Embodied experience & embodied cognition

A sunflower moves with the sun. ‘Moves’? Language has built-in assumptions. Words for movement reflect action. Somebody moves (active agency), or is moved (the result of somebody else’s action). In each case, there’s the implication that, at one end of it or another, somebody is actively involved.

Does the sunflower have a mind of its own, or a will to turn? Or is it the slave of the sun, unable to resist its charismatic power? Or?

In Greek mythology, Apollo coursed his chariot across the sky every day, pulling the sun from East to West. The seas were controlled by Poseidon. Zeus, of course, threw thunderbolts. Everything – even little rivers – were ‘animated’ by some sort of a deity.
Animated’: brought into movement.

‘Inanimate’: not alive.

‘Anima’: the soul.

Mythology says that it takes ‘spirit’ to move and to be alive. That is, it takes a sort of person to make movement, and life, possible. Some sort of a person inside us: A ‘mind’, a ‘soul’, a ‘spirit’.

We no longer believe that it takes a charioteer to move the sun, or a nymph to make a river flow. As for sunflowers, the modern explanation of why they turn is ‘phototropism’:
– ‘Light’ is just another word for movement of electrons.
– This affects plant hormones, which then expel positive ions.
– The chemical structure of the cell wall changes, weakening the side of the plant that is in the dark.
– This results in the plant physically orienting toward the sun.

No consciousness, no will. It is about molecular energy, chemistry, physics.

There is no ‘little person’ in the sunflower with the consciousness or the will to turn, and no ‘big person’ in the sun to force the sunflower to turn.

What about us, people? Of course, we have a mind, and a will. But we cannot make full sense of who we are and what we do if we just think in terms of mind or will. In the past few decades, a profound revolution has been happening in the neurosciences, focusing attention on ‘bottom up’ processes. Traditional psychology sees things in terms of ‘top down’ processes: It takes consciousness and will (top) to make things happen at the body level (down). In contrast, contemporary findings emphasize how much consciousness and will are influenced by ‘bottom up’ processes.

Implicit in the image of the sunflower is the concept of orienting. The position of the sunflower reflects where it is in relation to the sun. The Sunflower Mind approach is about looking at our human experiences from a similar perspective: We are orienting to our circumstances, our environment, with our whole being. We grasp a situation as a whole, and we respond to it as a whole, consciously or unconsciously.

Here is a simple, concrete example: Imagine you’re standing up, and you sense somebody coming behind you with possibly hostile intentions. Chances are you’re going to raise your shoulders, bracing, in anticipation. You’re sensing a threat, and responding to it, without necessarily thinking consciously about what you’re doing. You may not even be aware of that movement. Or you may just experience it as some kind of a hunch, a felt sense, as opposed to a fully articulated understanding of the situation.

As described above, Sunflower Mind is neither mind nor body in the traditional dichotomy between ‘mind’ and ‘body’. Or you could say it is both ‘mind’ and ‘body’. In any case, the dichotomy becomes irrelevant.

Why do we have dichotomies? They help us define things, e.g. ‘day’ vs ‘night’. Or ‘hot’ vs ‘cold’. Dichotomies are very useful, in certain circumstances. For instance, the difference between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ is very meaningful when you want to describe a hot tea vs an iced tea. The dichotomy between ‘mind’ and ‘body’ has been very useful as a way to point out that there’s more to life than bodily needs.

But concepts are not universal truths. We cannot assume the identity of something with the words that describe it. Of course, in everyday life, this identity works rather well, most of the time. For instance, when I use the word ‘red’ as a color, people have a reasonably good idea of what I mean. But ‘red menace’ is what used to describe Communist countries, and ‘red states’ is the current way of describing Republican states in the US. So ‘red’ does not have an inherent political meaning.

‘Mind’ and ‘body’ are useful concepts under certain circumstances… but they’re just handles that are convenient under certain circumstances, as opposed to eternal truths. When we use them, it is good to check whether they help clarify the situation, or whether other conceptual approaches might be better suited for this situation.

Let’s go back to the example I gave earlier: You sense a threat, you’re responding to it bodily (e.g. bracing), and you may, or may not, be aware of some kind of a hunch, but you certainly do not have (yet) an explicit understanding of the situation.

This kind of response is embodied cognition. We respond to a situation with our whole being. Our response, just like that of the sunflower responding to the sun, is movement – which can be fully played out, or just implicit, or anything in-between.

The possible threat takes precedence over any other preoccupations. It becomes the organizing principle around which our organism is organized. In the preceding sentence, I am heavy handed with the ‘organizing-organism-organized’ words, to make the point that the word ‘organism’ is better understood as a process rather than as a thing.

This organizing principle is not something abstract. For instance, in the concrete example I give, the organizing principle is not some generic concept of ‘fear’. It is a very specific response to the situation as a whole (bracing: raising shoulders, curving spine, in anticipation of a blow).

Being aware of the specific coiling of our organism is what allows us to uncoil it. This can be clarified with an analogy. Let’s say you have an entangled cord, and you want to disentangle it. The only way to do this is to patiently deal with each and every knot in the entangled cord. If you just try to do this from the outside, so to speak, chances are you’ll be making the cord more of a mess than it was.

The word ‘disentangle’ does not describe a specific step (whereas the word ‘tighten’ does), or even a specific sequence of movements. It describes an approach, a way of dealing with entangled situations, which has to be specific for each specific situation.

In a similar way, the Sunflower Mind approach is about getting an actionable sense of the way our organism has implicitly coiled in response to our situation.

The concept of Sunflower Mind is related to my experience doing experiential psychotherapy that pays attention to ‘bottom up’ phenomena. In this practice, we observe, moment by moment, our bodily experience as an organic response to our interactions with others. We track bodily sensations. Little by little, a pattern emerges. We notice how we are orienting in response to our environment, just like the sunflower orients to the sun. We experience this orienting as an implicit, unfinished response that needs to be completed.

A process is by nature movement, even if the experience we have of it is that of feeling stuck. As we become aware of this embodied process as a process, we are ‘carried forward’ by it: Being aware of the way we are coiled, we allow the uncoiling to proceed organically. We are moved to complete the unfinished response. As we do so, not only do we move on, but we also get a conceptual grasp of what we had been dealing with, essentially because by then we have moved ‘out of the box’ we were stuck in: We can now see the box for what it is. Meaning emerges from the experience.

The value of a concept depends on how actionable it is to help us make sense of an experience, and, possibly, to exert some control over it. The value of the Sunflower Mind concept in experiential psychotherapy is related to the experience of being aware of our response to situations as a whole organism, of tracking this experience, and of experiencing the release and meaning that proceed from following this process.

If the concept of Sunflower Mind has any value in our approach to everyday life, it would be to remind us to not just identify with our intellect and will. The metaphor would help us see ourselves as a whole organism that respond to situations in the same way as a sunflower does to the sun, by orienting. Instead of just trying to figure things out by squeezing our brains, we would relax and tune into our inner experience, allowing insights to come up. We would still have access our intellect and will, of course, and they would be all the more powerful when grounded within a larger framework.

See also: Sunflower Mind video.