“…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 this chapter with a 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.”
Values and Principles of Embodied Culture
La Foresta and everything we do grow within a larger context of embodied culture. Culture is like the soil we are in. It nurtures us and shapes us in profound ways. We look at embodied culture as a holistic force that fosters social transformation and leads to more sustainability and creativity in life. And if we cultivate culture like we cultivate the ground, we feel it’s time for re-rooting, working the ground — re-orientating our culture. So what do we mean by embodied culture? Here are its key values and principles:
Awareness and Presence
Embodied culture is a culture with an expanded field of awareness at its roots, inspired by the integrity of Earth’s living systems. Embodied culture is based on listening. More deeply than we usually do. It’s about showing up and tuning in. For real. About presence and attention. About detaching from the many stories we tell ourselves. Detaching from the established beliefs, landing into the present moment and paying honest attention to every situation, to the knowing that comes from direct experience. It is often subtle, so we need to listen carefully. Through this process we become more conscious. More aware. More present in the unfolding of life that is happening every moment. Less stuck in prejudices, outdated ideas, or anything else that comes from lack of attention to the present.
Integrity and Honesty
Embodied culture is seeking re-integration of the world in a larger sense. It seeks to bring the disciplines back together, and also on the human level — our health is in our re-connection, in that all parts of ourselves are integrated. Thinking, feeling, senses, intuition, rationality, physicality — all the different aspects of human experience are playing together like a jazz band, unified in free play. Researchers, scientists and philosophers, are slowly acknowledging power and wisdom of emotional world, subconscious world, the world of the body, and its connection to the whole ecosystem of the earth. Integrity also means the integration of our inner and outer worlds, our physical and non-physical being. Integrity is unified human intelligence, its tangible and intangible nature. In the body all systems work with each other. Each is there for something. Integrity also has to do with integration between theory and practice, with overcoming discrepancy between what we say and what we do, with living our values, embodying what we know or believe is true. Doing something and being aware of the “why” we are doing it. Without being embodied and lived values loose their meaning.
Sustainability and Embeddedness into Environment
Being continually "embedded" into the "flesh" of the world, we experience a constant exchange or "traffic" with our environment in ways that both exceed and inform our rational mind. Body, through its senses, is continuously aware of the quality of its living environment, of what is favourable and good for it and what isn’t. This also includes personal sustainability. Gabor Mate 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”. When we are attuned to the world around and our compass of inner and outer awareness is leading us through life, we start seeing how everything is connected, how sustainability of our environments are liked to our personal sustainability and vice versa.
Plurality and Balance
Like forests we contain multitudes. Embodying all the different aspects and qualities of ourselves, we invite more integrity and balance into our lives. Plurality also means embracing the full spectrum of being human, the bliss, the challenges, the past, the heritage you have from where you come from, the future, the possibilities that are there for you. Embodied culture is a lifestyle where human intelligence is unified in its multifacetedness, where human needs are respected in their plurality — physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, inter-personal, environmental, and so on. People are porous, mouldable. If you treat someone with a certain assumption it is very likely that the individual will grow to be what you expected — as a response to the way you treated them in the first place they will develop one-sidedly. We live in a world governed by plenty of beliefs and assumptions. Neoclassical theory of economics is based on the assumption that humans are selfish and the main things they want is to maximise their own gain. In reality humans are very complex, multilayered, multifaceted beings. Our mental, physical, emotional, social, environmental well-being are not separated from one another. We genuinely care for all of these. But what happens if the structures around us do not? If we are educated to develop one-sidedly, to develop on assumptions others are inflecting upon us, we do not inhabit all of ourselves, instead putting on glasses that will colour everything into one tone. Embodied culture strives to give space to the different aspects of each person to be there and nourish each other, from the aspects of our cultured and civilised self to the impulses of a wild and untamed one.
