‘If you want to give birth to your true self, you will have to dig deep down into that body of yours and let your soul howl. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and trust that if you turn off your head, your feet will take you where you need to go.’ ~ Gabrielle Roth
I believe that we live in a time where it is necessary to expand our sensitivity and connection to the web of life. This includes the possibility to embrace our bodies as a source of transformation, intuition and wisdom.
There is a deep raw wild power and intelligence inside each of us.
In this article, I want to explore the importance of embodied awareness. For me, this is a significant enquiry that we must dig into in our current cultural, historical, and social context.
Bear in mind this is a complex topic. It cannot be analysed extensively here, and also, there are systemic issues related to trauma, privilege, racism, and colonialism to be considered.
I have been an apprentice to the School of Movement Medicine since 2009. Movement Medicine is a body-based movement meditation practice that supports people reconnecting to the wisdom of living from the heart and making their unique contribution to life. This practice shaped me into who I am, personally and professionally.
Furthermore, as I had cancer at a very young age, I explored and have been very curious about the relationship between body intelligence, personal and collective growth and transformation. This theme is, therefore, very dear to my heart.
After I graduated as a coach with the International Coach Academy, I started investigating how to embrace more significantly embodied awareness in our Western culture.
Psychology, during the twentieth century, has taken a robust cognitive approach. Western medicine created a paradigm where the body is seen as an assemblage of parts treated separately.
For more than 2500 years, the body had a bad reputation. For example, the philosopher Xenophanes wrote: ‘If a man wins victory in wresting boxes, he is given a seat off-hour at the games, yet, he is not worthy as I am; for my wisdom is better than human strength or horses, it is wholly unfair to rank strength above my wisdom.’
Greek philosophy started to construct the idea of higher, more abstract, more pure, eternal intelligence, while the body is impermanent, it can get sick, injured. Up there is possible to be enlightened and reach higher states.
Aristotle proposed a system of education for the body where physical and mental training should not have been pursued simultaneously as they ‘counteract each other.’
Christianity also built a culture where the body and flesh are instruments of sin. In various philosophies in general and religions, body and soul are seen as divided and separated, and the body is an object that needs purification.
Especially the work of Descartes in Europe heightened and sublimated this separation between mind and body. Cogito, ergo sum is the Latin philosophical proposition by Descartes, usually translated into English as ‘I think; therefore I am.’
‘We inherited a worldview where the mind is the seat of intelligence, which is logical, rational, and separated from the rest of the world we inhabit.’ ~Guy Claxton
This narrative of separation often leads to perceiving emotions as something to manage and control, which disrupts intelligence and are primarily childish or primitive.
We evolved collectively in industrial countries, seeing intellect, logic, and reason as separate from the ‘brutality’ of the body and inner awareness. We located intelligence in the head and the brain.
We see this today also in new age culture, where ‘higher’ is presented versus ‘lower,’ spirit needs to elevate and transcend the body; higher levels are planes for light, purity, ‘better vibration,’ and eternal life. Many spiritual circles praise the ‘upper chakras’ versus the more instinctual, primitive and animal-like ones.
We live in a world that encourages us to spend a lot of time up in our heads. We are over-stimulated with information and time in front of the screen, and we can disconnect from our bodies very quickly.
Culturally, people relate to their bodies as if they are just a piece of flesh that they need to move, fix, sedate, stimulate, medicate, clean, put on a diet, or control. Many become numb to many subtle inner sensations, which would provide them with relevant and accurate information. In many cases, addiction, entertainment, and consumerism are ways to avoid these kinds of feelings and inner knowing.
When people accept as normal to worry a lot about how they look, compare their image to others or approach the body as a machine and not as a sacred temple, many won’t feel entirely at home and comfortable in their skin.
In our modern world, people are always on the go, rushing somewhere, stuck in traffic or on public transport, and spend a lot of time in front of their electronic devices. These habits trigger a sense of alarm in their nervous system, which is overstimulated and aroused, and it leads to mimic the fight or flight response. It is not a surprise that many often feel exhausted, thanks to an overproduction of stress hormones. In this way, it is easy to fall into a vicious circle where it becomes challenging to feel oneself from the inside.
