What Is Embodiment?

Here Philip Shepherd dives deeper into what it really means to be embodied and how this practice is thousands of years old.

Philip Shepherd is an embodiment expert, author and co-founder of The Embodied Present Process. Here he shares with us the history and meaning of embodiment.

The issue of embodiment has seen a surge of interest in the past few years. Conferences, books, and classes on the subject have appeared, all devoted to helping people come back to their bodies. But there's also some confusion about what embodiment means – and the reason for that has very deep historical roots.

Disembodiment may seem like a somewhat recent phenomenon, but its origins actually date back to our pre-history.

It was the Neolithic revolution, some 8,000 years ago, that first precipitated our journey out of the body and into the head. It's clear from art and language that our Neolithic ancestors experienced their thinking in the belly.

We know from Homer’s language that by his day thinking was experienced in the chest. Homer uses a word phren 379 times in his works, and it is a word we have difficulty translating into English, because it has two meanings: “mind” and “diaphragm.” It's not that the ancient Greeks got their anatomy wrong; it’s that they experienced their thinking in the chest and so identified the diaphragm as the organ of thought.

It’s clear that by Plato's day we had completed the ascent out of the body and into the head. In his dialogue Timaeus, Plato describes how the gods fashioned us: first they created a divine sphere based on the orbs of the heavens, and then realized it would need a vehicle to help it get around, so they gave it arms and legs and a trunk. So there we are, in 350 BC, and already the head is considered the divinest part of us, and the body a mere vehicle.

Living in the head leaves us obsessed with knowing.

We spend most of our waking hours organizing and thinking about our thoughts, dulled to the life of the present. The upshot of that obsession is that we know a lot. There’s likely nothing around you at the moment that you can’t identify. When you know what something is, though, there’s no need to feel it. And there’s the rub.

Our longstanding history of disembodiment makes it easy for us to misunderstand what embodiment is – we naturally want to frame it in terms of our familiar paradigms. So we might encourage someone towards embodiment by recommending that they ‘listen to the body.’ It seems like a nurturing metaphor, but when you reflect on it you see that it's actually reinforcing our disembodiment. When you're told to ‘listen to your body’, you're being advised that you are in one room, and your body is next door, and that it would be prudent to put your ear to the wall separating you from it, to listen to what's happening on the other side. Listening to the body certainly has value, but it's dangerous to understand it as embodiment.

So then what is embodiment?

In the workshops I teach around the world, I take a very different approach. I suggest that embodiment is not about listening to the body – it's about listening to the world through the body. The body has a seamless relationship with the living world around it. It attunes to sights, sounds, vibrations and subtle changes in the environment that lie beneath the threshold of our conscious awareness. In fact, the body processes over a billion times more information than we can be conscious of.

But the intelligence of the body doesn't ‘think’ as we understand thought.

We've come to believe that intelligence is the ability to think in an abstract fashion.

That is not how the body thinks. The body attunes to wholeness: the wholeness of the self and the wholeness of the present moment. Its intelligence excludes nothing – not even abstract thought. To be truly embodied, then, is to allow the whole of your intelligence to come into coherence with the present.

The journey back to the body is immeasurably rich, because it grounds you in the present.

It is also challenging, because it moves directly against the bias of our culture. The first stage of that journey is one in which sensation is recovered. Every cell in the body participates in its thinking, but there are realms of the body we have dulled ourselves to. For instance, the pelvic floor, which is a diaphragm in the body but often remains immobilized; the legs, which are experienced as prosthetics in our culture; the back, which closes down to the breath. It takes patience and dedication to awaken to the body’s myriad sensitivities.

The next stage is one in which you begin to notice how the body's natural spaciousness is compromised by shadows – by micro-tensions of habit. As you bring your awareness to those, you begin to integrate them so that the body recovers its natural spaciousness. As that happens you are making room within the body for all the world to be felt within it; you increasingly experience the body as a resonator, attuning you to the subtle currents of the world to which you belong, and deeply informing you.

You can never objectively know everything to which the body attunes, but you can feel it. And what you are feeling, ultimately, is your aliveness to the moment.

About Philip Shepherd - Embodiment expert, author and co-founder of The Embodied Present Process

Philip Shepherd is recognised as a leader in the global embodiment movement. His unique practices were developed to help transform our disconnected experience of self and world, and are based on the vision articulated in his celebrated books, New Self, New World (2010) and Radical Wholeness (2017). The aim behind all the practices of The Embodied Present ProcessTM (TEPP) is to help people reunite the thinking of the head with the deep, present and calm intelligence of the body. Unlike the prevailing view of embodiment – which involves sitting in the head and ‘listening to your body’ – Philip’s approach helps you listen to the world through the body. What the body most deeply understands is that it belongs to the world. What the body most deeply feels is the present. When we join its intelligence, we discover companionship in the world rather than alienation; we recognise guidance where before we saw only obstacles; and we ground ourselves in the security of being, rather than seeking to build security for ourselves with symbols of external value. Ultimately, TEPP is about coming home to yourself.

Upcoming workshops with Philip:

May 9 @ 2:00 pm - May 11 @ 4:00 pm

Rewilding Through the Body: Embercombe, UK

Embercombe Higher Ashton, Exeter, Devon

May 14 @ 10:00 am - May 15 @ 5:00 pm

Radical Wholeness Weekend Workshop: Sandvika, Norway

Sjøholmen AS Sandviksveien 130, Blommenholm, Sandvika

May 28 @ 10:00 am - May 29 @ 5:00 pm

Radical Wholeness Weekend Workshop: Essen, Germany

Folkwang Universität der Künste Klemensborn 39, Tanzhaus Züllig, Studio A, Essen 

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