A Song of Embodiment

Anything I’m able to think is because of everything I feel. And everything I feel is this wonderful embodiment, this solid physicality.

Everything begins as physical sensations that are then co-opted, abstracted, and re-appropriated by the mind. Love in the abstract began as a warm feeling of security and comfort and a belly full of milk. It grows into trust and affection. From our instinctive feelings of approval and disapprobation we develop judgment, ethics, and morality. Everything we call virtuous began with some action that met our approval, that felt good, was beautiful or useful to ourselves or others and thus became codified by our society as morally worthy. [fn1]

Our emotions are derived from our bodies and emotions drive our decisions and our actions. Reason is only used to justify ourselves after the fact.

So how could we make any decision before embodiment? Before we felt, how could we know?

We are here for an embodied experience: to feel, to learn, to decide, to know.

I don’t know what I am apart from my body. It overwhelms my consciousness. And yet my body is not of my choosing. It is the first given of my experience. I like reading Carl Sandberg’s poem Phizzog [fn2] with my children:

This face you got,
This here phizzog you carry around,
You never picked it out for yourself
at all, at all—-did you?
This here phizzog—-somebody handed it
to you–am I right?
Somebody said, “Here’s yours, now go see
what you can do with it.”
Somebody slipped it to you and it was like
a package marked:
“No goods exchanged after being taken away”—-
This face you got.

My body is how I see and what is seen of me. It is the actor of my actions and that which is acted upon by everything else. At times, it obviously asserts itself over my will; at other times I am able to imagine it has no power over me, to deceive myself into some kind of mental autonomy.

[fn1] I am obviously very indebted to David Hume.

[fn2] This is one of our favorite poets to read with the children during Family Home Evening. We have several books in the Poetry for Young People series, and we enjoy them all.

30 comments for “A Song of Embodiment

  1. July 25, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Re-read “Song of Myself.” You’ll be glad you did.

  2. wreddyornot
    July 25, 2012 at 9:43 am

    Genly Ai told Ursula K. Le Guin that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

  3. July 25, 2012 at 9:58 am

    I’m not averse to the general thrust, but I am extremely sceptical of your account of how virtues develop.

    Christ, before his birth, was neither loveless nor unable to reason.

  4. Howard
    July 25, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Our emotions are derived from our bodies… Yes it’s true our bodies add feeling and intensity to the emotional thoughts of our minds! This occurs for better; love, happiness etc and for worse; fear and anger are greatly exaggerated given our everyday lives in a now civilized world. Yes, we are here for an embodied experience: to feel, to learn, to decide, to know. Thanks to an out of body experience I do know what I am apart from my body, it is wonderful frictionless and ego-less thinking experience, having been in a body adds to the experience of being out of body because we remember a library full of emotional and sensual embodied experiences that we draw from as reference.

  5. Naismith
    July 25, 2012 at 11:41 am

    “Reason is only used to justify ourselves after the fact.”

    Spoken like one who scores as a feeler on the Myers Briggs test. This is why those of us who are thinkers often feel so marginalized. Especially women, since female thinkers are in the minority.

  6. YvonneS
    July 25, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Yes our bodies and our minds are involved with our emotions. How we interpret the physical response to some happening or another determines which emotion it is we will feel. Reason and rationalization, for me, are not the same thing. We use rationalization to justify ourselves after the fact.

  7. July 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Kristin, Walt Whitman is great. When we lived on Long Island, we were able to visit his home in the township of Huntington, not far from where we lived.

    Adam, I like Hume’s approach because it relies on observation. It accounts for general consensus in values through natural disposition and makes room for relative moral standards through the influence of society. It is not absolute, which makes rationalists uncomfortable, but a sentimentalist like me is happy.

    But this view of the role of the body in the maturation of our spirits does run into problems, like your example of Christ, pre-embodiment, being able to feel and reason. If this is not the role of embodiment, what is? And if this is necessary to develop capacities for feeling and reasoning, how were we able to cast a vote in the pre-existence? Thanks to the veil, I can only know what I experience now, and that is often skewed and faulty. I still enjoy it though.

