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The challenges of embodied learning

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

This year, I wanted to turn Global Hermeneutics (The Tragedy of the Self) into an occasion for exposing students the idea that genuine understanding is not something merely intellectual, it is not reducible to the amount of information one can store and process. Understanding has also to do with how one can embody that information. In general, this means making the subject relevant for one’s own life, but more specifically it means learning and knowing how to move around (or be moved by) ideas. This approach is pretty common in certain quarters, where people are keen on embodied contemplative practices, but I knew very well that it is foreign to the standard academic setting. However, anticipating the conclusions of these reflections, I have also discovered that the difficulty of embodied learning is not just institutional or administrative, but also has some (philosophically very interesting) existential underpinnings in how we (teachers, students, academics, humans) deal with our emotions and how this relates to the process of embodiment.

 

When I teach (or should I say “facilitate”?) I do acknowledge that there is a certain gap between me and the student audience. There is something they might not have noticed or encountered yet, which I’d like to share with them and make them curious about. This is the asymmetry in the classroom. But at the same time, I also can’t help but seeing students as just other human beings, and assuming that they have lives, feel emotions, go through stuff, just as I do. They might be younger, but fundamentally (existentially) we are all on the same boat. In that sense, the classroom is a symmetrical space, it’s a space where certain facets of being human can surface and unfold. I’m stressing this aspect because I guess it’s important to realize that in extrapolating any implications from my teaching experience, I’m not necessarily dealing with an idiosyncratic group of human population (the ‘student population’), but to some extent (at least) I’m dealing with broad human phenomena, which we just happen to discover and uncover in a classroom rather than in some other place. And that’s interesting, since it allows the shared experience of philosophizing (teaching and learning, as in a universitas studiorum or a community) to become a mirror for the study of what does it mean and take to be a human being.

 

The initial problem was that of introducing a more embodied approach into an environment in which students were habituated and trained by using for the most part completely disembodied methods. At the beginning of the course, I started with a few assumptions: (1) in order to make the transition smoother, I would use forms of embodiment that are closer to intellectual representations (like enacting a certain idea through a body shape), using the body as a canvas for the idea; (2) since students know each other for more than one year (by the time I would start teaching), they should be sufficiently familiar with one another and constitute already a well-established group. To create a fine-tuned feedback system, I regularly asked students to fill-in checklists during class and then submit ‘post-lecture’ reflections on their experiences. This was very helpful for me to closely monitor how the course was impacting on them, and adjust accordingly. 

 

It only took a few meetings for me to realise that both of my initial assumptions were somewhat misplaced. (1) The smoother approach turned out to be more difficult, precisely because it was neither the familiar fully intellectual and disembodied method, nor something so different that could be approached with an entirely open mind. Most students were struggling to find ‘how’ to enact ideas and imposing certain mental patterns onto their bodies, but in fact most people were trying to translate an ‘abstract’ idea in another equally abstract ‘bodily representation’ (and both are intellectual constructions), more than allowing their body to express the idea. (2) Despite having spent some time together, students apparently did not form a very cohesive or supportive group. Many people felt extremely self-conscious and even unsafe in the classroom, even if no explicit or ‘external’ threat (as far as I could know, at least) was explicitly there. The ‘gaze of the other’ was in itself one of the main threats.

 

I adjusted the format by introducing music as a frame to facilitate spontaneous movement. Instead of encouraging the top-down approach I was inviting in the beginning, I started to encourage a more bottom-up approach, in which it was less important to ‘think about’ what one had to do, and more important to just do what the circumstance was suggesting. This helped more people to get into the exercise and let go a bit their self-consciousness, although for a significant part it felt also ‘vaguer’ and more difficult because less rigidly guided. Freedom is paralyzing for some—I’ll come back to this point below. 

 

In order to deal with the tense climate of implicit unsafety in the group, I ended up starting each session with a group oath of mutual respect towards others and oneself. These measures did something good to improve the overall atmosphere (besides the fact that being repeatedly exposed to something, even if weird at first, does by itself increase familiarity and reduces the sense of estrangement). Yet, an underpinning issue also started to surface more clearly. 

