Embodiment Philosophy

What is embodiment?

Embodiment seems to have multiple meanings in contemporary life. You might have heard the word used in connection with psychotherapy, yoga or dance. Or perhaps you’ve come across it in philosophy or psychology. Embodiment even crops up in relation to robotics and Artifical Intelligence.

Whatever the context, the meaning of embodiment is nuanced. The different contexts for its meaning do overlap, but with important differences.

The definition of embodiment

embodiment definition dictionary

Dictionary definitions often refer to embodiment as making tangible or giving form. In everyday language, we might say that embodiment simply means being in a body.

So a simple statement of embodiment could be I am in my body. That sounds simple doesn’t it, obvious even. But there’s much more to it.

The notion that I am in my body is at once simiple and complex. Rather than completely identifying me with my body, it points instead to a relationship between me and my body. Embodiment as a relationship between me and my body is a subtle and intriguing subject.

Embodiment is about the relationship between the body and experience

Embodiment is challenging to define because the relationship it describes is between something that we usually think of as physical or objective (a body), and something else that is much less distinct such as consciousness or the self (experience), which we usually think of as subjective.

Embodiment compels us to consider unconscious processes as well as observations of experience. It entails that we look at ourselves from within as well as more objectively.

Embodiment refers to experiences of and from the body

Embodiment becomes a little easier to talk about if we refer to our own experience. Embodiment is about the relationship between my body and my experience.

That relationship, between my body and my experience, includes my body as a physical object, but also points to how my body appears in my experience. It points to something we might call the phenomenal body (or the body as a phenomena of experience) rather than the physical body (or the body as an object).

The term phenomenal body might sound complicated, but that simply means the body as experienced or lived in. It includes the whole range of feelings or sensations that we experience that seem to come from the body. This range might include sensations such as pain, hunger or heat, and feelings such as exuberance or melancholy. It can include whole body experiences of action and movement, such as dance or running, or even overall feelings and moods such as sleepiness or vitality.

I find emodiment fascinating, because this basic relationship, between the body and experience can be approached in different ways. I like to think of these approaches to embodiment in terms of some broad questions.

1. How can we deliberately engage with the physical body to influence our experience?

2. What happens when we pay more attention to the body within our experience?

3. How does the body influence the ways we understand and interact with the world?

These questions are interrelated. Loosely, they relate to the three most common ways embodiment currently appears in contemporary life.

Three contemporary uses of embodiment

1. Embodiment practices

2. Embodiment as a tool for therapy

3. Embodiment in contemporary philosophy.

embodiment meaning

1. Embodiment Practices

Obviously, in daily life we must constantly respond to the signals the body gives us and tend to its needs. For instance we usually eat when we’re hungry and sleep when we’re tired. In this sense we are always embodied, and always taking action to alter our experience.

Even so, different people can be more or less aware of what the body needs, or of how they might change their experience using the body. An interesting example is the use of exercise as an anti-depressant. Feelings that might not seem associated with needing exercise (such as heaviness, sadness or apathy) can be influenced indirectly and over time by regularly moving the body. But this link may not be immediately obvious to us. We might need to learn the connection by deliberately doing it, particularly if we are already depressed.

Many of our everyday activities do attend to the body to alter our experience in some way. In some sense, the mundane activities of daily life exist on a continuum with embodiment practices. But still, we can think of embodiment practices as more deliberate ways to focus on or to engage with the body. They involve observation and attention as well as action. Practice also suggests repetition or things we do regularly for some sort of effect.

To sum up, embodiment practices involve paying attention to the body while we do something, as well as noticing how our experience changes. So for instance a body-scan meditation that involves sitting still, moving attention through the body and observing changes in the body could be considered an embodiment practice. On the other hand, meditating exclusively on a sound or a mantra probably wouldn’t be.

Deliberately focusing on the sensations in the feet and the whole body while walking could be an embodiment practice. But watching television while running on a treadmill probably isn’t, because in that case the body is not the focus of our attention.

embodiment practice

Embodiment practices help us to become more connected with our bodies. They improve our discernment between different feelings and sensations and increase the ranges of these we can tolerate.

