Embodied knowledge

‘Dark matter’ is estimated to account for 85% of the matter in the Universe but we can’t see it. Embodied knowledge is a bit like that; although most people have never heard of it and it can’t be put on a page, it’s fundamental to our everyday lives.

Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher, unpacked the difference between what we know explicitly – that Paris is the capital of France, for example – and the ‘know how’ or knack that is tacit knowing. Polanyi pointed out that “we know more than we can tell” (1966) because there’s some things we simply can’t talk about. Riding a bike is a good example, When I ride my bike, I don’t think though every movement. This is especially obvious when I turn a corner: If I were to try to think through each subtle movement as I adjust my balance and turn the handle bars in just the right way, I would fall off! I don’t play golf, but research suggest that when a player ‘chokes’ – fluffs a simple shot because of stress – it’s because they’re thinking too much (Beilock and Carr). At the tacit, embodied level, the pro golfer knows how to make the shot, but if they start trying to think about it, they’ll blow it.

I can give you examples of embodied knowing from fields as diverse as anthropology, business studies, neuroscience, teaching, sport and many more. For now, I’ll offer a few highlights to give you some sense of the power of embodied knowing.

Shoshana Zuboff spoke to workers who’d relied on their embodied knowledge. Until comparatively recently these US paper mill workers would sit alongside the machine, sensing how it behaved as they adjusted the controls. But after computerization they had to work from a remote monitor. Many found this transition really hard. They’d been using a “knowledge that you don’t even know you have” that they called a kind of ‘folk medicine’. They had an embodied understanding of how the machine worked, the sound and feel of it when it was running right. Suddenly they had to learn explicitly how to keep it running properly (Zuboff, 1988).

Hui Niu Wilcox uses her understanding of embodied knowledge in science education and social change (2009). Her approach is explicitly political: “through integrating embodied ways of knowing into our work, we have honed our critique of the Eurocentric and male-dominated system of knowledge production in the Western academy” (2009). The results can be transformative: Students on a Women’s Studies course she taught “spoke passionately about their leap from academic theories of race and white privilege to an embodied understanding of how white Americans unconsciously perform privilege and whiteness”.

Wilcox and her colleagues from the Ananya Dance Theatre also use embodied ways of knowing to help people understand the impact of the climate crisis on marginalised communities.

Embodied knowing plays a vital role in psychotherapy. Daria Halprin, an expressive arts therapist, says the body is “like a treasure chest … full of our life experiences, contained in a deep and accurate way” (2002). Embodied therapy can help us access that treasure and so bring healing to the bodymind.

Embodied ways of knowing are multifaceted, complex and marginalised. Sociologist Ian Burkitt claims that all knowledge is embodied (1999). I’m not sure I’d go that far, but in this short post you’ve read of how embodied ways of knowing can help us tackle racism, understand the climate crisis and nurture our mental health. That’s why I’ve devoted a big chunk of my life to trying to understand the power of embodied ways of knowing.

A graphic map of embodied ways of knowing
Mapping Embodied Ways of Knowing

I recently completed an initial sketch map of different models of embodied knowing. Although I’ve tried to keep it accessible, it isn’t bed time reading! If you’re curious, take a look and do please tell me what you think: Embodied Ways of Knowing: Mapping the Territory.

Embodied peacemaking

It’s VE Day, the 75th anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany. As well as celebration, there’s sad remembrance: World War 2 was deadliest military conflict in history and over 80 million people died.

But war hasn’t gone away and I wonder what we’ve learnt about building a lasting peace? Paul Linden, who’s been practicing Aikido for over 40 years and is something of a genius in bodymind awareness, has developed an approach he describes as ’embodied peace building’.

Amongst other things, Paul is a philosopher, and he presents his peacemaking approach with great precision. He begins with a definition of peace as “the condition in which conflicts are dealt with and resolved in respectful, life-affirming ways” (2007). Conflict resolution typically emphasizes thinking, listening and talking, but this can only succeed if those involved are “in a state of inner and outer peacefulness” (2007). Paul’s techniques teach us how to embody peace and calm. From that foundation, we can begin to explore ways of resolving conflict. Without the sense of safety and empowered love enabled by Paul’s method, conflict all too easily flares up as soon as negotiations get difficult.

Words alone aren’t enough. Morality is not some abstract set of principles or a divine injunction: it is “built into the very structure of the body”. Ethical behaviour emerges with profound inevitability “from an integrated body state of power and love” (2007).

I’ve long been convinced that our embodiment holds the key to positive change, whether that’s in the context of environmental awareness, mental health or spirituality. Paul’s work confirms my belief. More importantly, it saves lives.

Paul Linden will be presenting his work at The Embodiment Conference in October.

