Body Awareness

Mind in the body and the body in the mind
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Presented at The Developing Group, 25 Sep 2004 with Julie Driver 

Table of Contents

1. General quotes

“Above all learn how to breath correctly.” – Joseph H Pilates.

“A man is as young as his spinal column … If your spine is inflexible at thirty, you are old. If it is completely flexible at sixty, you are young.” – Joseph H Pilates.

“Proper posture is a way of blending with gravity. Proper attitude is a way of blending with life.” – Dan Millman, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.

“The body is a sacred garment. It’s your first and last garment; it is what you enter life in and what you depart life with, and it should be treated with honor.” – Martha Graham.

“Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses.” – William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

“If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.” – Walt Whitman, I Sing The Body Electric.

“All behaviour is an outside view of the dance of internal relations of the organism.” – Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge (p. 166).

“There is a remarkable consistent degree of placebo response, averaging 55% of the therapeutic effect for all the analgesic drugs studied. That is, while morphine obviously has more potent analgesic effect than aspirin, about 55% of the potency of each is a placebo response … [This] is also found in double-blind studies of insomnia treatments, psychotropic drugs for the treatment of depression and lithium. Thus it appears that placebo is about 55-60% as effective as active medications irrespective of the potency of these active medications.” – Ernest Rossi, The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing (p. 16).

2. Thoughts of Moshe Feldenkrais

The following quotes are taken from The Potent Self written in 1949, but not published until 1985. We have grouped them under four headings, Feldenkrais on: Being human; Learning; Habits; and Maturity.

Our thanks to Jennifer de Gandt for pointing out to us the similarities between the philosophy of Feldenkrais and Symbolic Modelling.


“In behavior, what matters in individual cases is not what most people do, nor the statistical average, but the individual personal experience.” (p. 59)

“In no other species is there such a variety of differences between one individual and the other as in men.” (p. 62)

“The human frame is essentially a dynamic organization, human behavior is equally dynamic, and therefore, ‘human nature’ is a dynamic entity.” (p. 5)

“The body itself may be considered as part of the environment of the nervous system.” (p. 71)

“[Human beings] have only one set of executive organs. Everything we do is manifested through the muscles. In the human being, muscular control is acquired only after laborious and prolonged training. In most other animals, that control reaches adult perfection in a trifling short period after birth, as compared with man. All our acts are, therefore, more influenced by our experienced and environment than those of other animals.” (p. 37)

“A pattern of behavior is a concrete reality. It is gradually formed by the special conditions in which a person has grown up. And each person explores his world to find those conditions into which that pattern fits, just like the duck that heads for water. One cannot live in conditions for which one has not elaborated the necessary means of reaction and over which one therefore lacks the necessary means of influence. 

The actual existence as it is lived is a sustained whole in which the manner of action fits the environment in an objective material way, no matter how much suffering it may bring to the person who lives it. To alter the course of an existence, the whole attitude and manner of action must be changed.” (p. 33)

“As in most disorders, and especially emotional ones, the question is that of degree, and not quality.” (p. 13)

“The energy analogy does not hold good for emotional urges because there is no question of energy here, but of forms of action. Aggression is a form of behavior, not an energy.” (p. xli)

“Most of the time we fail to achieve what we want by enacting more than we are aware of, rather than missing what is essential.” (p. 20)

“We may be in a state of inability to enact a projected idea, from writing a letter to loving. Impotent rage and impotent love have a great deal in common. In both, the desire to do is excessive, and prevented from expression by extraneous and contradictory motivations of equal intensity.” (p. 4) [i.e. a binding pattern]


“Willpower is necessary only where ability to do is lacking. Learning, as I see it, is not the training of willpower but the acquisition of the skill to inhibit [Link available soon] parasitic action and the ability to direct clear motivations as a result of self-knowledge.” (p. xl)

“In the learning stage, a number of habitual and faintly recognized motivations enact themselves. The essential in learning is to become able to recognize these unwanted faint motivations and to discard them … on examining any of our acts that do not bring the intended result — or, better still, those that just barely succeed or are more or less a failure, we will always find ourselves enacting extraneous motivations that are due to habit and formed attitude.” (p. 21)

“[As a child every new] act has not only (1) the normal physiological and mechanical difficulties to be overcome through learning, but also (2) the ever present adult whose approval must be sought and met. All these normal conditions make it practically impossible to learn anything without linking it with an affect, a sort of third eye, which watches our mobilization of means and reinstates the original corrective influence in most details. 

