Felt Thinking Methodology
How to Feel Think in Movement - Introduction
Contemplating Ecological Belonging in Somatic Practice
Introduction based on Doctoral Thesis - Dances with Sheep:
On Somatic Ontologies of Human Nature and Wellbeing and RePairing Human-Nature Condition with Felt Thinking in Movement (2020)
by Anna Dako, PhD, RSME/T
*Note: for citations please contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I am trying to trod gently through the grass. I just stepped off a walking path and onto a mire. The grass is dense and somewhat integrated in its many protective ways. Every step makes me feel like a trespasser, so I slow down, also because I feel its hostility sharpens with directional motivation of each of my steps taken forward. I have to give it up. I cannot just cut through. It is really spiky and hurtful. The grass is full of prickly-sow thistles.
And so eventually, I do stop. I have grown in respect already. This weedy grassland is at home here, I am the odd one out. I need to find a place for myself, quick. I cannot just roam about.
There, an inviting tree, a few steps away, surrounded by a softer patch of pasture. A few quicker leaps get me there, and another one yet lands me safely on its low and huggable trunk. The cool temperature of the tree invites me to settle and to share my own warmth. The smooth surface of the bark feels so delightful. I hug and tuck myself onto it, and the tree's two main branches create a cradled space for me to feel into and start taking my time a bit more.
When meeting a tree in such open experience, what comes to me first is just the nudging consciousness of my own weight, and how the support of the rigidly hard surfaces of the tree makes me experience my weight differently. And I feel how much work it is for the tree to keep me on. I have to spread my weight onto limited surfaces that twist my skin and press against my bones. I try to hang rested on my chest and with hands down too, my legs stretched about, learning a different relationship to my own gravity, and I find some amazing curves in stretching backwards while I’m lifting my feet up into the air and letting my weight say hello to the branches above my head as well. Can you hold me? - I ask them silently, while I swiftly browse their offshoots in their slimmer bits.
The density of the branches in my grip communicates well. It feels obvious and safe. Its flexibility does correlate to its strengths in handling my weight. Soon, the many twists and lifts I do, make we want to take my shoes off, and meet the bark with the grip of my toes too. Now, I feel like home. I feel I can offer some playfulness to the tree, while being safely lifted from the hostile ground and nestled by this young, friendly tree, stretched horizontally just above the spiky green lands. I hope the tree feels alike, in this peaceful, if only for a little while, symbiosis.
I close my eyes… and stretch slowly on my front, arched a little bit upwards. Skin to skin with a tree. Chick to bark. The tree's stillness, and it being placed in this particular spot, makes me feel like I'm gliding. I'm gliding attuned to its own slow rhythms of growth. And I see this growth so present in the endless complexity of its outgrown smaller branches, the twigs, and the deeply green and fresh foliage. I see all the dynamic of its steady ‘reaching out to the sun’ in the endless amount of leaves. So active in the gentle breeze, catching the sun's countless reflections. Making me (!) look so still now, so simple, with my two arms and two legs only.
The amount of my fingers and toes doesn’t add much to match the tree’s dynamic, I must say, perhaps my loose hair… ?
Anyway, it all comes down to being so aware of my own presence, felt in weight here… I don’t feel so heavy and so strongly supported on the ground. I suppose I have been taking it for granted, many times, as the ground is naturally always there, always so spread out and cushioned by footwear too, on daily walks, unlike this one.
So, I am thankful for this reminder about the gravitational support that I constantly require, and that this ongoing relationship with Earth's pull is such a living and changeable process. My movement habits make it easier to cope with this relationship every day, they sustain my shape. Yet, the more I take the ground for granted the less I realize how it is thanks to the Earth's pull that I am able to create every push away from it, or a reach-out, as an individual response, even if it's just that conscious lifting of my foot, off the ground, slowed down to the minimum.
I experience it as an amazing exchange created in this body-earth relationship of towards and away from movement.
We, living beings, walk on the ground every single day, yet we don’t give it much thought in experiential terms, do we?
How often do we dance in response to the movement present in a tree like this one? Or walk in tune with the singing birds? Do we ever try to exchange a thought with the clouds above our busy heads? Or get all fuzzed-up muddy rushing barefoot down the nearby grassy slopes?
Are we too grown for all that?
