What you do not experience in your whole body will remain merely
intellectual information without life or spiritual reality.
– Gerda Alexander (Knaster, 1996, p. xix)
The term embodiment is being used more often in fields such as psychology and medicine though there is no clear consensus about what embodiment really means. Based on concepts and theories developed by early pioneers such as Merleau-Ponty, D. W. Winnicott, Wilhelm Reich and others, Dr. Sher subscribes to the definition of embodiment as how we live in and experience the world through our bodies, especially through perception, emotion, language, movement in space and time, and sexuality. Embodiment from this philosophy also means being situated within a world, and being affected by social, cultural, political, and historical forces, emphasizing the importance of intention in an effort to connect and bring about a unity of the senses, intelligence, sensibility, and motility.
The experience of embodiment is a healthy sense of connectedness to one’s body that makes it possible to move easily, gracefully, spontaneously, and instinctively. As children, we find ourselves naturally in the world in this way. However, as we grow our relationship to our body is altered through maturation, early childhood experiences, cultural messages and norms, and trauma.
The psyche and soma develop in a process of mutual interrelation, and with an inside and an outside . . . is felt by the individual to form the core for the imaginative self . . . [It is ] the imaginative elaboration of somatics parts, feelings and functions of physical aliveness . . . (Winnicott, 1958, p. 244)
When trauma or impingements occur, the mind is forced to categorize the experience, make sense of it, or store it for later integration. Depending on the degree and duration of impingement, and one’s ability to integrate such experiences, a separation of psyche-soma occurs resulting in an over-active mentalization process rather than a relaxing into living.
Being embodied requires an awareness and relationship with one’s body. It allows one to feel sensations rather than cutting them off. It involves a sense of knowing where one’s body begins and ends and how it feels. This sense of knowing allows one to loosen or tighten the boundaries, to make choices in life, and to create and maintain healthy relationships. As Knaster (1996) suggested, the more at home one is in one’s body, the more competent one will feel. Knowing personal boundaries, respecting one’s body, and being in touch with its wisdom and power can all contribute toward feeling present and empowered. Knaster’s assumption was that whether one is focusing on one aspect of the body or the unity of body, mind, emotions, and spirit, the body is the place for transformation.
Disembodiment and Healing
Being disembodied is often what makes it possible for people to endure the boredom, stress, and violence of their environment. A sense of disconnection from one’s body and emotions is a way to protect one’s self from not only pain but pleasure, as one may have been discouraged as a child discovering one’s natural tendency for experiencing pleasure. Disembodiment can also occur when others take over the function of our own bodily states or try to control or limit our strengths, weaknesses, and desires. Any healing process cannot begin until the range of feelings associated with a trauma or injury begin to be experienced and expressed, and the range of feelings associated with it are brought into consciousness.
Cultural and historical influences have played a role in our relationship to our body as a whole. The notion of a separate body occurred in Greek times, resulting in an elevated, abstract, cognitive intelligence. Christianity added to the separation with the belief that the body was the repository of sin. Dance, which was practiced as a form of devotion and connection to spirit, came to be viewed with suspicion and was prohibited. Also prohibited were people’s connection to the rhythms, social mores, and embodied spiritual values and knowing that gave them a direct experience of the order of their cosmos. Sharp lines began to be drawn between body and soul, flesh and spirit.
Ways that one experiences being out of the body include intellectual defenses such as intellectualization or rationalization which allow one to move away from pain, needs, longing, conflict, unquenched thirst, desire, or hunger. More severe cases may include an abandoned reality through dissociative, psychotic, or multiple personality disorders where specific experiences, qualities, and emotions that cannot be tolerated are split off. Posttraumatic stress disorder is a condition that emerges when a person finds protection against terrifying experiences at the moment only to reexperience them later through nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks. Spiritual bypass is another way an individual may come out of balance through denial or minimizing personal complexes and unowned, unexamined feelings. Tina Stromsted suggested that this is one way we can linger in the light instead of dropping down into the darker resources of the body. This is an important concept for Embodied Healing Arts in that healing the splits of mind/body requires the dropping down into unconscious, unowned parts of the self.
All of these ways of protecting one’s self typically include the development of somatic patterns such as truncated breathing, contracted pelvis, lifted chin, numbness or freezing of body parts and the withdrawal of energy away from extremities. All of these responses can leave one unaware or out of touch with that part of themselves. This is often referred to as body armoring.
The use of addictions are another way one might leave the body. Jungian analyst Marion Woodman (1993) addressed the metaphor at the root of the addiction (or split). She related food to the mother, alcohol to spirit, cocaine to the light, and sex to union, for example. She then suggested that these are archetypes for the soul’s search for what it needs. By failing to understand the soul’s yearning, one concretizes and becomes compulsively driven toward an object that cannot satisfy the soul’s longing. Other addictions include workaholism and exercise, among others.
- Knaster, Mirka. (1996). Discovering the body’s wisdom. New York: Bantam.
- Winnicott, D. (1958). Mind and its relation to the psyche-soma, in Through pediatrics to psychoanalysis: Collected Papers. New York: Basic Books.
- Woodman, M. (1993). Conscious femininity: Interviews with Marion Woodman. Toronto: Inner City Books.