Body Knowing as a Vehicle for Change

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue

It is my great pleasure to reflect on this insightful essay by Kelsey Blackwell, “What Does the Wisdom of the Body Have to Do with Racial Justice?” Although my work does not specifically focus on racial justice, I am actively engaged in work in the realm of embodiment, awareness, and social system change. I practice a social art form called Social Presencing Theater, a name given by the co-founder of the Presencing Institute, Otto Scharmer, who is cited in Ms. Blackwell’s essay. The roots of my work are in meditation and dharma art.

Like Ms. Blackwell, I too have encountered resistance when inviting people into body-knowing practices in professional or organizational settings. However, over the past decade Social Presencing Theater (SPT) practices have become part of the culture of practitioners who are applying a Theory U framework to social system change. Theory U is an awareness-based framework and set of practices that contribute to building a movement toward a saner, healthier, and more compassionate world. It addresses our disconnectedness from the natural world, from each other in terms of social inequality, and from our authentic selves. It is now more widely accepted as a method for deepening first-person experience and for collectively sensing the deep structures in social systems. The work invites coherence between our three bodies—individual body, earth body, and social system body.

There are many excellent points made in Ms. Blackwell’s essay, but I will focus my reflection on a single topic: the capacity to feel and the ability to be with what is happening as a doorway into collective creativity. These innate capacities can be deepened and cultivated with mindfulness and awareness practices—both sitting and movement practices. By letting go of thoughts, we develop loyalty to our bodies and to our moment-by-moment experience. The body is a sensing-feeling organ. Feeling is the language of the body. Embodiment practices invite us to be present, to listen to the body, to feel, and to be in our experience with a nonjudgmental, friendly attitude of mind.

Ms. Blackwell quotes from Resmaa Menakem, “A settled body enables you to harmonize and connect with the bodies around you, while encouraging those bodies to settle as well.”1 Settling the body into this good earth body is a daily practice—one that we call the 20 Minute Dance. It is an invitation to feel the connection, naturally present, between our body and the earth body. It is not enough to think about how we should be more in the body or to relate to the body and breathing only when triggered. It is good to engage in yoga or some other form of practice that synchronizes body and mind. However, many of us have benefited from having a daily body-mind check-in in which there is no agenda, no right way of doing things, nothing to accomplish, and nothing to fix or change. This experience of the body right now, comfortable or uncomfortable, is perfect as it is. That attitude toward our body in itself has a settling effect.

Take 20 minutes (fewer if you have less time). Lie down on the floor, place your attention (mindfulness) on the body, alternate moving and stillness, and work your way to standing and moving about the space. That’s it. Attend to the body. As we let go of the thought world of memory, fantasy, projection, and opinion, the body settles onto the earth’s body. We feel grounded. We feel our place on the planet. We belong in this body, in this spot right now. We can walk on this earth, grounded with each footstep, acknowledging in every step this planet that supports our life.

From this experience of a grounded body-mind, awareness can naturally expand out to an experience of the social body. We all live in multiple social bodies—families, teams, organizations, communities, ethnicities, networks, and social movements. When we are with others in groups, we have a felt sense of the environment and the texture of those social bodies. The social body can feel open and inviting, or hostile and confusing. We notice how our habitual thinking, evaluating, judging, and projecting can diminish our ability to sense the underlying wholeness of the social fabric.

Through group movement and space awareness practices, we can let our awareness antennae expand out. We explore how to create sane, inclusive social bodies. We see how our choices—made from habits, concepts, bias, and fear—lead to the shutting down of possibility and to a sense of disconnection from ourselves and from others. We learn to notice these habits without judgment and to let them be gateways to opening, to curiosity, to care. We are able to experience the natural, spacious quality of our mind and heart—the basic goodness present in relationships—and let those guide our choices.

The SPT practice that might be the most useful in the work of racial justice is one we call Stuck. This is an exploration of a personal or systemic “stuck” place in our work or life. In the oft repeated words of my mentors, Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer: “What is most deeply personal is most deeply systemic,” and “The issues outside are a mirror of the issues inside.”

The body holds both the painful, stuck areas of our life and also the freedom from what is stuck. The body holds both confusion and wisdom. In the Stuck practice, we embody a shape or sculpture of a particular feeling in our life where what we are trying to create is blocked, either by internal emotional patterns or by external circumstances. We invite that feeling into a body shape. We feel into it and invite whatever the experience is. Then we wait. We stay with that feeling until the stuck shape begins to move. We do not think about it, plan, or manipulate. We go with what the body wants to do. Stuck is not a permanent, static situation. Life is movement, and the still shape will move and then stop in a new shape. We then reflect on this process and gain insight from the body-knowing.

We notice that embedded in the stuck feeling itself are direction, energy, and insights. We suspend the urge to name and solidify the idea of our stuck place—the “who did what to whom” stories. These may be important in some contexts, but here we simply attend to the felt quality of the body shape, and then the body-knowing will move. We are emphasizing the reality that systems, including our own body-mind system, do not want to remain stuck. They yearn to move toward health, sanity, and openness. This practice is not about finding a solution to a problem. It is a way to bring body-knowing into the reflection process.

What arises from this practice is a sense of shared humanness, of openness and possibility. We each play diverse roles in many social bodies. Those bodies are often disconnected, or, at worst, at war with one another. However, these parts with their stories and histories arise in a vast space. That space allows the freedom to be fully sane, creative, compassionate, and brave human beings. The body can be the doorway to compassion, creativity, and courage. Given our situation on the planet today, we need our whole selves, including our body-knowing, to engage for the benefit of all.

Arawana Hayashi’s pioneering work as a choreographer, performer and educator is deeply sourced in collaborative improvisation. She currently heads the creation of Social Presencing Theater (SPT) for the Presencing Institute. Working with Otto Scharmer and colleagues at the Presencing Institute, she brings her background in the arts, meditation and social justice to creating “social presencing” that makes visible both current reality and emerging future possibilities. Arawana is a senior teacher in Shambhala, a community dedicated to bringing out the basic goodness of individuals, relationships, and society.

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  1. Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Las Vegas, NV: Central Recovery Press, 2017), 151-152.