom about the Genuine Human Being:

* When the Genuine Human Being and the understanding consciousness are not in synch, the Genuine Human Being serves the understanding consciousness.

* When the Genuine Human Being and the understanding consciousness are in synch, the Genuine Human Being serves nature.

Where there is a split (meaning, the usual state of affairs), the Genuine Human Being, aka the autonomous nervous system, shares the body with a master, whom it serves dutifully. It answers to the short-term demands of the “decider.” Where there is no split, there is neither master nor servant – the power relationship dissolves. In allowing for both of these conditions, ends are still pursued (even in the flanking maneuver, one must still formulate and choose ends, after all), but no longer to the detriment of the genuine, and “neither Heaven nor the Human wins out over the other.”

The situation is not symmetrical, however. If the Genuine Human Being stands in waiting of the understanding consciousness for better or worse, as seems the case for both Zhuangzi and Alexander, the only way to arrive at a state of balance is for the master to change. Here both writers advocate a sustained process of receiving information.

In Chapter Three of the Zhuangzi, Cook Ding explains how he achieved his remarkable knack for butchery. For three years, he says, he saw only the ox. “But now…my understanding consciousness, beholden to its specific purposes, comes to a halt, and thus the promptings of the spirit begin to flow. I depend on Heaven’s unwrought perforations and…I go by how they already are.”[52]

The Chinese for “Heaven’s unwrought perforations” is tianli [天理]a term of Zhuangzi’s own devising. Aside from the already-mentioned procedure of the understanding consciousness, “beholden to its specific purposes,” coming to a halt, the concept of tianli fits quite neatly with Alexander’s discovery over time (also several years) as to the actual location of his head and neck and the consequent attending muscles and joints, on down to his heels.

Indeed, as Alexander progressed beyond his original study before his mirrors, he came to see that his entire organism, when freed from habitual use, worked as a whole – just not in the way he imagined it. The result was his own knack experience: one day, while sitting and inhibiting his knees from moving away from his hips, he stood up without knowing how it had happened. [53] One might say that Alexander located the tianli of the human body through a method of non-doing that allowed the hidden alternatives to pass, much as Cook Ding did with an ox’s carcass.

Task independence

The flanking maneuver leads, perhaps obviously, to not-doing over many possible ends, and to the extent that it’s sustained, to not-doing over potentially any end, or task independence. Stated the other way around, task independence is simply the flanking maneuver expanded over a longer range of ends.

There is wide consensus in the Alexandrian community on the point of task independence, even several decades after his death. The technique is not a posture, but a way of thinking in activity. (Although, pushing task independence to its conclusion, one could always practice it while in certain postures, or as well, while getting short-term relief from physical problems…so long as those postures or procedures don’t prevent inhibiting and thinking the directions.)

Likewise in the Zhuangzi we see that a knack is not associated with specific postures or ritual movements as the Confucians observed in their social customs,[54] but rather with individually pursued activities – swimming, butchering, or, say, knocking the plaster off of someone’s nose with the whirl of a hatchet – which answer only to the next discovered transformation.

For Alexander, these feats are all the same. Moreover, the very universality of his technique has the potential to drain a good deal of the exoticism from Zhuangzi’s tales. If students of the Alexander Technique can learn to play the piano as if the body were acting of its own accord, they can learn to cross a room in better harmony with nature just as well.


It would be rash of me to claim I’ve found anything like the original first-order dao as it existed during the Warring States period. On the other hand, it would also be rash of me to say I’m describing something entirely different. I interpret the Genuine Human Being essentially as the autonomous nervous system, with some appeal to Guo Xiang at the expense of other traditional commentators, and while my interpretation of the Alexander Technique never offers the kind of complete psychosomatic unity that some writers assert, it nevertheless jibes with the view, already prevalent in the second generation of Alexander teachers, that the technique effectively unveils the “wisdom of the body.”[55] The result is an affirmation of “letting both alternatives proceed” where, in some cases, allowing fei – allowing what’s evidently wrong – is clearly more hard won than in others. The specific way in which Alexander undertakes the flanking maneuver especially speaks to this difference.

