The Fleshy Mind, Spirit, and Muse: How the Academy is Catching Up with Us


Three Clients Awakening
Let me tell you about three clients’ awakenings. Their stories reflect what scholars in various academic fields are at last catching onto: We think with the body. We create with the body. We meet our highest spiritual duty (dharma) with the body.

A client came to my studio last week. She beamed with a different
light. Brighter. Deeper.
Her family is facing some crises, and yet for the last month she has stayed indomitably true to her Muse
in the purest sense.

realize what you say is true about psychoanalysis” she said. “I could spend a long
time analyzing my childhood aspirations, but why? The other day, I
started to think, ‘I was supposed to be an artist when I was a child.’
Then, I stopped myself and I said, ‘I am an artist.'” Which she is. The
essay she completed this month is artful, reflective of her unique
mind’s way of patterning things together. It will be published, I’m
confident of that. It will be her first real published essay. And
there’s more to come.

Then she said, “I’m not really
interested anymore in what I could’ve been. Just in the past few days
I’ve realized, I’m becoming someone new. I don’t know who it is, and
that unknown is infinitely more exciting than who I could’ve been.”

She said she’s starting to feel the continuum between her flesh and space. The body, she said, it’s essential to everything. This
from a highly intellectual and once-skeptical person with whom I’ve
worked delicately for two years.

I’m fortunate to witness awakenings like this almost every week. Another client, recovering from breast cancer, has practiced Yoga As Muse consistently for the past year (we’ve worked together for over two). The other day, her voice on the telephone also beamed. Despite the surgery and radiation, her body is part and parcel of one awakening after another to her ability to navigate uncertainty and to follow her dharma no matter what arises.

Another client just started coming to my studio. Her quick mind teems with memories and ideas from her colorful – and semi-famous – background. Although four weeks ago she would’ve said she hated yoga, she was open to creating a simple Yoga As Muse sequence of postures and breath work. After two weeks of trying it, she said yesterday, “This stuff works.” A few movements and cycles of harnessed breath, and her sensory memories roll out. “And I’m not dreading the writing, which is huge!”

Each of them has awakened to their “body electric” (thank you, Uncle Walt, for that image). On one hand, the body electric is the body teeming with vital energy, oxygenated blood, and healthy neuronal activity. But the body electric also is the body plugged into the heart of who are in the truest sense, what we know to be true, and how we act in the world.

It’s been a long time coming, but various academic fields are catching on.

We think and intuit with the body.
The field of cognitive science has had an embodied revival in the past 15 years or so. Some of them have revived and re-cast the profound insights of philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty wrote a few essential books in the 1950s that turned upside down the long-held assumption that the mind receives input and does its intellectual thing without influence by the body. The mind influences the body, so the Cartesian story went from the 1630s forward, but the body does not influence the mind. In near-poetic language, Merleau-Ponty broke down that misnomer. He examined space, perception, and body in ways my client experienced for herself.

The work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff and cognitive scientist Mark Johnson especially brought into the academic parlance the phrase “embodied mind.” In their seminal book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenges to Western Thought (1999), they pick up where Merlea-Ponty left off. They argue convincingly that our capacity to reason and form metaphors stems from and is influenced by our bodily movement, sensory perception, and physiological functions. Professor of Philosophy Shaun Gallagher weaves “clinical neurology, laboratory neuroscience, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, analytic philosophy of mind…, and continental philosophy of mind…” in a brilliant, though dense book titled How the Body Influences the Mind.

They note that most cognitive scientists would agree with this assertion, too: We’re aware, most of us, of 5% of our thoughts at any given time. That 5% is what we use to construct our notion of reality, of beauty, of self. The other 95% of which we are not aware shapes the 5%. (And 5% is conservative.) that 95% of the mind has to do in part with our embodiment. The other 95% of the mind is not just some Freudian subconscious of repressed memories and images. The other 95% includes our heart beat, blood flow, breathing rate and quality, digestive grumbles, and more.

If that’s so, then my clients’ awakening with Yoga As Muse makes sense. The gut is part of the mind. The quality of blood flow and respiration mixes it up with how well and what we’re thinking. Intentional movement and breathing and meditation bring more ideas and images into the flashlight of awareness.

When awareness expands, a sense of expanded self follows.

We learn and create with the body. Our brain cells grow with the body.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, tells the story of a young girl tagged with “learning problems.” She couldn’t sit still. She couldn’t focus. Teachers asked her mother to get help. Her mother took her to a therapist. The therapist spoke with the girl for several minutes, and then asked the mother to step outside the room with him. Through a one-way window the two adults watched the girl. Within a couple of minutes, the girl got up and started moving and, ultimately, dancing around the room. “There’s nothing wrong with your daughter,” the therapist said. “Enroll her in a dancing school, and she’ll be fine.” The mother did, and the girl was. She flourished in school because she was allowed to get out of her desk and think with her body.

That little girl was Gillian Lynne who grew up to choreograph Cats and Phantom of the Opera among other big hits.

In my middle age, I’ve been surprised to realize that I, too, learn best when moving. This from a writer, a dust-minded thinker, a guy happy to sit on his duckus all day long tapping his keyboard. But why was I surprised? The painter always takes her body with her, Merleau-Ponty said. Indeed. So, too, does the writer.

