Embodiment for Thinkers
An invitation to experience life rather than interpret it
After a recent community dialogue, Paul Higgins, our Deep Fix ambassador in Ireland, emailed me with a simple request: send me some of your writings on embodiment.
I scrolled through my archive of ~150 essays before realizing I had nothing adequate to share with him. This surprised me. It felt like more than just an “aha” moment; it was as if I’d been slapped in the face by one of those nunchuck-dildos from Everything Everywhere All At Once. I was taken aback considering how central embodiment is to my personal practices, continuing education, ‘somatic’ client work, sex life, perhaps everything—except my writing, apparently.
Time to reconcile that.
You are already embodied
First, let it be known: it is impossible to not be embodied. You were born naked into this world in a body, gasping for air, crying beneath the glory of the new light. Your body is the vehicle through which you interact and experience life. As you read these words on your phone, laptop, or tablet, you engage your body.
My intention is not to portray embodiment as yet another chore that you must add to your morning routine. Furthermore, it’s also not another practice that you don’t have time for—
You are already it.
Embodiment and disembodiment
Over the millennia, embodiment has connoted many understandings. In its biblical definition, embody means to give a human form to spirit. To the average person, the term is most likely known as the manifestation of a character trait, quality, or feeling in a physical figure. For instance, “she embodies the truth” (I’m not talking about Teal Swan, the latest self-help cult guru to be featured on Hulu). For practitioners of mindfulness, dance, or yoga, embodiment is already a familiar phrase, often practiced by turning attention to the body’s sensations rather than the mind’s thoughts.
You’ll notice that I’m intentionally avoiding the essayist trap of explicitly defining embodiment because to do so would limit its depth. I personally understand it as an invitation to directly experience life rather than just interpret or intellectualize it. It can be as simple as feeling the wind rippling your hair, rather than thinking “Oh, that’s a lovely breeze.” Meaning that embodiment is experientially 3D and unique to each person.
Most people understand embodiment through its opposite: disembodiment. We all know what it feels like to lose track of time while internet surfing—yet we’ll struggle to describe the precious moments when it felt like we wholly belonged in our bodies and in this wild world.
Disembodiment is typically an avoidance strategy. Rather than feeling an intense sensation or emotion, we develop clever ways to dodge them. These include thinking, drugging, looping negative self-talk, judging, complaining, never-ending productivity, scrolling the ‘gram, etcetera.
We’ve all experienced sitting in the presence of another person who doesn’t really feel like they are there with us, because they are off in another realm, lost inside whatever their mind’s melodrama du jour is serving for lunch.
We evolved to walk six miles per day, dance, sing, pray for rain—to move our bodies, making decisions from our guts and hearts. Yet modern living has us sitting in quasi-ergonomic desk chairs, staring at screens for seven or more hours, recycling stale air, staying pale.
Those of us who learned to game the Western education system think we are “smart.” We value the ideas inside our heads—they seem both important and insightful! We convince ourselves that we can reason our way through any situation.
The revolutionary aspect of embodied practice is the realization that thoughts are not the end-all-be-all. There are no ‘good’ thoughts and no ‘bad’ thoughts. Thoughts are merely clusters of energy that erupt into our conscious awareness without effort. After about 500 milliseconds from the moment our bodies first register this energy, we then impose a crude representational system on it—Language.
And yet, what we are capable of translating into words is only a sliver of our consciousness.
Our bodies perceive infinite data points. Somehow, we are intelligently ignoring most of the vast and overwhelming information coming our way. This means our attention is biased, that we sometimes focus on the wrong things, and that, sometimes, we also ignore things we shouldn’t ignore.
In my early recovery, amidst a year-long medically supervised detox, I cannot understate how formative it was for me to learn that, instead of obsessively ruminating on my thoughts of utter bullshit, I could simply pay attention to my body’s sensations, which I realized were far more reliable.
In its own way, this provided an awakening. I learned to drop my awareness down into my belly and feet, prioritizing feeling the weight of gravity supporting me.