Moreover, we live in a collective culture that allows the mind to create walls, judge, separate, compartmentalise and see the world as other than us. In this story, we create labels; we need control and dominate the natural world around us and the land (which many believe doesn’t have any consciousness and intelligence).
In the last couple of centuries, we culturally started seeing and perceiving mother Earth as an animate object.
Furthermore, it is interesting that the narrative of separation and split between body and mind leads naturally to control and polarisation. Nowadays, at the time of the crisis of COVID-19, it seems almost natural to want to find an enemy, push against something ‘other’ than us, fight it and shift gear towards control and crisis management.
In some ancient societies, the belly was considered the centre of thinking. Nowadays, science equally recognises the gut-brain connection (created by a network of neurons and chemicals) and speaks about our second brain in the gut, which explains our gut feelings, knowledge and instinct. Neuroscience also discovered that our intelligence lies not just in the brain but also in the whole body. It travels into the spinal cord and the body’s extremities through the central and autonomic nervous systems.
The heart has its nervous system and makes decisions independently from the brain. When we are numb to these inner perceptions, we are shutting down part of our intelligence and not tapping fully into our capacities, wholeness, and potential.
‘Our relationship with the world can only mirror and express the relationship we have with our bodies. Having estranged ourselves from the body and its wisdom, we find ourselves also estranged from the world and its wisdom.’ ~Philip Shepherd
Zen master Thich Nath Hanh has spoken extensively about the idea that what we do to or against our body, we do it against the earth and vice versa. He died recently and said intensively about interbeing: I am because you are.
In the same measure in which we are separate from our bodies, we are cut off from a part of ourselves, other human beings, our non-human kins, and we don’t fully inhabit the world around us.
We need to rethink and reinvent how we inhabit our bodies as that offers a direct experience of how we relate to the world.The wound of disconnection is so intense in our society that it profoundly affects our relationship with ourselves, others, and the web of life. Our health, resilience, transformation, and wellbeing depend on it. The welfare of the planet and our community depend on it too.
Change cannot happen only at the level of our heads.
Too often, we focus only on limiting beliefs, affirmations, creating new visions boards or mechanical, physical activity without getting to the roots of our suffering and challenges.
Maybe at this point, you want to ask, what does embodied awareness mean?
‘I don’t have a body. I am a body. I am smart precisely because I am a body. I don’t own it or inhabit it; from it, I arise. The association of intelligence with thinking and reasoning isn’t a fact; it is a cultural belief.’ ~Guy Claxton
Many attempted to explain what embodiment is and is not.
I want to include here below some beautiful and powerful definitions. I invite you to read them slowly, notice your body sensations and take the time to take in this information consciously.
Guy Claxton, emeritus professor of the learning sciences at the University of Winchester, is convinced that ‘the physical body constitutes the core of our intelligence.’
Furthermore, Claxton reminds us that system theory is a cornerstone of embodied awareness and cognition. System intelligence emerges from many sub-systems talking, communicating, and connecting. The body is a system. Our heart beats in a certain way while listening to the lungs and digesting the food. ‘I am as I am because I am shaped by the food I eat, the air I breathe, the sounds I hear.’ (Claxton, 2015)
The human system is self-organising. When aspects of our inner activity, feelings, sensations, consciousness go hand in hand, all the different chemical loops of information come together. In essence, all information may contribute to the decision making process. When embodied awareness and visceral feelings arise, we can consider them. However, if there is no awareness, they may still be there but not contribute to decision-making.
Copeau spoke about embodied awareness in actors’ theatre and performing arts training.
‘What is needed is that within them, every moment is accompanied by an internal state of awareness peculiar to the movement being done’ (Cole and Chinoy, 1970). With each repetition of each exercise, for the nth time, there is this ‘something more’ that can be found in one’s relationship to movement. It is repetition per se, which leads one, eventually, to the possibility of recognising oneself through exercise. Embodiment is the process of uniting the imaginary separation between body and mind.’
