The Embodied Self
Frank Wilson

It is a common knowledge that there is something called a flow state that happens to people. Well, that has to do with the body. It is a kind of hypnosis, but we associate hypnosis, almost, with an artificial state of contraction of awareness in which you can be induced to pay attention to or to believe something about yourself that really isn’t true. But, there is another kind of altered state that comes about through a fully conscious exercise of some skill in which you experience a new state.

What you’re saying was another one of these minor epiphanies for me. There is a term that dermatologists and plastic surgeons use when they are sort of warned off by a patient who comes to them who is terribly concerned about a specific wrinkle. There is an article in today’s New York Times about a woman who had her nose operated on five times, until they got it right. The medical term for that is body dismorphic disorder. There are various expressions of it. It means that there is something wrong with my body, and bulimics, people who have eating disorders fall into this class of body dismorphic disorder. I don’t like my body; it’s not me; I don’t feel . . . But, that all pretty much stops at the skin, or it stops at the profile.

What I’m saying is, and what I am noticing is that people who really spend time with themselves physically and they come to enjoy and kind of fluency of movement, and they recognize an expressivity in how they actually move can come to believe that their body isn’t really behaving the way it should and they become alienated from it. As a neurologist, there was another place where I discovered this, and this was with patients that I was seeing at Stanford, with Parkinson’s disease. There are people who suddenly discover that their body doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. They have a hand that shakes and they don’t want to go outside, anymore, because people will thing they are old. A woman who was a patient of mine was a third-grade teacher, who would not go in front of a class anymore because she could sense that people looked at her differently, that it wasn’t her. This happens very, very quickly. I’m now—it’s not that I’m missing an arm or a leg or a hand or an ear, or I, you know, have some ugly cancerous lesion on my nose, it’s just that I don’t look graceful, anymore. As far as I know, in medical literature, there is absolutely no attention paid to this, at all.

Those things go together. I don’t think you need to artificially separate them. In some people it really is just that it doesn’t sound like me; it doesn’t feel like me. That’s very, very difficult to deal with. But, I don’t think we need to dig too deep here into this whole issue, but the point is that we really are given a body, and it’s a biomechanical wonder. It’s a sensory wonder. You know, you go outside and people use words like “delicious.” The way I was running today, I was moving in a way that was really delicious to me; I got completely lost in that experience. Or, tennis players who will talk about a game that they played, or a musician will play in a certain way, and they’ll say, “I don’t know; something happened, and I’ve listened to the recording. It can’t be me; I don’t play that well.”

So, we’ve used the word, and it is a common knowledge that there is something called a flow state that happens to people. Well, that has to do with the body. It is a kind of hypnosis, but we associate hypnosis, almost, with an artificial state of contraction of awareness in which you can be induced to pay attention to or to believe something about yourself that really isn’t true. But, there is another kind of altered state that comes about through a fully conscious exercise of some skill in which you experience a new state. I remember a music teacher who told me that many of his students would become very anxious about playing; they would have stage fright, so they would become inhibited as soon as they thought somebody was watching. He would teach them a technique to become sort of enraptured with the experience. Then he would explain to them, he said, “This is not a trick so that you can play better; this is so that you understand that the playing of the music is a gift to you as a way to enter into the state of higher consciousness.” And, I believe that that is really one of the potentials that exists. Whenever you see an artist—I’ve had many opportunities to watch artists work, not just musicians, and you can’t interrupt them. They get into a state in which, as the saying goes, the house could fall down around them, or it could burn down around them, and they are not interested. They don’t pay attention to that because they have become so engaged with whatever it is that they are doing. It is a fusion of the physical and the emotional and the cognitive in which all of those things are going together in a way that you can’t artificially induce. It is completely self-induced, and you can’t tell when it’s going to happen. But, people who have the experience can and do work toward that experience in which they forget the technicalities and they simply say, “I know when I feel like this, I’m doing it the right way because nothing else makes me feel this way.”