The Enlightened Body: Art of Embodiment in a Time of Change

Essay by Paola Catizone.

The focus of this essay is the experience of embodiment as a conduit for immediacy, power, presence and liberation. When mentioning embodiment I will be referring to a quality of awareness, rooted in meditative discipline and bridging the divide between sensual and cognitive modes of thinking and being. This embodied awareness is often seen as the prerogative of eastern mystics and meditators, but I will argue that this practice of radical self examination can free individuals and empower ordinary people in the West too, especially at a time of great social and economic change. Embodied awareness has the potential of deconstructing false identifications with the power system and selfhoods imposed by media manipulations.

The Nietzschian philosophical hammer, with which he proposed to smash oppressive dogma, especially clerical, is needed again, this time around to break the armour of consumer identity built around our bodies and minds (Nietzsche, 1889). Our culture is obsessed with growth and development, especially in relation to the market. Neoliberalism and its practices are modern dogmas which can and must be challenged.

Late democracy has became an oppressive force. I will base this thesis on the working assumption that all oppression begins at the level of the body; the body is the first site of power manipulation. We will examine the links between body, contemplation and art, as well as the possible socio-political implications of embodied awareness in our times. In order to carry out this exploration, in chapter one, we will set a theoretical framework: we will look at the work of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), and his Biopower Theory, expounded in the first tome of History of Sexuality and compare it to the more contemporary notions of power in Gilles Deleuze’s (1925-1995) Society of Control (1995).

J.K.Gibson-Graham, and their visions of social experiments, built on the triadic basis of personal, psycho-physical, thought, and world change (Gibson-Graham. 2006) will contribute the vision of contemporary thinkers who are also active, in the material, “real” world of politics, community and relationships, experimenting with and implementing their theories. Presenting the work of James Hillman (1926-2011), whose writings on Depth Psychology reclaim the body and the unconscious from the tyranny of the rational ego, will address the plight of both body and imagination in an overly rationalistic and mechanistic society. Hillman’s belief that the basis of the mind is poetic (Hillman.1976.p XI) both inspires this paper and dooms it, a priori, to failure, in its vain attempt to explain what can be best conveyed through aesthetic appreciation or direct experience. In an effort to circumvent this failure, the writing of this thesis may take a circular, rather than a linear discursive style, connecting a number of theories, and practices (artistic, meditative and embodied) to a central notion of awakening to the present moment.

Chapter two is twofold: In section one, we will attempt to summarise some of the principal elements in eastern meditative practices as well as some eastern somatic meditative systems, as relevant to this paper. In section two we will look briefly at the work of contemporary artists exploring meditation and embodiment. We will focus on the work of Iranian film maker Abbas Kiarostami and analyse one of his most contemplative films: ‘Five’, of 1993. In the conclusion we will recap the main points and attempt to find some answers to the questions raised.

Vital psycho-physical energy is seen here, thanks to Foucault’s legacy, as a quantifiable good, which can be used for the control of reproduction and the work-productive value of a population by structures of power. Selfhoods and identities are formed in embodied-energetic ways, which are in turn tied to these systems of power, and which determine our identifications with the role of workers at the service of capital.

Ultimately I will argue that embodiment and meditative awareness are invaluable as empowering tools for citizens at a time when the interests of political and economic power structures are becoming increasingly at odds with the wellbeing of the people. These tools of liberation could be lifted from the sphere of religion and new age and reframed as the ground on which alternatives to the capitalist socio-economic model can be built. This is important especially as eastern body/mind practices are often religious in nature, and are embedded within dogmatic and highly folkloric traditions, which are tied to transcendental aspirations that ultimately reject the body and the material world.

Art making and embodied awareness exist in a realm in which meditative calm, focus, endurance and immediacy are essential. From both research and practice of contemporary art a question began to arise: Is art, especially performance, installation and video art, with its insistence on the immediacy of immersive, sensory experience, prompting questions about the role of embodied awareness not just in art but in life and society?

While it is difficult for art to address social and political problems without becoming pamphletary or militant, art delves deeply into the human condition and unavoidably reflects the human experience of its time, whether deliberately or indirectly. Not unlike primitive shamans, some contemporary visual artists seem to engage in time consuming, effortful projects, with obsessive zest and often with disregard to their own physical limitations, not in the pursuit of a practical goal but of aesthetic meaning. The durational performances of Marina Abramovic, Ai Wei Wei’s troubled relationship with the Chinese government or the laborious practice of Francys Alys, e.g. When Faith Moves Mountains (2002), are just some examples of the efforts and even dangers that creating an art work can entail. This may be a statement in defence of what consensus reality considers useless, impractical and non-lucrative, but which may create meaning or value. A society that has glorified production and efficiency has also created a byproduct of uselessness, both in the human realm, with those on the margin, from the elderly to the mentally ill and the simply confused, falling off the edges of an increasingly competitive social structure and in the realm of nature, with regular destruction of life forms in the name of economic growth.

Embodiment practices, from eastern Yogic techniques to the western somatic practices,(a wide field of body-based practices, which we will outline in chapter II) have one central common denominator; they allow practitioners to reconnect to and re-own their physical energy, awareness and drives. If directed towards individual well-being and communal living, this energy could be emancipatory and sustaining. Instead, it is shaped by commercially packaged trends and lifestyles and moulded by media. It is polluted by toxic food and environment and burnt out by stress.

In Foucault’s terms, the ‘Biopower’, or governing state power, controls the biological, sexual, vital and sensory energy of the population through the different institutions, ie medical, legal and clerical (Foucault, 1976). This energy, which is seen as human capital/resource is then used for labour and to support the capitalist market system. Psycho-physical drives and impulses are oppressed by morality, dulled by media and dissipated through exhaustion. Ready outlets for pent up ‘libido’ like the gym, the pub and street drugs are offered or tolerated by the system. These mindless psychophysical pastimes remind us of Marcuse’s notions of repressive de-sublimation; we feel as if we are releasing tension, freeing ourselves, while in fact,we are just disposing of potentially disruptive vitality, through channels made available by an all-seeing repressive system (Marcuse, 1964).

Embodiment practices present a model of intelligence that is not exclusively based on the intellect, but that enlists the vitality of the body. Since thinking, sensing and emoting are enmeshed into each other, the freeing up of physical energy often also has repercussions on the individual’s sense of self and on his/her whole experience.

