I have been reading Matthew Crawford’s brilliant book The World Beyond Your Head which has really inspired me. Like Alva Noë’s Out of Our Heads it comes from a field of embodied neuroscience that is producing some of the most interesting contemporary thinking around consciousness and how it arises.
In essence, these writers and researchers demolish the predominant way of thinking about consciousness that has ruled the roost for the last 200+ years. This Cartesian notion, (starting with Renee Descarte’s famous ‘I think therefore I am’ ) is the idea that the starting point for awareness comes from a neo-cortical thought: “I am thinking”. According to the idealist view, this is the most basic truth that we can say about ourselves. All other statements about the outside world and even about our body are secondary to this primary self-awareness.
Modern neuroscience shows pretty conclusively that we have thoughts and consciousness because we have bodies
Modern research into the way the brain works seems to point in exactly the opposite direction. Thought – the “I am thinking” – is one of the last pieces of the mosaic of consciousness. Rather than the physical world and our bodies being projections or creations of the thinking mind, modern neuroscience shows pretty conclusively that we have thoughts and consciousness because we have bodies and most specifically because we have bodies that move in space. In a nutshell, we think because we are embodied in a World. It’s the movement in the world that creates the phenomena of conscious thought.
What this adds up to in the real world is that our mental health (the stream of our thoughts and emotions) rests on the substrate of a moving body. The more we can situate our moving bodies in the world, the more we can weave ourselves into the 3D environment, the healthier and more vital our sense of self will be. The feelings and thoughts (our usual focus) slip into a more contextual warp and weft. Instead of being alone with our thoughts, we start to feel ourselves enmeshed into a juicy and ever-changing world of embodied energy.
I hopped on a plane for a few solo days in Greece
I’ve written elsewhere about the Cartesian vector of most internet and social media experiences. As a rule, they take us further and further away from our bodies and from the 3D living world and anchor us (using dopamine and other brain addictors) into a hall of mirrors where abstraction leads to more and more abstraction. I’ve also sung the praises of walking out in Nature and staying present to what is happening in the body.
Shortly after running our lovely Beingfulness Retreat in Sussex, I hopped on a plane for a few solo days in Greece, fully intending to walk in the Grecian sunshine and swim in the sea, continuing my path of embodiment.
In fact, I was thinking of Matthew Crawford (who is a very keen motorcyclist and often sings the praises of a simple human + machine + road sort of experience) as a swept along the high, hot roads of Mykonos on my moped. There is, as he says, something very alive-making in travelling at speed so close to the ground, with so little protection. Your senses come alive and you are much more alert to the curves ahead, to leaning into corners, to the smell of the hot, dry grasses and sun-baked rocks.
However, my real embodiment came when I suddenly turned a corner into the path of a fast on-coming car and skidded off my moped and scraped along the hot Greek gravel in just a pair of swim trunks and flip flops. (Luckily I had put on my helmet.)
I found myself stinging and hurting, hobbling through the warm syrupy air to a little Greek hospital in town.
Sitting by the roadside, dripping blood, I was half-aware that I was in shock. My first thoughts were ones of embarrassment. And then worry about the damage sustained by the moped (minimal). And that I had broken my new sunglasses.
A couple of kindly holidaymakers offered to take me to the hospital. And another even kinder pair agreed to drive my moped to the hospital too. And so I found myself stinging and hurting, hobbling through the warm syrupy air to a little Greek hospital in town.
Considering how many idiotic foreigners must come off their scooters every day on Mykonos, the two hospital staff were thorough and professional as they scrubbed (!) down my wounds, poured over iodine and stitched up the gash in my elbow. After a half-hour, I was sitting outside again trying to process what had happened.
I have studied the effect of trauma during my psychotherapy training. And have always been interested in the way in which the body and mind process sudden life-threatening experiences. There are some (type1) traumas that are single event shocks (coming off a moped on holiday is a small example of this). And there are other (type2) which are ongoing, repeated events that erode and chronically traumatise humans. These are often forms of emotional or physical abuse over time.
This is the way the mind focuses on what is essential until the danger is passed and help is at hand
At the time of the traumatising event, the body often shuts down, partially or fully. What we know as ’being in shock’. This is an anaesthetic effect that blanks the pain and allows the animal to find safety or support. This was what happened as I sat, numb and relatively painless, in the car to the hospital. A similar effect happens in the mental realm: dissociation. This is the way the mind focuses on what is essential (keeping calm, keeping quiet, playing dead) until the danger is passed and help is at hand.
When I was sitting outside the little hospital with my bloody flip-flops in my hands and my newly bandaged wounds and grazes, I was still feeling some of the natural anaesthetic (as well as the needlefuls of local anaesthetic that I’d been given) and definitely feeling rather dissociated.
I wobbled back to the hotel on the scooter (“Get back in the saddle”, they say) and sat down in my hotel room.
I was meeting some friends for dinner later but first I needed to know how I was. And to do that, I sensed that I needed to speak to someone else. This was another refutation of the Cartesian idea that we somehow ‘know ourselves’ in a vacuum. I knew that I was not right – but it took a couple of phone calls home for me to actually know myself.
This is another truth emerging from developmental neuroscience. As infants, our sense of self comes into being by being reflected and related to by our caregivers. It’s not an innate thing. We know ourselves because we are related to by others. We feel our ‘selves’ because the World reflects information back to us.
One of the ways in which animals in the natural world process trauma is by ‘shaking’
So, a couple of long phone conversations allowed me to get my bearings about my own self-experience. Hearing my voice speaking into the receiver and judging how others were responding to my story and to the tone of my voice. Allowed me to piece together a sense of how I was feeling (actually not-too-bad, a little shaken, but essentially OK).
The final piece of my embodied insight happened the following morning.
The writer Peter Levine (https://www.amazon.com/Waking-Tiger-Peter-A-Levine/dp/155643233X)has worked with many survivors of trauma. He theorises that one of the ways in which animals in the natural world process traumatic shock is by ‘shaking’. They literally shake all the excess adrenalin and cortisol out of their bodies. Thereby allowing the body to return to homeostasis. Levine thinks that unprocessed trauma (PTSD) is a dysregulation in the body mind. Caused (especially by repeated Type 2 traumas) by the body not shaking out the chemistry of the flight-fight-faint systems.
The following morning after my crash I was lying in my hotel room when I felt the urge to shake. I have experienced this before in my life, particularly in my ayahuasca experiences in Brazil. And it arose quite spontaneously now: a trembling in the legs and the inner thighs, flapping of the pelvis and the sacrum. At the peak my hips were lifting quite high from the bed. It’s a pleasant experience when you surrender to it and I could feel my dissociation melting away as the shaking continued. It was literally like the curtains opening and my mind’s narrowness of focus widening.
The somatic path that psychotherapy and meditation practice is taking is the most powerful and the most effective to work in
I hobbled down to breakfast feeling right as rain.
All of these experiences – the shock at the roadside and the A&E. The inability of my cognitive mind to ‘know myself’ unless reflected back. And the body’s own system of homeostasis through shaking. Made me more physically convinced that the somatic path that psychotherapy and meditation practice is taking (through the work of Peter Levine, Pat Ogden and Reggie Ray) is the most powerful and the most effective to work in. The body really does keep the score. And the cognitive mind, (Descarte’s mighty ‘cogito’) is actually just a peripheral adornment to the main business of life. Which is being embodied and being en-Worlded.
PS. I’m back home in Sussex and healing up nicely, thank you very much. My foot modelling career, however, is dead in the water.
I’d love to know your thoughts on Greek gravel, trauma and accidents. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!