Some Thoughts on Embodiment

“[L]iterature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February� –-Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill

Living in my body is a daily challenge. Bright lights, loud noises, large crowds, etc., assault my senses and leave me feeling disoriented and exhausted. A couple months ago, I was so startled by a loud noise from the stereo that my body’s immediate reaction (with no thought on my part) was to start crying. When my stress levels get too high (or when I don’t get quite enough sleep, or when I’m not eating properly), my bipolar disorder rears its head, and my emotions go careening out of control. Most days I feel like I’m in a fight with my environment and my body’s reaction to it, and it’s often the environment that wins.

Though my experiences are perhaps more extreme than others’, Woolf’s observation that our body “colours” how we see the world is broadly applicable. Our perceptions and sensations and embodied experiences shape our thoughts and understanding. In their book Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that

our bodies, brains, and interactions with our environment provide the mostly unconscious basis for our everyday metaphysics, that is, our sense of what is real….Our sense of what is real begins with and depends crucially upon our bodies, especially our sensorimotor apparatus, which enables us to perceive, move, and manipulate, and the detailed structures of our brains, which have been shaped by both evolution and experience. (17)

Lakoff and Johnson note that our understanding of our environment and what is “real” depends on our embodied nature, especially how we interact with the world through our “sensorimotor apparatus.”

Jack Katz, a sociologist interested in the embodied nature of emotion, builds on the ideas of Lakoff and Johnson. He writes,

emotions, which have so often been treated as opposed to thinking, are paradoxically self-reflective actions and experiences. But the self-reflection in emotions is corporeal rather than a matter of discursive reasoning. Through our emotions, we reach back sensually to grasp the tacit, embodied foundations of our selves. We are artful in producing our emotions because through them we seek to articulate the corporeal metaphors that operate implicitly at the foundations of all of our conduct. (7)

Katz builds on Lakoff and Johnson by arguing that our emotions are connected on a very deep level with our embodied understanding of the world. Every day we interact with people and our environment in ways that fuel a variety of emotions (example: Katz does research on things like road rage and how we understand our cars to be extended representations of our bodies).

One of the doctrines of Mormonism that I love is our understanding of God as an embodied, emotional being. As Amri pointed out on a recent BCC post, our belief in an embodied God is pretty unique. And it’s something I’ve come to value because Westerm models of the self tend to elevate the rational (who can forget Descartes famous “I think, therefore, I amâ€??). These models posit that the source of initiative, rationality, and all other good things, is the mind, while the body is dangerous, transgressive, emotional, etc.

In the Mormon religion, God’s divinity rests in those things that have been called into suspicion by the advocates of rationality. God’s perfect body is a component of His divine nature, and we have been given our bodies so as to learn how to be like Him. I love that our God is not some transcendent, hyper-rational being. I love that His understanding of the universe is filtered through an embodied system that is a perfected version of my own. And I love that the scriptures give us passages such as Jesus’s sorrow at Lazarus’s death, and the beautiful verses in Moses 7 where God weeps over His beloved children but then asks Moses to rejoice because of the Savior and his Atonement.

Still, despite all of this, I want to abandon my body quite a lot of the time. There are more days than I can count when I don’t think I can handle one more day filled with sobbing spells, one more day when the environment feels just too assaultive, or one more day flat on my back in bed because my body has decided to shut down. On days like these, I only hope that these experiences will give me a greater understanding of the role of embodied experiences in the plan of salvation, that somehow the way in which my body has “coloured” my understanding of the world has a greater meaning. Still, absent some greater meaning, I am grateful (at least some of the time) for the lessons that stem from learning how to accept the limitations of a mortal, imperfect body. And I look forward to the day when “my mortal shall put on immortality” (Enos 1:27), and “[t]he spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form” (Alma 11:43). I hope that at that point, my body “colours” my understanding in such a way that I will truly be able to feel the fullness of God’s love and joy, and I will be able to more fully understand the things of eternity.

7 comments for “Some Thoughts on Embodiment

  1. Well said. I see our emotions as a divine gift, to let us learn first how, to take care of our own, and then to learn how to take care of others, and see the impressions of the Spirit as the fulness of emotion – mourning with those that mourn, comforting those that stand in need of comfort, and so on – the very working whereby we shall be able to become one body in Christ, having not only one mind, but one heart as well.