Glen Mazis

Glen Mazis is a philosopher and poet whose writing frequently merges both skills. I came across his book Earthbodies (2002) during my PhD research on embodied knowing and found it hugely exciting. Mazis explains that ‘bodies’ are much more than we realize. We think of our bodies as bound by the surface of our skin, what Andy Clark calls the ‘skin-bag body’. Mazis, like Clark, believes that’s an illusion, and to explain why he introduces the term ‘earthbody’.

In the West we typically emphasize ownership of objectified bodies. Bodies are beautiful, ugly, fit, sick, strong or weak. And somehow ‘owned’. But “an earthbody isn’t ‘yours,’ it’s the world’s”. For Mazis “you don’t ‘have’ this body. You are part of a dynamic process that we might call ‘earthbodying,’ if we weren’t so used to referring to ourselves with nouns” (Mazis, 2002).

The term earthbodies describes a process more than an object. Earthbodies are “sensual, perceptual and feeling conductors through which richer meaning flows than we can grasp intellectually” (Mazis, 2002). Mazis emphasizes how fluidity and connectedness constitute our embodiment. Countless threads of connection pass though earthbodies, weaving each individual into the wider fabric of the world.

To write of the “fabric of the world” is particularly appropriate because it’s a phrase used by a philosopher that Mazis is profoundly inspired by; Merleau-Ponty. Several strands of thought come together at this point: Mazis, Abram and Gendlin all draw on Merleau-Ponty and all four argue for some notion of the ‘body’ as an open, interactive process.

Conventional notions of the body in Western culture stand in blunt opposition to that radical notion. As Mazis points out, the idea that you might be an open, process in fluid interaction with the world “may sound fantastic to you because we have been taught to close our bodies, lock our knees, and brace ourselves for life and its tasks” (Mazis, 2002). This numbing shut-down means that most people “fail to experience the pull, the tides, of the earth’s motion which stream through us”.

Merleau-Ponty distinguishes between the objective body – the body regarded as an object – and the phenomenal body, which refers to my (or your) body as I (or you) actually experience it. But we typically blur that distinction, experiencing our bodies as enclosed objects that we ‘own’. As a result many people “live much of the time in a state of disconnection and dislocation … and have little sense of where they are, what they feel and what they sense, especially not in the myriad depths and dimensions of the perceptual” (2004).

Mazis points to another way of experiencing our embodied condition that allow us to be more caring, more environmentally aware, more open and more loving. Mazis seeks to “reveal the dance of the planet”, so that we – as earthbodies – can come to experience the earth’s constant motion as more than merely physical: It’s also “emotional, imaginative, spiritual, linguistic, communal, and natural” (Mazis, 2002).

Glen will be joining me for forthcoming on-line Embodiment Conference, which is free to attend. My next post will introduce Philip Shepherd, who will also be Presenting at the Conference.

How to Save the World: Embodied Ecology

The UN message is clear: “Climate change is running faster than we are – and we are running out of time.” Most of us know climate change is an unfolding disaster, but we still don’t change. Why? It’s not what you know, it’s the way that you know it. We know the facts and figures in our heads, but don’t – or can’t – engage on an embodied, gut level.

I first explored these idea in Sacred Ecology and it’s still my most popular publication even though it’s over 25 years old! I wrote about ‘somatic knowing’:

“Besides the cerebral knowledge we all possess, the words & ideas stored in our heads, there is a deeper knowledge held within the tissue of our bodies. It is a somatic, physical knowing which comes from direct experience. This is the knowledge of faith, of emotion, of the gut feeling”.

Maori sculpture in Aotearoa.
Maori sculpture. Aotearoa.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, and I’m still exploring the same territory. I’ve found many allies in that time, people like David Abram, Glen Mazis, Charles Eisenstein and Philip Shepherd. You may not know them yet, but trust me – these are some of the key thinkers in what we might call embodied ecology. You’ll be able to hear from these four – and many others – as part of the free on-line Embodiment Conference in October. The conference will include over 1000 speakers from disciplines as diverse as yoga, coaching, meditation and therapy.

The Embodiment Conference takes place from 14 – 25 October. It’s free to join, but numbers are limited so sign up now if you don’t want to miss it.

In preparation for the event, my next few blog posts will introduce some of the thinkers featured at the conference. Next up will be David Abram, cultural ecologist, geophilosopher, author of ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ and a source of inspiration for many!

Eugene Gendlin

Writing a PhD thesis on embodied knowing was a tricky task and at times I doubted that I could research something so nebulous. My big breakthrough came when I read the work of contemporary philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin.

