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Embodied Writing and Thinking

rebecca's research May 22, 2000

It is important to acknowledge the power of embodied writing and thinking to communicate experience in research. This section focuses on the value of body-based language, thought, and research to convey meaning and foster transformation.

In developing this dissertation I strive toward a writing style I call “embodied writing,” in which I utilize my whole being to discern the language most congruent with my experience of conducting and relating this research. Embodied writing is a creative process of opening to a stream of language that includes but is not limited to the intellect. At the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, research professor Rosemarie Anderson invites our academic community to develop work on spirituality and the body through the process of embodied writing. Anderson (1998a) writes:

“The conventional rigors of nineteenth and twentieth century scientific writing which honor objectivity from a third-person point of view have both facilitated and thwarted the clarity of scientific writing. It’s typically easier to find clear, resonant writing about the body in poetry and fiction, connection between the physical and mental being carried in metaphor and story. Certainly the literary tropes of metaphor and story as well as exposition are suitable for scientific writing. Our challenge . . . is to write clearly, confidently, and accurately about transformation while allowing the body to speak in its own language.” (p. 1)

One of my primary questions throughout this project has been: Who is writing about embodiment and how it manifests in one’s lived experience, since the topic does not appear in the literature on obesity and eating disorders? The authors who have had the greatest influence on my understanding of embodied writing and thinking are David Abram and Carol Christ, each of whom add breadth and clarity to the role of the written word. One of the most thought-provoking and compelling treatments of embodied writing can be found in David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous (1996).

The relationship between language and sensuality is primary to Abram’s (1996) discourse. While a complete description of his dialogue is beyond the scope of this study, I am struck by his alterations in language which communicate to me on a sensually different level than our common way of giving language to the same experience. For example, the author chooses the phrase ” . . . we live our own bodies . . . ” (p. 13) as opposed to the more typical “we live in our own bodies.” His usage is dynamic, active, and animate; it supports his premise that we live in an animate world, and that to language our world authentically calls for such a style of expression. I am sensually moved by the phrase “bodying-forth” (p. 74) as a representation of lived experience that affirms my visceral knowledge. With these words a physical connection is made in me between written words and body; Abram’s style of composition assists me in connecting more intimately with my own body sensations. As a writer on the body, I can think of no great ter service to my readers than to invite from my own body the sensual expression of words which have the ability to connect through written text with the body of the reader.

Abram (1996) is not writing about obesity or women specifically in his piece; nonetheless, in his discussions about his relationship with nature I am frequently surprised to find allusions to sources of nourishment, the bodily importance of voice, and other gems revealed in my own journey toward embodiment. While discussing his return to the active human world after having an extended encounter with nature, Abram writes, ” . . . I began to feel-particularly in my chest and abdomen-as though I were being cut off from vital sources of nourishment” (p. 25). The notion of a sustaining connection with the “more-than-human” world leads him to present the body as a permeable membrane readily exchanging information with its environment; what is consumed by the body appears to be significantly more diverse than the food we chew in our mouths. Both as recipient and participant, he says, “The body is my very means of entering into relation with all things” (p. 47). This statement affirms my own sense of embodiment.

Mine is a cyclical journey of connecting more deeply with my flesh and the Pacific Ocean and my bones and the cypress tree in my front yard. Each conversation prepares a threshold for the next. Although I may expect to feel anticipation and joy as I learn to feel my body, this process contains a paradox. To be aware of and give voice to my sensitivities after a lifetime of carefully protecting my self from their presence is, at first, terrifying. Rather than the delight and importance Abram attributes to life lived and expressed sensually, embodied experience may, at first embrace, bring up fears of confrontation, rejection, being too much, and being too sensitive in the obese and/or eating disordered woman. My unconsciousness from the neck down relieved me of the burden of knowing, much less expressing, the knowledge of what my sensing body perceived. Embodiment brings with it the paradox of the joy of relatedness and the fear of intimacy. Like his suggestion to “accept the invitation of gravity and settle back into the earth” (p. 272), I felt a choicelessness in my predicament. I had enough awareness to understand my previous stance was self-destructive and no longer tolerable, but letting go of the protection I felt from seeing the world a particular and safe way felt like letting go into a void – choice but no choice.

In an act of faith I let go and began to develop a trust in the organic life-world. I then realized Abram’s words for myself: “As we reacquaint ourselves with our breathing bodies, then the perceived world itself begins to shift and transform” (p. 63). The things I most feared—sensation, voice and intimate relationship—have liberated me from my isolation and my fleshy tomb. It is my body that engages, synthesizes, and informs all my relationships – human and “more-than-human.” Living my body is living.

