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Get back into your body!

It is common to hear appeals to ‘embodiment’ or complaints about being too much in your ‘thoughts’ (sometimes in your ‘head’ or ‘brain’, but this is confusing, since the head or the brain are body parts). What does this mean? Usually, it refers to the experience of being very much absorbed in daydreaming, planning, inner chit-chat, or other activities that we might call ‘mental’. Some of them might be ‘about’ the body (as in ‘do I look right?’) but they are not ‘embodied’ in the sense that they remain at the level of a representation of the body.

Notice that the word ‘representation’ is in itself a metaphorical term at its root: we are presented with something, and we replicate that gesture again. This metaphorical scheme is translated in abstract terms as ‘we receive inputs from the world and we make a picture of that world out of it’. Being lost in ‘thoughts’ is being lost in representations. As humans, most of our representations are actually symbolic representations, namely, they involve language, concepts, abstractions, symbols, meanings. While valuable, these symbolic constructs can be relatively far away from immediate bodily experience, and as they build upon each other, they can quickly construe a whole world that appears as if it was self-contained. Precisely in the way in which you represent thoughts in comics by using balloons containing words that pop up out of the head of a character, so being ‘lost in thoughts’ means being lost in the balloon of symbols that pop out of the body and keeps only a slight contact with it.

I won’t dive now into why this is problematic. I’ll just mention that if you take seriously the idea of embodied cognition, then thoughts are always the result of the way we operate as bodies within a world of other bodies. Being ‘disembodied’ thus means losing touch with the very ground from which our thoughts originate, or losing their context (check this previous post for some reflections around this topic).

Let me turn instead to a more practical issue. How do you facilitate people ‘getting back’ into their bodies? There are plenty of methods or tools that can be used and that approach the issue from different angles. For instance, some exercises focus on attuning attention to bodily perceptions (internal or external). Sometimes metaphorical language can evoke or be meaningfully linked with bodily actions and bring attention back to the domain of kinesthetic experience. Sometimes you can use visualizations about the body, or even ritualized actions. The list is long and open. However, it doesn’t take too much reflection to see that in most of these exercises the body is still taken as an object of representation. Perception is an intentional activity, meaning that it is ‘about-something’ (in this case, about the body). In the case of metaphorical, psychosomatic activation, or visualization, the fact that perception implies a symbolic (hence representational) structure is even more apparent.

Contemporary (philosophy of) cognitive science distinguishes between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ embodiment. Weak embodiment consists in regarding the body as a tool for cognition. We use our eyes to see the world, but we could equally use cameras, or something else. What matters is getting the information from the outside to the inside, so that we can create inside a representation of what is outside. Alternatively, especially within the phenomenological tradition, the body is seen as an object of representation from the point of view of someone’s conscious lived experience.

Strong embodiment, however, challenges this view by claiming that we ‘know’ something essentially ‘by doing’ it, or by (en)acting it. We don’t know the world by ‘looking at it’ as spectators, but rather by actively walking through it, engaging with it, messing up with it. In this case, the body is not the object of cognition, but the subject, which means that the body is the center of activity from which and through which cognition arises due to the interaction (and co-creation) with the external surroundings.

The invitation to ‘get back’ to the body can thus take different nuances. A first step can indeed consist in turning attention back to the body itself as an object of cognition (as a representation). The problem with stopping at this level is that insofar as the body is seen merely as an object, this reinforces the dichotomy between the body-as-object and a putative subject that observes it as if it was outside. In other words, the objectification of the body through representation implicitly supports the dualist assumption about a genuine Cartesian divide between body and mind. Hence, stopping at the level of ‘weak’ embodiment does not really get us ‘back’ into the body, because it creates at the same time a gulf between us (now identified implicitly as ‘mind’) and the body itself.

How do you facilitate ‘strong’ embodiment, then? In order to see the body as a subject rather than as an object, we need to experience it outside of the structure or scheme of representation. This means experiencing the body for what it is in its own right, namely, nothing but a center of kinesthetic activity and interaction. One way of facilitating this experience is precisely by using physical contact with other living bodies (yes, contact improvisation, for instance, but not necessarily the full-blown version of it). The sense of touch is the least representational sense we have, since tactile sensations are usually relatively fuzzy and indeterminate by themselves, but often connected with impulses for action (like directionality, pain, pleasure). Yet, when we touch inanimate objects, then we usually enter another subject-object relation, in which the focus goes into the manipulation of the object we touch. This applies also when we touch our own body and make it into an object of exploration. However, when we are in physical touch with another living body, we can find a way of surrendering some of our usual sense of control and start co-creating improvised movements and actions, in which we discover our agency precisely insofar as we share it with another (more about this here).

The great mystery of cognition is that subjectivity is not born in the first-person singular. We start from the second person singular (you), and we grow in the first-person plural (we), until we make an abstraction and arrive at this funny construction we call ‘our self’ (I). So, to ‘get back into the body’ in a strong sense, we need to bypass this last product and reactivate our way of relating to others outside of the domain of symbolic, objectifying representation.

The difficulty here is that (as mentioned in a previous post), there is much social shame around physical touch. This creates a vicious circle: by avoiding direct physical contact, ‘getting back’ to a strong form of embodiment becomes more difficult, and as this becomes more difficult, physical contact gets over- (and mis-)interpreted in all sorts of ways that contribute to making it tabu.

      To avoid this issue, sometimes it is invoked the principle according to which one should first help oneself before getting in touch with others (and many contemplative practices, at least for how they are adapted today, do focus on autonomous self-help). Unfortunately, we are relational beings and our problems are ultimately relational problems (by definition). Yes, we can go a long way in helping ourselves by our own forces, but this will be always and only a step towards something that, eventually, in a way or another, will have to involve relating to others, including our way of getting in physical touch with others.

Clearly, nobody has to do anything if they don’t want to. Those happy to leave ‘in their thoughts’ don’t have to bother, and those happy to reach a degree of ‘weak’ embodiment can remain content there. I’m not advocating for a ‘must do’. The point is more general and concerns the scope of what can be done when the injunction ‘get back into your body!’ is taken seriously. If one is up for going all the way down, then the body must be freed from its condition as object of representation and claim back its status of subject. But nobody is subject on their own, we are subjects only because we interact with each other, call one another, and be in touch with one another as a unified, unpredictable, beautiful, chaotic system.

So, when we say ‘get back into the body!’ we’re actually inviting to go back to this primordial chaos, the matrix from which all symbols arise and where they dissolve. The space of freedom that we can always claim back, provided we have the courage for it. Facilitation, here, is really nothing but supporting this courage to take the lead—or better, to initiate the move.

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