“We know more than we can tell”: Why embodied knowledge matters

How do you recognise your friend in the street? How do I know how to ride a bike? How come some people have savoir-faire and others are clueless? How does intuition work? The short answer is embodied knowledge. Even though you’ve probably never heard of it, embodied knowledge underpins something like 95% of your thinking (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999).

Information enters our consciousness on a ‘need to know’ basis and most of our everyday behaviour happens at the very edge of awareness. Some of that subconscious thinking inevitably draws on knowledge and beliefs about the world, but you don’t have easy access to that huge data bank: “We know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1966).

Some knowledge – for example that Paris is the capital of France – is immediately available. This is typically called explicit or propositional knowledge and can be expressed formally in “words and numbers, scientific formulae, codified procedures or universal principles” (Quintas & Jones, 2002). But a vastly greater store of knowledge is tacit, practical and less accessible. Skills held as tacit knowledge are taught through observation, imitation, and practice. Crucially, this knowledge is embodied. Tanaka, drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, defines it as “a type of knowledge in which the body knows how to act” (2013). Sport offers some great examples. A basketball player has no time to consciously evaluate all the options before making a move: They rely on “court sense”, the ability to “take in and comprehend all that is happening around him or her” (Gladwell, 2006).

shadow of boy on seascape

shadow of boy on seascape

Embodied knowing can be extraordinarily powerful. Berenson, a 20th century art historian, could identify forged works of art using embodied knowing (Hoving, 1996). He’s not unique and many top ‘fakebusters’ work the same way. Fakebusters like Berenson are unable to specify how they knew something was a copy, but would simply say that their “stomach felt wrong” or they “felt woozy and off balance” (Hoving, 1996).

Most of can’t do what those fakebusters can, but we can tap into our embodied knowing. We all occasionally have a bodily sensation that’s meaningful. Maybe you have a bad feeling about someone, butterflies in your stomach or you just ‘got out of bed the wrong side’ this morning. These sensations are often what Gendlin calls a ‘felt sense’ and they hold embodied knowledge about how things are for you right now.

Even though I’ve been researching embodied knowing for over a decade, I’ll never fully understand it; the research is growing too fast. Academia.edu, a research website, currently lists over 329,000 papers that mention ‘embodied knowing’ and almost every discipline you can think of refers to it. Although fully comprehending embodied knowing is probably impossible, I’ve started identifying some of the key features. Even if I can’t explore the entire territory, at least I can make the first sketch map of this extraordinary landscape.

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Trees, climate change and mental health

The UK Govt. Committee on Climate Change proposes that we triple the annual number of trees planted. Let’s do it! Planting more trees will not only have a significant impact on carbon emissions, but would also directly improve mental health.

Research consistently shows that trees have a wide range of positive impacts on mental well-being.

  • Having more trees around elicits positive emotions (Hull and Harvey 1989) and has been associated with improved social interaction (Kweon et al. 1998).
  • Greener urban areas have fewer crimes, less street violence and lower levels of aggression in the home (Kuo and Sullivan 2001).
  • Just having a view of trees from your office window reduces the negative impact of work stress (Leather et al. 1998) and improves cognitive functioning (Wells, 2000).
Looking up through trees at blue sky

Trees for life

All these benefits, and I haven’t even mentioned the potential impact of improving biodiversity! As Beccy Speight, the chief executive of the Woodland Trust, said, “There is a potential win-win here.”

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Charles Eisenstein interview

I was delighted to interview Charles Eisenstein as part of the Embodiment Conference, 2018. The interview has recently been released as a podcast and this was the first time I’d sat and listened to it. I initially heard how his ideas echo those I’m already familiar with; the voice of Deep Ecology, notably Joanna Macy, and ideas that the spiritual activist Starhawk has explored. I was playing philosophical bingo, ticking off ideas I have on my ‘embodied ecology’ list. I realized that I wasn’t really listening to what Charles was saying, how he’s taking those familiar ideas and reworking them. So I’m going to drop all my preconceptions here, and come to Charles’ words with a beginners ear.

Embodiment Podcast

Charles Eisenstein identifies the ‘Story of Separation’ that has prevailed for centuries. It’s that sadly familiar story that divides to rule: It drives a wedge between humans and nature and splits sacred spirit from ‘profane’ body. But a new story is arising that will transcend the old dualities and allow us to discover the true community of human and nature.

