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 ‘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.
Descartes is considered to be the father of modern philosophy. No wonder we’re in such a mess! You’re probably familiar with his theory, but to recap: Descartes considered the possibility that some very powerful, cunning and malicious demon might be deceiving him. He reasons that there is only one attribute which indubitably “does belong to me”, and that is thinking (Descartes, 1640). Thus, he concludes, “I think, therefore I am”.
Most of us are aware that we are embodied, and Descartes’ ability to doubt that is profoundly telling.
Some years ago I got chatting to an academic colleague about spiritual experience. By way of a personal example I described a sensual moonlit swim in a woodland pool. He looked at me rather sadly. “That sounds wonderful”, he said, “but I sometimes wonder if I have a body at all”.
Some academic fields seem to encourage such disembodiment, notably perhaps. philosophy.
How did Descartes lose his sense of being embodied? Places can have a profound impact on our thinking, and it’s significant that Descartes reports that he had made an effort to “live as solitary and withdrawn as I would in the most remote of deserts”. This alone would have disturbed his mind, but I note that he finally came to his odd conclusion while spending a “whole day shut up in a room healed by an enclosed stove” (Descartes, 1640).
One moral of this story is that philosophers really should get out more.
Would a sentient fish ever wonder what water is? Do you ever wonder what time is? Probably not: Some aspects of our experience are so ‘obvious’ that we just don’t notice them. Phenomenology is a philosophical approach that aims to uncover the obvious. The aspects of our experience that we take for granted can be difficult to identify, but these hidden assumptions and attitudes entwine us.
Phenomenology originated with Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century. Husserl wanted to very carefully examine our experience, teasing out our presuppositions and interpretations to try to get closer to the things themselves. He called our everyday, habitual way of experiencing the world the ‘natural attitude’, and phenomenology offers a way to step back from that. Phenomenology is similar to mindfulness in the way that it invites us to become “aware of the fullness, variety and transiency of experiences in the stream of consciousness” (Patrik). In other ways we might see phenomenology as a scientific project. Husserl saw it a rigorous “science of the essence of consciousness” (Husserl), and there’s some validity to that. Phenomenology is influential in psychology, and has been applied to both Artificial Intelligence and cognitive science.
Phenomenology is essentially the study of phenomena – that is, things as they appear in our lived experience. It’s grounded in careful observation and description. Phenomenologists investigate all kinds experience, including perception, imagination, emotions and bodily awareness. Phenomenology was foundational in my psychotherapy training and it’s vital in Focusing Oriented Therapy: Being able to pay careful attention to my own experience and that of my client is essential to good therapeutic practice.
Husserl begins with the notion of “intentionality” – the way that all consciousness is “consciousness of something”. That sounds very obvious but that’s partly what phenomenology is about; paying attention to what we think is obvious. It can be quite revealing to pay careful attention to our awareness. Let’s say I’m signing a document. We might assume that I’ll be aware that I’m holding a pen while I’m signing. But let’s look more closely: In the moment that I’m signing, I’m not paying attention to the pen at all. In a strange way the pen is transparent to my awareness. If it stops working, then the pen will leap into the foreground of my consciousness, but if not I’ll just sign my name as I have so many times before.
Phenomenology isn’t just for therapists and academics; it can be usefully applied in everyday life. It can help us avoid errors in reasoning like confirmation bias (preferring perspectives that support our pre-existing views) and projection bias (assuming that most people think just like we do). I invite you to question what seems ‘obvious’ in your own life. My guess is that you’ll become more aware of the nuances of experience that we miss when we rely on the habits and unthinking assumptions of the ‘natural attitude’.
I’ve only done an introductory week-end of Wholebody Focusing (WBF), so these initial thoughts are somewhat tentative, but I want to touch on the role of grounding in WBF.
Gene Gendlin, the philosopher/psychotherapist who developed Focusing, states that the body extends beyond the skin so that the body “lives immediately in its environment, both physically and socially” (Gendlin, 1994). Wholebody Focusing takes that idea forward more explicitly than traditional Focusing and I find that very exciting.
The first crucial stage of WBF – which is absent from traditional Focusing – is grounding. I’m familiar with grounding from both my spiritual experience and my embodiment training, so at first assumed I knew what this involved. But I realised that WBF grounding was something subtly different. My usual grounding process is to sense the weight of my body on the ground, feeling my weight as if I were a rock on the earth or visualizing myself as a tree with roots deep in the soil. WBF involves a similar sensing of our physical selves, but also opens out to relationship with everything else. Astrid Schillings calls it ‘grounding into being here (Dasein)’ (2014) to emphasizes how it requires both being in the world and being with others. Through grounding into being here we become aware of the body as “an ongoing interaction with its environment” (Gendlin, 1992). We thus become grounded in “all the ongoing interactions that we are” (Schillings, 2014).
There are many crossovers with other ideas I’ve explored here. I’m especially struck by how WBF seems to relate to ecopsychology, notably my experiences with Focusing in nature which now seems more like Wholebody Focusing in nature. WBF might also offer a new way of understanding my experience of sensing the pulse of the seasons at Imbolc last year. It’s a powerful approach and I’m already finding that WBF is enhancing my spiritual practice and my therapeutic work. My sense is that WBF could be a space where many themes of the body mind place meet.