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The Puzzle of Embodiment

By: Dr Claus Springborg, November 2022, Copenhagen

We have all seen it: Spiritual practitioners and teachers who behave appallingly in their personal life. Preaching love and acting without. Preaching virtue and acting with vice. 

We have all experienced it. One moment we are floating on a river of peace while engaged in yoga, meditation, or some other practice – and the next moment, when faced with adversity, and the entire river of peace evaporates in an instant. 

How come it is possible to, at times, connect with profound levels of peace, love, and contentment and have a benevolent view of both ourselves and our fellow human beings and, at other times, act without connection to all of the jewels we have found through personal and spiritual development?

How come it is possible to feel all is well in the world and that nothing can rattle us at the end of a meditation or a session with your therapist, yet, later the same day, we seem to have forgotten this perspective and these feelings about ourselves and life, once again, appears to be a struggle.

This is the puzzle of embodiment. How is it possible to experience and believe one thing – yet (sometimes) act in ways that are at odds with what we believe? This is an important puzzle for anyone who is sincerely engaged in personal and spiritual development.

Let’s look at three answers to the puzzle of embodiment.

The bad, the good and the deep answer to the puzzle
One common, but rather bad, answer to this question is: If a practitioner acts in ways that are not aligned with what they claim to believe in, they are fake. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. People’s behaviour shows what is truly in their hearts.

Whereas this is no doubt sometimes true, it is also an overly simplistic answer. Of course, sometimes people will espouse certain beliefs while acting from a different set of beliefs as a deception. While this is good to be aware of, it is a pretty straightforward case. No puzzle here. 

However, at times, people will hold certain beliefs in a sincere way – and still, their actions can be governed by a different and sometimes opposing set of beliefs. Argyris and Schön talk about this phenomenon as the discrepancy between espoused theories and theories-in-use. This is a far more interesting case. We cannot explain the discrepancy as a matter of deception when the individual is sincere in their espoused beliefs and unaware that their actions do not match their beliefs. 

Another common answer is that personal and spiritual development is largely about changing bad habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. Such change requires effort, and sometimes we simply forget and revert to habitual ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. In other words, our conditioning has a tendency to reassert itself, and all we can do is remember over and over again and rely on our personal and spiritual practices to gradually form new habits and neurological pathways. According to this view, the path to embodying the teachings of personal and spiritual development in our everyday life is to:

  • Be consistent in our practice so we will form new habits
  • Expose ourselves to stimuli that will reinforce the new habits
  • Not expose ourselves to stimuli that reinforce our old ways of thinking and feeling
  • Remember that there is a physiological component (growing new neurological pathways) and, therefore, be patient. 

This is, of course, all good advice. From this perspective, we do not need to think that all people who revert to old mental, emotional and behavioural patterns are deceptive. They may simply be inattentive and act from habit. 

However, this perspective doesn’t help much when habits are very persistent. It also does not say much about why specific situations seem to trigger old habits more than others and what we can do about that. 

Fortunately, research in embodied cognition shows that it is possible to work more directly and actively on transferring the budding mental, emotional and behavioural patterns we develop through practices in personal and spiritual development to everyday life – including the more tricky situations.

Embodied Cognition
To understand how research in embodied cognition can help us embody teaching from personal and spiritual development, we must first know a bit about embodied cognition. 

Embodied cognition is a branch of cognitive science that deals with the question of how we know the meaning of concepts. How do we know what is the meaning of “chair”, “conflict”, “kumquat”, “charisma”, etc.? 

This is not a trivial question. At first, we may say that we know the meaning of words by looking them up in the dictionary. But this only raises the question of how we know the meaning of the words the dictionary uses to explain the meaning of the words we are looking up. The question of how we know the meaning of words/concepts has puzzled philosophers and scientists for a very long time. 

Embodied cognition has a particularly interesting answer to this question. In short, embodied cognition proposes that the meaning of words is grounded in activations in the sensory-motor regions of the brain. We know what the word “chair” means because the word activates neurons in our brain in ways that are similar to how our neurons are activated when we interact with actual chairs. 

This might seem fairly obvious when it comes to words for physical objects, such as “chair”. It is more surprising when it comes to more abstract words, such as “charisma”, “confidence”, “peace”, “love”, “inspiration”, “conflict”, etc. 