    Naismith-In addition to Hume (“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave to the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”), I am also invoking the work of psychologists such as Joshua Greene at Harvard. Reason and emotion both play a role in making decisions, but even people who believe they are acting on principle are, based on brain scans, acting because of an emotional impulse. But we are certainly capable of using reason to manipulate our emotions or generate desires, as Nagel points out in The Possibility of Altruism. (But I would not want to make anyone feel marginalized. I’m just happy to meet someone who experiences the world differently than I do, so we can compare notes and enjoy it more.)

    Howard-an out of body experience would add perspective. Thanks for sharing.

    YvonneS-Interpretation is very important, and that’s where we run into the influence of society and culture sharing the very paradigms of thought, the modes of interpretation we use.

  8. July 25, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Rachel W.,
    The role of embodiment is to act and be acted upon and to make meaningful choices by giving us limitation, IMHO:

  9. July 25, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    Adam, while I like the connection you draw between limitations imposed by matter and agency, I still prefer a more expansive view of embodiment that recognizes how being embodied shapes our experience and personalities. It’s not just that our spirits have limits imposed on them by being incarnated and have the task to make good choices within those limits; our spirits are able to develop greater capacities, to advance toward godhood because of the experience of physicality, both being and acting.

  10. christine
    July 25, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    embodiment to me has to be endured. i feel my spirit could soar if i had no physical body but only a spirit body.
    i would HOPE that a spirit body is more evolved than an earth body and able to process input way better using awesome sensory systems which we could not dream of while we are stuck in our human bodies.

  11. Adam G.
    July 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    I agree with that. Its the more radical claim that bodies are necessary to *any* capacity for reason and virtue that I disagree with.

  12. Adam G.
    July 25, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    Or put it another way, the ability to act and be acted upon entails and enormous expansion of capability in my view, including some of the emotional and educational experiences that you emphasize.

  13. christine
    July 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    the expansion of capability > I thought when we received human bodies our capabilities were curtailed.

  14. July 25, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    I agree with you too, Adam. It is more fun to make sweeping categorical statements, but they are usually not as true as more moderate positions.

    christine, you might enjoy Adam’s post about limits and agency that he linked to earlier. I tend to think that we have more varieties of experiences, and therefore more capacity to learn and grow in this mortal life than we did as spirits in the pre-existence, and that we will have even greater capacities in our post-mortal, resurrected and glorified bodies. It’s all about improvement and progression.

  15. July 26, 2012 at 2:17 am

    Rachel, your perspective is beautifully stated, and I believe there is much truth in it.

    We are not our own. Our identity is shaped so much by forces beyond our control. We have an illusion of complete autonomy. We delude ourselves that “we decide” with our impartial and eternal soul. But the righteous decisions that are so easy for us to make, are often born out of iron clad subconscious states of emotion arbitrarily formed within us. We abhor the idea of murder, so it is no temptation. But we deceive ourselves when we think ourselves superior to the emotionless psychopath, who is left without the subconscious rudder to guide him through the many choices and instincts of life.

    I do believe that we have an autonomous immortal soul. But I think that soul only constitutes 1/3 of our identity. The other third comes from our body (shaped through evolution), and the other third, from our environment (shaped by culture and family). Truly, we are not our own.

  16. Naismith
    July 26, 2012 at 10:01 am

    Rachel, I actually loved much of the original post. Of course embodiment is worth celebrating, as it is an essential step in our eternal progression. A third of our brothers and sisters in the pre-existence did not get bodies, and cannot experience embodiment.

    But the idea that only emotions matter makes us sound like victims of our bodies. If this were true, then the only way to treat a mental dysfunction would be through medication or surgery that alters the body, and thus changes the emotions. But in fact, there is a whole body of research on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which uses mere mental exercises to alter emotions and even change brain chemistry. And for some conditions is more effective than medication.