Admittedly, there are holes in the comparison, and especially on Zhuangzi’s side. The adepts in his stories may or may not have proceeded in a manner similar to Alexander, or they may have done so in some respects and not others. Individuals may have developed their own special methods, either heuristically or systematically. “Sitting and forgetting” may have signaled a host of connotations to Zhuangzi’s contemporaries, including something like “moving and forgetting,” or it may not have. The wheelwright, for his part, flat out says that his knack cannot be learned, and Zhuangzi explicitly asserts that knowledge of the Way, in the larger sense of all creation, cannot be transmitted. We also know that he disapproved of both the daoyin exercises associated with the house of Peng, and with whatever methods caused Yuzi of Shouling to return home from Handan unable to walk.[56]

Yet it’s also quite possible that Zhuangzi encountered some hard philosophical questions and, while recognizing their theoretical importance to the knack experience, remained unaware of the transit from theory to practice, prompting him to resort to something like honest reporting. The running substitutions of names for an entity that is ill-defined at best – genuine ruler, Genuine Human Being, Heavenly Reservoir – suggest as much. In any case, we do not see him claiming to possess a knack of his own anywhere in the Inner Chapters.

All this being said, I believe the foregoing identifies a reliable path to the knack experience that, while developed quite apart from any ancient Chinese knowledge, nonetheless engages Zhuangzi the philosopher on his own terms. The Alexander Technique offers an epistemic pathway to a knack, with no more shortcuts than Cook Ding faced, and so puts the initial objection to rest. It also satisfies Hansen’s second objection – of an expertise that pulls against Zhuangzi’s interest in broadening perspectives – because it can be used by anyone to execute mundane tasks as well as extravagant ones. If anything, the Alexander Technique is deflating about collaboration with the Heavenly at close range.

Taken a step further, the Alexandrian dao doesn’t affirm the claims that Zhuangzi leveled against the Confucians so much as enter the problem from a different angle, because one can engage in it while adhering to ritual forms of conduct (or not). Like a modern-day Yan Hui, one can “play in the cage” of a prospective employer and still move into activity from a place of not-doing.[57] Cook Ding was, after all, performing for the king.

I’ve concentrated mainly on a single chapter in one of Alexander’s books and the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi. It would be interesting to see how much further, if at all, the affinities go. Alexander provides a more definite dao to follow, but could be accused in his other writings of generalizing ahead of his findings; Zhuangzi covers a wider scope of concerns, but seems determined at times to frustrate any hope of a fact. Do the two traditions explicitly contradict each other on points not considered here? Conversely, is it possible to build a bridge between them, across which one might lend insight to the other?

There may be help from other quarters. Among the philosophers, the most visible advocate of the Alexander Technique’s merits has been John Dewey, who not only penned the introduction to The Use of the Self, but learned to practice the technique himself. On the other hand, the Zhuangzi ostensibly entered European philosophy by way of Martin Buber, which suggests a fairly wide-open field.

After a lag, the Alexander Technique is beginning to be investigated from a scientific perspective as well. A paper published in 2020 gives a good review of the progress in confirming his assertions.[58] One study I don’t find mentioned in it is an experiment showing that vocalizations correlate to changes in the head and trunk orientation on the sagittal plane, with the changes being proportional to vocal volume – exactly as Alexander observed in his original inquiry.[59]

Philosophy and science need not be strangers, either. In the mid-20th century, when logical positivism was in the ascendant, there was passing interest in the Alexander Technique as a case of operational verificationism.[60] This line of inquiry resonates especially well with Zhuangzi’s perspectivism, in that it holds out the possibility of verification through a subjective operation which each individual performs on their own. In the final analysis, it also serves as a reminder that research can be conducted apart from written evidence. If Zhuangzi’s claims are still relevant today, it should not matter if someone discovered a dao for the knack experience in the early 20th century, or in any century. And it especially should not matter to thinker-doers, who are free to test it themselves.

Works Cited

Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self. Kent: Integral Press, 1955.

Alexander, F.M. Man’s Supreme Inheritance: Conscious Guidance and Control in Relation to

   Human Evolution in Civilization. London: Mouritz, 1918/1996.

Bright, Liam Kofi. @lastpositivist

Bright, Liam Kofi and Aaron Novick. “Free and Easy Conversing.” Accessed November 8,

   2021. http://sootyempiric.blogspot.com/2020/04/free-and-easy-conversing.html and


Cacciatore, Timothy W., Partick M. Johnson and Rajal G. Cohen. “Potential Mechanisms of

the Alexander Technique: Toward a Comprehensive Neurophysical Model,” Kinesiology

Review (Ahead of Print). Accessed on November 8, 2021.