To me, creative attunement with the living environment around me is undoubtedly inexhaustible, as life itself, always on the move, always changing. And so, in this paper I would like to introduce the three steps of experiential immersion as creative methodology of Felt Thinking in my own eco-somatic practice and discuss multiple entry points into an ecological connectivity, like one just described, in movement and reflection. And I would like to do it guided by a few more questions, starting with:
What does it mean to Feel Think?
To say it simply, to Feel Think is to wonder about what there is in stock for us, everyday, simply by allowing some time and space to listen and contemplate, whole-bodily, nourished by open landscapes of self, yet shared with all other, discovery.
And how can we let the natural environment speak through movement and creative expression to help us learn about the felt qualities of the living, versatile landscapes, the flora, the fauna and the vivid wildlife around in more engaged and embodied ways?
Felt Thinking in somatic movement experience of the Self addresses just such wondering.
And I dive into it as a deep self-inquiry practice that brings the lived connections between Nature and the Self to the forth and which offers new insights to how we are in the world and how to remedy multiple imbalances through in-search, out-search and connecting it all - insightful intuiting.
Contemplating movement is a very intuitive, imaginal, spontaneous and improvisational activity that involves all the sensual acuteness, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive awareness, embodied presence and a very open attitude toward listening, receiving, and being with whatever is, internally, externally, always transitioning. It is based on practicing one’s ability to move that emerges from inner sensing and the visceral phenomena, as well as staying responsive to the external stimuli of the space or landscape, where movement shapes itself as a living conversation, and a meeting ground between what is and what comes into being, at any given moment.
In practicing Felt Thinking, preferably outdoors, I am able to bring all the living and wellbeing-enriching aspects of the natural environment to my awareness and ponder over their deeper meaning as experienced in ongoingly moving sensations. More importantly though, I am also discovering how to give the experience its voice, or its many voices, and how to build a creative dialogue between the conscious observation and the intuitive responses that shape in relation to the landscape’s qualities. Last but not least, I also grow as the environmentally inclusive ‘whole self’.
Now, what would that look like, in practice? And how is Felt Thinking different than thinking itself?
Felt Thinking starts with being mindful about Life’s all-inclusiveness, and personal belonging within it. We are the offspring of this Earth after all, and Felt Thinking is about giving this experience a voice that can speak for both our biological historicity as a species on Earth and our futurity, all merged into the openness of the experience of ‘the now’ as movement per se, in free flow sounding, singing and verbal expression.
Felt Thinking and voicing the experience is also about using the language as expressive and creative process and not primarily as explicit communication tool. All deterministic thinking alike needs to merge free into improvised movement exploration. Thoughts themselves become the endless experience of movement, acknowledged in the reflexive mode of ‘being with’ them, as they emerge, transition and merge again.
Life is Movement, and Movement is Life.
Now, throughout the years of practicing Felt Thinking with the natural world around me, and in many different, shared contexts of movement experience, I have observed and distinguished three main stages or three phases of the practice.
My ongoingly reinforced conviction, and realization really, was that the experienced movement engagements differ in their experiential depths, as much as they differ in the visible dynamics of movement patterns. Consequently, whenever I practice free movement in Felt Thinking, I can feel and distinguish three different types of connectivity to myself and the environment taking place, as reflected in movement patters and forms.
(1) During the initial phase of free movement engagement, there is a noticed tendency for wide-spread, open arms, inquisitive encounter happening. The physical expression during this initial stage appears as mainly horizontal in patterns, following inclinations for sensual encounters through vision, touch, smell and willingness to meet.
(2) During the following phase of movement engagement, a visible tendency for more dynamic encounters with the sensed dichotomies of experience takes over. The physical encounters deepen in psychological meaning creating a new dimension of relating through giving and receiving in experiential exchange. Multi-dimensional patterns of expression in movement peak at this stage as well.
(3) Finally, during the third phase of movement engagement, following the often exhausting exchange of phase two, a more vertical dynamic observable in movement takes shape. Visible reaching up with hands or the whole body stretches happen which reveals strong connectivity between the grounded, the earthy and their more metaphysical, spiritual and soulful depths of experience.
Throughout these movement phases, a remarkably noticeable are also the changes happening in the audible experience of movement, where the breath changes into sounds and sounds change into free flow expression in words, melodies and lived narratives.
And those phases of reflexive Felt Thinking and their unusually qualitative content have their wider philosophical and theoretical relevance worth bringing up here.