The result of all this is that we screw ourselves up to do things and thus come to associate with all action a sensation of effort. The internal resistance then becomes part and parcel of the action, and a necessary component to perform it. How many people can use a pair of scissors, especially if they are not perfectly sharp, without producing all the contortions of the fact, the tongue, the shoulders, and abdomen that originally they had learned together with this action?” (p. 58)

“If we try to learn any new skill, we find our muscles enacting not only the projected act, but also much else that is unnecessary and often contradictory to the motivated action. Learning to inhibit unwanted contractions of muscles that function without, or in spite of, our will, is the main task in coordinating action. 

We have to learn to inhibit those cells of the motor cortex to which the excitation spreads. Before we become able to excite a precise pattern of cells in the wanted order, the neighboring cells all along the pattern of the cells essential to the movement become active. After adequate apprenticeship, when proficiency is achieved, only those cells that command the muscles for the desired performance along send out impulses. All the others are inhibited. Without this inhibition, no coordinated action is possible. 

The sensation of difficulty or resistance to action is indirectly due to the imperfect inhibition of the cells commanding the antagonistic muscles that are indispensable in forming the desired pattern. Most of the time it is not the simple inability to inhibit the parasitic contractions that is the problem, but the attempt to simultaneously enact mutually exclusive patterns … Correct coordinated action seems, and feels, effortless no matter how great the actual amount of work involved may be.” (p. 85-86, our italics)


“Faulty posture and behavior arise in a normal way in normal children if the end to be reached is beyond the means of the child. People slouch or tense their bodies unnecessarily not because there is some nervous deficiency in their systems, but because their means were insufficient at the moment of facing the novel situation … Faulty posture always expresses the emotional stress that has been responsible for its formation. The most frequent and observable one is the stress of insecurity in its different aspects, such as hesitation, fear, doubt, apprehension, servility, unquestioning compliance — and their exact opposites.” (p. 55)

“The habitual response formed by your mode of adjustment to dependence is the only response you are capable of that feels right to you. Thus you create again and again the circumstances in which that response is sustained.” (p. 43)

“We often imagine a definite purpose in compulsory stereotyped behavior, because we cannot explain by anything else a sequence of actions that looks so purposefully coordinated. We, therefore, speak of unconscious motivation. But the cyclic orderly character may be nothing more than an indication of functional disorder of the higher nervous centers or their fatigue.” (p. 19)

“To change a habit, we must change the environment so that the symptom is not sustained, or learn a new response to the existing stimuli. To learn a new response, we must know exactly what stimulus evokes the symptom. Most of the time it is more expedient to change one’s own response first before changing the environment, although it may be possible to do something in both at once. Behavior and environment are a whole that cannot be subdivided and acted upon separately. The indefiniteness is inherent in the intricate correlation of (1) the individual and (2) the medium of his existence, and only in words can we act on one first and on the other next.” (p. 36)

“The reinstatement of old habits is due to the fact that habits, bad or good, yield results and are therefore sustained by the environment. They could [not] be built up if they never yielded any results at all. The only thing that makes them wrong is that they do not release the tension that moves us to action in a satisfactory manner so that the tension continues to urge us into activity — into repetition into the same action, with the same result, and so on until exhaustion.” (p. 84)

“To destroy these bad habits of use of self without providing better substitutes is not only difficult but foolish.” (p. 58)


“Maturity itself is a process, and not a final state; it is the process whereby past personal experience is broken up into its constituent parts and new patterns are formed out of them to fit the present circumstances of the environment and the present state of the body.” (p. xxxv)

“[Maturity] is a way of doing in which patterns of behavior formed in the period of dependence are no longer enacted as the only possible way.” (p. 44)

3. What is the body?

Given that:

“Ninety-eight percent of the atoms in your body were not there a year ago. The skeleton that seems so solid was not there three months ago. The configuration of the bone cells remains somewhat constant, but atoms of all kinds pass freely back and forth through the cell walls, and by that means you acquire a new skeleton every three months. The skin is new every month. You have a new stomach lining every four days, with the actual surface cells that contact food being renewed every five minutes. Even within the brain whose cells are not replaced once they die, the content of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and so on is totally different from a year ago.” – Deepak Chopra, Quantum Healing, (pp 48-49).

And, it is said that the vast majority of cells in the body are non-human:

“The ratio of non-human cells to human cells in your body is something like 100,000:1.” September 2nd, 2004. ‘More Non-Human That Human’. [Link no longer available]

“If you look only at their DNA you would find it a hard task to separate man from the chimpanzee and the gorilla. The three species share almost 99 per cent of their DNA.” – John Gribbin & Jeremy Cherfas, The First Chimpanzee (p. 5)

So what is the human body?

