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The Mindfulness Revolution and the Embodiment Revolution

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

This post is based on/is a summary of Professor Vervaeke's discussion with Rafe Kelley at the Embodiment Movement Summit. It's one of my favorite talks by him. This post covers the most important ideas and hopefully does some justice to the talk but if you have the time please watch it here -

There are two major cultural revolutions happening right now:-

  1. The mindfulness revolution

  2. The embodiment revolution

In both of these revolutions, there is a convergence between the cultural practice and scientific study of the fields.

The Mindfulness Revolution

At a cultural level, people are (individually and collectively) engaging in mindfulness practices. This is in convergence with the increasing cognitive-scientific, psychological, and neuroscientific study on mindfulness; at a clinical level, it is being studied in terms of its capacity for therapeutic intervention, at a cognitive level it increases cognitive flexibility and our capacity for insight, and at a neuroscientific level, it drives brain plasticity and positively impacts our brain rewiring.

John Vervaeke proposes that there’s similar work going on with the Embodiment Revolution. He is an advocate of the '4 E Cognitive Science' ' which claims that there are 4 main features of cognition:

  1. Cognition is inherently embodied

  2. Cognition is enactive

  3. Cognition is embedded

  4. Cognition is extended

The central feature here is the embodiment.

So what is this idea of embodiment and cognition?

The key idea here is that the brain and the body are an integrated dynamical system. Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson proposed the deep continuity hypothesis which suggests that there is a deep continuity between the biology of a body and the cognition of the brain.

‘Deep continuity’ here refers to how cognitive processes are dependent on biological principles, patterns, and processes and vice versa. There is a deep interdependence and interactions between the functioning of our brain and the functioning of our bodies.

A living thing is self-organizing and self-making; it adaptively seeks out conditions that will perpetuate its own existence. What's going on when a living thing seeks food in its environment? Food is not part of the physics of the world, food is only a chemical that has a particular relationship to this living thing. The living thing through its autopoietic, adaptive machinery decides whether it's food or it's poison. If the living thing makes sense of it as ‘food’, this chemical becomes deeply relevant for the living thing; it starts mattering. In this manner, the principles of life (biology) and the principles of cognition are deeply continuous.

When we decide that something matters for us, we are applying a phenomenon that is at the core of cognition --- our capacity for relevance realization.

What does it mean if the brain and the body are an integrated dynamical system?

Earlier, cognition was thought to be like an inner computation model. Input comes in, there’s a signal and then, as a result, an action. The only space for cognition was believed to be in that internal tiny computation spot.

But it's more sophisticated than that. When organisms perceive, they are also always adaptively seeking. As one adaptively seeks, the sensory input changes, which changes one’s actions, which changes how one sense, which in turn changes the action. There is a sensory-motor loop that is constantly evolving so it can constantly enact with the environment.

This process involves the organism's needs; depending on the context sometimes a movement may need to provide more details (zooming in) whereas sometimes a movement may need to provide an overall picture (zooming out). The optimal balance between the two depends on what's relevant and what matters to the living thing base on its autopoietic needs. Our cognition evolves (dynamically) to'fit' to the sensorimotor loop to an ongoing, changing environment.

In this manner, this is a deep integration and coupling between embodied movement and cognition.

Condition is a meta-coupling of the brain-body coupling, the perception and action (sensory-motor) coupling, and the coupling organism to a dynamically changing environment.

The idea of movement is at the center of this meta-coupling. Movement is not just something we do to keep physically fit or for survival but it is constitutive to cognition. The scientific research on this is convergent with a cultural movement in which we are seeing the emergence of communities of practice that are centered upon embodied movement.

Just like the mindfulness revolution, the embodiment revolution has a convergence between scientific study and the cultural emergence of practice. There’s also a convergence between these two revolutions themselves in form of mindful movement practices.

Professor Vervaeke proposes that these two revolutions (the mindfulness revolution and the embodiment revolution) are driven (both individually and jointly) driven by the need to recover lost ways of knowing. It is important to recover these ways of knowing because they are central to meaning in life.

What are the lost ways of knowing?

Since Descartes, Newton, and Kant we have reduced most of our knowing to propositional knowing. Propositional knowing involves knowing that something (some kind of fact) is the case (example; I know that dogs are mammals). Propositional knowing involves inferential practice, forming theories, and normative phenomenology. How do we know when we're picking up on propositions in the right manner? We get a sense of knowing the truth.

But notice how in order to engage in propositions we need to know how to propose. We can’t just know that, we also have to know-how. Knowing how to do something involves procedural knowing. Procedural involves a sensory-motor interaction with the world. While propositional knowing results in a belief, procedural knowing results in skills. When we gain mastery of our procedural knowing, we develop a sense of power.

But notice how in order to use or acquire a skill, we need to know which skills to apply where; we need to know which skills to use/apply and which skills we need to acquire. In other words, we need situational awareness. We need to know what it’s like to be present in a certain state of mind. This involves knowing in a way that makes certain things salient in the environment, while other things are 'made into the background. This situational-awareness is known as perspectival knowing. The vehicle here is a perspective. How do we know we have a good sense of perspectival knowing in a certain situation? That’s what it’s like to have a strong sense of presence; the right things are salient to you and you are salient to your environment in an interactive and optimal fashion.