Formalised techniques such as Feldenkrais and the Alexander technique are excellent examples of practices that both adjust the body and improve inner body awareness and discernment. Tai chi and Qigong, with their combinations of focus, breathing and movement, can also be considered embodiment practices.

Short, simple activities we do to shift our experience in response to difficulties or simply to regroup are another subset of embodiment practices. Anxiety and panic are common experiences that can respond well to simple activities that quickly regulate the nervous sytem. Often these involve the breath. For instance, the physiological sigh can calm us down almost instantly, as can breathing exercises that lengthen the out-breath.

People can learn these practices and use them as needed, such as to slow down a racing heart and down-regulate the nervous system. They need not be long or complicated but are a way of influencing our experience moment-to-moment, as well as altering our experience over time. Almost anything we do with our bodies could be an embodiment practice, if we simultaneously and deliberately notice the body, particularly if our attention is open, curious and fairly neutral.

2. Embodiment as a tool for therapy

Many therapists who understand the importance of the body in experience might recommend embodiment practices, but the use of embodiment during therapy sessions is a little different. Embodiment can act as an important therapeutic tool in talk therapies such as psychotherapy and counselling. For instance, the idea of noticing nervous system activation now seems to be fairly commonplace in therapeutic work. Embodiment is also a key aspect of bodywork modalities such as biodynamic craniosacral therapy and tension releasing exercises (TRE).

During therapy, embodiment is about observing and noticing how the body responds during the therapy session. The body becomes an active presence in the therapy. The fundamental insight that drives embodiment in therapy is that the body remembers past experiences. Physical and physiological impressions and responses during therapy sessions can be considered the emergence of a certain type of memory: implicit memory. These memories are different from explicit memories, which we are consciously aware of and can describe.

Built in to the emergence of implicit, body-based memories in therapy is the idea that the body is able to let go of past experiences at the level of physiology. We experience this letting go as changing feelings and sensations. It requires that we feel safe enough to really listen to the body and to allow it to change.

When someone can deeply listen to their own body in the presence of a skilled therapist, the body can often find its own resolutions. The most obvious way the body does this is by releasing tension. Bodies can do this through outward movements or inward changes.

A simple but strong example is when a person’s legs move to simulate running. This releases accumulated tension, especially if someone has been unable to escape a traumatic situation in the past. That thwarted impulse to run remains as tension and holding until the body feels safe enough to let go.

embodiment in therapy

Of course, this is a rather dramatic style of movement that will not usually erupt suddenly. But the idea of the body completing unfinished movements from traumatic experiences is a central aspect of embodiment in therapy. These movements could be as small as a subtle shaking only perceptible to the person experiencing it. Or as large as a defensive arm gesture.

Embodiment can be very important in the treatment of trauma. This has been described in detail and with evidence by renowned psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. He makes a very strong case that the body remembers and that healing focused on the body can be transformational for people suffering from trauma.

Embodiment in therapy need not be limited to trauma treatment. In a broader sense, it is a style in which we engage with our experience, a kind of listening that allows more into our awareness. One therapeutic tool, called Focusing, encourages people to pause and feel into their experience during therapy. While this listening is not necessarily focused solely on the body, it must include the body somehow. It brings the implicit into conscious awareness, bit by bit, as someone explores the edges of their experience with this deep listening. In fact, many people who benefit from talk therapy simply do this naturally.

Embodiment as a therapeutic tool also includes the use of actual body therapies, particularly those that encourage the client to notice their own body. There are many ways to encourage the body to naturally release tension and memories, including touch therapies such as biodynamic craniosacral therapy, manual therapies such as Rolfing and complementary therapies such as acupuncture.

As with talk therapies, how much the body can let go depends on the presence of a skilled therapist and is amplified by simply listening to the body.

embodiment therapy bodywork

3. Embodiment in philosophy

Embodiment in philosophy requires a longer discussion, so I have created a separate article.

If you are interested in this third contemporary use of embodiment, please continue on to the next article, Embodiment in Philosophy.

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