The Science and Practice of Embodied Self-Awareness
Reviewer Jo-Ann Roden
This is a book that invites us to journey deeper and more physically into what it means to be an embodied self. Fogel urges us to rediscover our body’s innate capacity to develop and maintain an acute moment-by-moment sense of our inner biophysical processes. He writes for anyone who wants to learn more about how to expand their embodied self-awareness or to help others achieve this end. However, for this reader, the author’s choice of a particular kind of discourse (a scientific language) had the potential to leave me with a sense of feeling slightly disconnected from my own natural way of being at home in my body. The tone of the language is rather ‘heady’ and concrete and it left me pining for some relief via a more symbolic or even poetic form of expression.
That said, Fogel writes with a depth of knowledge and understanding that is admirable and which offers the reader a trustworthy and encyclopaedic reference text for gaining a better sense of how to both re-cognise and stay in contact with our embodied selves, via tuning in to the subjective emotional present. We are born with this capacity in potential but often, through mis-attuned responses from caregivers in our early years, we are gradually, but thankfully not irrevocably, separated from this, leading us into the realms of false selves or personae. Fogel reminds us that “the extent to which a child’s body sensations and emotions are denied, devalued, ignored or punished by parents, the child will find ways to avoid sharing them with others and eventually to avoid feeling entirely” (p.103). How important this is to remember!
Fogel describes a path of self-recovery via a deeper understanding of the mechanisms at play when we fall out of touch with ourselves. These mechanisms have a biophysical base and the processes are involved in the creation and destruction of our false self. Fogel takes us on a tour of our central nervous system reminding us of the need for self and other connection and quotes Nussbaum (2003) saying that: “true self-development arises from highly particular transactions that constitute love between two imperfect people” (p. 103). Indeed our true self is – according to Winnicott – our embodied self-awareness, our “ability to stay comfortably in the chaos of the subjective emotional present, and to use that to inform, verify and update our conceptual awareness” (p.103). Here we find the distinction between a conceptual self-awareness and an embodied one.
In this sense we have a dualism that does not appeal so much to me, although I recognise the distinction. I think my own journey through this book was one of being more or less updated in my conceptual awareness and largely ignored in an embodied sense. I would have enjoyed some punctuation with invitations for self-reflection or meditation along the path of conceptual update. Whilst reading this book and in the gaps when I’d put it down in frustration, I was reminded of reading books on phenomenology, existential enquiry and the Gestalt approach, and of how they seemed to tackle similar issues but in a more engaging, less concrete way. I was not moved very much by Fogel’s words and perhaps this was neither necessary nor the point.
What was incredibly useful in this solid tome, aside from its on-going use as a reference text, was his eight basic principles for the treatment of lost embodied self-awareness: 1) recovering resources, 2) slowing down, 3) co-regulation, 4) verbalisation, 5) making links and boundaries, 6) self-regulation 7) re-engagement and 8) letting go. Along with this, the reminder from Fogel that “letting go” is not the way to start the journey to embodied self-awareness; it is, rather, the result of engaging in all the prior seven steps and perhaps falling gratefully in to the arms of another, whether a real physical other or a metaphorical or spiritual other.
A personal aside: whilst reading this book, (a task which took me two months), I slipped a disc in my back and re-joined a gym to participate once again in yoga and Pilates so re-discovering in one sense my own embodied self-awareness! Perhaps I can now let go of my initial frustrations with Fogel’s approach and trust that, despite its biological focus and seemingly reductive thrust, there is still a mystery at work as it comes home in this self.
Jo-Ann Roden works in private practice as a supervisor and psychotherapist, freelance as a school counsellor and as a tutor/trainer for Re-Vision Centre for Integrative Psychosynthesis Psychotherapy.