The body is seen as the repository of the unconscious and embodied awareness aims at healing the historical split between not just body and mind but conscious and unconscious, science and imagination, nature and culture. This is important as we colonise and exploit our bodies in a similar way in which we are exploiting our extended body: the natural environment. More time spent in the pursuit of imaginative and communal practices, like rituals and celebrations, or simply more time spent in contemplation, doing nothing, could be a radical challenge to the establishment.

I am interested in examining the links between art and embodiment, in the belief that, while art has been written about extensively, the meditative body-mind is a more elusive experience and that its intellectual and academic credentials are often seen as dubious.

The body is allowed to enter academia through performance art, for instance, only after its directness has been translated into written word and theorised about. Its roots in the eastern meditative practices, however, are ignored or just vaguely hinted at in academic discourse. We are suspicious of anything remotely suggesting spirituality. This term, spiritual, could do with some re-framing and re-claiming, as an aspiration towards rigorous examination of self and reality. This may seem utopian and history has taught us that puristic visions lend themselves to totalitarian and inhumane practices.

Utopias do not work when taken literally and when used to serve the interest of a few. They can however be useful as powerful magnets pulling us closer to what we would like to be. This can only happen when we are also capable of embracing the humbling, contradictory realities of our existence. Staying close to the body, to its cycles which we cannot control, its materiality and its ultimate impermanence, gives spiritual vision strong material roots. When deprived of spiritual vision we tend to idolise public figures, celebrities, our lovers, ourselves or our material goods. The tendency to envision something better and brighter seems to be imprinted in the human psyche. Spiritual practices are often seen as forms of escapism from the real world. I argue that at their best, and when grounded in the body, they in fact teach us to face reality and examine experience.

Not easy to describe, meditative experiences are relegated to the realm of self help or religious books. They constitute a powerful set of resources that is sadly under-used in the West. Frequently dismissed as being ‘holier than thou’ and emotionally anaemic, the meditative mind exists in a space different from the realm of everyday life and is the ultimate ‘other’ who lives beyond the bonds of ordinary awareness. I would like to adopt the role of translator, attempting to convey what the meditative experience is really like. I will not attempt to find answers to the questions opened here but will point in the direction of some practical and theoretical sources, leaving their solution as work in progress.

Chapter One: The Viewpoint of the Body, a theoretical background.

It may be worth opening this chapter with the voice of critical theorist Slavoj Zizek, who remains skeptical of the possibility not only of a Western form of Buddhism, but even of “greening”of Western consciousness. Zizek suggests, that Western Buddhism is yet another capitalist good on offer to consumers. He brings a critical note of caution to the subjects explored here; we need to beware the co-opting power of capitalism, particularly its absorption of Eastern spiritual values and of ecological utopias.

In “First as Tragedy then as Farce” (2009) he writes of a current trend of socially responsible eco-capitalism, through which, given the ‘[...]growing awareness of the unity of all life on earth and of the common dangers we all face, a new approach is emerging which no longer opposes the market to social responsibility, they can be reunited to mutual benefit’ (Zizek, 2009, p34) In his view, this ‘greening’ and spiritualising of capitalism allows consumers to feel that their lives are not just lived in service of capital production and consumption, but that they have deeper meanings, which act as palliatives to the emptiness of capitalist existence.

In the same book, Zizek warns of the dangers of an approaching “Capitalism with eastern Europe” ( Zizek, 2009, p131). He foresees the gradual formation of an authoritarian capitalist European state, importing not the spiritual values of the East but its worst political and human rights practices. He warns:

‘The link between capitalism and democracy has been definitely broken [...] This, perhaps is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that this version of authoritarian capitalism is not merely a remainder of our past...but a sign of our future’

(Zizek, 2009, p132).

The vicious combination of what Zizek names the “Asian knout [whip] and the European Stock Market” (Zizek, 2009, p132) may prove itself to be more efficient than liberal capitalism. Taking this view into account, we will proceed to explore ideas of meditation and embodiment which throw light on its more positive potential.

I) Michel Foucault

‘We are forced to live as if we were free’

Leonardo Padura, Havana Gold (2008)

Michael Foucault’s theory of ‘Bio-Power’ offers invaluable insights on the questions posed in this thesis chapter. Foucault saw the body and its energy as the first site of oppression by a dominating system and by its ideology. The first abuses of power happen in the body; the mechanisation of child birth, the rigid constructs of gender identity, the imposition of hours of sitting at school desks, of working hours and work life styles. Institutions, first the family, then the school, the barracks, the factory and occasionally the hospital, were identified by Foucault as the enclosed environments within which individual lives were oppressed by a disciplinary society. These were institutions which he saw as emerging in the eighteenth century and reaching their height by the nineteenth century. Bodies and minds were shaped by the impositions of institutionalised lives. Somatic educator and writer Don Hanlon Johnson had a similar insight when he wrote:

‘My body [...] is a result of the ideologies within which I move. [...] The way in which school children sit at their school desks shows us a philosophy of education. When we watch Leni Riefenstahl’s films of Hitler’s rallies at Nuremberg, we are seeing Nazism.’

(Hanlon-Johnson, 1983, p66).

In his Biopower Theory, Foucault recognises the intelligence of the body and its permeable relationship with mind and reason as well as its susceptibility to be moulded by outside forces. To shape bodies is to shape minds and cultural moulding begins with the first breath of life, is prompted by the doctor’s slapping hand. While the body-mind’s pliability is, in itself, a positive quality, it is important to be aware of what ideologies may be influencing us and that we recognise what belief system is living through our flesh. This awareness can give us a margin of choice and self determination.

The theory of Biopower describes the re-organisation of the labour power in the European population. This happened at the dawn of the global capitalist age. In the first volume of “History of Sexuality”(1976) Foucault critically assessed the ‘repressive hypothesis’ which is “the prevalent conception the Western culture holds regarding its attitude towards sex in the preceding centuries.”(Ching, 2006, p1) This hypothesis maintains that both discourse and practice of sex had progressively became more repressed, from the seventeenth century onwards, to culminate in the Victorian era, during which sex was denied and hidden. “Sex was confined to the secrecy of the marital bedroom and to the professionalised domains of profit such as prostitution or psychiatry.” (Ching, 2006, p1). Foucault understood that sex was not absent from Victorian life: it was concealed but very present in literature where it abounded in depictions of deviant behaviours. (Foucault, 1976, p18).