For recovering addicts, one data marker, the thought—You need to score dope to feel better—inevitably takes over. It is easy to mistake this as the only reality you are experiencing. Changing and expanding the subject of my awareness would immediately calm whatever storm of cravings had been brewing. I reckon I practiced this awareness cross-over hundreds of times each day, like a gonzo point guard.
From those days forward, I suddenly accepted the invitation towards “mindfulness,” scanning my body to actually feel what was there, rather than bypassing it with numbing agents, or elaborate schemes that flirted with danger and crime.
I also cannot downplay how vital it was to rehabilitate my body with movement and exercise. When I did not know what to do, or was unable to summon the presence to sit with overwhelming emotion, I worked out, which never failed to pacify my warring mind.
We tend to think of embodiment in this way: physical movement or paying attention to sensations rather than living up in the head. Most folks who are not familiar with meditation are inclined to think of it as a cognitive practice, something regulated to headspace (not the app). But if you attend a meditation retreat in the vipassanā tradition, the most common style practiced in the West, you will spend the last few days scanning your body for all its micro sensations and subtleties. Meditation ultimately teaches you how to inhabit your body.
But! Embodiment is not just about paying attention to what we call the body, since that is still an exercise taking place mostly in the realm of thought-forms. It also assumes a “mind” and “body” division, which is a fallacy of post-Enlightenment reasoning.
Listening to the endless signals your body transmits is often a necessary first step. Nevertheless, an embodiment journey will eventually dig deeper than that, ultimately moving towards the union of mind and body, seen and unseen. Rather than just feeling your body, it is becoming willing to bring to your body whatever is showing up in your life.
As embodiment teacher Philip Shepherd teaches, it is a “state in which your entire intelligence is experienced as a coherent unity attuned to the world.”
Ok, here’s one embodiment practice
Embodiment does not need to be fancy. It’s as simple as noticing, right now, whether your clothes are comfortable. How do they feel on your skin? Do you have a wedgie—or spaciousness down there?
For many years, I donned an uncomfortable masculine technocratic uniform: tight denim jeans, desert boots, tucked-in flannel shirts, flashy socks. Thanks to one of the many gifts from the pandemic, and like many of you, I have entirely overhauled my wardrobe. I now wear soft, baggy clothes. I have stopped wearing underwear entirely.
Your body knows what it likes. I can wholeheartedly recommend free balling/lipping as an embodiment practice.
🌿 Natura Care Programs. This week we launched our first NCP cohort, a truly lovely group of individuals. NCP is an interdisciplinary entheogenic program that combats addiction (you can read my newsletter announcement about it here). Applications are open for the second cohort launching in early 2023.
🌎 Dialogue. Our dialogue crew helped inspire today’s essay. We meet next Wednesday to explore Embodiment in a Disembodied Culture: How do you connect to your body in an information ecology that hijacks attention and distracts from what matters? How do you interact with a culture that devalues certain types of bodies—whether sex, gender, or race? What does 'embodiment' mean to you, and how do you practice it? Register here.
📕 Book Club. Martín has selected our next read, Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation by Bruce Tift. We meet on Thursday, July 21st to discuss it. Register here.
🫀 DFx Discord. Our digital campfire is a heartfelt crew of writers, entrepreneurs, artists, tenured professors, psychologists, psychonauts, yogis, and recovery folk. Right now this is free. If you'd like to introduce yourself to the community, click here.
🤯Everything Everywhere All At Once. I’ve never cried in a movie for so long, from both laughter and sorrow, nor have I ever seen a better visual embodiment of metamodernism. I’d like to write about it, so go see it in theatres before I do.
🌱 Frontera Verde. When a young Bogotá-based detective gets drawn into the jungle to investigate four femicides, she uncovers magic, shamanism, Nazis, and her own true origins. Thank you Conlan for introducing me to this epic series.
✨Adrienne Maree Brown. Discusses some of my fav topics with Krista Tippet: emergence, mediating conflict, mushrooms, and more on this podcast.
🕉Lama Rod Owens. I’m new to Lama Rod’s work but I love his perspective on waking up, Buddhism, gender, liberation theology, and more on Duncan Trussell’s reliably hilarious podcast.
😱 How I Tamed Panic. Dan Shipper wrote an essay about how he overcame panic attacks.
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