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Functional Perspectives

Body and Mind

The Embodied Self

by John Lawson © 1998, 2008


"Who are you?" said the caterpillar...  "Explain yourself!"
"I can't explain myself, I'm afraid Sir,"
said Alice, "because I'm not myself, you see."

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

    If we think about the twentieth century, we can see that it was a period when a disturbed relationship with oneself and a crisis in personal identity were major themes in literature, art, social theory, psychology, music, architecture, and many other areas of cultural endeavor.  The writings of Kafka, Camus, Sartre, and so many others come to mind.  We think of the phenomenon of alienation and the critique of that phenomenon presented by diverse thinkers throughout a broad spectrum of social and political theory.  Indeed, for most of the last century, much creative inquiry grappled with the sense of despair, desperation, depression, impotence, and futility associated with being oneself in modern times.  And now, in the midst of a rapidly changing culture in which normalcy is more and more difficult to define, the level of alienation increases.  Many people have developed a sense of being more a part of "virtual" reality than of reality itself.  It is as if one were staring into a looking glass world.  All the while, however, behind the mirror, reality lurks; and behind the distorted reflection, there is a person.  But who is this person, and what does it mean to be oneself?

    Actually, to be oneself would seem to be the simplest and most natural thing in the world.  If we are in touch with ourselves and at home with ourselves, and if we express ourselves in a forthright and direct way, then we are genuine in our experience and behavior.  We function in an integrated and unified manner.  It is true that we must experience inner conflicts at times, due to the inevitable complexities of the human condition and the complications of life.  Yet these conflicts are not likely to threaten the foundations of our personal stability.  They need not endanger the security of our identity, for in such circumstances we have self-understanding and are capable of tolerating a certain degree of stress in the interest of getting to know ourselves better.  Naturally, we will reflect on our experience; the very existence of continuity in our relationship to ourselves is based on such reflection.  While most animals are more or less completely absorbed in the immediacy of living, human beings have the ability to step back and to focus their awareness on themselves.  This process, involving self-perception, results in the establishment of a conscious self-image.

    A problem arises, however, if our self-image is not grounded in reality.  Then, like a creation of the sorcerer's apprentice, it assumes a life of its own.  A blurred and false image of ourselves - anchored in disturbed self-perception - takes over.  The true substance that gives real meaning to our lives is lost.  As a consequence, we experience ourselves to be adrift.  Insecurity and anxiety prevail.  We feel a need to hold onto something or someone in order to achieve a sense of balance, to keep from falling.  Ironically, in our efforts to preserve our balance, we may grasp at the distorted self-image lurking in the mirror of our reflection.  It seems to be the one thing available to us.  We then become fixated on the image of ourselves, just as we have become alienated from the substance of ourselves.  Yet our self-image is disturbed and unsatisfactory.  Consequently, we may then set about to "improve" it in accordance with socially and culturally determined ideals.  In the marketplace of images, we look for one that will be suitable.  We try it on, wear it, and seek to mold ourselves in accordance with it, hoping that this will make us acceptable and that we will then gain the security that we lack.  However, in our rapidly changing world, a stable self-image - especially a false one - becomes difficult to maintain.  Images go out of fashion.  As a result, we become enmeshed in the process of more or less continuously "reinventing ourselves."  Life becomes a masquerade or a charade, and we become actors on a stage. 

    Something like the process just described occurs very commonly in our present social order.  No fiction, however, can adequately take the place of reality; no superficial image can make for a deeply satisfying life.  In order to live and be in touch with ourselves, we must go beneath the image.  This involves a process of self-discovery.  It is a substantial task, because it involves literally making contact with the substance of ourselves.  In an important sense, it means finding an answer to the question posed by the Caterpillar to Alice - "Who are you?"  In functional, bioenergetic terms, the answer to this question resides in the body.

    The living body is the source of our integrated personal awareness, and it is the basis for our clear identification with ourselves.  Naturally, we all have a self-image, a picture of who we are. This image acts as a compass that allows us to take our bearings in the sea of a changing world.  But to be reliable, the compass must accurately reveal the true coordinates of our existence.  To use another metaphor, the challenge that we face is to anchor ourselves in the depths of our genuine experience.  We must be able to sense ourselves, to feel the flow of emotions and sensations within us.  We must be grounded in the security of our body.  We must have a clear, gut feeling of who we are.  We must experience the basic drives and needs which - in their rythmicity and palpable presence - are an essential part of our nature.  Our needs for sex, love, nourishment, and human contact must be accepted as the well-springs of our being; and the integrated, unitary flow of our experience - rooted in our bodies from head to toe - must provide us with the security of our animal nature.  This basic security in being who we are is our birthright.  This birthright, however, cannot be claimed if we have lost or failed to gain the capacity to breathe and feel deeply, if we have immobilized ourselves so that the basic motility of our functioning is sacrificed. 

    The living body is not a machine, any more than the mind is a disembodied void.  The body has a spiritual and soulful quality when its natural functioning is not disturbed by patterns of chronic muscular tension (armoring) that habitually distort the flow of our impulses, perceptions, and emotions.  This is not to say that the capacity for self-control and self-restraint is inappropriate.  Rather, the truth is that without a grounded and vital sense of ourselves at a bodily level, we cannot effectively take responsibly for our actions and thoughts.  If we do not breathe deeply, we cannot feel deeply or perceive clearly.  Then we are lost.

    To discover who we are and establish a meaningful relationship with ourselves, we must gain the capacity to loosen and untie the knot of restricted functioning that binds us.  Like all knots, the knot of chronic muscular tensions that impede our functioning cannot be untied from the inside out.  The direction must be from the outside in, from the surface to the depth.  Beneath the surface, behind the façade, are conflicts.  These inner conflicts are born of the disappointment, frustration, and despair that have resulted from the failure of our true selves to find acceptance during the formative stages of our development.  A host of illusions must necessarily stand guard over the abandoned and rejected aspects of ourselves.  Of these illusions, I will mention only one, but I have found it to be very common.  It involves the idea that somehow, if we fashion a successful enough mask - if we are inventive enough in devising an acceptable self-image - we will ultimately gain the approval that will allow us finally to feel secure in ourselves.  Ironically, the converse is really the case.  The more successful we are at fashioning the mask - the more identified we become with a false image of ourselves - the less likely are we to face the insecurity that must surface as we establish contact with those elements of ourselves that have been abandoned and rejected.  The illusion is meant to protect us from the anxiety and despair that would emerge if we were to face the emptiness inside.  But the illusion imprisons us.

    The way out of this dilemma involves going beneath our cultivated
façade in order to work through the underlying conflicts that interfere with our healthy functioning.  We must learn how to breathe more deeply in order to feel more alive.  When we are successful in this endeavor, the result is that we are and feel ourselves to be - ourselves.  To be ourselves then no longer means adopting an adequate role or perfecting a self-image.  Rather, it means residing securely in our bodies and, therefore, in the world.  It is only in this way that terms like "basic security" and "ontological security" can take on real meaning.  This is so because, for humans, reality must be a human reality.  The reality of being human means being ourselves in an embodied way.  Life then becomes an adventure, and the human condition becomes a challenge.


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