Dimon, Theodore. The Elements of Skill, The Elements of Skill: A conscious approach to

learning. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2003.

Dimon, Theodore. Anatomy in Action: The Dynamic Muscular Systems that Create and

Sustain the Moving Body. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2021.

Graham, A.C. Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981.

Hansen, Chad, “Daoism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition),

   Accessed November 8, 2021.https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/daoism/.

Hansen, Chad, “Zhuangzi,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2021 Edition),

   Accessed November 8, 2021. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/zhuangzi/.

Jones, Frank Pierce. Body Awareness in Action: A Study of the Alexander Technique. New

York: Schocken, 1979.

King, Hilary. “Notes on Using the Whispered ‘Ah’ Procedure.” Accessed on November 8,


Lagier A, Vaugoyeau M, Ghio A, Legou T, Giovanni A, Assaiante C. “Coordination between

   posture and phonation in vocal effort behavior,” Folia Phoniatr Logop 62, no.4 (2010):195-


Le Jeune, Nicolas. “Practices of Cultivation in the Zhuangzi.” PhD diss., University of Macau,


Legge, James. The Writings of Chuang Tzu, Oxford University Press, 1891.

Lindsay, David. Other Grounds: Breaking Free of the Correlationist Circle, [n.l.]:

   punctum, 2016.

Lo, Vivienne. How to Do the Gibbon Walk: A Translation of the Pulling Book (ca 186 BCE),

   Cambridge: Needham Research Institute Working Papers, 2014.

Marshall, Anita Chen. “Traditional Chinese Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology.” Accessed

   November 8, 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7356495/pdf/978-3-


Mungo, Douglas. “A Unique Example of Operational Verification during Scientific

   Experimentation.” The Medical Press and Circular (1946). See


Watson, Burton. Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press,


Ziporyn, Brook. “The Self-so and its Traces in the Thought of Guo Xiang,” Philosophy East and

West, 43 (1993): 511–539.

Ziporyn, Brook. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, with Selections from Traditional

   Commentaries. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009.

Ziporyn, Brook. Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2020.

[1] Liam Bright’s Twitter posts can be found at @lastpositivist. For a conversation between Bright and Aaron Novick about the “happy fish” passage in the Zhuangzi, see Aaron Novick, “Free and Easy Conversing,” accessed November 18, 2021. http://sootyempiric.blogspot.com/2020/04/free-and-easy-conversing.html or its mirror site, accessed November 8, 2021.  https://www.aaronnovick.com/the-equalizing-jokebook/free-and-easy-conversing

[2] Oddly, I had even written a book in the interim (Other Grounds), in which some of my arguments could have counted as stealing and, more to the point, could have been more elegantly made, had I known what I was missing.



[5] Ziporyn (2020), 128.

[6] Dimon, The Elements of Skill, 184-86.

[7] I took individual lessons with Dimon in the early 1980s, when he was teaching privately in Cambridge, MA.

[8] Dimon, Anatomy in Action, See bibliography.

[9] Hansen, “Daoism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed November 8, 2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/daoism/.

[10] Alexander’s own teaching method is among the methods that differed from the original procedure he developed in isolation.

[11] Hereafter cited as Ziporyn, Graham and Alexander, except in cases where I cite Ziporyn’s 2020 translation.

[12] Alexander, 3.

[13] Ziporyn, 40.

[14] Lo. How to Do the Gibbon Walk: A Translation of the Pulling Book (ca 186 BCE).

[15] Alexander, 5.

[16] One could argue that the opening lines of Chapter Two, where Ziqi emerges from some unspecified unusual state, is another example of seclusion. The passage is certainly highly significant, and my etymological search confirms Ziporyn’s in his 2020 translation. But the passage also yields a maximal number of possible interpretations of very few words, so I leave it alone here.

[17] Ziporyn, 27.

[18] Graham, 51.

[19] Ziporyn, 10-11.

[20] King, “Notes on the Whispered ‘Ah” Procedure,” accessed November 8, 2021, https://www.hilaryking.net/alexander-technique/notes-on-using-the-whispered-ah-procedure

[21] Ziporyn, 22. Also see Anita Chen Marshall, “Traditional Chinese Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology,” 464, for more on the “governing vessel” or du mai that runs down the back of the body, from the top of the head to approximately the base of the spine, Acessed November 8, 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7356495/pdf/978-3-319-68864-0_Chapter_60.pdf.