One way to make sense of all this is to distinguish structure from organisation:

Organization denotes those relations that must exist among the components of a system for it to be a member of a specific class. Structure denotes the components and relations that actually constitute a particular unity and make its organization real.” Maturana and Varela, The Tree of Knowledge (p. 47)

In the case of a human, the structure of their body comprises the physical components (bones, muscles, organs, cells) and the interactions between those components of an actual person. Organisation is the pattern of relations that continue over time and enable us to say “There’s Gordon Bennett” or “There’s a human.” Different structures can give rise to (be examples of) the same organisation — a person’s body can nowadays include artificial limbs, organs, joints, etc. but it is still their body.

Structure and organisation are at different logical levels. Structure constrains organisation and organisation influences structure. If a person breaks a leg it prevents them from walking, but when the person moves all of their bones move with them.

Structure and organisation are not absolute terms, they are relative to the level of observation. A cell is structure to a body, but it has its own organisation of molecular processes. Its structure/organisation all the way up and all the way down.

At the level of a metaphor landscape, structure is made up of the individual’s symbols and metaphors. Organisation is the pattern of those metaphors (the way they work together) that means the person has a particular kind of experience, e.g. a conflict, determination, life purpose, etc. etc.

4. Body Communication

In Metaphors in Mind (p. 85) we say that our nonverbal behaviour is primarily for our own benefit rather than for communication with others. Recent research has confirmed that observation:

“Gesticulating with the hands helps us to organise our thoughts better when we are speaking and frees up short-term (working) memory for other tasks, according to findings by psychologists at the University of Chicago. Seventy-two mathematics undergraduates were asked first to memorise a series of letters or arrangements of dots and then to explain how they had arrived at solutions to maths problems they had been set earlier. Afterwards, they were tested on their recall of the letters or dots.

When students were allowed to make hand movements during their explanations, they recalled significantly more of the letters or dots than when they were asked to refrain from gesturing. The researchers’ explanation is that hand gestures “provide a framework that complements and organises speech and thus lightens the burden on working memory”. – ‘Point to Make A Point – And Improve Your Memory’, Human Givens Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2, 2004

Nonverbal behaviour becomes ‘body language’ when an observer uses it to (mostly unconsciously) create a model of the mind of the gesturer and ‘mind read’ the meaning the nonverbal behaviour has for the person them self.

Also, the body has several advantages over language as a medium of communication. To give just two examples:

  • Because the body can do more than one thing at once, it can ‘communicate’ several ‘messages’ simultaneously.

When the messages don’t match Bandler & Grinder called it a ‘simultaneous incongruity’. From a Symbolic Modelling viewpoint, however, ‘simultaneous incongruity’ is a judgment by an observer (including a person observing them self) who does not understand enough of the system. When Symbolic Modelling we presuppose that as long as a system continues to exist there will be both a coherence within the system and a coherence to the relationship between the system and its immediate environment — it just looks like incongruity from the outside.

  • The body can more easily represent degree, shades or continuum, i.e. analogue distinctions.

In the Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding, Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier explain the centrality of the body to ‘Somatic Syntax’:

“One of the tenets of Somatic Syntax is that the body itself is a ‘representational system’. Rather than perceiving it as simply being some kind of mechanical shell for inputting and outputting signals to and from the brain, Somatic Syntax views the body as a means of representing and processing information … 

According to Somatic Syntax, we can use our bodies to make a model of the world just as we do with our other representational systems. We can represent key relationships in the world around us and in our personal history in the relationship between parts of our body … 

[Our bodies] have the capability to represent information in at least two ways: literally and figuratively. As is the case with our other representational modalities, metaphorical representations are often more meaningful and impactful because they carry multiple levels of information.” (p. 12)

5. Body Metaphors

The body is major source of metaphors. To take just one example, almost every part of the body has been used as a means of measurement — both literally and figuratively:


Hair’s breath

Skin of my teeth

Won by a nose

Rule of thumb

Hands (to measure height of a horse)

Head and shoulders above the rest

Head to toe

In over my head

A foot

A yard (originally the distance from nose to outstretched finger tip)

A mile (originally 1,000 double steps)

Keep at arm’s length

Out of reach


In a snap

Blink of an eye

In a heart beat

Between breaths



Too big for his boots

Eyes too big for my belly

I bit off more then I can chew

It’s bigger than the both of us

An old head on young shoulders

Weight of the world on my shoulders

The bigger they come the harder they fall

6. The embodied nature of meaning and metaphor

Mark Johnson in The Body in the Mind makes the case that:

“The centrality of human embodiment directly influences what and how things can be meaningful for us, the ways in which these meanings can be developed and articulated, the ways we are able to comprehend and reason about our experience, and the actions we take. Our reality is shaped by the patterns of our bodily movements, the contours of our spatial and temporal orientation, and the forms of our interactions with objects. It is never merely a matter of abstract conceptualizations and propositional judgements.

