Embodiment for the 21st Century
My occupation, passion and personal journey is embodiment – helping people get in touch with themselves as bodies for the sake of leadership, stress management and personal growth. Starting in the middle ages the body became bad and started to be denied, repressed and ignored. The late-industrial 20th century took this to new depths and the postmodern information ages brings with it fresh challenges to staying grounded in our “primary operating system”. I have lately become very interested in how to stay embodied in a technological environment – with omnipresent online mobile communication, the e-mail deluge and social media. How do we stay connected to the most fundamental level of ourselves in a digitally connected world? How to we reboot the body in the 21st century? What on earth am I talking about?
The Challenge of Digital Disembodiment
Have you ever finished a workday online to notice great discomfort in your body? Have you ever been so engrossed in work, social media or gaming that you forgot your physical needs until were really screaming at you? Have you ever acted in a way on a forum or social media group that lacked the empathy you bring to “real-life” social interactions? If so you have like the vast majority of people who use modern technology experienced (or more actually not experienced) disembodiment. We all spend much time lost in the matrix and unaware of our most fundamental matrix. Aside from a little RSI or stiff shoulders why is this dissociation a problem though? Well, our bodies are the substrate of ourselves – when we lose “our” bodies we lose ourselves. English is revealing here as bodies are not “ours” like a car or other object. Bodies are not “its” but part of the I. We need them to think (see embodied cognition), know what is right and wrong (see Paul Linden’s work) feel and to empathise and socially interact (see Dan Siegel neuroscience work). To be blunt, when we are disembodied (not aware of ourselves but “in our heads”/ machines) we are stupid, psychopathic, emotionally stunted and autistic.*
So what do we do about this disembodied mess we’re in? There are two basic approaches, one established one new:
Many people find value in taking part in the “wisdom tradition” practices of mindfulness, emotional intelligence and embodiment. These often involves doing some of a set of related practices such as yoga, martial arts, dance and meditation, and perhaps more modern Western pursuits such as therapy, personal development workshops and group process work. These often become favourite hobbies for people and allow them to cope with the stresses and strains of a disembodied existence 9-5 (+the online social stuff 8-9, 5-10 etc). The popularity of these activities seems to have risen in direct proportion to the disembodying and therefore alienating nature of technological growth. Yoga is now pretty popular and for good reason, a regular embodied practice can bring some balance to the ultra-cognitive world we live in.
A more radical and I believe more useful approach is to integrate embodied and other “wisdom” practices WITH technology use. This turns tech usage into not so much a problem to be managed, but an opportunity for personal growth. E-mail can become a practice as much as yoga. Balancing approaches may be doomed to fail as a) they include no integration into the very different context on online activity so are not transferred across (so calm in yoga, still stressed at work), and b) many people today spend many more hours online than doing their balancing practice so any good work done in the former is easily undone by “practicing” something else online. One solution I have started to explore is to teach basic embodied practices away from online contexts as in the traditional approach and then bring them into this new context. Teaching embodiment while people are online to build their own capacity. This involves a certain amount of slowing down and interrupting the usual online activities to avoid the old conditioning taking over, and establishing a new one. This video shows a group doing this on an “e-retreat”.
A Simple Embodiment Practice – NIT
Here’s a simple practice you can use today to be more embodied online and break your usual conditioning. It is best to have done a little mindfulness, emotional growth and embodiment practice offline at some point in your life before this integration, but it will be beneficial even if you haven’t:
Set-up – Find a timer to interrupt you – n app or an egg timer will do – and set it to chime every five minutes. When it chimes immediately stop what you’re doing and:
- Notice your body and emotions – a 3 second body-scan will suffice once you’re used to the process, longer may be needed at first
- Intention – Ask “what and I doing and why?”
- Transform – You may wish to change your posture or performing a centring exercise such as taking a deep belly breath.
And here is a video showing you the Process for Noticing Online Habits
After an hour of this reduce the chiming frequency to ten minutes. After another hour to 20 minutes and so on. Each time you will NIT quicker and with less effort but you do need to do it consistently for a few hours to break old habits. You can also tie the NIT to frequently performed online actions such as sending or opening an e-mail or pressing “save” on a document.
Feeling Your Tools
Another practice I picked up from fellow trainer Paul Levy is to feel your online devices as tools separate from yourself. Simple as it sounds feel the keys or screen and notice that you are not your device! This helps people stay anchored in their own sensations rather than being “lost” in the internet with the associated dangers to disembodiment and distraction that this brings.
I am electrified (horrible pun intended) by the possibilities of an integrated body-mind-tech approach and am enquiring into what this might involve with a few others. The Wisdom 2.0 events and Buddhist Geeks podcast series are good resources for those interested. For me this is a central challenge of our times. Please get in touch if this interests and inspires you.
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* I no longer make this last analogy as some find it offensive to people with autism, my point is that it makes it harder to relate to others