Philip Shepherd, the author of the groundbreaking book ‘Radical Wholeness,’ describes embodiment in this way:
‘So the undoing begins with the basics. If it doesn’t, we will remain stuck in the place where so much contemporary work on embodiment finds — where we gently turn our attention to the body and listen to it, or observe its sensations, or patiently notice the breath. All of these practices have value, but it’s hazardous to mistake them for embodiment. Embodiment isn’t about quieting the thoughts in the head and noticing the sensations of the body from there — it’s about bringing the abstract intelligence of the head into a relationship with the body’s intelligence. Wholeness is never either/or — it’s both/and. So the popular advice to ‘listen to the body,’ well-meaning as it is, is stuck in the story of division. The phrase itself suggests that you are in one place, and your body is in another. It implies that you are separated from your body as though by a wall, and the best you can hope for is to put your ear to that wall once in a while and listen to what’s happening on the other side. So although its intention is to foster embodiment, the advice to ‘listen to the body’ actually reinforces the very divide that it’s seeking to overcome. Similarly, the instruction to ‘notice the breath’ assigns you the role of a spectator of your own life: sitting up in the head, you observe the sensations of your breathing. What a different thing it is to allow the centre of your awareness to descend from the penthouse suite and merge with the thinking of your being as it lives through those sensations so that the here-and-now experience of breathing is the here-and-now experience of ‘you’ — of your embodied presence in the world. You are the breath, alert to what the world reveals. Embodiment isn’t about sitting in the head and paying attention to the part of you we call the body — it’s about fully inhabiting the body’s intelligence and attuning to the world through it. It’s about listening to the world through the body. It’s about feeling the world through the breath. For our purposes, then‚we might say that embodiment is a state in which your entire intelligence is experienced as a coherent unity attuned to the world. In that state, any distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘the body’s energy’ becomes meaningless.
In my experience, being more grounded and present in my body allowed me to embrace cancer with more peace, calm and courage. I would not let myself dwell in panic and fear. I learnt to move one step at a time. I also know that in this way, I can harvest more fully my wisdom and trust my sensitivity as a compass. Giving ourselves permission to rewire ourselves and landing in our bodies kindly and softly, in a trauma-aware way (there is no need to push!) opens the door to greater empathy and compassion towards others’ suffering. It also teaches honouring our boundaries. Embodied awareness is a portal into interbeing and celebration of beauty on our planet while we embrace our kinship with all life. It is the gateway to sensing the suffering of Mother Earth while we take more responsibility in our lives.
I want to conclude this paragraph with this definition by Aubyn Howard:
‘Embodiment, the incarnation (e.g. the journey from spirit to matter) and becoming grounded, doesn’t end with being born and is something we might work on our whole lives, as part of coming more into our being and presence. In other words, connecting-down as well as up and somatic working really helps with this. I suspect this is particularly important in a modern western society where cultural splits between mind and body have become endemic and where many of us are over mind-identified (thinking is all).’
Here are some questions to support your exploration and your embodied awareness daily. You could also put an alarm on your phone many times per day, so you can pause and see how you feel. As you know, awareness grows with attention. So your sense of embodiment will expand, too, depending on how you will nurture this relationship with love, care and patience.
- What is your position/posture now?
- What is your breathing pattern?
- What is your perception of temperature and hot and cold sensations?
- If your shoulders could talk, what would they say?
- What is your awareness of your feet on the ground and buttocks on the chair during the day?
- Which part of your body feels alive/energised/relaxed/contracted/expanded?
And, more metaphysically, I would like to ask you:
- What would you like to embody? What do you need be, do or become to honour that?
- What does embodied awareness mean to you?
This is food for thought. I am aware that there is plenty of information in this article today. I will write soon more about it. For now, I hope that you find some time to digest what you read and integrate it.
Feel free to get in touch if you have questions.
Intelligence in the flesh, Guy Claxton, Yale University Press.
Philip Shepherd, The Embodiment Manifesto