It’s not what you know …

… it’s the way that you know it. I sometimes have a name ‘on the tip of my tongue’. I’m sure you know that odd feeling; you both know and don’t know at the same time. We make sense of these experiences by talking about an unconscious knowing that we can’t always bring into full awareness.

But there’s a curious flip side to this: You can ‘know’ something consciously without really ‘getting it’ at a deeper level. My therapy clients will sometimes comes to a realization – an ‘Ah ha!’ moment – when they grasp something in a new way. “I knew that already, in my head, but now”, they add with a touch to the heart or stomach, “I know it here”. The difference is profound.

I first wrote about this 25 years ago in Sacred Ecology:

“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”.

I later discovered that I was describing embodied knowing and went on to do a PhD on the subject (Harris, 2008).

Diagram of cognitive iceberg
Conscious knowing is just the tip of the iceberg

Embodied knowing is fundamental to my work as a therapist. In many cases a client knows exactly what’s needed, but doesn’t have conscious access to that knowledge. At other times someone will know something consciously, but lack an embodied grasp of it. The therapist is rarely – if ever – the expert. Our role is facilitating the client’s journey of growth and self discovery, which typically involves integrating their embodied knowing.

There’s another vital aspect to this which takes me back to where I started. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that we need to understand our deep relationship with the other-than-human world at the level of embodied knowing. Unless you’re avoiding the news, you’ll know, in your head at least, that there’s a climate crisis. The facts are clear and have been for years, but nothing much gets done. Action on climate change is characterized by denial and broken promises and time is running out: We may have less than 18 months to avoid catastrophic change. But unless we get that at a gut level, really feel what it means, we’ll remain in what Zion Lights calls ‘passive denial’. You may know the facts about climate crisis but, painful though it is, you have to experience the reality in your body. That wisdom of the body is like taking the red pill; there’s no going back.

When I wrote Sacred Ecology I believed that myth & ritual offered the best route to the wisdom of the body. I’ve since recognized that there are many pathways to embodied connection. These include practices that are already advocated, like mindfulness and nature connection. We need to focus in on these pathways and learn how to use them more effectively. This is embodied ecology and may be our best hope for a future.

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.

The power of place: Protest site pagans

Research has established that spending time in the wilderness can have profound effects on people. This “wilderness effect” (Greenway, 1995) usually occurs in truly wild places like the Grand Canyon, but my research shows that it can work its magic in more urban environments.

Home comforts

I describe this process in my article on ‘The power of place: Protest site pagans’, which has been published in the European Journal of Ecopsychology. The article expands on several themes I’ve explored here, notably Eco-Paganism, the spirit of place and the cognitive iceberg. It’s based on my research with protest camps activists and describes how spending extended periods of time in nature can catalyse profound personal change.

The article also explains the model of embodied situated cognition that I’ve described as ‘the cognitive iceberg’ in several posts. In the last section I use the cognitive iceberg model to provide a partial explanation for how the wilderness effect works. I think it works really well as a companion piece to my chapter in The Wanton Green, which was published in 2012.

Sitting at the threshold brook

I’ve realised that what Barry Patterson calls “listening to the threshold brook” is the Sit Spot by another name. I’ve already outlined the principles of the Sit Spot: Find a place outdoors and sit there everyday for at least 15 minutes.

Sit Spot practice is both simple and profound. It lay at the heart of the mentoring Jon Young received from Tom Brown Jr. and is the primary Core Routine of the Art of Mentoring (Young, Hass and McGown, 2010). It’s no surprise, then, that many Eco-Pagans have the same practice, but that realisation took me a while!

My Ph.D. research identified listening to the threshold brook as one of a number of ways that Eco-Pagans connect to the animate world of nature. I concluded that it works – in part at least- by shifting awareness down the cognitive iceberg and thus enhancing our sense of connection. If I’m right, then the Sit Spot works the same way. The next question is, can the cognitive iceberg model help us understand how other Core Routines work their magic?

Focusing and the Cognitive Iceberg

Focusing is a simple technique that helps you to become aware of what’s called a ‘felt sense’ – a feeling in the body that has a meaning. Focusing has myriad applications including personal growth, creativity and psychotherapy. I’m nearly halfway thorough my two-year Focusing Oriented Therapist training and it’s deepening my work in all kinds of ways.

For example, it’s opening new insights into how the cognitive iceberg might be applied to psychotherapy. First, let me outline how the cognitive iceberg can be used to illustrate the Focusing process. Gendlin, who first identified the felt sense, writes that it “comes between the usual conscious person and the deep, universal reaches of human nature, where we are no longer ourselves ” (Gendlin, 1984). On my cognitive iceberg the felt sense is represented by the dotted area just below awareness. Focusing is the process that enables the felt sense to emerge into awareness, as illustrated by the vertical arrows.

Focusing and the cognitive iceberg diagram
Focusing and the cognitive iceberg diagram

Now, what happens when a client and therapist are working together? The therapist is paying careful attention to whole situation; the client/therapist relationship, their own processes and what is going on for the client. A Focusing Oriented Therapist will be ‘listening’ with their whole body and be in touch with their felt sense.

Therapist and client Focusing diagram
Therapist and client Focusing

The arrows on this diagram schematically illustrate something of the process – note that I haven’t included the verbal exchanges which will also be going on. There is an exchange of ‘information’ between the therapist and client below awareness at the level I call the ‘deep body’. Both the client and therapist are also Focusing, becoming aware of material arising from felt senses.

There are many therapeutic processes going on here. The client will often be working through something difficult and the presence of the therapist can facilitate that: It’s as if the feeling is shared between them and the therapist’s embodied engagement processes some of the pain. Sometimes the therapist’s felt sense will alert them to something going on for the client and their embodied empathy can help the client. It’s also possible for the therapist to have a felt sense of something that comes from outside the client’s awareness and, with care, they can help it emerge.

I’ve covered a lot in this short post and I hope it’s reasonably clear. Please do ask me for clarification if not. I’ll add that this is all very speculative, but I hope that’s what makes this blog interesting!

The cognitive iceberg

Every year the Edge website asks interesting people a provocative question. The Edge Question for 2011 was “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

Adam Alter, a psychologist and Assistant Professor at Stern School of Business, NYU, responded with a short discussion of the idea that our minds are like an iceberg, such that we’re ignorant of many of the processes that shape our mental lives. This notion may be familiar – I’ve discussed my own model of the cognitive iceberg in this blog.

Alter explains that ”while we’re focusing on the business of daily life, our brains are processing multitudes of information below the surface of conscious awareness”. This “peripheral information subtly shapes our thoughts, feelings and actions, and crafts some of our most critical life outcomes”.

He gives a few interesting examples, noting what a powerful impact the weather can have. No surprise perhaps that “rainy weather makes us more introspective and thoughtful”, but less obvious that it also improves our memory. Apparently the electrical state of the atmosphere also has an influence on accidents, suicide, depression and irritability.

Alter mentions the power of embodied metaphor, citing studies showing that “people find strangers more likable when they form their first impressions while holding a cup of warm coffee”. Lakoff and Johnson have discussed this at length, claiming that most of our reasoning relies on such embodied metaphors. The way we use the metaphor ‘more is up’ provides a simple example: Because in health we stand up, while sickness brings us down, we tend to think of ‘more’ as being ‘up’ (‘price rises’) and less as down (‘stocks plummeting’) (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999).

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.