Embodiment – a new way of being

Philip Shepherd, Author, embodiment trainer

Published in JHH 19.2- Embodiment and bodywork

I learned many lessons during my years in grade school – but as the decades have passed, one overarching lesson of those 12 years has come into focus. I now see that, day after day, what the system was primarily teaching me was to control, suppress and deny my body’s energy in order that I might sit still in my chair; and to fill my head with the strategies and facts that would enable me to succeed as a student. Those lessons were reinforced with a system of punishment (‘the strap’ was still administered in my day) and reward (in the form of good grades if I provided the correct answers). That larger lesson being drilled into me acquired a striking significance as life began to show me the equivalence between the body’s energy and the subtle, attuned complexity of its intelligence. Being made to suppress the body’s energy, I was also being made to suppress the intelligence it was activated by. But something else was happening at the same time: I was internalising the cultural myth that says thinking is something that happens exclusively in the head.


Coming to terms with the fallacy of that myth has taken me on a long and very personal journey – one that was greatly facilitated by exposure to other cultures. One of the milestones occurred when I was 20 and lived for a time in Japan, studying classical Noh theatre, a 600-year old art form. There I learned the Japanese word hara, which is impossible to translate into English. It literally means ‘belly’ – but in practice it refers to a grounded intelligence that holds one’s deepest truths and is the source of one’s most subtly attuned presence. In Noh theatre, every gesture arises from that bottomless realm of knowing; every head that turns to see looks from there. The impossibility of translating hara into English is made clear by certain phrases. Where we would say ‘He’s hotheaded’ the Japanese would comment ‘His belly rises easily’. We might comment ‘She’s got a good head on her shoulders’; the Japanese would say ‘She’s got a well-developed belly’.

Since that time in Japan I’ve gained perspective on other possibilities of experience from a range of cultures. The Anangu in Australia understand that people have three centres of intelligence: the head, the heart and the belly. The belly is considered the primary intelligence, and they characterise the thinking of the head as ‘a tangled fishing net’. The word for ‘insane’ in language of the Okanogan culture, in what we call North America, literally translates as ‘talking, talking inside the head’. But that’s what we in our culture do all day long! It just seems normal.

What I’ve come to understand is that the ceaseless chit-chat of the head results from living in the head. Larry Merculieff, a member of the Aleuts of the Alaskan Pribilof Islands, relates that by the age of seven he could go for hours without one word entering his head. That’s how hunter-gatherers attuned the world – not by sitting in the head chatting about it to themselves, but by feeling it through the wordless intelligence of the body.


When we aspire to a state of health, mental or physical, it’s helpful to remember that our word ‘health’ derives from the Latin word for wholeness. If we allow the Okanogan and the Latin to join hands, the suggestion emerges that ‘talking, talking inside the head’ points to a lack of wholeness. And indeed, if ‘you’ are talking to ‘yourself ’, one part of you is providing the commentary and another part is being addressed. That inner division is the lesson enforced by our school system – and we are so thoroughly habituated to it that it’s hard to even imagine sustaining the wordless state described by Larry Merculieff. Our heads are too busy supervising our experience.

And no wonder that’s the case. When the body can’t commune with the world, the head talks to itself – and messages urging us to live in the head saturate our language, values, customs, architecture, hierarchies and symbols. For instance, the icons for washrooms and Olympic sports all represent the human being as a head disconnected from the body. The leader of every organisation is invariably referred to as its ‘head’. The words ‘captain’ and ‘chief ’ – which designate leadership roles – come from the Latin word for head. Our economic system, ‘capitalism’, literally means ‘headism’. And while ‘a head count’ tells you how many people are present, ‘a body count’ tells you how many dead there are. We casually claim that two heads are better than one, but the deeper truth might be that two hearts are better than one.

Our head-centric culture also helps explain our love affair with the car. Cars are designed to resemble heads on wheels. They have two ‘headlights’ rather than three, say, just as we have two eyes. And the experience of driving in a car replicates the feeling of living in our heads: the car offers us a private realm, just as the head does, in which you can listen to your personal music as you might walk along the street listening to your private thoughts. And when you sit in a car and look at the world ‘out there’ through the windshield, it recalls that familiar feeling of sitting in your head, looking at the world ‘out there’ as though you were somehow set apart from it.

Three questions

As a culture we are steeped in, trained into and committed to a disembodied way of being. And that provokes three questions that I’d like to look at. First, isn’t it natural to live in the head, when it’s where we see, hear and taste from, and happens to be where the brain is? Second, does putting the head in charge create its own set of problems? And finally, what cultural paradigm shift conspired to squeeze us out of the body and into the head?