Foucault questioned the hypothesis, seeing oppression as being part of the medieval era, with its monarchic powers which held absolute control over the lives and deaths of their subjects. In industrial times, rather than being oppressed, he understood sex and body to be “Regulated, made efficient, its energies maximised in order to ensure reproduction of forces appropriate to the modern level of production” (Foucault, 1976, p179). Bourgeoisie had taken the place of the old monarchy and it was in its interest to direct a population expanded due to the Industrial Revolution and enjoying much longer lives thanks to medical advances, managing it as a productive force. Bio politics and Biopower are thus conducive tactics, aimed at increasing value and production and implemented through institutions, moralistic trends and through a system of surveillance. Even though we have a certain degree of self-regulation within this system, the parameters by which we live are determined by the state and we are positively shaped, moulded and conditioned to behave in prescribed ways. Today, when the Deleuzian ‘Society of Control,’characterised by the corporation and mediated through the internet, has replaced Foucault’s Disciplinary Society, the illusion of self regulation is particularly insidious; we may have the freedom of choice between a set of fashion accessories which may help us to construct a particular self image, but that image has already been pre-packaged by the fashion industry. In democratic capitalism, subversive practices have been absorbed by an all-encompassing system (i.e.; the Guy Fawkes masks used by the hacker group ‘Anonymous’ and adopted by the Occupy Movement, are manufactured and sold by Warner Brothers). Foucault’s Biopower evokes science fiction images from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or of Orwell’s 1984, but sci-fi has often been premonitory in its future visions. Deleuze saw today’s society of control as encompassing the very mechanisms that may appear to counteract institutional oppression (i.e. day centres, neighbourhood clinics, appearing to be outside the mechanisms of control of the hospitals while in fact being part of them). He believed that control in the contemporary world is held no longer by institutions but by corporations and the market, these entities which elude most people’s understanding while running our lives. Deleuze compares this new control system to gas, permeating all while remaining invisible. (Deleuze, 1995, p2).

More tangible and easy to identify, Foucault’s Biopower is a co-ordinated set of institutions that may be grouped under three components: the discipline of the individual citizen, the regulation of the population, and sexual ‘dispositives’ or mechanisms, which serve as a link between the previous two. Psychiatry, beginning in Victorian times with Charcot and continuing with Freudian Psychoanalysis, is seen by Foucault as a ‘dispositif’, a mechanism of surveillance through which sex is messianised and proposed as an innermost, essential truth. Here the pastoral power of the church is displaced to the therapy room and sex talk replaces confession. Psychiatry and later, medicine, took pastoral control of the individual. On the population level, he observed the objectification of people into races and species, with demographics, eugenics and racism becoming instituted in Germany and France in the nineteenth century. With population growth in the 1800s, sex gradually became something to be administered, as a police matter. Administrators controlled sex and reproduction. The four main ‘dispositives’ (deployments) according to Foucault were:

  • The hysterisation of women’s bodies.
  • The pedagogising of the child’s sexuality
  • The socialisation of procreative behaviour
  • The psychiatrisation of perverse pleasures (Foucault, 1976, pp.136-39).

Foucault saw that:

’The development of Capitalism could not have been assured except at the price of a controlled insertion of bodies into the mechanisms of production and through an adjustment of the phenomena of populations to economic processes’.

(Foucault, 1976, p.108)

In today’s overpopulated , highly technological world, peoples' consuming power is exploited even more than their producing ability. Pharmaceutical companies have bought the medical profession and ill bodies are being used in order to sell drugs.

Cheap labour in third world countries produces an excess of overly packaged goods to be purchased by the first world and soon to be discarded and substituted for new ones, the old gadgets and packaging continuing to contribute to the poisoning of our natural environment. The body-mind is still being exploited and directed mostly through the media and internet with its escapist fantasies and its weakening effect on our concentration span.

Protestant work ethics and rationalism were at the root of capitalism, according to Foucault. These tendencies are alive and well, with work and consuming power high in the value system, substituting the lost old ways and the collapsed Christian morals. To be busy and to work, every hour of the week, even if it is for a corrupt, polluting company with little regard for the rights of the workers and environment, is tantamount to being a good citizen. This contrasts sharply with the Buddhist ethical rule of ‘Right Livelihood’, one of the principles in the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’, the ethical code of Buddhism. (Sangharakshita, 1990, p93). Right Livelihood demands that Buddhists abstain from working at jobs that have any links to suffering and violence either in their performance or in the provenance of the raw materials or products. As the Buddhist doctrine focuses on inter-dependence of all beings, its implementation would mean a total re-structuring of society. Buddhism is built as an ethical/philosophical/symbolic system developed around the practice of meditation, which begins with the body, how we use it and live with it.

While Foucault’s Bio-Power was a moulding force, Deleuze’s notion of Society of Control is a modulating one. In this more contemporary model, Deleuze sees corporations as exerting control in a complex, web-like way, reflected in the hyper-communication web of the internet. It divides from within by exhorting to competition, imposing constant training which prolongs control perpetually. This control is increasingly disembodied, its limits upheld not by walls but by the computer, capable of denying or granting access and by the password, the magic open sesame into virtual and material treasure caves. Capitalism is ‘ [...] no longer involved in production, which it often relegates to the third’s a capitalism of higher order buys the finished products [...] What it wants to sell is services but what it wants to buy is stocks [...]’ (Deleuze, 1995, p3). If this control suggested by Deleuze is short-term it is also continuous, limitless and supported by a system of debt. He writes: “Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt” (Deleuze, 1995, p3). The constant maintained by capitalism is the extreme poverty of three-quarters of humanity “Too poor for debt, too numerous for confinement” (Deleuze, G, 1995, p3). The insidious coils of the serpent, the animal Deleuze uses as a symbol of new capitalist society of control, is more complex and inescapable than the burrows of the mole, the blind, enclosed creature he used to symbolise Foucault’s disciplinary society.