And the brain scientists are catching on. Middle-aged neuroscientist Fred Gage runs several days a week to keep up his squash game with the twenty-somethings in his field. But he runs also because he knows that running creates more brain cells. Gage has been on the path of neurogenesis since the late 1990s (back when 9 out of 10 neuroscientists might have scoffed at the idea of the adult human brain creating more brain cells). In 1999, Gage and colleagues published a paper that concluded, “physical activity can regulate hippocampal neurogenesis, synaptic plasticity, and learning.” That was revolutionary stuff eleven years ago.

Exercise that raises the heart stimulates a portion of the limbic emotional brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible especially for memory. Certain studies have documented the hippocampus of severely depressed people and traumatized people. The neuronal activity is frighteningly barren. However, Gage’s study and others show that exercise can spawn new brain cells in a corner of the hippocampus called the dendate gyrus. “Synaptic plasticity” refers to the fact that exercise also creates more neuronal dendrites that allow for more synapses to fire away. (See journalist Barbara Strauch’s The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Brain, from which this account of Fred Gage comes.)

Gage should meet Joyce Carol Oates. Oates is arguably the United States’ most prolific writer with over 100 titles in poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and play wrighting to her credit. In an essay written for The New York Times several years ago, the wispy writer reflected on how she runs to revise her novels. The more entangled her creative mind gets in the morning, the longer she runs in the afternoon. She describes the benefits – how her imagination takes in the sensory details that become useful later, how her mind gets into a non-thinking and receptive state of flow, how the body’s rhythms work in tandem with the mind’s rhythms.

The Elephant Mind: We make moral decisions with feelings and, thus, with the body.

A small-bodied woman rides an elephant. With some skill, persistence, and practice, that woman can learn to move with the elephant. When the elephant gets shaken up or out of whack, the skilled rider can not so much tame the big-eared animal as much as work harmoniously with the elephant to get him back on track.

That image of a rider on an elephant is the controlling metaphor Jonathan Haidt uses in his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Haidt is associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. He’s interested in healthy emotions, morality, and even “the intuitive foundations of liberal and conservative worldviews.” (See his talk at a New Yorker symposium on the latter.) Haidt’s rider-elephant metaphor represents the relationship between the conscious rational mind and the emotional, intuitive, and embodied mind. In tandem with Lakoff’s and Johnson’s assertion of the 5%/95% aware/not aware ratio, Haidt’s metaphor suggests that the emotional, intuitive, and embodied mind – all part and parcel of the same big animal – constitutes most of the mind. The astute rider is not in control, per se (thereby suppressing emotions, etc.). The astute rider learns to become ever more aware of how the elephant mind works.

Thankfully, with the work of Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) and others, people in education and academics of various ilks are paying attention to the role emotions – and what yogis have called for centuries the emotional body – play in learning.

We meet our dharma with the body.
Believe it or not, academics have been discussing for several years “embodied spirituality.” Jorge N. Ferrer, of the California Institute of Integral Studies, San
Francisco, reviews the use and misuse of the phrase and lays out his own tenets for what it means. Those tenets (I paraphrase) include 1) recognizing that the body itself is a subject worthy of spiritual study; 2) integrating the relationship between matter and consciousness; 3) reviving sexuality and sensual pleasure as part of spiritual practice; 4) awakening of and through the body; 5) connecting the human body to earth’s body; 6) engaging in social relationships and activities.

So perhaps this practice will make sense to some of you:
1. Sit in a position so you feel comfortable but alert.
2. Bring your palms to where you sense your embodied center (e.g., your throat, chest, belly, hips).
3. Close your eyes and take three long breaths. Imagine the breath being directed to the palms.
4. With most conscious awareness focused on the embodied center, inquire, “What is calling me to act well in the world in 2010?” Listen. Sense. Feel.
5. And then this question, “What is the quality of body my true self needs to manifest that calling?”
6. Embody those questions. Walk or hike in them. Run in them. Practice Yoga in them. Dance in them.
7. Listen for, look for, and sense for possible answers and insights. Note in a dharma notebook.
8. Repeat every day.

You’ll be surprised.

Questions for discussion:
* Do you have other resources to share on this topic?
* How do you embody your muse? (i.e., What physical activities awaken your creativity, learning, and spirituality?)
* If you try the above, what happened?

I look forward to hearing from you.


W W W . C E N T E R T O P A G E . C O M
Jeffrey Davis is a writer and authority on creativity and wonder. He is Director of Center To Page, LLC, which provides full mentoring and editing services through private coaching, group consultations, and Yoga As Muse workshops & retreats for writers around the world. He is author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices As Muse for Authentic Writing (revised and updated ed., Monkfish Publishing 2008), City Reservoir: A Collection of Poems (Barnburner Press 1999), and of Tracking Wonder, a blog for Psychology Today. He teaches in Western Connecticut State University’s low-residency Master’s of Fine Arts in Professional and Creative Writing Program as well as at centers and conferences around the world. He is also a student of Sri TKV Desikachar in South India and is certified to teach Yoga in two traditions. He serves as Tiferet‘s Fiction Editor.

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