However, a mounting body of research supports this hypothesis. Bargh and colleagues showed that when people solve word puzzles that contain words referring to fast animals, such as “jaguar” or “gazelle”, people will walk faster when they leave the researcher’s lab than people who solved word puzzles not containing such words. Similarly, people who solved puzzles with words associated with old people would walk slower. Holding a pen with teeth/lips – facilitating/blocking smiling in a non-obvious way – made people judge cartoons as more/less funny (Stepper and Strack 1993). Pressing on the bottom/top of a table – facilitating muscles used for pulling towards/pushing away in an unobvious way – made people judge Chinese ideographs more/less favourably (Cacioppo et al. 1993). Listening to words related to face, arm/hands or leg/feet activate the regions of the motor cortex responsible for moving these parts of the body (Tettamanti et al. 2005). Such research shows that we do, in fact, use the same neurons to process sensory-motor functions and higher cognitive functions, such as problem-solving, evaluation, and word comprehension.

Embodied cognition has also explored how words that are central to personal and spiritual development, such as dedication, competence, rationality, emotionality, sincerity, friendliness, etc., are grounded.

In one study, people were asked to evaluate a job application for a specific job. Participants judged the applicant as more sincere in their interest and more competent when the clipboard they held was heavier. This shows that activating the somatic experience of heaviness also activates the neurons that represent the abstract concepts of “sincere interest” and “competence”. In a similar study, people were asked to judge the level of friendliness of a character in an ambiguous story. Participants would judge the character as more friendly if they were holding a warm cup of coffee than if they were holding a cold drink. This shows that “friendliness” is grounded in the experience of “warmth” and “hostility” in “coldness”. Similar experiments have shown links between many other abstract concepts and sensory-motor experiences, including “emotionality” and softness, “rationality” and hardness (Ackerman, Nocera & Bargh 2010).

What all this research shows is that our abstract concepts are grounded in sensory-motor activations. Sensory-motor experiences affect our conceptual processing, and calling to mind specific concepts activates sensory-motor experience. 

The above-mentioned links between sensory states and concepts may not seem too surprising since they correspond to commonly used metaphorical expressions in our language. We can, for example, speak of hostility as “being cold” and friendliness as “being warm”. We can call a person with little competence a “lightweight” and one with a lot of competence a “heavyweight”. 

What is surprising is that such expressions are not mere metaphorical embellishments. They reveal how our concepts are grounded in somatic experience. 

So, what does all of this have to do with personal and spiritual development?

Embodiment as the practice of redefining concepts at the sensory level
Concepts are the tools we use to interact with our environment. They guide our behaviour. 

But if concepts are grounded in somatic experience, then a belief can change its meaning greatly depending on what somatic experiences the related concepts are grounded in. 

Consider the following belief: “It is important to have confidence in yourself”. This belief will change greatly depending on how the key concept of “self-confidence” is grounded. 

Imagine that “self-confidence” is grounded in a somatic sense of strong and energised leg muscles as when “confidence” is understood as “standing up for yourself”, “standing your ground”, or “having your feet firmly planted on the ground”. If this is the case, every time you utter or even just think about the concept of “self-confidence”, you will slightly tense your leg muscles. Similarly, if you think of “self-confidence” as a form of resistance to the influence of others, the concept will produce tension in your body similar to the tension you feel when you use your body to resist external forces. This will, inevitably, make “self-confidence” a rather exhausting concept for you. You will be forced to choose between being “self-confident” or relaxing. Being self-confident will feel like an effort, and some days, you will feel you do not have the energy for it. 

However, “self-confidence” can also be grounded in the somatic experience of relaxation as when “self-confidence” is understood as “resting in yourself” or “feeling at ease in your own skin”. This grounding of the concept will enable you to draw upon the concept of “self-confidence” in your interaction with the environment in ways that will not cost energy. You will no longer have to choose between relaxation and self-confidence as they will be one and the same. 

Let’s now return to the question of how to embody in everyday life what we learn in personal and spiritual development. We can now see embodiment as a matter of directly working with the somatic ground of our concepts.

If we do not change what somatic experience we use to ground our concepts, we will revert back to old mental, emotional and behavioural patterns every time we use our conceptual system to interact with our environment. 

This is why we at Sensing Mind Institute complement the practices of meditation and inquiry with the practice of embodiment, understood as the practice of directly and deliberately forming new links between key concepts,, such as “support”, “grounding”, “joy”, “compassion”, “peace”, “power”, “love”, “strength”, “courage”, “confidence”, “commitment”, “curiosity”, “desire”, “anger”, “hatred”, “sadness”, and many others. Realigning our conceptual system with new somatic states is key to personal and spiritual development that have a stronger impact on our everyday life.