“…I quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life. What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning (some things, perhaps, it will never learn) and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and, even it if goes wrong, it lives.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Being a body connects us to everyone who has ever lived; to other people and to animals, across time, geographies and happenstance. What does it mean to live as a body? How do we embody our environment, our upbringing, education, current structures of power, cultural and social values? What if the different symptoms and illnesses people suffer from are ways in which bodies speak against ways they are being neglected, commodified and exploited? Can we liberate from cultural prejudice, gender stereotypes, or class determinism through liberating in our bodies, through unknotting the knots of inherited values that do not correspond to us? I think these questions have a lot to do with ‘personal enlivening’, which I wrote about while trying to map my subjective overview of catalyst elements for cultural transformative processes I see in the world around. Now I want to reflect upon the role of the body in the unfolding of personal enlivening.
For the past nine years my work has been to lure people back into their bodies. Including myself. Even though it seems odd to separate from the totality of our lived experience something called “the body”, a division of me, which can thereby be put into words. To call it in such a way immediately means that there is an “it”, something I have, as we are used to saying, instead of something I am. This text is an attempt to embrace my view of the body and humans as embodied beings through words, though the body lives beyond words.
Mapping the territory
Body is a process and a totality of our lived experiences. It’s subjective personal space where we experience our aliveness and find fulfilment. It cannot be accessed from outside. From outside the body is socially constructed. People who share a culture live in the belief systems specified by that culture. Collective construction of self-images of different groups and identities shape individual bodily experiences, meanings and practices. Body is a mediator between external forces, expectations, cultural beliefs of what a good life is, and inner forces, internal drives, conscious or unconscious desires for self-realisation, and invisible currents that move us. Body is at an encounter between these socio-cultural, phenomenological, biological, intuitive and embodied cognitive unconscious phenomena — all taking part in orchestrating our engagement with life.
In traditional way of education we train ourselves to know many things, to become smart in certain aspects of life valued by the modern world. Often these are part of the external forces, the outer world. The inner world is not given much attention in the narrative we grow up with. This creates a split in our perception. We split ourselves from ourselves and cannot experience our real strength, true expression and personal purpose. Getting out of touch with our own bodies is also a result of such a split. It creates a habit to experience the world through the mind alone, through goal-setting, counting, comparing, success-measuring, judging according to endless lists of right and wrong. We then look at the world and ourselves through beliefs, learned ways of seeing and assigning sense of value.
It gradually becomes common knowledge also among scientists that chemistry of the body is inseparable from the chemistry of the brain. We used to think we were "brains on a stick”, and our bodies were there to hold the stick and take the brain to places. Now we know that it’s far from being true. Our bodies are ancient, millions of years old, very intelligent, very powerful. “Bodies move, sense, touch, smell, taste, and act in conjunction with thought and speech within a space, for people experience themselves simultaneously in and as their bodies” Thomas J. Csordas, an anthropology professor researching phenomenology and embodiment, wrote in his book The Sacred Self. Maurice Merleau-Ponty viewed the body as perceiving and thinking organism. In his book The Phenomenology of Perception he described the embodied experience as "knowledge in the hands”.
When we don't feel our bodies we can't feel ways in which the world touches us and our responses to it, we are not aware what's important to us, what matters beyond the beliefs we internalised often without choosing. The intimate knowledge of this lives in our cells. Our legs know just as much about it as our hearts do. When it’s not there we feel the void of its absence. Unless we are watching computer TV, suppressing thoughts with other thoughts, or drinking wine with our friends. Nothing against that. Sometimes the best way we find available in a moment is to distract ourselves from sensing inner longings or repressed feelings. But I think sooner or later comes a moment of refusal, a natural inclination to be free, to uncondition and liberate ourselves from learned behaviours, preconceived ideas, expectations, or interpretations. Body takes part in refusing to accept these limitations or being convinced by them. In the body we land into our experiences and our perception of things inner and outer. We learn more about ourselves, what we resonate with, what feels foreign to us. This is true for both physical and non-physical discoveries. Sometimes we realise that much of what we considered our personality is actually not ours. Gabor Mate described in a recent article how “during our dependent and vulnerable childhoods we develop the psychological, behavioural, and emotional composite that later we mistake for ourselves”. In fact this composite is made up of ways of protecting ourselves in stressed environments, that we needed as children and didn’t let go of as adults. These often mask a real person with real needs, desires, and values.