The first question is a challenging one to address, because what seems like a natural and objective fact to us is actually an expression of a cultural bias. So yes, we do see and hear from our heads, and experience our thinking there – but is that the reason we live in our heads, or the result of it? The experience of other cultures suggests the latter explanation. The Anlo-Ewe of Africa, for example, have a word that means to ‘hear from the ear’ – but they are clear that real hearing is an experience in which the sounds of the world are felt in the body. We have anointed the conscious thinking of the brain as our supreme faculty and the natural ruler of the self, but in fact the body processes a billion times more information than we can be conscious of. It teems with an intelligence that is continuously attuning to the world. So it may actually be more ‘natural’ to live within the ocean of the body’s intelligence, feeling and thinking from that holistic intelligence, than to extract from it and remain cloistered in the head.

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And that brings us to the second question: does putting the head in charge create its own problems? Consider this: our relationship with our bodies is primary. No relationship is more personal or more basic in shaping your way of being in the world. The way you relate to your body establishes the template for how you relate to everything else. And we learn to relate to the body by putting the head in charge of it, rendering the body’s intelligence opaque and its functioning mechanical. As such the body is something we organise, supervise, and command from above. Our lives are so distant from it that we speak of ‘having a body’, the way we might speak of ‘having a Swiss army knife’. We don’t speak of ‘being a body’ – it is a tool we use to get things done.

This top-down relationship with the body sets the tone for our relationship with the world. We feel similarly distant from the life of the world and understand nature as a machine with many moving parts. We don’t feel it as a miracle; we view it as something that lacks innate intelligence: something to be organised and dominated. Assuming only humans are truly intelligent, we assign ourselves a managerial role: we dominate nature, re-imagine it to suit our narrow purposes, and hammer it into a rectilinear monotony.

When I look at the myriad crises we face around the world, I see the stresses we are inflicting on the world being driven by an imbalance within ourselves: divided against ourselves, we can only be divided against the world. Seeking control over the self, we seek control over the world. As the Jesuit writer Charles Davis observed, ‘the core of disorder lies in the self. The self has to be healed; its attempt to control the universe is a sickness to be cured, not a source of remedy’.


Our top-down approach to self and world has led us to define them both in dangerous and restricted terms: for example, human intelligence as the ability to reason in an abstract fashion, the very quality that an IQ test measures. It’s as though the verbal-based head intelligence has asserted the definition that is most flattering to itself. And abstract reasoning is certainly one form of intelligence – but I see it as one narrow bandwidth in a vast spectrum. And when I go to name or characterise that spectrum, the word I come up with is sensitivity. I believe that any sensitivity is a form of intelligence, whether it’s a sensitivity to a child’s tears, to Mozart, to waves riding into the shore, or to legal argument. The nature of a sensitivity, though, is that it is reactive. If the retina didn’t react to light, for instance, we wouldn’t see. That reactivity has to be grounded in order to become coherent. If I were pressed to define the quality of human intelligence, I would characterise it as the quality of grounded sensitivity – a quality that relies on the body.

There is no doubt that we are very, very clever as a culture – we are demonstrably the cleverest culture that has ever been; but we have also demonstrably forgotten how to live intelligently. And that echoes the endemic forgetfulness of the school system we considered earlier, which effectively desensitises our children and leaves them ungrounded. They may come out of the system with enhanced cleverness, but their true intelligence has been assaulted.

Our top-down approach has also restricted our definitions of the world. For instance, we measure it with dimensions that, like the head’s intelligence, emphasise separation and distance, thereby implicitly denying the dimension in which everything is in contact with everything at all times. So we propose three dimensions of space and one dimension of time, and can measure with great accuracy the distance in time and/or space between any two events; but reality keeps leaking out of this framework. For example, one day when a dear friend of mine was a schoolboy, he stood up from his chair in the middle of a lesson, ran out of the classroom, ran out of the school and all the way home, where he burst in the back door to find his mother lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. She looked up at him and said, ‘Thank God you came Jack – I prayed you would’. In many indigenous cultures this would not be considered exceptional; in our culture it is either considered impossible or dismissed as a mere coincidence. Living in the head as we do, we live with a fractured sense of self – and so our eyes see a fractured world around us. And then when we do damage to the subtle, mindful, delicate interconnections that sustain life, we might barely notice.


