What is a Body? New Perspectives on Flesh

We all have a body and we know what it is right? Well, sort of…there are many models for what a body is and which you believe has huge implications. Consider the first sentence for example, it is normal to say we “have” a body, like me say we “have” a car and both are “its” not “me”. In this body view the body is an object not a part of the self. If we view the body as a thing we can treat it in ways we would not treat ourselves with consequences for health, communication and relating for example.The different perspectives we have on a body and embodiment (the subjective sense of being one) are some of the most influential metaphors we have.

My work in stress, communication and leadership training often has to start with offering new perspective on embodiment – the subjective sense of having or being a body – and new skills associated with this. Here are some of the more common perspectives that I come across and teach, some of them require developmental growth for those of you who are interested in how adults grow, others promote this, while others are metaphorical viewpoints available to almost anyone.

Pr-conventional Body Perspective


When we are very young we have an unsophisticated view of the body as ourselves and no perspective on sensations which leads to demands for immediate gratification. In Freudian terms we are all “id”.  We have no differentiated self from the world in fact, let alone the body. In later life this perceptive on being tied to the immediate needs of a body can be seen in addicts (think ego-centric rock-stars) and those in alternative communities who have idealised this state and attempted to revert to it.

Conventional Body Perspectives

Wild horse

Sadly, a still common view of the body is that it is sinful and in need of control. This model is often found in Christianity, was reinforced by Descartes famous body-mind split and also adopted by Freud – the body as id must be controlled by the civilised superego. From this perspective the body is very much split from the self, and is seen as dangerous as it can lead us to do bad (as defined by the mind) things. The best that can be hoped for is that the body becomes a faithful servant if watched carefully.


The main perspective I find on the body in the Western world these days is that it is simply a kind of transport device for brain. I “have” a body, but I am really a floating head or a brain in a jar. In this highly dissociated model bodies need to be kept in good running order so they don’t “break down” – via the Western medical “body as machine” interventions for example – but not much beyond that. This perspective which is reinforced through both trauma and the system we live in, makes genuine human relating, connection to values and morality and effectiveness at work very difficult, for reasons that will become apparent.

Consumer object

Related to the brain-taxi perspective is that as an objectified body as a resource, medium for manipulation, seduction and violence. From this perspective the body is again just an object and just a way of getting what you want. Think of people in gyms watching TV while working on their abs or whatever. The body becomes a commodity and again, this perspective makes us strangers to ourselves, and others mere objects too with diabolical consequences.

Pleasure delivery-device

From this perspective the body is for fun. The purpose of having a body is to serve us up pleasure and pain is to be ignored or medicated against. This view is very common and perhaps healthier than the others so far, however it stills views the body as an object and not listening to the messages of pain (and this often includes uncomfortable emotions) means we don’t receive the information. Ignoring a ringing phone doesn’t help. I once named a talk I gave “Beyond sex and pizza” as for many people the body is only associated with hedonism. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love sex, pizza, ice-cream, massage etc, and also see the body as much more than a pleasure delivery device.

Post Conventional Embodiment Perspectives

Organically though personal growth or via practices such as  yoga, martial arts and dance people first get body awareness back and then realise that they are embodied, and not just that they have a body. This is body as self again but at more sophisticated level than the pre-conventional non-differentiation.

Communication Device

Even from a conventional body perspective it becomes apparent that the body is highly involved in communication. The psychologist Albert Mehrabian famously showed it was a very large proportion of emotionally significant communication in fact and it is most people’s experience that face-to-face communication for example is creates more connection and less misunderstanding than e-mail for example. From the perspective of body as communication device we see to as a bridge to others and vitally important for influence and leadership.

Emotional Intelligence, Connection and Values System

Emotions are bodily events and if we are to notice and manage them we must notice and manage the body. From this perspective bodily emotions let us know what is important – when are needs are met or unmet – they are the ringing phone we must pick up to steal a metaphor. Emotions are also how we connect with others and without embodiment there is no empathy. No body, no relationship. Without any embodiment we become psychopaths. Literally. Our capacity to feel in the basis of our values and morality so bodily dissociation (when we are no “in” or “as” bodies) is a major social issue. See the video below for more on this.

Insight Key/ Past and Future Solidified

The body can also give us information about the past and from this viewpoint the body is a doorway to insight. Our past is solidified in a posture and movement pattern and our experience sculpted as form and functional tendency. Our emotional experiences particular become embodied patterns. Some would go so far as to say the body is the unconscious in fact and all who study intuition value the body as a way into this. From this perspective we can learn about ourselves and others via the “map of being” that is the body and what we might be capable of in the future (what we are committed to is also embodied for example). Much body-psychotherapy has this perspective and forms such as Focusing.

Door to Creativity/ Body as Playground

Related to the psychological perspective on the body above is the idea as the body as a key to creativity. The body is seen as both holding and releasing creativity if we “tune into” it. From this viewpoint the body becomes a playground but not just for providing pleasure but for exploration and adventure!

Operating system

A perspective I offer many of my technologically savvy clients is the body as an operating system. Whatever we do we do it via/through a body (disembodied) or as a body (embodied). It is HOW we do things around here so has a huge influence. It is the substrate of our experience, actions and relationships. The embodied cognition model shows it is critical for thinking for example, something previously seen as the opposite of bodily. Te embodied operating system is the culture of ourselves. From this perspective the embodied component of anything is vital as it is also present and influential. From this perspective science fiction fantasies of floating brains in jars and downloading our consciousness to computers are impossible.

Gateway to God

The body is viewed by many as sacred – as a “locus of divine intervention” as my friend and colleague Francis Briers says. From this perspective the body reveals deep truths and can guide action. Many pagan, tantric and modern “new-age” practices such as Five Rhythms dancing engage this notion and I’m a fan myself, although confusing the pre-conventional and insight key psychological metaphors with this can cause difficulties. This perspective does however “re-enchant” the body and this can lead to many healthy behaviours and insights.


Body Metaphors/ Perspectives Conclusion

Thanks to the Integration Training associates for their help in naming these perspectives – as you can see there are many possibilities and consequences. It may be useful for us all to be more careful in which we buy-into and live.
If you have like this diagram why not take a look at:

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