 

Several people seem to find very difficult to relate and express how they feel, especially in a group setting, and especially when the feeling is on the negative side of the spectrum of emotions. Expressing happiness is easier than expressing sadness, also because sadness by itself tends to block one’s own expression (it’s a lowering of one’s power of acting, Spinoza would say). And yet, the difficulty was not just this default difficulty. It was a more deeply rooted inability, a not-knowing how to allow sadness (of any kind) to take a bodily shape, to be fully embodied. 

 

For instance (based on the checklists I was collecting), when we practiced the idea of ‘lightness’ or ‘boundlessness’ (connected with Lecture 5 on the Vedic Seers), 23 people find it overall nice, while 9 felt ‘shut in their head’ or somehow frozen. When we practiced with the idea of ‘being moved by sadness’ (connected with Lecture 7 on Greek tragedy), 21 people could play with that idea somehow, while 8 were ‘stuck’ or couldn’t relate to it. When the task was rather abstract—pick up a secret alter ego in the group, and move if they are stationary, or vice versa (this was in connection with Lecture 8 on Plato’s Sophist), 41 people could easily do that and enjoyed it, only 2 were ‘confused’. However, when on top of this relational exercise I asked to interpret whether the alter ego is embodying a more Apollonian or Dionysian character (in connection with Lecture 9), and then play the opposite, only 18 people where positive about the exercise, while 18 felt ‘shut in their head’ or couldn’t (or wouldn’t like) to engage with the exercise. These numbers suggest two things.

 

First, despite the unfamiliar and novel set-up of these embodied practices, there was a quite consistent group of students (always 50% or more) that positively engaged with them and picked them up with enthusiasm. This was an encouraging and hopeful signal. Yet, in teaching to a group as a whole, one cannot simply concentrate on those who are already more favorably inclined towards the subject and the approach. The real challenge is to engage those who show the most resistance (and whose resistance is more likely to remain invisible in a traditional setting).

 

Second, the more explicitly we are asked to get away from our comforting way of moving, the more explicitly we’re asked to play against the grain of our habits and self-imposed identity (or the closer we get to the tragic Dionysian element), the greater is the resistance that is provoked. Connected with this, the sense of ‘vagueness’ and ‘not knowing what to do’ that several people experienced when confronted with more open-ended invitations also reveals how deeply we are habituated and used to follow fairly precise rules, execute very rigid prescriptions, and how little confidence we have left for any freer and less clear-cut invitation. Hence, the moment in which the boundaries are even slightly removed, when the moment comes that we could move more freely, we actually freeze, we get stuck, we don’t know how or where to move—or maybe we just do not want to move that freely. Freedom is scary.

 

This resistance is not just an idea or an interpretation, it’s a real thing, a real structure, a real chain that prevents real bodies from making real movements. It is an almost tangible wall marking an unsurpassable border. It is as embodied and as concrete as things can ever get. It’s there, glaring, in front of us. This was something revealed by the embodied learning approach, which I really didn’t expect to show up in this form. But it did, and now the question is: what shall we do with it? How do we make sense of it?

 

I take this resistance to be connected with the issue of self-consciousness and unsafety. These have both to do with the implied and perceived duty of being in a certain way, looking in a certain way, behaving in a certain way—a way that can be socially acceptable and approved. Now, it seems that this implicit duty towards a certain public self-representation does not allow any room for ‘negative’ emotions. We have to be happy, successful, beautiful, immortal. There is no space left for grief, sorrow, failure, ugliness (whatever that is). To put it in Nietzschean terms, we are prisoners of Apollo, who forced us to forget about our Dionysian roots. Anything that counts as ‘negative’ is something to hide, to keep for oneself, maybe to reveal to a few intimate friends who can keep it secret, in the shadows. However, we are not (and cannot) be always on one side of the emotional spectrum. Sometimes we’re happy, but sometimes we aren’t. If we allow only part of ourselves to be ‘acceptable’, we have to constantly hide (if not condemn) the other part. We’ll try to fit a mask that nobody can really and sustainably fit. In any case, it wouldn’t be a very human mask. 