However, in order to have a situational-awareness, we need a situation. A situation involves a way in which something is situated. This points to the relationship between the organism and the environment; how are the organism and environment co-present to each other? This is not knowing that or knowing how or knowing what it is like but rather, knowing by being. This is called participatory knowing. It involves how you (the agent) is coupled with the environment (the arena).

This can be examined at many different levels and time scales of analysis. At the evolutionary level of analysis, there are biological processes by which the environment is shaping the organism and the organism is shaping the environment; they mutually shape each other and that causes a certain situation to come into existence. So at an evolutionary time scale, this participatory process is shaped by biology. We’re also being shaped a historical time scale by culture; we create tools to better adapt to the environment and the environment changes as we shape it with our tool and so on. In both cases, there's an ongoing mutual shaping involving the organisms’ sensorimotor loop. Participatory knowing gives us affordances. When we’re good at participatory knowing we feel a sense of belonging to the world around us.

Participatory knowing gives us affordances that are relevant to current projects and brings them into the sensorimotor loop so we understand what skill to apply/acquire (perspectival knowing) so that we can apply those skills (procedural knowing) and then store it through language as a theory (propositional knowing).

The problem with our culture is that we are operating at the level of abstraction --- everything below our propositions is left out of the picture despite it being so central to cognition and our existence. Think about, for example how we ‘know’ our body or how we know we’re conscious. You may have beliefs about your body and consciousness in general but you only truly know your body by being in it and you only know you're conscious by being conscious.

So how can the mindfulness revolution and embodiment revolution help us recover these lost ways of knowing?

Although it’s hard to give ‘mindfulness’ a scientific definition, a central feature is a meta-perspectival awareness. This involves the process through which we’re framing our environment and bringing it to meta-cognitive awareness; the ability to step back and look at our awareness instead of through it. This is central to wisdom.

How are mindfulness and this feature of meta-perspectival awareness central to cultivating wisdom?

Mindfulness and Perspectival Knowing

It’s because mindfulness and multi-perspectival awareness are designed to help us appreciate perspectival knowing (the kind of knowing where we’re present), which is the same kind of knowing that affords us insight (those ‘aha’ moments). Think about it; you cannot actively make an insight happen, nor can you passively wait around for it. It is neither a form of active expression or a static recession. What one has to do to enhance their ability to afford insight is to participate in a process by which our perspectival knowing is dynamically enhanced so what one fined salient changes. We say things like ‘oh, I didn’t realise that was relevant, it’s been there all along!”. Our salience landscape shifts and mindfulness practices help us recognize our salience landscape by enhancing our perspectival knowing.

Mindfulness also helps one overcome self-deception because it helps us move out of an ego-centric perspective, which we usually fall prey to and enhances our connectedness to the world.

So this machinery of perspectival knowing helps one better their chances of gaining insight, overcoming self-deception and cultivating wisdom. It is key to personal transformation and transcendence.

Movement and Participatory knowing

Movement (as explained above) is at the core of participatory knowing, our identity, and agency.

Participatory knowing can also go wrong.

Marc Lewis gives us an example of this through his world on addiction.

Marc believes that addiction is a process of reciprocal narrowing (rather than a disease of sorts). Imagine being in a scary situation that makes you anxious. Being sober in this case reduces your cognitive flexibility which makes your options feel limited and your problems seem endless. This is even more anxiety-producing and puts you into a scarcity mentality which makes you even more cognitively rigid. Alcohol might seem like the only way to do deal with this unpleasant feeling. Once you do, your world narrows further, your options are further reduced which again, produces more anxiety, reducing cognitive flexibility, and making you want to drink again. It’s a vicious cycle.

This is why people who are addicted often feel doomed, like they have no option but to do what they do.

However, Prof Vervaeke points out that if reciprocal-narrowing is a thing, reciprocal-opening should be too. We should be able to, in the same manner, enhance our flexibility and increase our affordances so that we can reciprocally open the agent and arena relationship. This affords us the experience of love; not as an emotion or feeling but an existential mode (love can make you feel lots of things but it is not an emotion in and of itself). It's what happens when you’re in a meaningful relationship with someone.

At the core of reciprocal opening are transformative practices of movement that integrate participatory and perspectival knowing. If minfulness helps us remember and recover lost perspectival knowing and movement practices help us remember participatory knowing then putting the two together would be optimum. This makes sense because perspectival knowing depends on participatory knowing and participatory knowing also comes into expression within perspectival knowing.

Participatory knowing is at the level of the machinery of the self while perspectival knowing is at the level of the machinery of consciousness. Together the two make self-consciousness, which is at the core of the loving of the making of a person or personhood. This love is called agape; the kind of love that’s selfless. We value this dynamic trans-egoic process of person making; it gives us deep meaning in life.

Perspectival Knowing, Participatory Knowing and Flow

An example of mindful movement being connected to meaning in life is the flow processes. It involves being dynamically coupled to the environment. In the flow state, one is already at the level of procedural knowing. If one’s skills are inadequate, one suffers from anxiety and if one’s skills are too great they suffer from boredom. However when there is a tight coupling between one’s actions and the response of the environment; when one is able to respond adaptively and appropriately in a dynamical process then one is able to produce the flow state. There is a feeling of feeling at one with the world. People often feel like there is an ongoing discovery like they are experiencing an insight cascade because of enhanced perspectival knowing. We also tend to stop all propositional processing in our heads. The self-conscious aspect of ‘how do I look? Am I sweating?’ ceases completely, liberating us from our ego-centric perspective. We’re able to go beyond.

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