“Ultimately, the embodied life would be one in which the physical body, feelings, and mind are being expressed creatively in congruence with each other and with the changing nature of reality.” –Diana Halprin
(Living Artfully: Movement as an Integrative Process, 1999)
The body possesses enormous knowledge and wisdom of which the conscious mind is often only dimly aware. In fact, the activities and awareness of the conscious mind represent only a tiny fraction of what is occurring constantly in the body in the form of automatic physiological processes, incoming information from the sense perceptions, and non-conscious brain activities. However, many researchers acknowledge that embodied knowing, while often pre-verbal and thus largely unconscious, remains no less real or powerful than other, more conscious forms of wisdom.
While a good deal of psychological research has focused on empirically measurable aspects of human mental phenomena, a growing number of psychologists working within humanistic, transpersonal, and depth-psychological frameworks have begun to seriously investigate non-conscious psychological processes. Similarly, researchers in the emerging fields of cognitive neuroscience and consciousness studies have acknowledged the important role the body and emotions play in psychological functioning and this emphasis on embodiment and embodied experience has also extended into theories of learning and education.
The theme of embodiment also finds a natural home within the fields of psychotherapy, transpersonal psychology, and expressive arts therapy. In my graduate work in creativity studies, I am exploring how psychological theories of embodiment relate to creativity, and how a deeper awareness of embodiment on the part of both researchers and practitioners can both support and enhance the creative process.
So, what does embodied creativity look like, and how can we put it into practice? The fields of art therapy and expressive arts therapy, as well as the contemplative arts disciplines rooted in Buddhist meditation, philosophy, and aesthetics, offer some intriguing possibilities. These disciplines have carefully considered the relationship between perception, sensation, lived somatic experience, creativity, and meaning, and have developed particular ways of cultivating creativity by encouraging imagination, artistic expression, mindfulness, and an enhanced relationship with the world via embodied practices.
Expressive arts therapy aims to foster a deep sense of integration and congruence between the individual and her or his wider webs of belonging through embodied creative practice and expression. According to Diana Halprin (1999),
To live in our bodies, in our families and communities on this planet with greater awareness and sensitivity to the sanctity of life is the goal of expressive arts therapy. In order to bring this vision to life, we must begin by developing a more creative relationship with ourselves and with the issues that separate us. (p. 133)
Expressive arts therapies employ a variety of different creative and artistic disciplines, such as visual art, music, dance, writing, and ritual to effect healing, growth, and transformation.
Practitioners of expressive arts therapy create a sacred space in which clients can experience play, improvisation, and other creative explorations which can yield new insights and new ways of being in the world, as they grapple with suffering and trauma. Expressive arts practices emphasizing movement and dance specifically address how living in a fully embodied way can facilitate greater awareness about the wisdom of our bodies, as well as how our physical presence informs our engagement with life:
We can use the language of the movement arts to bring our separated parts together into conscious and creative relationship…We literally move throughout our lives, yet rarely do we pay attention to how we are moving and what we are expressing in how we move. Stored in our muscles, bones and organs, in each body part and body posture, are the imprints of our life experiences. The body is full of information about who we are, how we feel and what we think – a living body anthology. (Halprin, 1999, p. 133)
Expressive arts therapy thus utilizes techniques of creative embodiment to bring embodied experience and wisdom into conscious awareness for the sake of healing and greater integration.
The Buddhist contemplative arts, rooted in meditation practice and Buddhist philosophy, also offer time-honored techniques for working with the body and mind, using the breath and mindfulness practices, to facilitate embodied creativity. Indeed, according to Reginald Ray (2008), embodiment is inseparable from enlightenment, the ultimate goal of Buddhist meditation practice:
To be awake, to be enlightened, is to be fully and completely embodied. To be fully embodied means to be at one with who we are, in every respect, including our physical being, our emotions, and the totality of our karmic situation. It is to be entirely present to who we are and to the journey of our own becoming (Touching Enlightenment, p. xv).
In this context, Chogyam Trungpa has presented a path of dharma art rooted in Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice, which emphasizes the synchronization of body and mind, practices aimed at direct perception of the phenomenal world via the sense organs, and the principle of first thought, which cultivates non-conceptual mind. In Trungpa’s view, meditation practice supports our natural ability to relate with our sense perceptions and our direct experience. The dharma art path lays out a philosophy and approach to creativity that cultivates an appreciation of beauty and sacredness in everyday life, and pays particular attention to the process of art making and the state of mind of the artist, grounded in the physical body and perceptual experience.
Similarly, the Japanese Zen Buddhist tradition has developed a number of contemplative arts practices, such as calligraphy, gardening, ikebana (Japanese flower arranging), Chado (tea ceremony), and Kyodu (archery) designed to bring the meditative experience into everyday life. As John Daido Loori (2004) explained:
Each artist expresses through art his unique way of experiencing life. This is the essence of creation. Through our art we bring into existence something that did not previously exist. We enlarge the universe…The creative process fulfills our need to express our experience. And if the expression has been true, we will feel a sense of completion and satisfaction. (The Zen of Creativity, p. 84)
The Zen arts traditions thus cultivate creativity as a type of embodied, post-meditation practice which, in humanistic terms, nurtures the human drive toward self-actualization and wholeness.
Expressive arts therapies and the Buddhist contemplative arts disciplines provide examples for how embodied creativity may be put into practice, and for what purpose. My explorations of this topic so far reveal that creative expression based in fully embodied experience can facilitate the integration of unconscious and somatic material into conscious awareness for the purpose of healing, personal growth and self-actualization, transpersonal states of consciousness, and meaning making. In my view, an embodied approach to creativity opens up many possibilities for how individuals, therapists, and coaches may incorporate creativity into everyday life and practice, as well as how educators and organizational leaders may more meaningfully integrate creativity into classrooms and organizational settings.
Resources for Further Exploration of Embodied Creativity:
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1996). Creativity: The psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Daido Loori, John. (2005). The Zen of creativity: Cultivating your artistic life. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Damasio, Antonio. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Haidt, Jonathan. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Halprin, Daria. (1999). Living artfully: Movement as an integrative process. In S. K. Levine & E. G. Levine (Eds.). Foundations of expressive arts therapy: Theoretical and clinical perspectives. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Levine, Stephen & Ellen. (1999). Foundations of expressive arts therapy: Theoretical and clinical perspectives. Philadelphia, P: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
May, Rollo. (1975). The courage to create. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.
McNiff, Shawn. (2004). Art heals: How creativity cures the soul. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.
Ray, Reginald. (2008). Touching enlightenment: Finding realization in the body. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Richards, Ruth. (2007). Everyday creativity and new views of human nature: Psychological, social, and spiritual perspectives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Trungpa, Chogyam. (2008). True perception: The path of dharma art. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. (Original work published 1996)
Varela, Francisco, Thompson, Evan, & Rosch, Eleanor. (1991). The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Boston, MA: MIT Press.