Against embodied practice

Everyone from designers to educators to New Agey types seems to be talking these days about ’embodied practice.’ I believe there is a more literal meaning as well as a more figurative one. According to the literal meaning, one is actually to be involved in some activity where one is conscious of being an embodied human being. According to the figurative meaning, one must get ‘out of one’s head’ and throw oneself fully into doing something or other. Or, rather, concepts–misunderstood to be the kinds of things that are only mental–are thereby to be put ‘into the world.’ I disagree.

In an earlier set of posts about philosophy of mind (for an overview, see here), I have already suggested that our commonsensical, modern conception of mind is in error. From this, it would follow that our desire for ’embodied practice’ would be taking on board a misconception of our mental life. That is to say, if one’s mind is, somehow or other, separate from the physical world, then it would seem attractive to speak of ’embodied practice.’ But this is a mistake.

In this post, I examine only the literal meaning of ’embodied practice’ with a view to showing that it is in error. I will likely consider the figurative meaning in the next post.

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I said that the literal meaning involves one’s being involved in an activity in such a way that one is conscious of being an embodied human being. This sense of being involved in P in such a way as to be conscious of being an human being in P is presumed to be desirable. But this can’t possibly be right in most cases, and in fact it is a bizarre think to say.

For when I philosophize, I seek to bring myself to a bodily position (legs crossed, eyes closed, breathing regulated, mouth relaxed, head tilted) in which I become unaware of my senses and their connection with the immediate environment. And this seems to me true of any activity whatever in which we’re fully engaged. It is precisely the point and purpose of an activity to forget one’s body when it is engaged as it is supposed to be. In climbing, one becomes, as best as possible, a flowing being with a rocky surface. In Ashtanga yoga, one has a particularly good practice when it’s the case that one is unified with breathing. Even in sex, it is a question of mutual entanglement with the aim (as we say) of losing ourselves in each other, of losing track of whose body is whose. Good sex is not solipsistic nor is it about my own physical sensations alone.

Bizarrely, being conscious of one’s body is precisely what we’re used to, what we’ve gotten used to in our lives: succumbing to our appetites, being aware of niggling pains (stomach aches, itches, tickles, stitching nostrils), being preoccupied with physical appearances, wondering about whether we smell bad, doubting whether our words sound good. (In many cases and in a word: vanity.) In truth, it is not desirable to be ‘in one’s body’ as it is held according to the literal interpretation. What is desirable is transcending the perceptible world with a view to simply listening, simply loosing an arrow from one’s hand, simply acting, simply speaking, simply moving like a climber, simply being with whatever is the case. The niggles of the body together with one’s awareness of this niggles actually stands in the way of such transcending.

Since it is a mistake to desire to be embodied in such a fashion, it is a further mistake to believe that there is such a thing as a good practice in literal embodiment. Indeed, what we need is to practice ourselves out of this. This, which is harder, involves surrender.

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