A deeper awareness of our embodiment is fundamental to this new story: The body is not “a flesh robot”! Charles speaks of the “relational function” that deeper embodiment opens us to, pointing out that “You are the totality of your relationships”. This belief leads him to challenge the consensus approach to climate change campaigning. Instead of emphasizing the increasing potential for disaster – a fear based strategy – he focuses on developing a “participatory mindset” that would reveal the fundamental connection between humans and the rest of nature. “What do we serve as beings on this Earth?” That service comes from love, not fear.

We also talked about the spiritual dimension of activism. Charles emphasized the need to work on ourselves and how that inner work mirrors our outer relational engagement. He’s interested in the foundational “ground conditions that give rise to the world destroying machine”. There are numerous ways to respond to that question and these invite us to ask “What is my call to service?” We can draw on our intuition, our “embodied orientating system”, to help answer that question.

Charles is refreshingly comfortable with not knowing. Accepting that “I don’t know” allows us to be with the “vacuum of humility”, and opens a space that allows for creative responses. He has a very Taoist approach: Rather than trying to make yourself change, “give attention to what wants to happen”, and let “changes come from that”.

You can hear the full interview.

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Is therapy political?

I’ve just given a presentation at a local college about ‘Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Change’, an organization I’m a member of. The subsequent discussion highlighted that what I’ve always taken for granted – that therapy is political – is by no means self evident.

hands linked in a network

Those who were around in the late 1960s may remember the rallying call that “the personal is political”. That phrase isn’t much used today but retains its power for me. Years ago I rather cynically wondered if therapy was just a way to patch people up so that they could get back to serving a dysfunctional system. I don’t think that’s true in general, but we need to be aware of the possibility.

Mindfulness is a disturbing example of how a powerful therapy can be used to serve a dysfunctional system. I’m a big fan of mindfulness, but it’s sometimes used to ‘manage’ the stress felt by people pressured by the unreasonable demands of a big corporation.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World the masses are kept in check with daily doses of a drug called soma. Soma dissolves away any concerns someone might have about human rights or freedom. One character is puzzled about why a friend worries about such things:

“why you don’t take soma when you have these dreadful ideas of yours. You’d forget all about them. And instead of feeling miserable, you’d be jolly. So jolly.”

Instead of soma we have retail therapy. And what else I wonder? How many Doctors prescribe antidepressants to people who actually just need a decent job or better social support?

I could go on, as there are myriad ways in which therapy is political. Looking back over this blog, it’s a theme that comes up repeatedly without me ever being explicit about it. It feels like a core belief; something that’s so ‘obvious’ to me that I never bothered to question it. And now? While I’m grateful for the opportunity to look at my belief that therapy is political, I hold it as deeply now as I ever have.

Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Change

Related posts:

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The Connected Self

“No man is an island”, wrote John Donne and his poetic insight is borne out by research. In the West, we think the self is somehow enclosed with the body, separate from other selves. This sense of independence is sometimes idealised, but also carries a seed of despair. As Orson Welles said, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone”. It’s not hard to expose this as a Western fantasy.

Emotions are contagious. Most of us have had the experience of catching a friends laughter. You’re with some mates and one of them finds something hilariously funny. Before you know it, you’re all laughing, even though you might have no idea what’s so funny! Something similar happens when we smile or a frown. Try smiling more today and I bet you’ll find other people mirroring you. Some of this is probably due to mirror neurons, which are brain cells that fire in sympathy when we see someone behaving in a certain way (Ferrari and Rizzolatti). That’s part of the process but we’re far from fully understanding emotional contagion. What we do know is that it’s widespread.

Emotional contagion is vital to my work as a therapist as it allows me to get a deep empathic sense of how it is for my client in that moment. It’s a three stage process. First, I’m being sensitive to my clients emotional state. Second, my bodymind is responding to that state via emotional contagion: I’m picking up their emotional state and unconsciously reproducing it myself. Third, I’m sensing into how that feels. It’s as if my bodymind becomes an embodied mirror for my client. The danger here is that I might get too caught up in my client’s emotional world: I need to manage my emotional state so that I can be both fully empathetic and centred. Mirroring my client’s emotional state and staying centred can be deeply therapeutic. By embodying that centred state I reflect to them how that might feel and emotional contagion will help them feel centred too.

Two men waking in a field on a summers day

‘Walk and Talk’ ecotherapy

Therapists Elaine Hatfield and Richard Rapson note that anyone can usefully apply this same skill in their everyday relationships:

“By attending to this stream of tiny moment-to-moment reactions, people can and do ‘feel themselves into’ the emotional landscapes inhabited by their partners” (1993).

