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What is experience?

by Maggi Adamek

Last Friday, the Embodied Methodologies working group participated in its first embodiment workshop as part of a grant supported by the University of Minnesota's Institute for Advanced Studies. This three hour workshop focused on the concept of "experience" by leading the group through a two-part embodied investigation: (1) the container - skeletal system and (2) the contents - organs. We closed our exploration through a reflection about our experiences doing this.

I will ask our resident somatic expert, Margie Fargnoli, to write a separate post on the steps for exploring embodiment and the related concepts of proprioception, kinesthesis, and awareness. But, what we embarked on last week was a step toward what philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, called for but never developed:

"Here one wants to speak of a notion of cenesthesia, meaning a mass of sensations that would express to the subject the state of his different organs and different bodily functions. Thus my body for me, and your body for you, could be reached, and be knowable, by means of a cenesthesic sense." (The Primacy of Perception, Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 114)

Cultivating this cenesthesic sense is a process that Don Hanlon Johnson refers to as "disciplined experiencing" or what Bill Poteat calls the "aware body." Using the bodymind's attentional, proprioceptive and kinesthetic built-in capabilities, we acquire an increasingly sophisticated and refined sense of our own embodiment - Merleau-Ponty's cenesthesic sense. Our group is using Body-Mind Centering as the sensual technology to do this exploration.

If we are to use a 'sensual technology' or cenesthesic sense to explore our experience of embodiment, what then do we mean by experience? Numerous philosophers and thinkers have articulated what type of experience we refer to when we dwell in the realm of embodiment:

Eugene Gendlin: experience is the "...the inward receptivity of a living body...Experiencing is a constant, ever present, underlying phenomenon of inwardly sentient living" (p. 15)

Richard Shusterman: "pre-cognitive, non-linguistic experience" (p. 2)

John Dewey: "primary experience"

Merleau-Ponty: "..the basic experience of the world...[as] that which precedes knowledge"

Wilshire: "..spontaneous and prereflective....utterly pre-reflective awareness"

Fontana: "...direct experience of conscious processes"

Husserl: "...the things themselves"

So, we are using an embodied methodology to learn how to access this level of embodied experience, one which happens prior to the formation of language, thought or construct - the very immediate sensory level.

Last week, we focused on the 'direct experience' of our bones and organs...learning to pay attention to the actual experience of the bones as living tissue in our body, the quality of sensations in our organs as they do their liver-y thing.