II) James Hillman: The Imaginal Body

Jewish-American Depth Psychologist James Hillman saw the obsession with efficiency as one of the core flaws of our Western culture. Hillman was a post-Jungian whose work examined the notion of Psyche, or soul, as a multiplicity of archetypal images. His work disintegrates the literal individual ego into a multiplicity of gods or archetypes, which Hillman frequently based on the ancient Greek Olympian Pantheon. He believed that the nature of the mind is poetic and that literalism and reductionism have stunted the life of the imaginal. The body, its desires, fears and pathologies feature prominently in his work, where body and psyche are often used as interchangeable terms. Hillman’s poetic mind can be experienced through embodied awareness. This allows a break from the frantic monologues and repetitive inner dialogues of the thinking mind, bringing us in touch with our senses. This coming to our senses allows us to meet experience without excessive cognitive filters. We arrive in “the now”, where we perceive reality as less fixed, more mysterious and glowing with aesthetic value. While Hillman’s focus is on the Western literary and philosophical canon, his view of the poetic nature of the mind mirrors the experience of Buddhist meditation.

Hillman’s critique of efficiency as central social value hinges on the fact that in themselves, without being aimed at the common good, efficiency, work and productivity are not intrinsically good. In “Kinds of Power” (1997) Hillman includes an excerpt of the interviews conducted by Gitta Sereny with Nazi Camp Commandant Franz Stangl, in which the disposal of daily human (Jewish) cargo to Nazi occupied Poland and into the Treblinka camp are described. Efficiency is seen as the highest value, justifying and ennobling the horror of the activities undertaken in the camp.

Hillman comments:

The work of gassing and burning five thousand human beings in a morning or anywhere from five to twenty thousand persons in twenty four hours, requires the maximum efficiency: no wasted motions, no friction, no complications, no back slog. “They arrived and they were dead within two hours”, Stangl said. In order to get at all close to how efficient the camp’s operations were, we have first to imagine the potential for chaotic disorder harnessed by this efficiency.
The trains came into the camp on a one-track line. They had to be unloaded ( the already dead on arrival dumped into a pit) and shunted out, keeping the track clear for the next train. Men, women and children, all ages, staggered out of the cars, blinded by daylight or floodlight, terrorised and confused, half dead from suffocation, dehydrated, dazed, feeble, hysterical, not understanding the commands. If they turned left instead of right, faltered, missed an order, hesitated, raised a question, they delayed the procedure and were often whipped forward or promptly shot on the spot. Nothing must interfere with the efficiency of the procedures. “Could you not have changed that?” I asked, “In your position, could you not have stopped the nakedness, the whips, the horror of the cattle pens”. “No, no, no. This was the system. Wirth had invented it. It worked. And because it worked it was irreversible”

(Hillman, J, 1997, pp.35-36)

The concentration camp is probably the ultimate locus of Biopower. Its contemporary parallel may be Guantanamo Bay and the USA prison system. Police and military in the US, especially after Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (2012), which allows them to arrest citizens indefinitely on suspicion of terrorism, without proof or trial, are at the service of our modern Biopower machine. Recent physical attacks and arrests of citizens for exercising their right to demonstrate, during the Occupy Wall Street protests and the equivalent protests in European cities, attest to the emergence of a police state in USA and Europe. More subtle losses of human rights caused by the ‘war on terrorism’ such as the sale of the details of our personal internet interactions to government agencies (according to Julian Assange’s recent declarations), seem mildly oppressive in comparison with this police brutality. The fight for the right of expression sees the the protester’s body as the locus of the power struggle. This comes accompanied by punitive austerity measures aimed at demolishing the remaining services (hospitals, welfare, education) that are basic to the physical and mental well being of people. These are the manifestations of the real face of power, of an economy dissociated from democracy but still disguised as such. Perhaps, in Foucault terms, the time of domination of the Bourgeoisie has ended and we are now returning to a new version of the monarchic feudal? era, with today’s new monarchs, technocrats and bankers having full power over the lives and deaths of the subjects.

Hillman writes of the unconscious but “never as a separate area of the psyche or an objectified field of investigation. He insists that unconsciousness runs through everything, including psychology itself.” (Hillman & Moore, 1989, p8). While he was Director of Studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich for ten years and he used Jungian terminology in most of his writings, “Many Jungian psychologists call Hillman a renegade, heretic and not a Jungian at all. [Hillman’s] engagement of Jung’s ideas is a genuine dialogue rather than a dogmatic affiliation or filial devotion”. (Moore, 1989, p5).

Hillman’s prolific and complex work proposes a life lived in tune with Psyche, which would re-enchant the world, restoring our sense of awe, releasing us from the frantic, one directional forward race in the name of progress, a dangerous fantasy that has taken itself too literally. Author Suzy Gablik adopted the notion of enchantment too, an idea that runs parallel to the argument of this chapter, with the difference that I am suggesting the adoption of formal meditation/embodiment training in daily life, perhaps in early education, to empower individuals. Critical of our culture’s obsession with growth and development, Hillman declared that after age forty only cancer grows, (Hillman, 1994). Hillman’s soul is happier in darkness4, in downwards moves towards its own underworld of pathology and dream. She is not contained within the body, like its Christian counterpart, rather we are submerged in it, swimming in an ocean of soul. Not unlike Richard Kearney in “The Wake of Imagination” (date?), Hillman sees body and psyche as two expressions of one fluid,protean entity, which has been suppressed by both Western religion and science.

This downward move is particularly relevant to the subject of this paper; the necessity of being comfortable with darkness, able to move in the realms of grief, inhabit depression and staying with uncertainty are also central to the practice of Yoga and meditation. When meditating deeply, we may at times undertake this descent, touching not only on to personal grief and losses, but sensing the existential fear and grief intrinsic to human nature and to being itself. Superficial tensions can function as protective armours, shielding us from deeper un-knowing, from contradictions and paradoxes. Relaxation doesn’t just bliss out, it also opens into depth.

Hillman’s Soul inhabits the body and its illnesses, as much as its passions. Here, the body is filled with stories. The skin belongs to Aphrodite, the radiant one, the bones to Saturn, the Senex, organs filled with humours and moods. The body is acknowledged as inhabiting the realm of story and metaphor, is de-objectified and attention to its moods releases images. The material world is not just entangled in soul but is a reflection, or emanation of it. His exhortation to “Not suppress and not act out” (Hillman.1968) is a summary of the practice of meditation; we are asked to bear our experience, in body and mind, without reacting mindlessly, by escaping the experience, judging it or denying it. As an ethical code it is pretty succinct. It condenses the entire Buddhist Dharma within two lines. It invites to fully noticing our experience without necessarily taking action on it, at least not before having considered it. This position echoes Nietzsche ‘s ‘Amor Fati’ (Nietzsche, 1882, Section 276) the embracing of our fate or reality.