My struggle with my body took a distinct turn when I began to view the encounter as a relationship. Abram (1996) would suggest that the turning point arose from a shift in my style of thinking: “It is a style of thinking then, that associates truth not with static fact, but with a quality of relationship” (p. 264). Not unlike some person-to-person (or adult-to-child) relationships, my adult relationship with my body began as troubled, with misunderstandings abounding. I could not understand what it wanted or why it acted the way it did. I felt betrayed, and my body was misunderstood and largely neglected. All my knowledge and experience with dieting theory, exercise physiology, and metabolism was useless to me until I changed my belief that I could overpower the will of my body with the sharpness of my intellect.

In order to achieve the dialogue that moved me toward health and well-being, I have had repeatedly to give up the illusion of control. The experimental scientific community, in its reliance on the assumption that we can predict and control our world by unlocking its secrets, suffers from the same illusion. Abram (1996) suggests it is possible for science to strive toward rigor while maintaining its relationship with the human and the organic life-world. Ecologically it seems imperative that I learn to honor my connection with those aspects of life I study with the intention of fostering an atmosphere of cooperation rather than victory. Whether I am investigating the human or the greater animate world, my work comes to life when I enter full-bodied into relationship with that which excites my curiosity. Through this embodied relationship I am gifted with breathing insights— whispers and hollers— with which I may birth a new story.

As stressed in the preceding section, stories are a critical source of information connecting people, places, beliefs, and time periods. Stories create relationships. Abram (1996) encourages a style of informing

. . . that strives to be faithful not to the written record but the sensuous world itself, and to the other bodies or beings that surround us… to explain is not to present a set of finished reasons, but to tell a story… a story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And “making sense” must here be understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. (p. 265)

In this manuscript I endeavor toward embodied writing with the hope to invoke greater breadth and depth to my story and the stories of others. While I am deeply moved to write in a maimer which links the lyrical voice with the scientific voice and grounds the intellect in the body, I am concerned that my choice of language will make my work appear unscientific. Christ (1997) discusses a similar concern regarding the conflict between her authentic expression and traditional scholarly writing. Coming to terms with her desire to communicate accurately, she describes her style of incorporating her lived experience into her writing, teaching, and research as “embodied thinking:”

Embodied thinking is an alternative to objective thought. When we think through the body, we reflect upon standpoints embedded in our life experiences, histories, values, judgments, and interests. Not presuming to speak universally or dispassionately, we acknowledge that our perspectives are finite and limited. Rather than being “subjective,” “narrowly personal,” ’’merely confessional,” ’’self-referential,” or “self- indulgent” (discrediting terms taken from the ethos of objectivity), embodied thinking enlarges experience through empathy. (p. 35)

Christ (1997) discusses Marxist theory, hermeneutic theory, and deconstructionism to set the groundwork for the argument that no thought or research can be divorced from the body of the thinker or researcher. In fact, she suggests that “the best scholarship always has been empathetic and embodied” (p. 36):

Empathetic scholarship draws on all the standard tools of research, including gathering historical data, careful attention to detail, analysis, criticism, concern for the truth We unmask the biases and the passions that are hidden in traditional scholarship, and we freely admit our own. (p. 35)

Furthering her own “deepest nonrational knowledge” requires Christ to develop methods for testing the accuracy o this knowledge for herself. She describes her healthy skepticism toward information that seems like a way of assuring herself that she can have things as she wants them. Embodied thinking comes with a conscious rigor to discern the accuracy of her “deepest non-rational knowledge” (Christ, 1997, p. 38).

Coming full circle in this discussion of transpersonal psychology and obesity, it is clear that broadening the view of health to a transpersonal perspective necessarily addresses spiritual emptiness which, according to Woodman (1980), is at the psycho­ spiritual root of female obesity. As Dossey (1996) suggests,

“The ultimate goal of transpersonal medicine is realizing one’s inherent completeness and divinity. Transpersonal medicine is, then, an invitation to see ourselves in a radically new way, and to take literally the reminders from every major religion that we are indeed divine…” (p. xii).

Transpersonal psychology also makes room for an investigation into non- traditional means, such as intentional group participation in sacred storytelling, for addressing the need of women to find meaning in their suffering and goodness and value in their female form and feminine power. According to Dossey, “Any medicine that does not honor and engage the transpersonal dimensions of human experience is limited and incomplete” (1996, p. xiii). I agree; the vast majority of research and treatment efforts directed at affecting the crisis of obesity in this nation are “limited and incomplete.” Transpersonal psychology as a field must recognize its responsibility to offer research which addresses the limitations of traditional views and provides data for debate, replication, and development of progressive theories on obesity and disordered eating. In support of that endeavor, this study assumes a transpersonal perspective toward health, acknowledges the notion of embodiment, and harnesses the power of feminine consciousness and sacred story in an attempt to mine the missing wisdom of women who are in the process of healing obesity and disordered eating for themselves.

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