Doors That Open on Beauty: Bodily Knowing and Existential Living
I have a quirky knack.
For as long as I can remember, I have been able to pinpoint the exact center of a space or midpoint of a line. I can also space objects at equal distances from each other (when I care to do so) by simply “eyeballing” the entirety of what I am trying to accomplish. My accuracy is downright scary.
My wife will be the first to tell you that this is no idle boast on my part. Our walls are filled with pictures and art objects hung the old fashioned way. Basically, she maneuvers frames, and I utter the expected steady stream of “a little more to the left,” “higher,” or “OH too far…go back just a smidgeon,” eventually culminating in “Yes. There. Do. Not. Move.” She has never used a measuring tape since the day she first empirically verified all of my efforts in that manner. “Damn,” she would say. “That’s like maybe a 32nd of an inch from dead on, if even that.”
When I exercise this ability, my eyes dart back and forth quickly to assess multiple visual distances as simultaneously as possible. When all is said and done, however, it is not my eyes that have the final say. It is my BODY. When a center or a desired point of location in space is touched by me or anyone close to me, I experience with relief a sudden, subtle loosening of my muscles from the top of my head to the base of my spine, a release of tension hitherto unfelt, and a letting go of the breath I have been unaware of holding. I feel a harmonic vibration of excitement in my own center and a giddy sense of joy in my chest that sings of rightness and truth. I experience an inner certainty that makes me momentarily want to clap or pump my fist. This is my personal embodied knowing.
I experience the same kind of somatically based emotional knowing when I “get” what a client, student, friend, or loved one is experiencing or struggling with. It has been an immeasurable boon in my work and relationships. I have yet to have the pleasure of undertaking a formal training in focusing (Gendlin, 1998), so that I might finely hone what Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense” and “felt shift”—those subtle, somatically based reactions we have in relationships and experiences that can provide such a wealth of information and insight about ourselves and others. Nor have I been through advanced workshops in somatic experiencing (Levine & Mate, 2010), where I could explore amazing ways of helping traumatized clients fully complete and experience their hitherto stifled somatic manifestations of trauma and thus heal more comprehensively.
I am convinced that such trainings and experiences—which are certainly on my “bucket list”—would provide wonderful containers for this weird knack of mine in the contexts that I would most love to employ it. That ability has certainly bloomed while being part of the heart-centered, earth-honoring community that gathers regularly at the Crows Nest Center for Shamanic Studies in Michigan, where we practice using the NGS (Smith, 2007), aka the intuitive guidance system, under the gentle mentorship of C. Michael Smith. Moreover, it has flourished also in my own beloved Earth Traditions community and the deep spiritual work we do, in the presence of people whose authenticity and sincerity make my body sing.
The idea I will attempt to articulate here is (perhaps deceptively) simple. To me, this inner somatic knowing holds an incredibly powerful and important key to so many aspects of existential-humanistic Psychology, transpersonal psychology, somatic psychotherapy, mythic ways of living and being, and spirituality. I can only speak from my own personal lived experience, of course.
The question of whether our lives and activities have inherent meaning that is able to be discovered or whether meaning is instead constructed or created as a uniquely human endeavor is resolved and lived in how my body opens or closes in the manner I have described above. For example, when I am doing work that awakens and inspires others, I experience bodily truth. If I force myself into an administrative role far removed from this “hands-on” connection with others, I feel easily fatigued, closed, listless, and frankly apathetic. My body does not sing.
I have learned so much about myself through such experiences. Meaning is thus experienced somatically for me. It defines my “purpose” in that sense. I am also in state of what Carl Rogers might call congruence and genuineness when I am doing the work my body loves. I am following what Joseph Campbell might call my “bliss” in those moments (Campbell, Moyers, and Flowers, 1988). I am in a state of “I-Thou” connection with those with whom I am working (Buber & Kaufmann, 2010). To describe it in terms familiar in indigenous healing contexts, I am certainly feeling connected to the world in ways that fill my soul with Beauty—the recognition and embrace of that which is so necessary for recovery from the soul loss engendered by traumas and losses.
As I write these words, I suddenly realize with joy that my “knack”—my body’s blissful reaction to “rightness”—is in fact its natural and organic response to being in the presence of Beauty.
When over the long term we disconnect from Beauty, we are vulnerable to soul loss. Somatically, this manifests in chronic tension, fatigue, and weariness. Psychologically, we can be apathetic, depressed, anxious, or neurotic. Could psychosis stem from extreme isolation from Beauty? Or, conversely, could it be the natural human expression of an attempt to encompass its most raw forms? In a transpersonal sense, when chronically isolated from any I-Thou connection to an Other, our bodies could feel like fleshy traps rather than instruments for detecting and embracing Beauty in its myriad forms. In any event, we then feel lost, wandering in in the wilderness until our feet find a path that is uniquely ours, perhaps experiencing mysterious helpers along the way that we may not initially recognize as such. What if our bodies themselves are the doors that open where once there were only walls, as Campbell was fond of saying?
Of course, we NEED the chaos, the confusion, the anxiety, the whole experience of being lost in the wilderness, the disconnection. Such experiences fine-tune our bodies to know the difference between what is truth for us and what is not. Perhaps in some instances, depression, anxiety, and even psychosis are the birth cocoons for bodies that KNOW even more deeply.
By effortfully and intentionally paying attention to our somatic reactions, we might eventually come to do so effortlessly and intuitively. We may simply not be in the habit of doing so! It is here that Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy can be useful—particularly mindfulness-based approaches. Mindfulness can help us notice what our bodies are doing in response to different life situations, leading to greater self-awareness and freedom through having access to an increased range of choices. Too often, however, the work stops there and a sort of impartial dissociation from the body could be the unfortunate result. Mindfulness needs to be paired with full, intentional acceptance and embrace of what the body is feeling. At that point, we may zestfully engage in authentic existential living. In that respect, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy may well have the right idea.
Tragically, we tend instead to immerse ourselves in distractions from authentic somatic experience. Bombarded by a riot of input from increasingly isolative technologies, if we chance to hear or see something that fleetingly reminds us of a painful part of life experience, we might indulge in our favorite substance or technology addictions to numb out and avoid it, instead of experiencing the full sweetness of the sadness and the lessons and opportunities it offers.
I am reminded here of Jung’s advice in a letter to a depressed friend to surround himself daily by objects he deemed beautiful. Perhaps we ourselves can start by simply noticing how our bodies respond to any number of objects and situations in our lives, and then accepting, embracing, and living into those feelings fully.
Body awareness IS self-awareness. Rumi said, “Let the beauty we are be what we do”. Our bodies are doors that open to knowing and living that beauty.
Buber, M. & Kaufmann, W. (2010). I and thou. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books.
Campbell, J.; Moyers, B. Flowers, B. (1988). Joseph Campbell and the power of myth with Bill Moyers. New York, NY: Doubleday and Company.
Gendlin, E, (1998). Focusing-oriented psychotherapy: A manual of the experiential method. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Levine, P. & Mator, G. (2010). In an unspoken voice: How the body releases trauma and restores goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Smith, C. M. (2007). Jung and Shamanism in dialogue. Bloomington, IN: Trafford Publishing.
-- Drake Spaeth