What we value has roots in the physical body. It’s a synergy between instincts, reason and emotions. Emotions are usually widely misunderstood. Culturally, we’ve learned to mistrust them, to hide, to avoid, repress, pretend we feel something else, and so on. In reality, emotions contribute to our ability to act intelligently. They make our world more meaningful, and help us find fulfilment. They are also signals to check-in with reality, reflecting how are we doing at any given moment. Every emotion is there for something, it doesn’t just fall from the sky. Emotions are responses to events that are relevant to what we value. As Guy Claxton suggests in his book Intelligence in the Flesh, “feelings are a bodily glue that sticks our reasoning and our common sense together. Feelings are somatic events that embody our values and concerns.”
Through emotions we also feel other people. Perhaps that’s also why emotions can be manipulated: if we are not at a stable personal space we can get taken into other people’s states. Emotions are also often influenced by our beliefs and personal history lessons that time and again we carry with us into new situations. If my inherited cultural belief or my personal past experience tell me that “people with big ears are bad”, it’s likely that meeting such a person will lead to inadequate emotional responses from my side that will have nothing to do with what happens in reality. Which in turn will lead to repeating of a situation from the past, as most probably that person with big ears will feel my aggressive stand towards them right away and will not like it, unless their state of enlightenment granted them unlimited compassion and understanding towards confused people like myself in that situation. So untangling old beliefs, cultural overlays and historical perspectives have to be taken into account and unwrapped, if emotions are to become our reliable guides and reminders of what’s important to us.
If unwrapping was successful emotions turn into a compass. Anger, for example, will give us a lot of energy to deal with the situation where something important to us is disrespected, blocked or threatened by someone. Digested and contained, anger brings other qualities with it, for example, courage to reveal a conflict, clarity to express yourself, composure to not exaggerate or overemphasise your feeling, empathy to still see the person behind the perceived “threat”, and so on. We lock ourselves up in the minds, not to have to go through feelings because indeed they can be a challenge to feel and not be swept by them. But if you manage to do it, you come out on the other side stronger and more real, in a sense of being free from pretence and hiding. You then see other people better, feel where are your real yes’ and no’s, and make smarter decisions. There is nothing we avoid seeing in others unless we avoid seeing it in ourselves. This means regaining integrity, a more grounded sense of self and personal authority. This process I would call embodying emotions.
In fact the embodied emotion is further expanded into “embodied reflection”, a term coined by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch in their book Embodied Mind to describe a kind of thinking that involves body and mind together. It’s an act of learning and unlearning at the same time, an effortless effort of natural coordination between these ways of thinking and knowing. So the embodied self is a kind of totality of experience. It implies living as a jazz band: improvising and still playing together. Each player is equally important: the senses, the reason, the emotions, the sensations. Sometimes it’s someone’s solo, sometimes duo, sometimes all play together in a harmony, or in counterpoints. Mutual attention, respect and inspiration stay a common denominator. Through such embodied way of being we dive deeper into our responses to the world, bring what might be instinctive to the surface, voice gut feelings, reveal things that might be unconscious but guiding us in life and reflect on them critically. It also works the other way around - ground our ideas or beliefs and check-in with ourselves whether we resonate with those beliefs, whether they feel right for us. Through grounding interpretations in the intuitive experiences, bodily experiences of the senses and of thought are interacting. Through this process our intelligence is unifying itself, recovering from splits of learned divisions and imagined contradictions.
Practice of the Embodied Self
When I just started my training to become a somatic practitioner 9 years ago, I liked the idea of the embodied self, though I couldn’t name it as such, I sensed that I wanted to go in this direction. The way from liking the idea towards growing into it has taken 9 years, and I’m still learning. This learning in fact never ends. Just like the reality around, the reality within also keeps on expanding and deepening, and the more you learn the more there is to learn. But the moment you begin to move from comprehending something or being able to explain it, towards a kind of understanding that extends and links to demands of everyday life, you begin to practice the embodied self.
Practice is a bridge between intention and act. It’s the means of learning to arrive at a desired state. It’s a state of continuous becoming, that has to do with sustained reorientation of our attention and intention. It’s about letting go of something, and letting something else come in. Through practice towards the embodied self, we cultivate experiences that would encourage and enable us to become more conscious of our own perceptions and abilities, of the inner resources of strength, silence and presence whatever the outer circumstances. It is formed by small everyday steps of syncing body and mind, and can consist of exercises that raise interoceptive awareness, concentration, focus, relaxation, movement coupled with the ability to focus attention, and allowing the breath to move through us. Often we undermine our breathing, we don’t think of it as movement that renews life in us every moment.