Human bodily movement, manipulation of objects, and perceptual interactions involve recurring patterns without which our experience would be chaotic and incomprehensible. They are gestalt structures, consisting of parts standing in relations and organized into unified wholes, by means of which our experience manifests discernible order. When we seek to comprehend this order and to reason about it, such bodily based schema play a central role.” (p. xix)

“Through metaphor, we make use of patterns that obtain in our physical experience to organise our more abstract understanding. Understanding via metaphorical projection from the concrete to the abstract makes use of physical experience in two ways. First, our bodily movements and interactions are structured, and that structure can be projected by metaphor onto abstract domains. Second, metaphorical understanding is not merely a matter of arbitrary fanciful projection from anything to anything with no constraints. Concrete bodily experience not only contrails the “inputs” to the metaphorical projections but also the nature of the projections themselves, that is, the kinds of mappings that can occur across domains.” (p. xv)

“Balancing is an activity we learn with our bodies and not by grasping a set of rules or concepts. First and foremost, balancing is something we do. The baby stands, wobbles, and drops to the floor. It tries again, and again, and again, until a new world opens up — the world of balanced erect posture.

We also come to know the meaning of balance through the closely related experience of bodily equilibrium, or loss of equilibrium. We understand the notion of systemic balance in the most immediate, preconceptual fashion through our bodily experience. There is too much acid in the stomach, the hands are too cold … Things are felt as ‘out of balance.’ There is ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’ so that the healthy organization of forces, processes, and elements is upset ” (pp. 74-75)

According to Mark Johnson, balance involves a symmetrical (or proportional) arrangement of forces around a point or axis. The prototypical schema is the ‘axis balance’. Other schemata for balance can be interpreted as variations on, or modifications of, the prototypical schema (pp. 85-87):

Mark Johnson gives examples of how certain very abstract concepts, events, states, institutions, and principles can be metaphorically structured as entities or physical events ‘in’ or ‘out’ of balance:

Systemic balance Humans put ecosystems out of balance.
We upset the equilibrium.
Psychological balance He has a balanced personality.
They are emotionally unbalanced.
The balance of rational argument
Her argument outweighed his.
The balance tipped in his favour.
Legal and moral balance
The defense counterbalanced the prosecution.
An eye-for-an-eye.
Let the punishment fit the crime.
Mathematical equality
I balanced the equations.
Costs must be balanced against the benefits.
In conclusion,

“It is by virtue of this metaphorically imposed structure that we can understand and reason about the relevant abstract entities. … Logical inferences are not just inexplicable structures of rationality. On the contrary, they can be seen to emerge from our embodied, concrete experience.” (p.98-99)

7. Recommended reading

From the perspective of Mind-Body:

Metaphors in Mind, Chapter 4 and the section “Physical Therapy” pp 246-247.

Mind, Metaphor and Health by Penny & James

Two chapters in the NLP book Leaves Before the Wind (1991) edited by Charlotte Bretto, et. al.:

‘Autogenic Metaphor Resolution’ by Arun Hejmadi & Patricia Lyall

‘The Vestibular System’ by Cecile Carson

The Body in the Mind, Mark Johnson (University of Chicago press, 1987)

The Embodied Mind, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson & Eleanor Rosch (MIT Press, 1993)

From the perspective of Body-Mind:

The Potent Self, Moshe Feldenkrais (Frog Limited, 1985)

An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks (Picador, 1995)

Phantoms in the Brain, V.S. Ramachandran & Sandra Blakeslee (Fourth Estate, 1998)

Recommended by Julie Driver:

The Body Has its Reasons by Therese Bertherat and Carol Bernstein and

These notes were first presented at The Developing Group, 25 September 2004.


James Lawley (2017). Metaphor, Embodiment and Tacit Learning.  Chapter 2 in Becoming a Teacher: The dance between tacit and explicit knowledge. (2017) Editors, V. Švec, J. Nehyba. & P. Svojanovský. MUNI press: Masaryk University.

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