Eugene Gendlin

Gendlin describes a “bodily sensed knowledge” which he calls a “felt sense” (Gendlin, 1981). I’d bet you’ve often had a felt sense: They’re those fuzzy feelings that we don’t usually pay much attention to – a vague ‘gut feeling’ about something or that odd sense of unease we’re feeling when we say ‘I just got out of the wrong side of bed this morning’.

You need an intuitive understanding of the felt sense to really understand Gendlin’s work, so I’ll give a few more examples. Imagine you are at a party and you spot someone that you have ‘a bit of a history’ with. How might that feel? Maybe some butterflies; maybe some vague memories – A mixture of things. That whole mixture is a felt sense. On a lighter note, imagine you’re taking a walk on a beautiful fresh morning, just after a rain storm. You crest the brow of a hill to see a perfect rainbow on the horizon. As you stand gazing at it, you might feel your chest fill with an expansive, flowing, warm feeling. That feeling is a felt sense. So it’s familiar and simple enough: A felt sense is a physical feeling that carries some meaning for you.

It’s not always easy to say what that meaning might be, but it’s worth trying to find out because the felt sense often carries deep embodied wisdom. As Gendlin says, “your body knows much that you don’t know” (Gendlin, 1981). Anyone can learn to access and verbalise the embodied knowing of the felt sense using a simple technique called Focusing (Gendlin, 1981).

In common with many others I’ve mentioned on this blog, Gendlin thinks that the body extends beyond the skin into “a vastly larger system” (Gendlin, 1997). In fact the body “is an ongoing interaction with its environment” which means that the felt sense can access “a vast amount of environmental information” (Gendlin, 1992). Gendlin’s ideas are fundamental to my cognitive iceberg model and help make sense of the work of philosophers like Andy Clark and David Abram. Given all that, perhaps it’s no surprise that I consider Gendlin to be the most significant thinker I’ve ever read.

Merleau-Ponty

This is the first of a number of posts that introduce thinkers who’ve been especially influential on my work. I begin with the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), who was a pioneer in the study of embodiment.

Merleau-Ponty

Merleau-Ponty was fascinated by our ‘being-in-the-world’ – the way our consciousness is incarnate in the world. Our awareness doesn’t emerge from a disembodied mind floating somewhere beyond physical reality, but is part of an active relationship between us and the world.

He concluded that the process by which we come to understand the world emerges from a unity between subjects and objects that is the direct result of our embodiment. As he rather beautifully puts it, “[m]y body is the fabric into which all objects are woven” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Though his primary concern was with perception as an embodied process, he understood our entire being-in-the-world in the same way:

“As I contemplate the blue of the sky … I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it ‘thinks itself within me,’ I am the sky itself as it is drawn together and unified, and as it begins to exist for itself; my consciousness is saturated with this limitless blue … ”
(Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

Practical, embodied knowing is difficult – if not impossible – to express in words and quite different from the theoretical knowledge we can talk about. Think about the last time you used your computer keyboard: If you have any familiarity with it, you didn’t need to think about where the keys were. In an odd sense you don’t know; if I asked you to draw the keyboard layout for me, you would probably find it impossible. This is a “knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). This upsets the Cartesian world-view, because it’s a form of knowing that transcends subject/object dualism: The ‘I’ that knows is tangled with what is known.

Bodymind and Earth

There are many reasons for this dislocation of ‘self’ from ‘body’; sometimes it’s cultural and sometimes it’s due to physical trauma. In general, threats, stress and violence encourage withdrawal and alienation from the body and the world.

In her powerful TED talk, the poet Eve Ensler describes her sense of disconnection from her body and how her awareness slowly developed.

It’s a provocative talk and there’s lots to say, but I want to focus on what I see as her central insight: When you split the body from the mind you often loose the connection between self and the world.

This disconnected mind-self is often fear driven and seeks control: Eve recounts how she “lived in the city, because, to be honest, I was afraid of trees”.

When the breakthrough came and Eve came to live fully in her body, that fear disappeared: “Now I make a daily pilgrimage to visit a particular weeping willow by the Seine, and I hunger for the green fields in the bush outside Bukavu”.

If we have an embodied sense of self, it’s much easier to have a rich sensual connection with the other-than-human world and to enjoy empathetic engagement. This makes the subject/object distinction less rigid: Our sense of ‘body’ can shift from a perspective that’s enclosed inside the skin-bag to a more fluid, open appreciation of bodymind/self as integrated within the world. We thus come to know ourselves as a single point of awareness within a vast matrix of being.

“We know more than we can tell”: Why embodied knowledge matters

How do you recognise your friend in the street? How do I know how to ride a bike? How come some people have savoir-faire and others are clueless? How does intuition work? The short answer is embodied knowledge. Even though you’ve probably never heard of it, embodied knowledge underpins something like 95% of your thinking (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999).

