Sunday, July 17, 2016


In dreams there was always a sense of a world behind the world, the world as it was in raw code before the brain sorted it and transformed it into what we call "reality."  Everyone told me I was nuts.  But now, now, I feel it.  I feel as though I’d just discovered that I am wearing red shoes and can click the heels together.

Mark Johnson’s “The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding” turns out to be a crystallization of a point of view that I used to think was a form of humanism that I’d worked around to radical inclusion, which I called “everythingism” to mock the whole idea of “isms.”  Sometimes I called it “scientific mysticism”, the kind of thought evoked by galaxies or the cleverness of microbes.  Some call it “Scientific Atheism”, because they can’t tear their minds away from the theism/atheism dichotomy.

Johnson calls his thought embodied meaning or sometimes immanent meaning.  It seems to enable what I call “sacrality,”  the overwhelming feeling that can come upon a person suddenly and that is named and described various ways, though it’s not quite describable in words.

This is Barbara Ehrenreich’s description in "Living with a Wild God":  “The world flamed into life … Something poured into me and I poured into it … It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all the things at once.  Every mundane object in the street and the shop windows around her gave off a blinding glow. She had no sense of being different from the effulgence — she was it and it was she. The “only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria.”

This next version is from Madelon Sprengnether’s book, Great River Road: Memoir and Memory”.  "I'd been sitting quietly after a Sunday meeting service at the Franciscan monastery I sometimes attend when suddenly I felt a sensation of warmth and illumination.  It was as if someone had flipped an interior light switch.  This feeling was not uncomfortable.  Rather, it felt ordinary and natural.  It was just there--something like waking to the sound of birds, the difference being that my awareness of outside and inside had vanished.  As if someone had opened a door or lifted the bars of a cage.  I wasn't frightened by this transformation.  Instead I felt pleased and curious.

I got up from my seat, walked to the entrance of the building, greeted my friends and chatted with them, all the while aware of my unusual state of being.  I was still myself, recognizable to others, and familiar with my environment.  Yet something subtle had changed.

This was nothing like taking drugs--speed, valium, grass--all of which I'd experienced at one point or another in my life.  I was completely myself, yet also not myself.  I drove home in this curious state and then sat in my car in my own driveway, reluctant to do anything that might disturb whatever was happening.  By now, I felt that I was in some kind of field of radiance--as if light were dancing through me into the grass, trees and sky of my own front yard.

'If this is what it's like to die,' I thought, 'then it's all right.'

Just as suddenly as this experience arrived, it left.  Still sitting in my car, I felt that the light switch had been turned off.  I didn't feel bad--as if coming down after a high--but rather that I'd returned to my ordinary way of being.  I'd experienced something extraordinary--and then it was gone.”

These are intense and rather exceptional instances of real experiences previously claimed by ”religious” institutions and credited to their saints.  But Johnson has a different language system for them based on embodiment.  Here are principles derived:

1.  There is no radical mind/body separation.
2.  Meaning is grounded in our bodily experience.
3.  Reason is an embodied process.
4.  Imagination is tied to our bodily processes and can also be creative and transformative of experience.
5.  There is no radical freedom.
6.  Reason and emotion are inextricably intertwined.
7.  Human spirituality is embodied.

Listed in this bare bones way, (remember that Billy Collins poem that begins the video I linked in the last post), these statements seem argumentative to the point of madness, which is pretty much the way T is seen by people who deny the reality of their bodies by flying away to equations and history.  The website where I found the descriptions of intense immanence was originally meant to reconcile art with psychoanalysis.  Now it’s struggling to reconcile psychoanalysis with neurology, which in my opinion is a better use of their energy.  Art can take care of itself.

But so far they’ve been unaware of the embodiment research.  They consider spiritual events to be a form of dissociation: maybe “hemispheric synchrony” or “temporal lobe transience.”  One sophisticate declares, “In my study of poets who have had dissociative experiences (Victor Hugo, for instance, during his exile on Jersey), there is often a reaction against the old religion and a sense of mission to create a better one. I had no conversion experience, only the desire to get that feeling back again.” 

Embodiment thought has nothing to do with religious institutions, so why would it suggest a conversion from one institutional dogma to another?  It is entirely outside the conventional, logic-based Enlightenment system as well as the millennial supernatural claims privileging adherents in the Western world.  Johnson’s term for this latter is “propositional thought.”  Propositions are not far from dogmas.

I come to embodiment through through theatre, Blackfeet, animals, and formal seminary training, which gave me vocabulary but not for embodiment thought.  Now I fall upon Johnson’s terms and phrases with glee.  “The origin of meaning in organism-environment coupling: a nonrepresentational view of mind”, “qualitative dimensions of movement”, “image schemas”, “primary intersubjectivity”, “vitality affects”, “the grounding of meaning” — I haven’t mastered all these terms yet, but finding them is an experience of recognition rather than the usual struggle to master multisyllabic Latinate words.

Maybe this is because my seminary years (1978-82) were right in the middle of this body of thought as it developed.  But I did not come to it through courses or any professors.  (In fact, they actively suppressed this thought path.)  I was reading the metaphor books and absorbed their “frame” by myself.  Fascinating as it was, I was not emotionally gripped by these materials until 2006 when I began to correspond with T. because he was not theorizing — he was just doing it outside any academic, publishing, medical, authorization, political group.  He was another case of recognition.  He was an “embodiment.”

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson co-wrote “Metaphors We Live By” (1980) which is a major classic in cognition and “Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind” which continues that line of reflection as do other books separately and together.  There are other people. (almost all men, at least the ones who are promoted.)  Here’s a George Lakoff clip that explains why thought is physical and every word is both symbolic and neurologically physical.  This is the information that mended the split between physical and mental.

What I was after — still am, ultimately — was not theory but practice.  I had several times performed “services” with Unitarians that broke through to a different level than just acknowledgement while sitting in pews.  I didn’t know how it happened.  I wanted to be able to do it purposely.  (T. had the same interest.  Not in church.)  I think this embodiment frame is the one that will go there.

No comments: