How the Personal is Embedded and Embodied in the Social Field


I am writing a book with Alan Briskin about fields. This post is part of a series based on our explorations and writings. The more we explore and experience fields, the more I come to believe that (1) knowing they exist and influence us; (2) perceiving and attuning ourselves to them; and (3) consciously influencing them for good is essential to creating space for caring about others and the world we live in.

In the previous post I explored the Art of Inwardness, how it is instrumental to perceiving what is going on inside us and to insights that are emerging there. Here I explore how the space inside enables us to experience how we are embedded in and embody Social Fields.

We Are Embedded and Embodied

We are always embedded in a field, in fact, in multiple fields simultaneously: the personal, the social, and the noetic. The social fields, with all their information and energies, are affecting our nervous systems continuously, including yours right now. Pause for a moment and ask yourself how you feel. What is going on around you that might be impacting your inner state? Perhaps something you saw on the news is affecting you? Or the topic and tone of a nearby conversation among colleagues or friends?

In the Art of Inwardness we described practices for paying attention to what is going on inside us in ways that can help us perceive and influence social fields.

In addition to always being embedded in a social field, we also embody the fields in which we are embedded. Embodying fields is not just a concept in our mind or an abstract idea. Within every moment our bodies—including our breath, heart rate, brain patterns, and gut—are operating in relationship to the fields in which we are embedded. For the most part, fields shape our behavior and interactions outside of conscious awareness. Paying attention to one’s own body is a way to tune into the information and energies in the social field so you can get to their essence. This enables us to consciously choose what impact we want to have on others and on situations.

In the 1990’s I had the privilege of being part of a series of Women’s International Dialogues sponsored through the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Dialogue Project. In the first one I met an extraordinary young woman who eventually became a well-known South African businesswoman, social entrepreneur, and author. Although she called herself Wendy, her full name is Wendy Yvonne Nomathemba Luhabe. At that time Nelson Mandela had recently been released from prison and the social fields in South Africa were fraught with emotions about its direction: civil war or peaceful transfer of power. Our group included both white and black South Africans.

Early in our days of dialogue, in a tone of curiosity and wonderment, I recall her saying something like, “You are all talking so fast. When someone speaks it comes into my heart and then needs to go down into my belly so I can really understand it before I can respond.” The Americans and Europeans had been talking at a rapid pace. She was letting us know that her process for listening differed from ours. She needed time to experience what was being said in her body, to embody it, before she could or wanted to chime in.

Her words brought to our attention that the social field we were creating in the group was not amenable to deep listening, a cornerstone of dialogue. The conversational pace was getting in the way of listening beneath the surface of the words, to the deeper feelings and thoughts that are not immediately visible. A part of what was invisible until Wendy spoke was that our cultural differences were dramatically shaping how we interacted, and that the western, percussive mode of discussion was dominating the field.

I want to draw your attention to two things about the moment Wendy spoke. First, it was a peek into meta-awareness. Second, it demonstrates how dynamic and interconnected fields are.

A Peek into Meta-Awareness

Wendy’s words opened the curtains slightly for a peek into meta-awareness, the capacity to notice what you are paying attention to, what you are aware of in your sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts, as well as what you are aware of in the space around you. In addition to being aware of what you are paying attention to, with meta-awareness, you also become aware of what all these are communicating and what they mean to you.

In that moment, in the retreat center just outside Boston, my awareness expanded to include the red and orange leaves of the sugar maples swirling in the wind outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. The whole, diverse circle of us along with the space in the room itself became more present for me. I began sensing the pace of the whole group in addition to the subtle anxiety of the individuals in it. I can still feel how Wendy’s description of how she listens rings like a bell in my body. It forever changed how I listen.

Fields are Dynamic and Interconnected

Each of us in the dialogue and the environment in which we spoke were parts of one dynamic field with the social field influencing us as we were influencing it. Wendy demonstrated how, when one embodies an experience and then speaks from this integrated knowing, often it is a knowing that is true both for the individual and for the group. It seemed that she had spoken for and from the group simultaneously. Our intention had been to have a different kind of conversation, a dialogue, and yet we had fallen into a familiar pattern of ping pong discussion. Wendy’s words, and the embodied experience from which she spoke, changed the field in which we all had been embedded. When we embody a field and are simultaneously able to observe aloud the field inside and around us, others become aware of it and can decide if it is the field we want to be engendering.

Embodiment means unifying our experience and integrating the knowing of our minds with the knowing of our bodies. As Philip Shepherd captures it, “Embodiment isn’t about quieting the thoughts in the head and noticing the sensations in the body from there—it’s about bringing the abstract intelligence of the head into relationship with the body’s intelligence.”

Practices and Predictors of Embodiment*

1. Groundedness: Sensing gravity and a connection to the earth, throughout the body, particularly through the feet, legs, and bottom.

2. Physical uprightness: Sitting or standing with a sense of vitality and dignity, with energy moving upwards, sensing the space above our heads.

3. Centeredness: Connecting to a consciousness in the belly, known as “hara” in Japanese or ”Dan Tien” in Chinese, located slightly above the belly button.

4. Breath: Being aware of breathing in everyday life, noticing where you are experiencing the breath.

5. Spatial awareness: Being aware of inner and outer spaces, sensing how you are within a larger body through your individual body.

Embodiment is how we become aware of information and energies influencing us in the personal and social fields in which we are embedded, allowing us to shape them differently if we choose.

*Based on the work of Russell Delman as expressed in an interview in Alternative and Complementary Therapies.

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