Body Talk

25 10 2016


Goats know about presence. An irritated goat lifts her chest, arches her neck, stiffens her gaze and may tip her horns toward the source of irritation. An irate goat tucks her chin to her chest and charges with her forehead, horns angled to wound. She might also stomp with both front feet and grunt. Get on the wrong side of a goat and she will use persuasively powerful body language to insist that you change your mind.

When she is not sleeping in the sun, staring at the feed shed or snatching blackberries from the brambles, the life of a goat is pretty much taken up with power, influence and control. Observing Betty, as I do most days, and her companion Bill, I’m often amused by the sheer physical energy they will display when riled. ‘Back off’ in goat language means feet planted and head held high. What’s interesting is that ‘back off’ in human language also amounts to pretty much the same thing. We talk of ‘standing our ground’ when we want to get our point across and it turns out that a simple occupation of space can be far more effective than a strongly worded argument.

Presence is now a subject for serious academic study. Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy’s TED talk

 how our body language shapes behaviour has been viewed by millions and her ideas have been shared by individuals and in colleges, schools, sports teams and businesses. Amy Cuddy showed how adopting power poses including the dynamic Wonder Woman hands on hips pose alters our thinking and improves performance. Her research shows that just a couple of minutes adopting this expansive pose especially before a stressful situation such as an audition or job interview is enough to prime the body to feel strong, grounded and present. On the other hand, collapsing the body by hunching over a device (labelled the ihunch or text neck) has the opposite effect. Constricting body language, it appears, limits our ability to think clearly, act decisively and even has an impact on working memory.

According to Cuddy: ‘The Body shapes the mind, and the mind shapes behaviour. But the body also directs itself.’ In her book Presence, Cuddy tells the story of how she nearly missed out on an academic career after a car accident left her with a devastating brain injury. After months of physical and cognitive therapy, she was told that she shouldn’t expect to finish college. She ‘never in a million years’ expected to become a Harvard professor. ‘I just wanted to make it through each week without losing hope. To make it through a class without thinking about dropping out…I had no concrete goal in mind. I just wanted to feel a bit more like myself, a bit sharper, a bit less like I was watching from inside a glass bubble and a bit more like a participant in what was happening.’

As children, we participate in the world naturally, partly because we don’t find it nearly as difficult to fully inhabit our bodies as we do when we eventually become adults. Children walk, run, climb, swim, dig around and throw things with much less effort and deliberation than their more self-aware adult selves. As adults, we are generally more careful and less spontaneous with our physical movements. For example, it is rare for a grown man to throw himself on the floor of a supermarket and demand a chocolate bar, even when he is desperately hungry, or lift his legs and swing between the arms of two indulgent friends just for the fun of it.

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty observed that the world is more problematic for adults because grown-ups mostly have to take into consideration other people’s perceptions. The child has ‘no knowledge of points of view. For him men are empty heads turned towards one single, self-evident world where everything takes place, even dreams, which are, he thinks, in his room, and even thinking, since it is not distinct from words.’

At some point children learn that they are separate from the world, and this separation creates distance and a point of view, coloured and shaped by many different experiences and influences. Instead of living within the world, fully enfolded in being in the world, adults become more detached from the world. Perhaps one of the many reasons why we enjoy watching children and animals at play is that this reminds us of what we have lost. Often as adults we must relearn how to fully experience the world and we often choose to do this through ‘play,’ physical and creative means such as sport, dance or music.

Merleau-Ponty reminds us that we experience the world primarily through our bodies. Indeed there would be no perceived world without our bodies to experience it. All our thoughts, perceptions and experiences are filtered through our senses, which are embodied. We don’t have to live in our heads all the time; we can recognise that the body gives us direct access to the world. Merleau-Ponty’s arguments are revitalising because philosophy and much of psychology have long been viewed as disciplines of the mind alone with the question of the body being side-lined. Philosophy in particular has found it hard to escape the straitjacket of thinking that regards minds as pure and bodies as messy.

Plato’s solution to the problem of the body was to claim that it corrupted the mind and needed to be controlled like an unruly horse needing the guiding hand of the charioteer of reason. The body was inferior because it couldn’t think in the abstract; the body couldn’t understand the nature of goodness. The body was simply the vehicle for the highest part of us: the indestructible soul, which would eventually be reborn with another body. In other words, we didn’t need to bother with the body because we could always get another one.

As he sat in his dressing gown in his Bavarian cabin one cold winter, French philosopher Descartes infamously separated mind and body through a process of elimination that reduced the fundamental part of all that makes us human to thinking itself. The body was cast off like a snakeskin, an inconvenient truth that Descartes chose to ignore, stepping over it on the way to the more scintillating ideas of the mind.

Merleau-Ponty returns the body to the human condition by reminding us that the body takes us through the world. We cannot navigate without it. We experience life through our bodies and what we come to know and understand is lived experience instead of reflections or abstractions of the intellect. If I understand him correctly, and his work is not easy to read: there is no little us inside our heads doing all the mental processing of our daily experience like a superfast computer delivering data. There is only us in the sitting room or the car or the bath. ‘Truth does not inhabit the inner man, or more accurately, there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.’

This means – I think – that the world is not a blank slate upon which we project our carefully-constructed human dreams, dramas and demands, but rather a living field of existence of which the body is an expression. Perhaps given these ideas, we could adjust our mind-set to allow more priority to our bodies as a way to make sense of the world. Maybe we could even use this strange way of thinking to build a stronger, more resilient, less anxious and self-doubting way of life. I’m hoping that the goats will be my daily reminder not to forget my own body and to power pose when necessary. Thank you Bill and Betty