I’d flag up a couple of take-always from this research. First, it challenges the myth that that we are all self-contained individuals. Second, once we recognise that emotional contagion exits, we can use it to make our everyday interactions more empathic.

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Reap the Benefits of These Often Overlooked Self-Care Practices

To welcome in the New Year, I’m offering this very appropriate guest post from Cheryl Conklin of Wellnesscentral.info


Are you taking proper care of yourself? While much is made of self-care these days, many people don’t understand it. Self-care is more than getting an occasional massage or indulging in a good bar of chocolate now and then. Self-care means tending your physical and emotional essentials so you can be your best.

Stress takes a toll

We live in a culture that not only provides plenty of stress, but in some ways we embrace it as a matter of life. Unfortunately, we pay for chronic stress with the toll it takes on our bodies and minds. Stress is linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and chronic stress appears to often correlate with the development of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression. Chronic stress in the workplace can cause employees to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking alcohol or abusing drugs. If you’re constantly feeling stressed out because of work, be sure to find healthy strategies that will help you handle stress, such as getting enough sleep at night, setting boundaries and participating in healthy hobbies. If you have a dog, spend some time playing or hanging out with your pooch. Although you already know how special your four-legged friend is, you may not realize just how much dogs can relieve stress and anxiety in their human companions, particularly if you are suffering from a mental health condition like depression.

Joyful woman in woods

Get sufficient sleep

Sleeping may not seem like part of a self-care plan, but without good sleep your mental wellness suffers. Thrive Global points out insufficient sleep is linked to anxiety, depression, negative thought patterns and emotional vulnerability. Basically, your brain goes into a mode of wariness, leaving you punchy and compromising rational thoughts and behaviors. If you suffer with sleep deprivation, improving sleep hygiene is important and simple. Start by setting a schedule for when you go to bed and when you get up in the morning and stick to it. Your body will start regulating itself with the routine. Avoid exercising four hours before bedtime since invigorating activity can keep you awake.

Set boundaries

Do you have trouble saying “no”? Sometimes this little, two-letter word can make a big difference in our mental well-being. The Mighty describes setting boundaries as the “ultimate test in self-care.” There are many reasons people struggle with saying no, from a fear of disappointing others to avoidance of hassles to a dislike of conflict. Whatever your reason, learn to take up for yourself. Instead of sacrificing your time and energy when it’s at a premium, exercise your right to say no.

Enjoy a hobby

Time spent on a hobby might seem like a frivolous endeavor, but a well-chosen pastime can be a boon to mental health. Consider a healthy hobby including gardening, which can help lower stress levels, boost self-esteem and increase dexterity and strength. Or take up cooking and focus on finding nutritious, delicious, budget-friendly recipes. Engage in a mindfulness-oriented exercise program like meditation and yoga, both of which can improve your coping skills, help reduce stress, and build strength and energy. You can even set aside a place in your home that’s distraction-free where you can practice in peace. Whatever hobby you choose, just make sure you set aside sufficient time so you can make it a normal part of your self-care routine.

Do for others

Another important part of self-care many people miss out on is volunteering. Even if it sounds counter-intuitive, doing for other people can play a vital role in taking care of your own needs. Whether it’s helping with a fundraiser, assembling care boxes for people in developing countries or walking dogs at the animal shelter, performing charitable acts is good for you. Volunteering can lower stress levels, reduce feelings of depression and lower blood pressure. It can even improve your outlook on life and it doesn’t seem to matter what charity you choose, so select something you’re passionate about.

Good self-care is pretty simple, yet many important points are often overlooked. Get enough sleep, set boundaries, participate in a hobby, and do things for others. You’ll feel better embracing these paramount aspects of self-care.

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Is the Universe Conscious?

Is everything at least a little conscious? It may sound crazy, but this idea, known as panpsychism, has a long and reputable history. Panpsychism was pretty much dismissed by 20th Century science, but it’s making something of a comeback. Some of the most respected names in philosophy were panpsychists: Spinoza (1632–77), Leibniz (1646–1716), Schopenhauer (1788–1860) and Whitehead (1861–1947) for example. William James (1842–1910), sometimes called the “Father of American psychology”, also supported panpsychism.

Tam Hunt’s recent post about panpsychism on the Scientific American blog (5/12/18) quickly promoted a critique. Joshua Tan points out that while Hunt’s theory is fascinating, it’s not science (11/12/18). Tan is right of course: Hunt’s ideas are simply speculation and there’s no evidence for panpsychism. So why have generations of thinkers bothered with it?