In my opinion, and alluding to somatic experience as free movement improvisation, the creatively voiced content that comes through in Felt Thinking out loud, can be seen as a potentially new way, or new depth of philosophical, visceral thinking, away from habits of only mental, i.e. conscious processing, and which offers experientially valid connections to wider contexts of life in general, human or ‘more-than-human’ (Abram, 1996), and its creative ways.
Drawing from Bergson’s way of practicing philosophy, in his book on Thinking Beyond The Human Condition, Keith Ansell-Pearson writes that ‘it is not so much that we are caught up in an existential predicament when the appeal is made to think beyond the human condition; it is rather that the restriction of philosophy to the human condition fails to appreciate the extent to which we are not simply creatures of habit and automatism but are also creatures involved in a creative evolution of becoming’ (Ansell-Pearson, 2018, p. 17). And, that our habits of thought ‘prevent us from recognizing our own creative conditions of existence and restrict the domain of praxis to social utility’ (Ibid).
The task of making any progress in the direction of thinking out of habit then, if we think of phenomenological philosophy as an affair of sensual perception, is ‘not to leave the human behind but rather to broaden the horizon of our experience of life’ (Ibid., p.5) as somatic Felt Thinking suggests, and think beyond our customary images of matter, as Bergson (Bergson et al., 2007) too proposes. And, in his Creative Evolution (Ibid.) he reminds that evolution involves ‘sympathetic communication’ and ‘reciprocal implication and interpenetration’ which to me, re-affirms working with free movement expression in Felt Thinking even more, including its metaphysical dimensions.
Again then, I am exploring the method of Felt Thinking in movement as opening up to new possibilities of relation to ourselves as living beings and the three stages or the three dynamics of engagement, and what I propose to call the experiential transitioning through embodied flux of relatedness, reveal to me yet other depths of the experiential qualities that I am able to awaken and embody in free movement. Those new depths correspond to what Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (Cohen et al., 2012) calls the somatically sensed cellular levels of agency attending to which offers many ways of overcoming the conceptual dichotomies of self and other. In my practice, such deep awareness finds its immediate correlation to the perception of the self as ongoing, both becoming and differentiation in the experiential realities of time and space.
What might that mean?
In her experiential guide on ‘Body and Earth’, Andrea Olsen (Olsen, 2002) reminds that ‘at the advanced level of every discipline, there are more questions than answers’. I couldn’t agree more. Yet, interestingly enough, wondering in movement guided by open questions of relation becomes an easier way for me to teach about Felt Thinking.
And the questions that guide the journeys, go in complementary pairs of Where and When, Who and What, Why and How do we belong?
Experientially then, the First Phase of Felt Thinking opens up pathways for connectivity through experiences of relational ‘out-search’ through listening, sensing, pacing, tuning into and being with. It is the phase in which the experiential content is shaped by open wonderings about Where and When, as the mover’s sensual presence comes to the forth of the self-inquiry in its ectodermic relevance thanks to the peripheral nervous system activation.
Phase Two opens up pathways for more animated co-creation through movement experiences in lived exchange, of engaging, remembering, imagining and embodying. It is the phase in which the experiential content is shaped by questions of What and Who, and where the mover’s agency together with the agency of the natural world around in its mesodermic dynamic is being attended to in more psycho-physical engagement.
Finally, Phase Three opens up pathways for deeper insights and intuitions about the ontological relation between Nature and the self. A phase attended to as a curious continuation of the other two and which includes experiential processes of letting go, of embodied intuiting and inner shifts. It is the phase in which the experiential content is shaped by ‘in-search’ merged into ‘out-search’ guided by Why and How questions as the mover rediscovers ‘the natural’ within her/himself in relation to the endodermic, deepest intensity of experience, where a more inclusive belonging to the primordial ‘time as self’ is found.
And so, this experiential transitioning through embodied flux of relatedness to self and other is understood here as two fold - through the metaphorical lens of embryological development of ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm and their dynamic activity patterns observable in movement, but also through the corresponding questions that attending to those layers of experience seem to be addressing, and which relate the mover to different realities of time/space experience.
The movement dynamics, as observed in my practice of Felt Thinking over the years, do show grounding similarities to the dynamics of germ formation, as the experience of free movement travels from the outer layers of skin and nervous system on the horizontal plane, through the muscular and the bone-felt multi-dimensional patterns, and finally, onto the deepest, internal organs and cellular levels of experience that become externalized in more vertical forms and engagements, guided by all-inclusive gut feeling and intuition.
And I like to shorten that journey to three words of receptivity, responsiveness, and responsibility.