[22] Alexander, 10.

[23] Graham, 58.

[24] Ziporyn, 18.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Alexander, 10.

[27] Ibid., 12. Alexander uses the word “cultivated.”

[28] Ziporyn,192.

[29] Ziporyn, 222. See also: Ziporyn, Brook, 1993, “The Self-so and its Traces in the Thought of Guo Xiang,” Philosophy East and West, 43: 511–539.

[30] Alexander, 17.

[31] Ziporyn, 39-40. Graham’s translation explicitly refers to agency: “How could I know that the doer I call ‘Heaven’ is not the man? How could I know that the doer I call the ‘man’ is not Heaven?” Graham, p. 84.

[32] Ziporyn., 40.

[33] Perhaps the closest among the commentators to sharing my view of the Genuine Human Being is Guo Xiang: “What knowing knows is little compared to what is really present in the body. What doing accomplishes is little compared to the abundance of operating principles.” Ziporyn,189.

[34] Zhuangzi offers a naïve theory of evolution in which different beings, including humans, are transformed into other beings. Graham, 183-84. Alexander also has a naïve theory of evolution, in which civilized life has “debauched” the senses, obscuring the natural response of the organism. This theory is laid out in some detail in Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance.

[35] Ziporyn, 42.

[36] Graham, 52.

[37] Alexander, 18.

[38] Again, the opening of Chapter Two presents itself for inclusion, but I pass over it here as too ambiguous to assist my case.

[39] Ziporyn, 22.

[40] Graham, 97.

[41] Ziporyn, 53.

[42] Ibid., 15.

[43]Alexander, 21.

[44] Graham, 58.

[45] Ziporyn, Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings, 2020, p.14.

[46] Ziporyn, 17. Ziporyn advances that the Heavenly Reservoir and the Genuine Human Being may be one and the same, and gives them the collective status of a wild card, which allows Zhuangzi to switch perspectives according to circumstance. I can see how the Heavenly Reservoir and the Genuine Human Being might be the same entity, but not how they become a wild card, if they represent the kind of “black box” of knowledge that’s described in this passage. It would be quite useful if true, though.

[47] Ziporyn, 49.

[48] Alexander, 22.

[49] Ibid., 22.

[50] Ziporyn, 43.

[51] Many teachers of the Alexander Technique would likely frame this conclusion differently, stressing the unity of mind and body. While it is not possible to argue the point in full here, I maintain that the body has an organizing principle that remains distinct from the perspective of the conscious mind, as evidenced in part by the ability to fall back into habit after having achieved a level of good use. The technique itself remains the same in either case, but it’s possible that the motivating factor for learning it will depend on the position one takes, i.e., mastery versus collaboration.

[52] Ziporyn, 22.

[53] As Dimon reports: “We know Alexander did just this, until one day (as Goddard Binkley reported in his diary of lessons with Alexander, The Expanding Self), he just popped out of the chair.” Accessed on November 14, 2021. https://www.alexandertechniqueprinciples.com/chapter02-introduction

[54] There is good discussion of ritual from a Foucauldian perspective in Nicholas Le Jeune, “Practices of Cultivation in the Zhuangzi,” University of Macau, dissertation, Supervisor: Hans Georg-Moeller, 2019, pp. 69-70, 86-88.

[55] Jones, Body Awareness in Action, 14. “Alexandrian inhibition works indirectly. Skeletal muscles (neck muscles in particular) serve as both monitor and effector, leaving the behavior of the autonomic system to the ‘wisdom of the body.’” 

[56] Ziporyn, 75. The “Handan Walk” is mentioned in the context of disparaging any efforts to understand the vastness of nature through disputation.

[57] Ibid., 27.

[58] Cacciatore et al, “Potential Mechanisms of the Alexander Technique, accessed November 8, 2021, https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/mindinmovementlab/timeline/ATmechanisms_paper.pdf

[59] Lagier et al, “Coordination between posture and phonation in vocal effort behavior,” 195-202.

[60] Mungo, “A Unique Example of Operational Verification during Scientific Experimentation,” accessed November 8, 2021, https://mouritz.org/companion/article/mungo-douglas.