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Primary and deep embodiment

Embodiment is a process, not a state. Being in a body, having a body, living through a body are all events, not things. Not only do they happen over time, but they change, evolve, go right or wrong.

In its most common form, embodiment consists of taking shape, becoming determinate, incorporating boundaries and limits, becoming finite, hardening. I call this “primary embodiment” to signal that this is the first and main occurrence, the basis of any form of embodiment. Even when we think that “we live in our heads”, we are enacting a form of primary embodiment.

Following Spinoza’s definition of the individual, we can distinguish two conditions for primary embodiment, one external and the other internal. External conditions include the spaces (natural, social, symbolic) through which we move (or can’t move). For example, when we walk in a city, we have to walk in a certain way, in certain directions and not others, at certain speeds. When we live in a house or work in an office, our bodies have to adopt certain postures, get used to working within a certain range of movement (however limited). In fact, our social education begins and is constantly reinforced by the way the space we inhabit imposes its shape on us.

The body has an indeterminate potential for movement and action. Despite anatomical limitations, the possible combinations, variations, permutations are endless. Each of these corresponds to a particular way of exploring the environment, responding to it, enacting a role within it. By disciplining (or policing) these possibilities, by restricting them, by encouraging some and suppressing others, the space in which we live puts its stamp on our existence.

The internal conditions of primary embodiment concern the set of dynamic limits, proportions, fixed patterns that we acquire, stabilise, cultivate and defend, out of which our personality develops and our way of interacting with others is established. Our habits, obsessions, little gestures, are all ways of continuing the act of shaping, determining, limiting our naturally limitless range of possible actions so that we can become this person rather than that.

So primary embodiment is supported both by the external environment and from within. It’s a long and arduous process that can take a lifetime. Because our original nature is always partially undetermined, we never completely stop renewing the imprint of constraints, or the need to give it a particular shape. Even when we are old and crooked, we still have to hold on to our self-imposed curvatures and distortions in order to preserve that peculiar life-form we have constructed.

Primary embodiment, however natural and even necessary, has two major shortcomings. First, it remains a contingent process, uncertain, subject to dissolution once the effort to impose a certain determination on the otherwise amorphous nature of our being ceases. Secondly, even when this process seems to be successful and fully established for a while, it quickly becomes a cage. Our amorphous nature, conquered for the time being by the violence of the form-giving act, rebels with a sense of discomfort, constriction, bondage.

These shortcomings are structural and unavoidable, as they result from the collision of the imposition of a definite form on something that inherently lacks any form. Like the resistance of the raw canvas behind the painting that tries to hide its blankness behind imaginary figures, our indeterminate nature shivers behind the mask with which we try to suffocate its formlessness.

The solution to these shortcomings, however, is not to sabotage primary embodiment, nor is it simply to foster it more. That the latter option is a dead end should be obvious. But undoing primary embodiment is also a desperate attempt (pace what certain contemplative traditions may say). We take form (we embody in the first place) because we can. Primary embodiment is an expression of a real possibility and power, and to move away from it, to avoid it, or to dismantle it, becomes yet another violence against our nature and its power. Like the child who, fearing the challenges of adulthood, prefers to return to the womb rather than face them head on.

The solution comes from what I call “deep embodiment”. This is, in a sense, a natural continuation of the process of primary embodiment. However, it takes place in a different dimension and without the need to suppress or intensify primary embodiment. Deep embodiment is an appreciation of all of the indeterminacy that surrounds the products of primary embodiment.

Any determination, any rule, any shape or form, in order to be precisely this rather than that, must define itself in relation to a background (i.e. “that” which it seeks to exclude). For instance, a human being is not a dog. This is clear enough at first, and this clarity is the clarity of primary embodiment when we become humans rather than dogs. But what exactly is a dog? No matter how far we push this question, we will find that it can never be fully exhausted or answered, because to do so would require us to embark on the impossible task of defining everything else that isn’t a dog. Therefore, no matter how precise or well-defined our primary form may seem, it always thrives on a vast, immeasurable shadow of indeterminacy, ambiguity, darkness, possibility.