Hillman’s strange vision allows the individual’s essence and the essence of things themselves to fragment into a multiplicity of stories, it encourage us to abandon a monolithic view of life and any salvational fantasy, personal or cultural, to embrace death and the rich complexity of imaginal life. He adopts the Jungian notions in which the Wise Old Man archetype, the Senex, which is related to the Jungian notion of Self, is in fact, a monkey, (Jung, Man and his Symbols, 1964) This points to the primacy of body drives and impulses in the formation of identity and sense of self. The body and its wants are mysterious and frightening so much of our upbringing into good sociable manners is based on suppression rather than channelling of physical sensing. Without full access to the multiplicity of moods and sensations from the body, the fruitful and poetic dialogue between body and environment, we are much less human and reduced to a cognitive filtering of experience. The repressed however, always returns, manifesting through physical, emotional and social symptoms, from widespread depression, to drug abuse, violence and suicide. No amount of lithium water will cure this sadness and no consumer good distract us from it.

While Foucault sought the liberation of the individual from the oppression of the Biopower, Hillman went further to see both oppressed and oppressor as trapped in a literalist view of the world and of themselves. A connection to body and to psyche would shatter the literalist lens revealing the protean, ever-fluid quality of self and world, neither of which is ever fixed or static but whose shapeshifting can be mediated through the skilled powers of imagination. In “Healing Fiction”, Hillman probes the most fundamental presuppositions of the therapeutic industry, regarding empirical studies and cases as “fantasies elaborated in the genre of objective science and technical formula” (Hillman, 1990, p3). Psychoanalysis itself needs therapeutic attention according to Hillman; his uses of the terms Psychology and Psychological refers to a genuine sensitivity to the soul or psyche.

In the prologue of A Blue Fire, Thomas Moore writes:

Another of Hillman’s roots is in Husserlian phenomenology. He approaches pathology, and experience, from love to depression, suicide, masturbation, paranoia, death, failure and growth, in a contemplative way, never interpreting or prescribing, but only describing and presenting,[...]Like an artist painting a still life, he allows phenomena to show themselves for our contemplation.

(Moore, 1990, p3).

Soul-making seems to be, in Hillman’s system of thought, a whole approach to life, with a slow pace that allows for the engagement of images. He does not propose any specific method, other than opened versions of Jungian active imagination. Instead, he believed in ideas, whose etymology from the Greek word eithos, means “both that which one sees and that by means of which one sees” (Hillman, J, 1990, p53). Ideas inform action by just being entertained by the mind.

The capacity of ideas to transform experience is central to Hillman’s work. He moves ideas from the realm of thought to the realm of psyche, as ways of regarding things, perspectives that are often passively assumed through our culture and which give us eyes. Perceptions are shaped by particular ideas and ‘as Plato said an idea is the “eye of the soul”, opening us through its insight and vision.’ (Hillman,J, 1990, p53) “We are always in the embrace of an idea” writes Hillman in Revisioning Psychology, his magnum opus of 1976, suggesting that psychology has focused on feelings and symptoms to the neglect of ideas and also of the material world, the environment, the ‘Anima Mundi’, or world’s soul, and the social and political realms. In “We’ve had one hundred years of Psychotherapy and the world is getting worse” (1993), Hillman dialogues with Journalist and co-writer, Michael Ventura in a profound critique of our culture, suggesting that therapy has colluded with capitalism in directing social and individual dissatisfaction inwards, in a navel-gazing exercise, rather than becoming a ‘cell of revolution’ through which pathological suffering can be related to the ugliness of urban environments or towards the speed and soullessness of modern life. So we need a therapy for our ideas and for our world. Our problems, he says, are due to sick ideas.

Hillman believed that behind a symptom there is always an image, and behind the image there is an archetype. Engaging in dialogue with images allows us to discover our deep multiplicity of selves, the polytheistic nature of being, not held together by one, heroic, all-mighty ego or self, but a playground for many forces, natural, instinctual, mythical and all, in essence, archetypal. The post-Enlightenment drive towards reason and control and the humanistic belief in the need to strengthen the individual ego are responsible for the demise of soul in our contemporary world. Hillman’s Archetypes are not Platonic, they are passionate, moody, mythical beings which manifest in human experience and behaviour rather than ideas in a realm of transcendent perfection. We find this passion expressed in his writings, which demonstrate his belief in the primacy of style over content. Reading Hillman is a treat to lovers of both language and ideas. Hillman’s Jungian approach would engage this chaotic soup of life via the method of active imagination. Yoga, Buddhism and Embodiment engage experience through focussing attention on it and delaying reaction.

III) J.K. Gibson-Graham. Embodying Community

If James Hillman saw attention to ideas as a way of acting in the world, feminist writers J.K Gibson-Graham give thinking a core role in their vision of social experimentation and post-capitalist communities. They quote Foucault in their introduction to A Post Capitalist Politics (Gibson-Graham, 2006, pxxvii) under the heading of An Ethics of Thinking:
‘The co-implicated processes of changing the self/thinking/world is what we identify as an ethical practice.....ethics is the continual exercising, in the face of the need to decide, of a choice to be/act/think a certain way. Ethics involves the embodied practices that bring principles into action. Through self awareness and transforming practices of the self that gradually become modes of subjectivation, the ethical subject is brought into being’ (Foucault, 1985, p28).

This cultivation of the ethical person through careful examination of one’s thinking and embodied experience and the choice to transform destructive drives into creative energy is more than just reminiscent of Tibetan Tantric Buddhist theory and practice. (Padmasambhava, 8th Century BC) When Gibson-Graham mention thinking, they don’t refer to cognitive thought alone. They write:

‘Under the influence of rationalist traditions that have policed the mind/body, culture/nature divides, thinking has been seen to operate in a register above and separate from untamed bodily sensation. Yet we have all experienced the intense inter-connection between thought and feeling.

(Gibson-Graham, 2006, Ch 1, p1).