Flow and Creativity
Flow is connected to balance between human control and respect for natural state and development of everything. Many contemporary structures are still largely based on control alone (to make people do things, to educate them and often force them into certain ways of being, to land agendas, to fit reality into someone’s ideas, etc). In embodied culture the structures are based on attention — what is naturally evolving or wants to evolve and how can it best be guided, how to co-create with reality and with each other. It’s a reorientation of culture from the excess of effort (anything that includes forcing something into being predictable, like singular simplistic identities) to a more balanced one that pays more attention to listening, not only to doing. When things are not being forced into being but allowed to unfold real creativity becomes possible. Creativity that gives space to originality, to personal honest expression, and replaces a fear-based need for learned stereotypes or repetitive ideas belonging to the past. Creativity and flow also have to do with our cyclical nature. Our personal rhythms and rhythms of the year, everything in nature is cyclical. Linear segmentation of life is not always fitting. It means that our understanding of time also needs to change. Not everything can be scheduled and controlled. If we start to associate the schedule with reality, and ourselves and the flow of life expressed through our desires, rhythms, and situations as a disturbance, we are alienating from ourselves and denying the experience of the context in which we are in a wider sense. The balance between our controlled intentions and flow is a continuous process, context-based and situationally appropriate. Like with speaking many languages, we use them depending on where we are and with whom are we talking.
Relationality and Togetherness
In the same way as body experiences the quality of our living environment it experiences quality of communication and relationships with people around. Embodied partnerships are based on eye-level encounters and listening, trust and respect, honest engagement and courage. Collaborative mindset replaces competitive one. Strong individual agency and connection to others and the environment exist together. Everyone is different. Differently oriented to how we perceive and notice things, how we feel, what we want. When this is acknowledged, when old patterns of communication based on dominance, compliance and standardisation are let go of, relationships can be free of manipulations, everyone can be in their strength and jealousy is redundant. Embodied culture is not based on making people be or do something someone else has planned for them, it is not based on carrot and a stick, no awards and punishments, no top-down power, and therefore no fear-based power-games, no straight line of education toward a norm. Norm is individually chosen. The individual becomes their own agency. Boundaries are an important aspect of personal agency: establishing them where they are needed and removing them where they are unnecessary is a continuous process. From this practice individuals meet each other from a different place, and a more honest, empowering and liberating togetherness becomes possible.
Simplicity and Complexity
A more embodied culture is a culture of better discernment. When discernment comes from a deeper place than judgment, from inner sensing and resonance that we experience with our whole being, when this experience becomes more available to us, things become more simple. It’s like having a tuned-in navigation system that guides us through life. We are then less stuck in established beliefs, inherited prejudices, or unquestioned ideas. We are more real, more present in the moment, perceiving what is unfolding right in front of us. Relationships become more simple, with more clarity that comes from detachment from repetitive patterns and honest attention to direct experience. At the same time reality becomes more complex. It’s a complexity of being part of a rich interconnected world, that calls for our humbleness and openness towards the mysterious unfolding of life on this planet.
In the world where everything moves all the time uncertainty is part of a healthy life. If we think we have all the answers, or even that a certain subject is clear and “settled”, we might lose humility and curiosity in the face of this conceit. In reality our understanding of any given subject is never complete. Striving to be comfortable challenging the received wisdom, to avoid the “insightful ignorance” (term by Columbia neuroscience professor Stuart Firestein), learning becomes experience-based, balancing between knowledge and mystery.
Wellbeing is an integration of all of the above. Physical, emotional, mental, and environmental wellbeing go together. Well-being comes from co-ownership of one’s own path with life, from being involved and engaged, not a passive figure to be moved by someone else. It comes when individual agency connects with others and forms healthy partnerships, embodying active connection, belonging and shaping the world together. When everyone is able to survive as themselves, stay true to themselves, stay whole, integrated, and be able to do their best work, then individual wellbeing is also social and environmental well-being. It comes from inner integrity and outer integrity with & within living systems, surroundings, living beings and things.
A conclusion that a more embodied society would be a more balanced society is evident. So what are the practical steps 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? We engage with collective reflection and experimentation around these questions at our Events as well as with our work at Foresta Academy.
Images of works by the artist Francis Upritchard taken at Biennale di Venezia 2017