The Embodied Mind: Toward a more accurate understanding of the mind-body connection
I grew up thinking. I was going to say, I grew up thinking that thinking was my identity, but I may as well stop at "I grew up thinking..." I certainly remember valuing thinking over feeling, and becoming excited when I first heard Descarte's assertion, "I think, therefore I am." I was my thoughts. What I thought, I was. I had no objectivity or distance from my thoughts. If I thought I was worthless, I was worthless. I drank at the altar of knowledge. I consumed information (and admittedly, I still do) as if it provided oxygen and nutrients, not even questioning why I did it. It gave me a sense of self. I was a thinking, knowing being. Nothing wrong with that, except that it's only part of the picture. I rejected emotions and sought to numb them. I became a floating head, unaware of the information and resources my body sensations and human emotions held. My body became the object of my thinking, and what I thought about it was that it was too big and too uncomfortable. Of course, sensations and emotions live in the body, and mine were uncomfortable. So my floating head calculated calories, tallied up weights and clothing sizes, and mercilessly scrutinized photographs in an attempt to further disown my Self, with all of its complexities. Spiritually, I sought to dissociate rather than connect ever since I experienced the nondual realm at age thirteen after mantra meditation. Meditation became a vehicle for escaping the world rather than being more effective in the world. It didn't work, so I contemplated suicide for most of the fifteen years since I turned fifteen and until I turned thirty. Eventually, as the only way to heal from an eating disorder and complex PTSD, I had to re-embody. My body gradually became an ally, the source of intuitive wisdom, the vehicle with which to process emotions, and further, an altar to the Divine. I became enamored with embodiment sciences and methodologies (yoga, chiropractic, acupuncture, massage, body-oriented psychotherapy, and craniosacral therapy among others). Each of these modalities contributed, one by one, step by step, to my integrating into a fully embodied individual whose Soul, body and mind functioned coherently. Only in the last couple of centuries has Western science begun questioning man's inner being, mental processes, motivations and potential. Yoga, on the other hand, developed an immense philosophy of mind and consciousness based on internal experiences. The yogis established that the powers (or shaktis) inherent in the entire universe reside within us, and that the gateway to those experiences is our own body-mind with its various levels of perception. Well into the 21st century, more of the world is joining the ancient yogic understanding and the early pioneers of body psychotherapy. Somatic practices are becoming increasingly mainstream, and their effectiveness is being validated by neuroscience and social research. I recall the glee I experienced when I first read Antonio Damasio's Descarte's Error, in which he proposes a theory of "somatic markers" and stipulates that our reasoning stems from emotions, which themselves stem from sensory input from the body. We cannot reason, then, without emotional and sensory awareness. Or, we are reasoning, but if we do not understand what emotions and sensations are informing our behaviors, we are acting unconsciously. Recently I came across an article in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle. It featured an interview with embodied cognition philosopher Evan Thompson, who first published The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience in 1992. The book is being published in a second edition in 2015. My guess is that twenty-plus years ago the book was way ahead of its time. Apparently, we are now culturally more ready for its message. In the article, Thompson, who is a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, states that "cognition is a form of embodied action. Cognition is an expression of our bodily agency." Thinking that the mind is inside the head, he advocates, "is like saying that flight is inside the wings of a bird." Instead, he believes, "the mind is relational. It's a way of being in relation to the world. The mind exists at the level of embodied being in the world." Let me close with this paragraph from his article, "consciousness-in the sense of sentience, or felt awareness-is biological: consciousness is a life-regulation process of the whole body in which the brain is embedded. In the case of human consciousness, the context is also psychological and social. So even if we suppose that the brain is necessary for consciousness, it doesn't follow that consciousness is in the brain."