 

My intuition is that a good part of the sense of implicit unsafety that surfaced during the course might be connected with this need of hiding (what is perceived to be) the ‘dark’ side of one’s emotional life. Not being allowed to express it (or even to just feel it), one needs to remain always on guard, keep alert, avoid missteps. And by never expressing it, one of course even forgets about how to do so, or how that would be even possible. Eventually, we do not feel allowed to express “sadness & co.”. The sense of unsafety comes also from the risk of failing to keep this guard on, the risk of being spotted in the wrong mood, the wrong pose, the wrong shape. We’re frozen in our social smile, silently praying that the rest of the world won’t notice the cracks. 


If this is even just an approximation to how things are, then it would also explain why people (and here I'm generalizing beyond my case study) often do not seem to know what to do with their freedom. Some seem to be so used to follow pregiven rules, to adapt to standards, to fit into externally-imposed formats, that as soon as these are relinquished, even only a tiny bit, they get lost, they sink, they get confused, they find that things blur and become ‘vague’. It is way easier to just execute what an authority tells us to do, without having to think, to decide, or to take responsibility for our choices. By executing, we do not have to express anything, and by not expressing, we do not take the risk of revealing what should not be revealed.

 

Rules work as walls and screens: if you follow, you’ll fit the expectations, and nobody will ask you anything further, you’ll be safe, no uncomfortable questions, nothing to explain or justify. If you relinquish the rule, though, how do you know that you won’t make that misstep, that you won’t eventually say the wrong thing, or reveal the wrong aspect that (you assumed) should remain concealed beneath the surface? So, we trade freedom for a cozy trust that we won’t be bothered.

 

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everybody in the same way. I noticed that within the group I was chairing, some people greatly enjoyed the greater degree of freedom. Yet, we do not operate as isolated units, and our freedom is relational. Freedom is a game, and even if I am up for it, if I do not find others to play with, the game is a bit spoiled (at best). Those who do not play, who are reluctant or even scared, are not to be left behind. Quite the contrary, they are voicing a genuine problem, which has a direct impact on all the others. They need to be listened to, understood, and their resistance has to be addressed, not only case by case, but collectively. The first step in adressing this (as any) problem is to acknowledge it: we've got a problem.

 

But to go a bit deeper, I'd like to suggest that the fundamental tangle lies precisely in the issue of embodiment. The more we confine ourselves to the domain of primary embodiment (which is that whole dimension of efforts and strivings for embodying a certain form, keeping a certain mask, conforming to certain standards and rules—the world of Apollo, to use Nietzsche’s categories again), the more we’re doomed to feel unsafe behind our Olympian smile, the more we’re brittle, the more we’re enslaved, unfree. Primary embodiment itself creates sorrow as its byproduct. If we assume that we have to be X, then any time we’re not-X, we’re failing, and this creates sadness, sorrow, regret, guilt. It is the should that induces the pain of not fulfilling a demand. The more we live in the domain of primary embodiment, the more we are sensitive and exposed to grief and to the need of repressing it, which creates a vicious circle (since we repress it by trying to embodying even better a pregiven standard, another should, which exacerbates even more the risk of failing to do so).

 

The real and most important question at this point is (as usual) a practical or pedagogical question: how do we (as human beings, as philosophers, as a university community of teachers and students) move out of here?

 

One of the most challenging (but also rewarding) aspects of teaching is to meet students where they actually are. This year’s setting of Global Hermeneutics gave me an extremely powerful tool to gauge this, with a precision I could never access before. Yet, the question remains: how do we cultivate deep embodiment in a culture and context that seem to be stuck in primary embodiment (how do we regain our access to the Dionysian dimension, in a world that fell under Apollo’s spell)?

 

At this point I do not have a complete answer to this question. But I wonder if the very fact of asking it, understanding it, taking it seriously—and trying to embody it—isn’t the first step towards addressing it. 'Taking a step' is a metaphor, a turn of phrase. What if it were also the answer—provided we take it literally, as an invitation to take an actual, physical, bodily step forward? After all, how do you move forward if not by actually moving?



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