Guy Claxton in his book Intelligence in the Flesh describes the goal of such practice “not as becoming fitter or firmer, but as toning my system so that it is better tempered, more in tune with itself and its surroundings. I wouldn't be aiming to run faster or to defy the sagging and wrinkling of age, but to thrum more sweetly and respond more intelligently to the constant plucks of the innards and the ‘outtards’ that compose myself. And I might practise slow movements, or even sitting still, in order to learn to listen and feel these plucks and throbs more fully — not so that a disembodied mind can be “better informed” (for I accept now that this ethereal governor doesn't exist), but so that every member of the corporeal choir can contribute its particular voice more fully to the central chorus out of which my intelligence emerges.”
So if there is a base to this practice it is that of embodied attention. It can be about noticing our own habits of sitting, walking, being with people, eating, being silent or running after thoughts. It can also be about paying attention to inner sensations, allowing the felt sense to emerge, to take its time to form and our inner awareness to unfold at its own pace. Sometimes it’s silent, sometimes we find ourselves hearing and orchestrating the whole ensemble of influences. Through this practice of interoceptive awareness we learn to distinguish authentic moments from those when we are being ran by our habits, we become more strongly focused in the present, less in the past or future.
There is a word Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, an Australian aboriginal writer, uses to describe deep, spiritual act of reflective and respectful listening — “dadirri”. Words form concepts and practices. They draw our attention to sensations or phenomena. They give us framework and shape our attention to the world. “Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us.” It’s a way of learning and knowing. Same word is used by Miriam-Rose to describe listening to a story-teller, as her culture is built on stories passed orally from generation to generation.
Embodied and Embedded
Everything moves. In the physical, emotional, mental, even virtual spaces we inhabit. There is movement that is independent from us — the movement of blood, air, water in our bodies, our own emotions, on a large scale the different movements in nature, the seasons, the rotation of our planet, and so on. There is movement we can affect through personal will — where we choose to direct our thoughts, when we move from silence to voicing them, how we move through spaces, how we act in different situations and so on. There are also places in between — when thoughts are flowing without our conscious choosing, or when our ancestors sang and danced for the rain to come and eventually it did. Whether or not we choose to believe in this more mystical example, we are processes embodied in movement and embedded in larger scale motions. Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his book The Phenomenology of Perception writes that we are continually "embedded" in the "flesh" of the world: that we experience a constant exchange or "traffic" with our environment in ways that both exceed and inform our rational, intentional mind.
Gabor Mate also wrote about human beings as biopsychosocial creatures whose “health or illness reflects our relationship with the world we inhabit—including all the variables of family, class, gender, race, political status, and the physical ecology of which we are a part.” He goes on saying that our emotional patterns are responses to our psychological and social environment, so in his research he discovered that individual illness “always tells us about the multigenerational family of origin and the broader culture in which that person’s life unfolds”.
We are shaped by our inner systems as much as we are shaped by the larger systems of which we are part. Just like in an example Guy Glaxton gives, as a heart doesn’t exist on its own without the rest of the body, in the same way human body also doesn’t exist in isolation from the rest of the eco-system. We are individuals and part of the whole. There is no dichotomy. We are a living system, part of a larger eco-systems, contexts around us, and containing smaller-systems, each looking after a variety of complementary aspects of our well-being and well-doing.
I want to end with this quote by George Lakoff, from his book Philosophy in the Flesh:
“The environment is not an "other" to us. It is not a collection of things that we encounter. Rather, it is part of our being. It is the locus of our existence and identity. We cannot and do not exist apart from it. It is through empathic projection that we come to know our environment, understand how we are part of it and how it is part of us. This is the bodily mechanism by which we can participate in nature, not just as hikers or climbers or swimmers, but as part of nature itself, part of a larger, all-encompassing whole. A mindful embodied spirituality is thus an ecological spirituality.
An embodied spirituality requires an aesthetic attitude to the world that is central to self-nurturance, to the nurturance of others, and to the nurturance of the world itself. Embodied spirituality requires an understanding that nature is not inanimate and less than human, but animated and more than human. It requires pleasure, joy in the bodily connection with earth and air, sea and sky, plants and animals - and the recognition that they are all more than human, more than any human beings could ever achieve. Embodied spirituality is more than spiritual experience. It is an ethical relationship to the physical world.”
Physical, emotional, mental, and environmental wellbeing go together. A conclusion that a more embodied society would be a more balanced society is evident. So what are the practical steps, for example, to re-inventing the over-intellectualised, even sterile, somatically and sensually impoverished institutions that we’ve built? And how can different disciplines contribute to that? A reflection on this in the next article —> Enchanted Perception (coming soon)
In the meantime you are welcome to come and join our BodyMatters events in Berlin in May and June.
Images of works by the artist Francis Upritchard taken at Biennale di Venezia 2017