Philosophy and neuroscience continue to struggle with the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness: “The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect” (Chalmers). The hard problem rests on the assumption that consciousness emerges in some mysterious way from matter. This position is sometimes called the ‘discontinuity theory’: At some point in evolution consciousness comes into existence out of nowhere. Assuming for a moment that God didn’t create consciousness, how could this possibly happen?

A map of neural circuits in the human brain.

A map of neural circuits in the human brain. © Human Connectome Project

While conventional approaches haven’t made much progress with the hard problem, some neuroscientists, (notably Christof Koch), suggest that panpsychism offers an elegant and simple solution. Continuity theory proposes that consciousness exits everywhere but only becomes recognized as such when it reaches an advanced stage of development. On this model, a kind of primitive, distributed consciousness has existed since the Big Bang, but until carbon-based life developed sensory systems it wasn’t apparent. Consciousness is like gravity: Every atom has a very small amount, so it’s effectively undetectable, but on larger scales it becomes increasingly apparent. As creatures evolved the ability to represent aspects of the world, conscious of things appeared. Sometime later self-awareness emerged and eventually we began to wonder about the hard problem of consciousness.

Neither the continuity nor the discontinuity theories are scientific. Given that neither of them can be proved or disproved, what is the rational stance to take on this question? Max Velmans, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of London, concludes that the continuity theory is “more elegant” (2013) and is sympathetic to panpsychism. I suggest we apply one of the sharpest tools of reason to this question: Occam’s razor, sometimes called the law of economy, states that “plurality should not be posited without necessity”. Occam recommends that if we are given two equally plausible explanations, we should choose the simpler alternative. Panpsychism may not be scientific, but nether is the alternative theory. Arguably a reasonable person will prefer the simple elegance of panpsychism to the suggestion that consciousness mysteriously pops out of nowhere.

If panpsychism is true, there are significant implications for the kind of New Animism proposed by, amongst others, Graham Harvey, David Abram and myself; but that’s a discussion for another blog post!

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Embodied Ecology: A Relational Vision

One core principle lies at the heart of embodied ecology: We are relational earthbodies, fundamentally intertwined with the more-than-human-world. Almost every thinker I’ve discussed on this blog speaks that same truth in their own voice. Let’s listen to a few.

Charles Eisenstein talks about interbeing: “my being partakes of your being and that of all beings. … our very existence is relational” (2013). Philip Shepherd writes that “ the body knows … that it belongs to the world, expresses the world, is held by the world and shares in all that happens to the world” (2017). According to Glen Mazis we are earthbodies, “where flesh is not mine, but of the planet’s of which I am part”, (2002), while David Abram affirms that we’re “corporeally embedded” in a “living landscape” (1996).

Seagull flying over waves

© Author

Philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin concluded that we need “a new conception of the living body” as “a vastly larger system” than that proposed by medical science (1997). Gregory Bateson said something similar: “the mind … is not limited by the skin” . He adds, that “there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem” (1972). Merleau-Ponty, arguably the father of embodied thought, expressed it beautifully:

“As I contemplate the blue of the sky … I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it ‘thinks itself within me,’ I am the sky itself as it is drawn together and unified, and as it begins to exist for itself;“ (1962).

Neuroscientists have come to the same conclusion. Francisco Varela and his colleagues conclude that: “organism and environment enfold into each other and unfold from one another in the fundamental circularity that is life itself” (Varela et al., 1991).

How is it then, that our culture has got so confused? We still listen the story of separation told by Descartes and Plato. For Mazis it’s “diabolic logic: me versus you; us versus them… It rationally divides and opposes that which is one.” (2002). Eisenstein names the illusion more prosaically: “You are a separate individual among other separate individuals in a universe that is separate from you as well” (2013).

We have to wake up from this illusion of separation, but how? At least part of this process of healing is to become more aware of our embodiment. Paul Linden suggests that “spending time learning to sense the body with fullness and immediacy would move people toward sensing themselves as part of the web of life”. Could this enable us “to feel part of a living planet and take responsibility for the ways humans affect the global environment?” (1994).

I can quote from many others who have come to a similar conclusion. Shepherd, for example, identifies how practices that bring you back to the body “carry you beyond the wound of separation” (2017). This emerging field is sometimes called ‘ecosomatics’, which Nala Walla defines as “The art of sensing the ‘inner body’ as a way to connect to the greater social and planetary (Gaiac) bodies” (2009).