Just as living in the head leads us to see the world as a collection of separate things, it leads us to feel the self as separate among them. We speak of our independence as a virtue and actively seek it. We come to feel the skin as our private boundary, and we have developed our language and customs to uphold that boundary. For example, when we sit down to eat a meal, we are assigned our chair and our placemat and our cutlery, and they define our private space. If Sally to my left wishes the salt on my right, she is prohibited from reaching through my space to retrieve it for herself. She has to say, ‘Philip would you pass me the salt?’ and I obligingly pick it up and convey it safely through my space to the boundary of her space. The problem with our cultural insistence on hard boundaries and our assertion of independence is that all boundaries are permeable, and independence is a fantasy. There isn’t a single example of independence in all the cosmos – there is only interdependence. When you reflect on our craving for independence, it’s revealing to consider what world mythology has to say about it. The great scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, characterised the mythic tyrant as ‘the man of self-achieved independence’. It’s a resonant phrase, and to our ears actually sounds pretty attractive. In fact, that phrase describes the American dream with a poignant accuracy. As a culture we have dedicated ourselves to the tyrant’s fantasy.

That mirage of independence is an essentially disembodied state. It is a product of living in the head. When you live in the head you dissociate from what the body most deeply knows, and from what the body most deeply feels, and both of those speak strongly against independence. What the body most deeply understands, in my experience, is that it belongs to the world. When I stand before a tree, for instance, and truly feel its presence, I feel how deeply we belong to each other. The same is true whether I’m looking at a blade of grass or a star in the night sky or a far-off mountain. And what the body most deeply feels is the present. The aliveness and sensitivity of the body’s flesh feels the aliveness and sensitivity of what is here now. The body itself is like a singing bowl that attunes with exquisite sensitivity to fluctuations in the field of the present. No part of the body’s intelligence is tainted with the fantasy of independence.


What stokes our fantasy of independence is the desire for control. If you can stand independent of the world then it can’t get to you, it can’t interfere with you. The impulse that first carried our culture up through the body and into the head was just that: the desire for control and all that it promised. And that raises the third question we posed: what paradigm shift drew us into the confines of the head?

When you look at the arts and reconstructed language of the late Paleolithic and early Neolithic era in Mediterranean cultures, it’s clear that, like extant indigenous cultures around the world, they thought and perceived from a centre of awareness in the belly. When agriculture was discovered, everything changed. Imagine the effect of pushing the first seed into the earth and patting it down. Suddenly that green shoot growing up beside your seed is a weed and needs to be killed. Before that moment weeds didn’t exist. And as your plant grows, the little animal coming up to it has to be killed, because it might eat your plant. Before that moment vermin didn’t exist. And the plant and the bit of ground it’s rooted in belongs to you. Before that moment ownership of land would have been a ridiculous concept. Furthermore, the tree growing beside your plant has to be cut down because it’s putting your plant in the shade, and your plant needs sun in order to flourish. Before that moment we didn’t seek to control the world, we sought to come into harmony with it. And our most valuable asset in seeking to harmonise with the world was the body’s intelligence. Its sensitivity could feel animals in the forest, it could sense where water was, it could feel the medicine waiting in plants. We lost all that as we turned the body into a mere tool.

Beginning with the Neolithic revolution, the centre of our intelligence began to rise through the body as our culture became patriarchal and we turned our attention to remote gods in the sky rather than the immanent goddess of the earth. By 800 BC we find the characters in Homer’s epics experiencing their thinking in the chest. By 500 BC the philosopher Parmenides declared that the senses were not to be trusted and that only reason could guide us to the truth, setting the course for Western philosophy for hundreds of years to come. In 350 BC Plato offered an explanation for how the gods created us. As explained in the dialogue Timaeus, first they fashioned a divine sphere, based on the orbs of the heavens. But they realised it wouldn’t be able to get around in the world, so they grew it a vehicle: arms and legs and a trunk. So there we are, almost 2,500 years ago, and the body is already being described as a vehicle for the head. Since that time our thinking has grown increasingly abstract and out of touch, as we have grown increasingly disconnected from the world that sustains us.

The return

I think it helps to appreciate how long ago our journey out of the body took place, because it cautions us against underestimating the challenge we face. I think the way forward for humanity is to come back to the body, and through it to feel and come into harmony with the world itself. The world doesn’t need us to impose order on it, it needs us to join it in its deep harmony. We may be tempted to think that with a few modifications of our behavior we can carry on with the deep habits of our culture. But those habits are ruinous. What is being asked of us is something different: to create a new way of being. A way of being that listens to the world through the body, rather than listening endlessly to our commentary on our own thoughts. Only when we come out of our age-old division will our intelligence be felt as a coherent whole that thinks hand in hand with the world. And it’s only as we drop out of the head and join what the body knows that we’ll be able to experience the blessing of that wholeness once again.