Information enters our consciousness on a ‘need to know’ basis and most of our everyday behaviour happens at the very edge of awareness. Some of that subconscious thinking inevitably draws on knowledge and beliefs about the world, but you don’t have easy access to that huge data bank: “We know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1966).

Some knowledge – for example that Paris is the capital of France – is immediately available. This is typically called explicit or propositional knowledge and can be expressed formally in “words and numbers, scientific formulae, codified procedures or universal principles” (Quintas & Jones, 2002). But a vastly greater store of knowledge is tacit, practical and less accessible. Skills held as tacit knowledge are taught through observation, imitation, and practice. Crucially, this knowledge is embodied. Tanaka, drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, defines it as “a type of knowledge in which the body knows how to act” (2013). Sport offers some great examples. A basketball player has no time to consciously evaluate all the options before making a move: They rely on “court sense”, the ability to “take in and comprehend all that is happening around him or her” (Gladwell, 2006).

Embodied knowing can be extraordinarily powerful. Berenson, a 20th century art historian, could identify forged works of art using embodied knowing (Hoving, 1996). He’s not unique and many top ‘fakebusters’ work the same way. Fakebusters like Berenson are unable to specify how they knew something was a copy, but would simply say that their “stomach felt wrong” or they “felt woozy and off balance” (Hoving, 1996).

Most of can’t do what those fakebusters can, but we can tap into our embodied knowing. We all occasionally have a bodily sensation that’s meaningful. Maybe you have a bad feeling about someone, butterflies in your stomach or you just ‘got out of bed the wrong side’ this morning. These sensations are often what Gendlin calls a ‘felt sense’ and they hold embodied knowledge about how things are for you right now.

Even though I’ve been researching embodied knowing for over a decade, I’ll never fully understand it; the research is growing too fast. Academia.edu, a research website, currently lists over 329,000 papers that mention ‘embodied knowing’ and almost every discipline you can think of refers to it. Although fully comprehending embodied knowing is probably impossible, I’ve started identifying some of the key features. Even if I can’t explore the entire territory, at least I can make the first sketch map of this extraordinary landscape.

What is the body?

What do somatic trainers talk about on a week-end get together? One hot topic was exploring what the body might be. We had a brainstorm on that topic one evening and selected our best one-liners for broadcast.

This playful exercise suggests that there are many bodies. That sounds unintuitive; surely I have just one body! But if that’s so, which of the definitions above best describes that one body? Conscious complexity? Sculpted experience? A possibility for partnership? History and future solidified? A locus of divine intervention? The body is all that and far more, but does that mean we have several bodies?

Our physical body – the complex cellular system enclosed within our skin – is so moulded by society that it makes sense to talk about at least two bodies, the physical and the social (Douglas, 1973). But this blog contends that the body extends beyond the skin-bag, so maybe Douglas’s two bodies are actually one – or three!

There’s an Indian parable about a group of men  in a dark cave with an elephant. They’re trying to work out what’s in the cave with them, but disagree because each can only reach one part. “It’s clearly a horse”, claims the one touching the tail. “Nonsense! It’s a snake!” Exclaims the one nearest the trunk. “Fools!” Says a third man, feeling a huge leg. “It’s just a tree”.

The body is like the elephant: it is physical, social, gendered, “an extended field”, “a cellular adventure” and of course, “Well clever!”

Your tiny mind

Our thinking is like an iceberg, with everyday awareness at the tip and 95% of cognition happening out of sight (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 13). Most of the time we identify that tiny 5% as ‘self’, discounting the hidden cognition that actually governs much of our behaviour.

This discovery could lead to a kind of Copernican Revolution in our sense of self: You are much more than you think you are.

The Cognitive Iceberg

The ‘iceberg’ triangle represents the body and the arrows illustrate how the “organism and environment enfold into each other” (Varela et al. 1991: 217). The dotted area just below the apex designates ‘gut feelings’ which are closer to the vast wisdom of what I call the ‘deep body’. At the bottom of the iceberg is the “cognitive unconscious” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999: 10), which is marked out because it’s normally inaccessible to intentional influence or awareness.

Our everyday ‘tip of the iceberg’ consciousness is quite narrowly focused and tends to heighten our impression that the world is made up of what’s ‘out there’ and what’s ‘in here’. But there are lots of ways to slide our awareness down the iceberg into the deep body, including meditation, ritual, dance and sex. This slide increasingly blurs the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’, as illustrated by the gaps appearing in the sides of the triangle. When our awareness is in the deep body there is no separation between ‘self’ and ‘other’ or ‘human’ and ‘nature’.

Cognitive science thus confirms ancient spiritual insights: We are only as separate as we think we are.