The power of place revisited

One of the key ideas in my PhD (2008) was that we think with place; different places enable us to think in particular ways. Based on the research of people like Andy Clark and Christopher Preston, I explored how spending time in nature can profoundly change how we make sense of the world. I spent weeks trawling through books and papers on embodied knowing and situated cognition, but there was always more. I now know just how much research I missed, because science writer Annie Murphy Paul has written a fascinating exploration of the extended mind – how our thinking extends beyond the brain (2021). I’m keen to see what Paul has found that I missed and to find out what emerges when I revisit my work with all this new information.

Many thinkers have suggested that we think with place. Gregory Peterson surveyed the field in 2003 and concluded that trying to understand “the mind/brain in isolation from biological and environmental contexts is to understand nothing” (Peterson, 2003). David Abram rather more poetically suggests that a heavy boulder might lend our “thoughts a certain gravity, and a kind of stony wisdom” (Abram, 2004).

The bottom line is that there are thoughts you’ll have in a forest that would be literally unthinkable in a shopping mall.

trees in mist

My research was focused on environmental campaigners, many of whom were living on protest sites in natural spaces. I found that spending months living close to nature often changed how people made sense of the world. Rob Greenway used the term “the wilderness effect” to describe what happens to people on a multi-day trek in the wild. People would talk about how their minds feel ‘open’ and ‘airy’ in the wilderness, in contrast with ‘turgid,’ ‘tight,’ and ‘crowded’ in urban culture (Greenway, 1995). Those who live on road protest sites often feel something similar. Jon Anderson wrote: “I get a slowed down, rhythmic feeling in the woods and on the meadow, relaxed” (2004).

Once you’ve experienced that feeling, it’s easier to notice how different our thinking is in an urban environment. Barry Patterson is concerned that the city can easily become “a space built from symbols, a virtual reality, rather than physical structures & patterns of relationship” (Patterson, n.d.). Barry told me that such places can feel like a “sensory desert”. Rob, another activist I spoke to, explained how he finds it difficult to cope in cities partly because “in an urban environment everything is constructed, everything is based on ideas”. In a more natural environment, Rob’s thinking is very different, and he can “feel the energy flowing through me and I have that connection”.

Living on a protest site – or wilderness trekking – can free “energies bound up in habitual deformations of posture or movement” (Jackson, 2006).

Annie Murphy Paul explores a different and wider range of topics, but similar themes emerge. She explains that although “our sense of self may feel stable and solid, it is in fact quite fluid, dependent on external structure for its shape”. That makes perfect sense given what I learnt from living on a protest site for several months.

Paul draws on the latest research to illustrates how “physical places influence our thinking and behaviour far more than personality or other factors” (2021). She tells us about the work of the psychologist Roger Barker. Barker and his team carefully observed the behaviour of a group of children from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. A clear pattern emerged, but it had more to do with place than personality. Barker concluded that the “behaviour of a child often changed dramatically when he moved from one region to another, e.g. from classroom, to hall, to playground, from drugstore to street, from basketball game to shower room.”

There’s much richness in Annie Murphy Paul’s book and it’s very useful for the kind of embodied, nature-based work that I do with my clients. This is the book on the extended mind that I’ve wanted to read for the last couple of decades and it’s well worth the wait!

Philip Shepherd

How can we escape from the heady over-analytic thinking that our culture is caught up in? Philip Shepherd proposes a path to “radical wholeness” that’s grounded in the deep wisdom of the body (Shepherd, 2017).

Western culture has long prioritized abstract rational thinking over what we might call embodied knowing or embodied intelligence. The abstract mode of relating to the world sets us apart from everything else: It sets a clear and inviolable boundary between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, between me as ‘subject’ and everything else as ‘object’. I’ve referenced many thinkers in my posts who agree that this is nonsense: Amongst others, Eugene Gendlin, Andy Clark, Merleau-Ponty, David Abram, Glen Mazis and Charles Eisenstein.

Philip adds some valuable insights to this ongoing embodied revolution. He explores our sensory capacity, noting the inadequacy of the Western model of five senses and proposes that our primary sense is our ability to sense wholeness; this is what he calls holosapience. Wholeness is not something we need to strive to achieve; it’s not a destination. Paradoxically perhaps, wholeness is both unknowable and fundamental to our being. We cannot objectivity know wholeness, but we can feel it, hence the importance of holosapience. We need to come to rest in the body so that we can be fully present to wholeness and this is facilitated by the grounded sensitivity which forms our embodied intelligence.

For me, Philip Shepherd’s special contribution is to provide simple and powerful ways for us to actually experience the reality of our embodied intelligence. One practice struck me as being especially pertinent right now. I’m preparing for an online event with Philip so I might be forgiven for wanting to present myself well. But there’s a danger that I might slip into what Philip calls ‘presentation mode’, a carefully monitored way of speaking that’s intended to make me sound impressive! We’re all familiar with presentation mode as we use it a lot of the time. It’s driven by our anxiety about not knowing, about sounding like we’re not in control. Philip describes it as speaking from the sternum and suggests moving our awareness to the back of the chest instead. When I try this I sense a shift in how I relate to what I’m saying: It feels more open, grounded and available.

Philip Shepherd and I have exchanged ideas a few times and he’ll be joining me for the Embodiment Conference, in October. Next up is Charles Eisenstein, a radical new voice – for me at least – that has an urgent freshness.

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.

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.

Thinking with place

I spent last weekend at an ecopsychology retreat in Lancashire. We were staying in a stone barn in the woods, very close to a peat stained river that surged over ancient rocks.

a peaty stream running over flat rocks

On Saturday I paired up with a colleague for a ‘medicine walk’. This was a wander, wherever instinct led, but with senses awake to the potential for meaning in our surroundings. It was surprisingly powerful and it’s worth pondering why.

Natural places are rich in metaphor and humans are habitual makers of meaning, so perhaps it’s to be expected that a damp, dark grove might trigger a sense of fecund mystery.

While such an interpretation isn’t wrong, it misses the sophistication of the process of thinking with place. The ambiguity of that phrase is productive: While thinking with place can refer to how we use a place as a tool to think with, it also implies animistic thinking together with place.

In future posts I’ll argue that the subject/object distinction is largely artificial – the “organism and environment enfold into each other” (Varela et al. 1991). I’ll also describe how the mind can reach beyond what Clark calls the “skin-bag body” (1997). It is, therefore, by no means clear where my mind ends and the spirit of place begins. To suggest that there’s a richly metaphorical natural world ‘out there’ and a human meaning maker ‘in here’ is far too simplistic.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote:

“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).

In conclusion, person and place are part of a single process; bodymind place.