Note that this shadow of indeterminacy is different from the original indeterminacy from which we emerge and are born in the process of primary embodiment. This original indeterminacy was still an almighty openness to everything and nothing in particular. The indeterminacy that arises around and through primary embodiment has a specific centre, a boundary. It’s the ambiguity of a well-formed sentence (or poetic verse) rather than the silence of an unspoken word. This indeterminacy or ambiguity does not suppress what is said (the determination expressed by the primary embodiment) and yet it surrounds it with a sense of irony, of distance, of humour. It transforms every statement into a question. By giving openness to what seemed to be a closed game, it imbues it with a sense of unexpected freedom and mystical wonder.

Deep embodiment is “deep” because it builds on primary embodiment while integrating it with the inevitable sense of openness it can't help but evoke. It gives a profundity, indeed a depth, to the drawings of primary embodiment, just as the play of shadows in a painting creates perspectives of mystery.

As such, deep embodiment is produced along with primary embodiment. However, it can be distinguished from primary embodiment as a new process in its own right when it becomes the centre and fulcrum of action. Instead of playing the game of giving shape and imposing forms, deep embodiment begins when one switches to the game of questioning pre-given shapes and recognising the ambiguity of well-defined forms. This involves both exploring what is actually possible within a given form (“What can a body do?” asked Spinoza) and then reintegrating this space of possibility and virtuality into the process of primary embodiment itself. Deep embodiment does not move away from primary embodiment, but loops around it, reconnecting with it in order to liberate and awaken its potential.

For example, we are used to interpreting ideas as linguistic constructions. We often use associative and imaginative mechanisms. One keyword gives rise to another, and as we relate one to the other, we feel that we are making some progress in our thinking. This is a typical example of primary embodiment, in which we have learned to relate to ideas while keeping most of our body at rest and focusing our energies on the powers of memory and imagination. But any meaningful idea has an impact on our ability to move our whole body (since ideas that affect our life affect our embodied life).

Deep embodiment begins by recognising that an idea can affect the way we move in many different ways, most of which we don’t really know. So, the first step is to explore some of them. When I think of “control” or “happiness”, how can my body move (dance) these ideas? This is an open-ended exploration with no definite limit or fixed outcome. In pursuing it, it becomes increasingly clear that these initial ideas (the marks of primary embodiment) are vague. But not as something that has no form at all. Rather as something that partially conceals the depth of its meaning, like a figure in chiaroscuro. Now, what happens if I start from the embodied experience of their ambiguity when dealing with these ideas? On one level I know what they mean, but on another level I know that I don't fully know where that meaning leads, I can't fully grasp it no matter how far I push my exploration.

In the process of primary embodiment, “control” or “happiness” have a certain rigidity—the same one encounters through the arrogance of the youth who pretends to know everything and who can only see the world in black and white. Ascending (or descending) to deep embodiment, we discover a different way of relating to the same ideas, not only more nuanced, lighter, ironic, but also more meaningful. Meaning is not in the infinitesimal sign that evokes it, but in the infinite background that it evokes by resonating within it. Like the pebble thrown into an infinite well, the meaning is not in the pebble or its sound, but in waiting for the time when the pebble touches the water. Infinite the well, infinite the time, infinite the tension, infinite the meaning.

On the surface, deep embodiment changes nothing about the design created by primary embodiment. But in fact it changes everything about the way that design is lived and experienced. It changes its meaning. This applies to the little ideas and stories that adorn our lives (that episode, this name, that gesture, this encounter). But it also applies to the structural issues, the architecture of our existence (the meaning of life and death, or what we think we ultimately are). It is not a form of scepticism, although it involves a sense of not-knowing. Scepticism is itself a form of primary embodiment, which categorically asserts the impossibility of knowing anything (paradoxical assertion, yet determinate). Deep embodiment acknowledges the possibility of knowing what we know in the way we do, and yet adds a sensitivity to the fact that such knowledge will never be fully exhausted or encompassed, it will always elude our attempts to fully grasp it.

Most of our ordinary problems revolve around the goals we have set for ourselves (or internalised from others) and our success or failure in achieving them. This is all part of primary embodiment. Deep embodiment does not tell us what goals to pursue or to avoid, but it does provide a different attitude to our pursuits. It not only gives freedom to our endeavours, it gives them irony and wiser understanding. It does not solve our problems, but puts them into a broader, more meaningful and less narrow perspective. The difference may be subtle, but it's essential. It is the difference that makes all the difference.

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