And commenting on the theories of William Connolly (Connolly 2002, p65) and Brian Massumi (76;Massumi 2002, Chapter1) they write:

‘For us, this means paying attention not only to the intellectual arguments offered in response to our politics, but to the visceral intensities and emotive narratives that accompany their expression.’

(Gibson-Graham, 2006, p2).

Gibson-Graham undertook action research projects with local officials and activists in Australia, the United States and the Philippines, “attempting to cultivate ourselves and others as novel economic subjects with new desires and visions of possibility” (Gibson-Graham, 2006, p2) Self cultivation based on ethical free choice is also central to Buddhist practice, which believes that human beings are neither good nor bad but become shaped by their own actions and level of awareness. To this effect Gibson-Graham quote Connolly: “Thinking is creative as well as representative, and its creativity is aided by the fact that the process of thinking is not entirely controlled by the agents of thought’” (Connolly, 2002, pp. 65-66). This creative, embodied thinking, according to K.J. Gibson-Graham, is hindered on two different fronts. On the one hand,“selfhoods” or identities are created as a result of socio-economic and media forces. Theses identities lose touch with embodied vitality and independent thinking which limits their ability to envisage alternatives to the dominant power system.

On the other hand, Gibson-Graham found that at the time of proposing their vision for new forms of social living, their main opponents were Marxist intellectuals, who were entrenched in defeatist attitudes about the all-encompassing power of the capitalist-consumerist system and stuck within melancholic notions of the pure and real communist ideals. These positions led these disenchanted Marxists to dampen and deem to failure a priori any new ideas and invitations to action. Gibson-Graham see new energy and possibility in small communities, embracing the local without becoming parochial and beginning the transformation from the individual member of society: engaging body and thinking into a positive way of acting in community and in the world.

This approach is spiritual in the sense that it relies on the ability of the individual to confront his/her desires, emotions and drives, struggling with the very structure that has so far managed to make impossible the implementation of the ideals of Communism, Socialism,] and of every ethical code: human nature and its difficult relationship with power. This is of course a delicate field, as training in awareness cannot and should not be enforced. The conditions that support awareness and ethics can, however, be built into everyday life.

Gibson-Graham choose to take their work little by little, combining theory with practice They quote Zen master Shunryu Suzuky:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few” (Suzuki, 1970, p1). They comment, “Our practice requires acting as a beginner, refusing to know too much, allowing success to inspire and failure to educate, refusing to extend diagnoses too widely or deeply”

(Gibson-Graham, 2006, p14).

Gibson-Graham give the example of this need for a ‘struggle against themselves’ with the story of the Colectivo Situaciones, which emerged during the financial crisis of 2001 in Argentina. People taking over disused factories and attempting to use resources left unused by the crisis came up against their own fears of authority and law. Gibson-Graham describe their ordeal in disentangling themselves from these fears and quote Foucault once more:

The political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our day is not to try to liberate the individual from the economy [...] but to liberate us both from the economy and from the type of individualization that is linked to the economy.
We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kindof individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries.

(Foucault, 1983, 216).

Graham-Gibson’s approach to social change is positively feminine in its organic and experiential nature. While backed by solid research and rigorous thinking, it does not weigh heavily on the side of planning and structuring; it prefers to experiment and to test ideas on the ground of first hand experience in the world, thus giving a body to ideology. This also allows them to escape the paralysing effect of fear, in particular the fear of impotence in the face of globalised capitalist power. Their approach prefers the small over the large and ambitious context, in a move away from the large male gesture of power.

Other feminist writers engaging with notions of embodiment, include Judith Butler, with her notions of the difference between sex and gender both in Gender Trouble date? and in Bodies that Matter date?. The imperative call of : “Write from the body!” of the French feminists of Ecriture Feminine, is another example of the liberating value of reclaiming physicality in the Western culture.

Chapter Two: Meditative Arts

I) Embodiment and Meditation

‘The soft overcomes the hard
The slow overcomes the fast’

(Lao-Tzu. Tao Te Ching)

J.K. Gibson-Graham ‘s work is imbued with a spirituality that translates into practical projects and communal experiments. In the following section we will look at the meditative/spiritual elements in embodiment practice. Contemplative practices work on the CNS (central nervous system) and cultivates the use of the meditative Alpha, Theta and Delta waves. The Parasympathetic nervous system becomes predominant during and after meditation, which means that the practitioner slows down and lives more ‘in the present moment’ (Criswell, E, 1989). Meditators choose to cultivate a mode of being that is unlikely to result in greedy, aggressive or dogmatic behaviour. This conscious decision is crucial to this practice. Building a habit of contemplation is initially hard work but, once set up, the practice can be pleasurable and can be seen as a path of “higher” hedonism.

The contemplative body/mind experience is not an exclusive prerogative of the East, but a mode of being common to all humans and available in our physiological make up.

Water features prominently in imagery referring to meditative embodiment; Western science uses the term “waves” to name the different modes of brain function, ranging from the cognitive and active Beta to the wave of deep, dreamless sleep, Delta. Heraclitus declared the “all is in flux” and that we could therefore never swim in the same river twice. His notions may have been influenced by Eastern philosophies, which reached classical Greece. Wilhelm Reich described the liberated orgone energy as streaming delightfully through the body while the Yogis taught that energy moved through channels calledthe Nadis, which translates from the Sanskrit as rivers. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the main Yogic manual of meditation, (which date of origin is uncertain, with scholars guesses varying from the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD), described the waves of the mind as busy and superficial when thinking is agitated and building into one large, tsunami like wave when unified by concentration and meditation (Patanjali, p121). This wave of mind could then be directed into a chosen goal.

Mental habits were taught by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras as being Samsaras (habits born from repetitive action) and likened to the patterns in the sand under a lake that are created by the repetitive currents of water. Contemporary Western embodiment/somatic practices, seek fluidity of body, movement and mind. Some of the great exponents of this movement include Bonnie Bambridge Cohen, Thomas Hanna, Mary Whitehouse, Moshe Feldenchrais and Eugene Genlin. Don Hanlon Johnson, one of the main theorists of this field explains in his introduction to his Bone, Breath and Gesture:

Somatic innovators have challenged the dominant models of exercise, manipulation and self-awareness as alienating people from their bodies..they bring us closer to the wisdom inherent in the ancient structures of collagen, nerve fibre, and cerebro-spinal fluid

(Hanlon-Johnson, 1995, pxvi)

The Western somatic field is both awakening at the individual level and socially subversive. Its many theorists and practitioners elude the mainstream and rarely secure academic acknowledgement, but they are a valuable Western counterpart of Eastern meditative work, with their practice is based on experiential anatomy, intimate sensing and knowledge of the body.