Ecosomatics is a more refined expression of what I once called Sacred Ecology: “a deep knowing of the sacredness of the Earth that is more than just an intellectual awareness of the facts & figures about species decimation & habitat loss. It is a feeling of unity with the Earth that we have in our gut” (1996). My current project is to explore the kind of practices Linden, Shepherd, Walla and others propose: These are embodied pathways of connection that can awaken us from the dualistic dream that is destroying the World.

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The European Journal of Ecopsychology

I’ve written a couple of articles for The European Journal of Ecopsychology (EJE) in the past and I’m delighted to say that I’m a member of the new Editorial Team. The Journal is peer-reviewed and explores “the synthesis of psychological and ecological ideas from a variety of perspectives”. The new Editorial Team will preserve the ethos and approach of the Journal, which I believe is unique.

When I was looking for somewhere the publish my MSc research, I had several quite challenging criteria to meet. Most importantly, I wanted my work to be as accessible as possible to the ecotherapy community. Most academic journals charge high fees to read published articles, which means that unless you have a University account access is difficult. The EJE currently publishes everything online for free.

Cover of The European Journal of Ecopsychology

Because the paper I wanted to publish was based on an MSc dissertation, it was quite long – far longer than most journals would accept. I could have shortened it, loosing what I felt were useful contributions to the field. Paul Stevens, who was until recently the EJE Editor, accepted my submission as it stood and none of the review panel required any cuts.

Ultimately of course it’s the material published in a journal that make it special. Here again the EJE stands out. For example, the current issue includes:

  • Brian Taylor on The generosity of birds: Ecopsychology, animism, and intimate encounter with wild others, and
  • The seven pathways to Nature Connectedness: A focus group exploration by Ryan Lumber, Miles Richardson & David Sheffield.

Previous volumes have been devoted to topics like ecopsychology and the psychedelic experience (Volume 4, 2013) or queering ecopsychology (Volume 3, 2012). These are fascinating subjects, but they are rarely explored in academic journals. The EJE is exciting and innovative; it pushes the boundaries and engages with areas of ecopsychology that might otherwise be ignored.  I’m delighted to pick up the baton from Paul and carry the EJE into the future. I hope you can join me on the journey!

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Philip Shepherd

How can we escape from the heady over-analytic thinking that our culture is caught up in? Philip Shepherd proposes a path to “radical wholeness” that’s grounded in the deep wisdom of the body (Shepherd, 2017).

Western culture has long prioritized abstract rational thinking over what we might call embodied knowing or embodied intelligence. The abstract mode of relating to the world sets us apart from everything else: It sets a clear and inviolable boundary between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, between me as ‘subject’ and everything else as ‘object’. I’ve referenced many thinkers in past posts who agree that this is nonsense: Amongst others, Eugene Gendlin, Andy Clark, Merleau-Ponty, David Abram, Glen Mazis and Charles Eisenstein.

Philip adds some valuable insights to this ongoing embodied revolution. He explores our sensory capacity, noting the inadequacy of the Western model of five senses and proposes that our primary sense is our ability to sense wholeness; this is what he calls holosapience. Wholeness is not something we need to strive to achieve; it’s not a destination. Paradoxically perhaps, wholeness is both unknowable and fundamental to our being. We cannot objectivity know wholeness, but we can feel it, hence the importance of holosapience. We need to come to rest in the body so that we can be fully present to wholeness and this is facilitated by the grounded sensitivity which forms our embodied intelligence.

fast water flow over rocks

© Author

For me, Philip Shepherd’s special contribution is to provide simple and powerful ways for us to actually experience the reality of our embodied intelligence. One practice struck me as being especially pertinent right now. I’m preparing for a series of public discussions with several thinkers – including Philip – whose work I admire, so I might be forgiven for wanting to present myself well. But there’s a danger that I might slip into what Philip calls ‘presentation mode’, a carefully monitored way of speaking that’s intended to make me sound impressive! We’re all familiar with presentation mode as we use it a lot of the time. It’s driven by our anxiety about not knowing, about sounding like we’re not in control. Philip describes it as speaking from the sternum and suggests moving our awareness to the back of the chest instead. When I try this I sense a shift in how I relate to what I’m saying: It feels more open, grounded and available.

I’m aiming to forgo presentation mode in my forthcoming discussions, choosing grounded sensitivity and presence instead. If you’ve signed up to the Embodiment Conference, you can be the judge of how that works out in practice: I’ll be in conversation with Philip Shepherd on 15th November.

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