  2. When at the temple I muse about the intersection of the spiritual and corporeal there. While there is certainly instruction, some of it is contingent on the way we are dressed, and we use particular motions of the body to acknowledge and accept the instruction and coventants. Also, there is (minimal) specific touching as knowlege is transferred. This corporeal cooperation seems to indicate that even (or, especially?) in the temple, our bodies are more than a conduit for our spirits but serve a particular purpose in that setting.

    Thanks for this post.

  3. I also appreciate the centrality of embodiment in LDS thought. I really like your point about God not being some transcendent, hyper-rational entity. And for all my questions about ordinances, I like that they involve the physical–perhaps reflecting the fact that religious commitments don’t take place in some kind of purely mental, unembodied sphere, but are something we live out as embodied beings.

  4. Great post, Seraphine.

    I (usually) like the Mormon idea of an embodied God. When we think about it, it includes a lot of background that is really non-God-like (or is it?). God wasn’t just “a person like us.” He was someone who had to change his socks or his feet would get smelly; who got stomach flu and colds and sneezed all over the place and coughed with a sore throat; who (dare we say it) probably threw up a few times in his life and had a few bad bouts of diarrhea. He may have struggled with mental illness; he probably fell in love at least once and was rejected; he may have had dandruff or been overweight or had bad acne or a funny voice or bad posture or a limp. We don’t know the details of his physical struggles, but it’s unlikely that he was a physically perfect being from day one who never struggled with any body-related questions and problems.

    Does that make him less Godlike?

    Virginia Postrel has a piece in the recent Atlantic about glamour. She says that glamour is mystery and allure — we don’t really _want_ to know the dirty little secrets of Frank Sinatra or Audrey Hepburn because we like them glamorous. And in a way, it’s true. We can idolize a glamorous Audrey in a way that we can’t quite do if we see her in bed with a cold, sneezing.

    By adding a sneezing, coughing, sweating, crying, eating, sleeping body to the idea of God, Mormonism seems intent on de-glamorizing God to at least some degree. We lose the perfect image, the airbrushed untouchable being. What we gain is, as you point out in your post, a God who knows our sufferings, who can better succor us in our need. It’s a trade-off worth making.

  5. Mark Butler, I really like that thought. Thanks.

    Idahospud, I, too, like the corporeal component of our rituals. I don’t understand a lot of the corporeal elements of our rituals, but I like them nonetheless. Thanks for the reminder!

    Kaimi, I tend to hold off on the speculation about what God’s past life may have been. At the same time, I think you’re definitely right to point out that there is a way in which His embodiment makes the idea of divine empathy and understanding more real (at least for me, this is the case).

  6. First, S., my deepest sympathy and great respect for dealing on a daily basis with what sounds like a very disabling condition. Through absolutely no merits of my own, I’ve so far enjoyed excellent health, mental and otherwise, and hearing about others’ struggles enriches my understanding of the humane and helps me appreciate my own vigorous body.

    I find the late-modern critique of reason, in all its, er, incarnations, very persuasive, a really important aspect of the various critical theories. But I’m concerned that it tends to radically atomize human experience: if we’re all trapped in the perceptual prisons of our own biologies, what can use to interrupt our own subjectivities, to bring us together in (attempted, at least) contemplation of things as they really are? Furthermore, I think Katz’s analysis linking emotion to the body and reason to, um, something else (“But the self-reflection in emotions is corporeal rather than a matter of discursive reasoning”), is vulnerable to advances in neurobiology. Reason and thought are just as much a function of physiological processes as emotion, aren’t they?

  7. Rosalynde, thanks for the kind thoughts.

    I think the question of empathy is an important one, and it’s one that I haven’t seen a lot of critical material on that I like. (Elaine Scarry is the person I’m most familiar with writing on embodiment and empathy, and she pretty much says that empathy is impossible.) I tend to use the anthropologists and sociologists working on emotion in order to deal with issues of emotion and interaction. But they do paint an imcomplete picture–I wish I could find more stuff on empathy that I liked since it’s pretty important to the central questions in my own academic work.

    As for your criticism of Katz, your critique is probably more due to my characterization of him than his actual argument. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t throw out reason (since, as you state, “reason is as much a function of physiological processes as emotion”)–it’s just not his primary concern. I was just trying to illustrate that he’s different from the cognitivists (such as Martha Nussbaum) who see emotion as just another part of rational thought.

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