When tensions dissolve through embodied awareness practice, we are confronted with larger tensions, the existential fear that the Buddha is said to have attributed to all that lives. The goal is not feeling well or being healthy, but the breaking of a superficial armour, constructed with all the components of personal and collective narrative and identity. The Rishis of the forests, who preceded Hinduist religion, were the first Yogis and were radical masters who lived on the margins of society, with no material goods or comforts (Worthington, 1982, p14). This is a far cry from the ten week Yoga courses taught by leotard clad teachers in any of the many mushrooming holistic centres.

Concentration is the precursor of meditation, giving the practitioner respite from the nagging restlessness of a needy, weak and agitated body-mind. In meditation initially we confront our minds, where we are surprised to find much debris, deluded notions and distorted views. Examining our thinking and our emotions is challenging. We become familiar with and take responsibility for our experience. We notice physical impulses and emotional tone and, without passing judgement on any of this, we take stock and return, repeatedly, to our object of concentration. The object of concentration is often the breath and returning to it builds up the ‘concentration muscle’. Gradually, distractions lessen and we become more fully focussed, while still retaining our cognitive awareness. After prolonged periods of practice, we can enter states characterised by sense of fullness of experience, deep calm and a sense of ‘just being’. Delaying reactions gives us increased choice on our response to events in everyday life. We train on the cushion so we can live more freely.

These practices demand a considerable amount of time. The reversal of value which ensues is obvious; cultures and practices that examine and engage body-mind experience are, by nature slower and place their spiritual practice at the centre of life. This integrates conscious and unconscious experience, with the body as the linking factor.

With practice, sensory perception becomes richer, thought becomes clearer and there is a certain freedom from compulsive thinking. Excessive physical or mental activity is seen as an escape from this present moment and as reinforcing of the illusion of a separate ego. Through practice, our sense of self gradually expands to include our surroundings and other people. Buddhism sees concern with the wellbeing of others as the most efficient way of looking after oneself, given the interdependence of all life systems. Radical Interconnectedness is also central to ecological thinking and to the Systems Theory of Gregory Bateson and influential in the work of artists such as Daghda Dance Company in Limerick, Ireland. Daghda’s Director Michael Klien, expands on his Batesonian approach to dance in his Choreography as an Aesthetics of Change (2008).

The Hungry Ghost is a Buddhist mythical being held in a realm of plenty. He suffers perennial hunger but is unable to eat, cursed as he is with a tiny orifice instead of a mouth. He could be an apt symbol of the consumer culture. The need to come back to our senses is pressing, but the culture only offers more products to fix the symptoms it has created and the hunger is never satisfied. As we race in an exhausting round of production and consumption, thinking critically and compassionately becomes difficult.

Stopping and noticing that we are alive, we become conscious of our impending death and of the strangeness of being. We may ask deeper questions, the same questions that the consumer culture has helped us so well to elude.

Doing less, noticing more, staying with uncertainty, may be the most radical acts that we may perform. The insight achieved through meditation is meant to break through the cosmetic skin of normalcy to reveal depth. As pointed out by Zizek, Western appropriation of Eastern practices has failed to carry through the radical quality of their outlook on life, disregarding the frugal lifestyle and the visionary mysticism of India and exporting just a handful of techniques to be patented, branded and marketed here. As Carl Jung declared, we are mere spiritual tourists in the East, posturing with contortionist zeal in ‘Hot Yoga’ classes or teaching meditation courses for the staff of businesses and corporations. Western Yoga adapts to a materialistic world view, losing its essential values.

The current recession with its exposition of a corrupt elite and powerful plutocracy is tearing a gash in the fabric of consensus reality. Through loss (of income and future expectations) consumers-citizens are awakening to deeper realities and in Ireland in particular, we are fast abandoning the ‘new rich’ attitudes of the Celtic Tiger. A healthy breeze of existential awakening is in the air, unfortunately learnt the painful way, as if through the trials of spiritual initiation. We are forced to stop and take stock.

The art world no longer refers to itself as ‘The Art Industry’ and more collectives are forming with a growing concern with the current times. Art pays homage to the crisis. Dublin Contemporary in 2011, Ireland’s first large scale art show, curated by Jota Castro and Christian Viveros-Faune, attempted to respond to the current recession. Its subtitle: ‘Terrible Beauty - Art, Crisis, Change and the Office of Non Compliance’ referred to the talks and discussions carried out during the exhibition which attempted to address various social problems. To many Irish people however, the cost of the exhibition (€15 and €10 at concession price), was beyond reach, and excluded them from the events. The fact that the exhibition was state-funded also makes the validity of the title of ‘non-compliance’ appear questionable.

The crisis may motivate artists to move from postmodern irony to more politically engaged art-making. Postmodernism was absorbed by consumer and celebrity culture. Its political detachment and the relativising of all values and narratives lent itself to being used. After all, if there no original truth and all reality is pastiche, why not throw ourselves into a frenzy of shopping and short- term gratification? With the recession upon us and the frenzy behind us, more reflection and political awareness are returning to art and life.

In a talk to art students in NCAD in 2010, performance artist Nigel Rolfe incited new artists to ‘Go, climb a mountain, dig a hole!’. His exhortation to physical action was underlined by his insistence on radical presence, a quality familiar to meditators and theatre practitioners alike, especially in the Grotowsky method. Radical presence is embodied presence. Art has constructed a language subtle and powerful enough to speak to our embodied awareness.

II) Contemporary Art and Embodied Awareness - The body as artistic medium.

Performance artists have adopted many of the principles of Eastern meditative practice.