    If only my emotions mattered and rationality could be dismissed, I would be drunk in the gutter or dead from liver disease. I have chosen not to listen to my body on that one.

  17. christine
    July 26, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Rachel (14) I hope you are wrong. I hope that we will have it easier and it is more enriching to be a spirit but some of us wanted to have a period of almost unsurmountable difficulty so we chose earth life.

  18. July 26, 2012 at 11:10 am

    the power of associating emotions with the body, as Rachel Whipple does, is that it leaves open the possibility of disciplining and controlling the emotions with the will or the spirit, as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy promotes.

  19. Howard
    July 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Adam G.
    Drawing from my out of body experience, willpower and CBT had absolutely nothing to do with it! Our spirits are much more innocent and defenseless than the personas we associate as “us” and those personas which contain the natural man are left behind. It is more akin to the mighty change of heart. This isn’t to say all spirits are necessarily righteous, rather the larger problem we experience in mortality is our egos, our personas.

  20. clark
    July 26, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Howard, why assume that your experience in an out of body experience really was completely out of the body with the brain not involved at all?

  21. Naismith
    July 26, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Re 18. We may be talking past each other and confusing terminology. What you call “will” may be what I think of as reason.

    But if that is true, it contradicts the third paragraph of the OP, which states that reason can ONLY be used for justification after the fact, what I would think of as post-decision cognitive dissonance reduction.

    I don’t think that is the ONLY function of reason. Although “reason” may have another definition when used here, which is not what most of us commonly think of as reason.

    There are lots of theories and paradigms (e.g. Elaboration Likelihood Model) that allow for multiple pathways to decision making. The great thing about having people who view the world differently (including thinkers vs. feelers) is that they can complement each other, and bring synergy when working on teams, as we often do at church.

  22. Howard
    July 26, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    Well there’s no proof of course but that was my perception. Out of body was an ego-less oneness with deity feeling without any sensation of even having a body (no feeling, breathing etc.) and my visual viewpoint changed to well above my body. As I reentered I picked up the body’s friction, my speed of thinking slowed greatly and my ego and persona returned.

  23. July 26, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    the third paragraph of the OP ought to be contradicted. My read on the comments here is that Rachel Whipple has backed off the strong claim that reason *only* serves as post hoc justification for bodily impulses.

  24. July 26, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    Perhaps I should alter it to read “Reason is *often* used to justify ourselves after the fact.”

    And yes to #18. Thanks Adam.

  25. christine
    July 26, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    Howard 19 . i sure do not get the impression that my spirit is defenseless how do you get there ?
    Clark 20 naughty
    Rachel 24. I try to stay as far away as possible from feeble justifications of dubious acts. whether they were emotionally motivated or just careless or just flippant. If I have the slightest doubt about what I have just done, I ask Heavenly Father immediately to see if he thinks that I screwed up and if so, how much. and…take note for future avoidance….

  26. Howard
    July 26, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    Our defense is in our persona, it constructed to help us interface with the rough and tumble mortal world. When we are connected to deity defense is apparently not needed so my out of body was an ego-less and defenseless experience. When I reentered the body I took on my ego defenses again. Generally I don’t think we are well acquainted with our spirits, I require a meditative trace to knowingly integrate with mine.

  27. christine
    July 27, 2012 at 1:38 am

    howard,interesting, i had such experiences but it was more like a swirl and the idea prevailed that a part can be as infinite as the whole. which is weird enough. when defense is not needed “defenseless” is a useless adjective

  28. Howard
    July 27, 2012 at 5:27 am

    Christine wrote: when defense is not needed “defenseless” is a useless adjective I see your point but you are making it from a mortal persona view point, it was a defenseless sensation in a situation which required no defense.

  29. christine
    July 27, 2012 at 10:05 am

    how is ‘defenseless’ an immortal perspective

  30. Howard
    July 27, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    From an in body perspective we always have defenses ready should they be needed, they are relaxed when we don’t need them but we are aware of their existence. While I was out of body I was without defenses, they were not relaxed, they were absent.

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