Working with experiential levels of (1) ectoderm, an outer germ layer of an embryo that gives rise to the skin, retina, brain, spinal cord motor neurons, and peripheral nervous system, the questions of Where and When create a direct link to the physical time of experience of receptivity.
Working with experiential levels of (2) mesoderm, the layer that gives rise to muscle, blood, bone, organs and connective tissue, the questions of Who and What create a direct link to the psychological time of experience of responsiveness.
And, working with experiential depths of (3) endoderm layer, layer that gives rise to the digestive track, liver, bladder and the respiratory system, the questions of Why and How create a direct link to, what I call, primordial or ontogenetic time of experience as the sensed integrity in cyclical experience of belonging and responsibility becomes self-explanatory.
To me, Felt Thinking in movement presents an inclusive way of re-discovery of the ontological connection between Nature and the self and a way of finding deeper meanings in our human experience as reflected in our living condition. I also conclude that the experiential travelling from the objective, physical time and its ectodermic relatedness onto the subjective, psychological time and its mesodermic dynamism and finally, onto the primordial time and its endodermic insights, brings to forth the caring principle of life as relational, in towards and away from movement.
Like in breath. On an inhale, the movement embraces me moving towards myself and away from world, and, on an exhale, it embraces me moving away from myself and towards the world. One movement in its endless creativity and omni-directionality of Life’s in-between-ness.
To me then, it is in the endless possibilities hidden within this unifying movement itself, which bypass all the dualistic reasoning about what’s in and what’s out, and because in is out and out is in, that the real meaning of being can be found, ongoingly, and in ever accessible to all beings ways.
And if our life is so relational and refreshingly malleable, as I sense it is, it is the patterns of movement, perceived as constant entities, that bring us support and comfort. And I begin to see the elements of Nature as patterns of movement too, created by different time/spaces of the Earth’s becoming. And walking barefoot on moss confirms those thoughts to me, as I hear myself saying:
‘Perhaps there was a time, the time that didn’t know the Sun…,
Perhaps the Sun was not born yet.
And perhaps the Earth, as we call it now, comes from those times…
Darkness feels much older than the light…
I am lying down (…)
With my eyes tightly closed
Experiencing the cold breath in
Through my mouth
And the warmth…
When I exhale
All my senses seem to work much sharper in the dark
They come from that realm
But, they were created to meet
The light of the outside world…
To soften the meeting grounds
To be gentle
To make friends
To protect the dark
(And) To feed the eternal darkness too
They are both the offspring and the breadwinners
The expressions of ultimate being
And the receptors ‘of’ and ‘for’ all the current states
The push and the pull
And their creative dance
No wonder the Earth is round
Or roundish, at least
As that is its grounding balance
Between the push and the pull
The forward and the backward
That creates togetherness
And support for each other
Moving Thoughts Journal, Felt Thinking in Movement - Audio Transcript, 24th August 2017 (unpublished source)
And, as felt in this experience, movement itself then indicates that we embody the deepest levels of relation to the widest sense of Life possible, and that within that movement lies an opening to something beyond it all, the eternal and infinite creative force we all take part in, both consciously and unconsciously.
Through my ongoing research I get reminded that significant part of human nature resides in ongoing wondering about where and how we belong, and that we should be open to such wonderings without, or beyond words, in responsive listening in expressive movement. Wondering about the self and the world should then be understood and practiced more as ‘being with’ and less as making sense of something external to ourselves for cognitive understanding only.
And by practicing that in Felt Thinking we can enrich our embodied comprehension of co-existence, as children learn about life in full engagement, and indeed engage with the world as Sondra Fraleigh writes ‘in movements made special through care’ (Fraleigh, 2015). Moving flexibility between the smallest and the largest contexts of any question gives us an opportunity to grow alongside the work and comprehend its depths, not only understand or organise its contents for further use, utility or reproduction.
It is then my summing-up hope here, that next time you encounter a question to tackle, you will not just think of an answer but you will Feel Think alongside the question for a while instead, letting it sink in for longer, getting to feel its whereabouts, possible re-shapings, and that you might let your answer emerge from there slowly, not necessarily as a bounce back or a definitive so and so, but as an opening that will take you along onto a new journey again and again, as that, as I feel in free movement of thoughts and embodied sensations, is the true way of nature - to trust the emotive ongoingness of change in its ontological creativity that seeds and nourishes our ever-evolving belonging.