Marina Abramovic, the matriarch of contemporary performance art and her Irish disciple, Amanda Coogan, both talk of a “lineage” of teachers passing on a direct transmission of knowledge. This is a notion reminiscent of the Yogic Param Param, of lineage of teachers descending from an enlightened master. Abramovic makes use of concentration, meditation and endurance and teaches these in her school. The work of Nigel Rolfe, with his emphasis on action, immediacy and radical presence also carries meditative connotations. Film too has paid homage to contemplation, with examples such as Tarkousky’s use of the elemental, the ritualistic and the sublime in Nostalgia or the numinosity of the work of Bill Viola. Irish Video artist Colin Martin, with his hypnotic long shoots of interior spaces elevated into a quality of sublimity brings contemplation to the viewer’s experience. Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonme Who can recall his past lives is a prime example of slow paced, magical cinema with echoes of the contemplative experience. Some dancers, like The Daghda dance company in Ireland , or the great Merce Cunningham, who collaborated with John Cage, establish links between dance and performance art and meditation.

There is a tradition of embodiment in installation art too: Janaina Tschape, and Ernesto Neto, both from Brazil, create, respectively, video and installation works in which the performer’s body is morphed with vegetation and marine life forms, or where viewers find themselves engulfed within organic environments, moving within the luminous tissues and sinuses of a gigantic body. They both bring physicality into their work through their performance, film and object making. Installation art in general, has grown within a tradition of embodied sensory immersion. The video, performance and sculptural work of Korean artist, Kim Sooja, is steeped in contemplative, embodied poise and fullness of aesthetic and emotive power, often emerging as a response to historical and socially dramatic events. Surasai Kusolwong creates environments for relaxation and includes massage in his installations. The performative drawing of Morgan O’Hara highlights embodiment in the actual process of mark making and is influenced by the artist’s Japanese upbringing and her interest in Zen Buddhism as it is by her North American sense of boldness and experimentation.

One model of community in which art, embodied awareness, and everyday life are integrated is that of The Land Foundation, founded in 1998 in Thailand, near Chiang Mai. Here artists, ecologists, activists, philosophers and voluntary workers collaborate with the local communities to create a system which supports both the land, local food, health and education projects, and acts also as a laboratory for experimentation in artistic/academic fields. This is a circular system that both uses and sustains its environment at many levels. The Land Foundation has a Buddhist ethos and meditation is central to it. Many salient artists such as Philippe Parreno, Rikrit Tiravanija and Pierre Huyges contribute to the project, with Tiravanija especially spending time in The Land frequently. Tiravanija recreates spaces and environments for human interaction, often cooking and serving food in his highly participatory and convivial events. His work cannot be categorised in any of the traditional art forms, unless we describe his reconstructions of living spaces as sculptures. Works are projects, alive and open ended, engaging not just sight, but the senses of taste and smell, and the communal sense of participation.These are only some of the examples of embodied awareness in art today.

Conclusion: From Individualism to inter-connectedness

Before attempting to draw some conclusions we will retrace the main steps taken in this chapter:

I suggested that the body is the first site of oppression by the system and I presented a theoretical framework, headed by Foucault's theory of Bio Power, to support this idea. Eastern philosophy sees body and mind as a continuum. I gave this entity of body-mind the term of ‘embodied awareness’, to signify a mode of being in which physical, imaginal and rational resources interact freely and are available to an individual.

We considered the demise of body and the imaginal realm in our culture, adopting James Hillman’s notion that the crisis of our times is a crisis of the imagination. For Hillman, imagination and embodiment are closely linked. Central to the healing of this crisis, according to Hillman, is the need to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, and to adopt a less literal sense of selfhood and of reality.

J.K. Gibson-Graham‘s vision, in A Post Capitalist Politics, offered a Western model of new, non capitalist social structures founded on individual awareness and in turn based on embodied awareness. Their model of change starting with the individual (body), continuing on the conscious cultivation of skilful thinking and culminating in a collective vision for a better society, has much in common with Eastern meditative models but is framed in a non religious, social framework. Without becoming utopian, Gibson-Graham’s work reminds us that we can take some ethical control of our own lives and that we can connect with like-minded others. Small change is not insignificant but empowering. K.J. Graham-Gibson ideas are based in academic knowledge and embodied in the physical world and they marked a transition, in this paper, between theory and practice.

We continued by exploring practical, experiential aspects of our argument by looking at Eastern meditative traditions, with an emphasis on their potential for the cultivation of an ethical consciousness, the deconstruction of socially imposed “selfhoods” and the expansion of individual awareness into a more collective identity. We also outlined some of the principal Western embodiment philosophies and practices.

Moving deeper into materiality and experience, we looked at how contemporary artists have been proposing different ways of being embodied, in the world, through their work.

Artists have offered visions of expanded perceptual, cognitive and embodied realities through the history of contemporary art. Art promotes embodied awareness, inviting viewers to pause and consider their experience and their assumptions about reality, suggesting possibilities of lives lived more fully and critically.

While it is neither necessary nor desirable to conclude that contemporary art may have taken the role of either spirituality or of political activism in liberating viewers consciousness form the clutch of the capitalist vice, its potential for the subversion of a stagnant world view and for the envisioning of new paradigms is indisputable.

The body is a porous boundary linking all of our experiences. Life and art resemble each other in the course of the political ‘performances’ of the marching, protesting bodies of the “Occupy” movement and in the intensely articulate, passive stance of the camping bodies in cities through Europe and the US; doing nothing, insisting on it, using non-action to oppose corruption. Some of these real life performances shocked us with the ultimate sacrifice of physical integrity and of life itself in the name of human rights, as we witnessed in news reports of the Arab Spring and see now with the Syrian revolts.

The American dream of happiness through material possessions has failed, and the world is changing. We don’t know what will come next, but the gap between two historical periods is potentially opened to new, transformative vision. While we live in this gap, or Bardo (the Buddhist notion of transition or pause) an embodied awareness can be a useful tool that may help us to recognise the interdependence of all systems, from the natural to the economic and to negotiate change with mindfulness and compassion.


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  • On the subject of socially formed identities is worth noting Giorgio Agamben views in Homo Sacer (1998, p5)
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  • Contemporary parallels to Foucault’s Biopower could be seen in the publication of recent article in the Irish Times, informing that an Irish psychiatrist had recommended the addition of Lithium, a psychiatric drug used in bipolar disorder, to Irish tap water.
  • For a critique on the dangers of transcendentalism and its tendency to promote detachment from the physical world, plus a critique of the Bhagavad Gita see (Hanlon Johnson, 1992, p114)