Defining Embodiment


Karden’s Corner by Karden Rabin

Embodiment means different things to different people and to a lot of people it doesn’t mean anything. Conventional dictionaries have not yet caught on to its meaning in a psychotherapeutic context, but neither has the psychotherapy lexicon. When I searched the American Psychological Association’s online dictionary for the word embodiment it came back with “Sorry, “embodiment” is not in the Dictionary of Psychology. Please report to APA if you believe this is an error.” 😅

Of the definitions that one can find in regular dictionaries, is the following:

Oxford English Dictionary: noun // Someone or something that represents a quality or an idea exactly // He was the embodiment of the English gentleman

Britannica: noun // Someone or something that is a perfect representative or example of a quality, idea, etc. // She’s the embodiment of all our hopes 

Merriam-Webster: noun // One that embodies something // The embodiment of all our hopes

The conventional definitions imply that the word means for a person to be a physical example of a non-physical idea or concept. This amuses me because it’s the opposite of what we are trying to achieve with embodiment in trauma and mindbody work. After all, in embodied work, we are trying to feel the physical experience of being ourselves, something visceral, not abstract or other. That being said, I suppose language and lexicographers cannot be blamed for failing to define in words a term that in our context describes something that is implicitly and fundamentally non-verbal 🙃.

The truth is that there seems to be no consistent or generally established definition of embodiment as far as “we” (the folks in the mind body wellness space) use it. And I think that if one asked different practitioners (much less clients) in our space to define it, we’d get a hundred variations on the theme.

In light of this, I think taking a shot at defining embodiment is a worthwhile exercise, and who knows, maybe it will become part of both the conventional and psychotherapeutic lexicons.

If we search beyond dictionaries, we find that the field of somatic psychology has probably gone the furthest in describing what embodiment is. Somatic psychology asserts that the felt experience of the body and the thoughts of the mind are completely interwoven and interdependent. Furthermore, one’s awareness of their felt experiences derives from three sense mechanisms, exteroception (sensing the environment), proprioception (sensing the physical position of your body) and interoception (sensing essentially everything and anything you can feel inside your body). Though this summary is undoubtedly a correct and useful description, it insufficiently addresses the purpose of the word and it’s too cumbersome of an explanation to be a definition.

As I was researching and considering my own definition, I came across this offering by Ann Saffi Biasetti: 

“Embodiment can be simply defined as living life informed through the sense experience of the body.”

Her definition caught my attention because she is getting much closer, in a very efficient way, to the purpose and description of what embodiment actually is in action

Embodiment in our context is not a noun. It’s a verb. It’s an active and intentional process not a static thing. Furthermore, it’s a choice to consciously inhabit the full spectrum of our experience of being a human being, not dissecting different sensory pathways. It is not a “set of practices” intended to create certain “desired therapeutic outcomes.” Though we use practices to learn how to embody, they are like a baseball player hitting balls in a batting cage; the point isn’t to hit balls over and over again, it’s to hone one’s overall ability as a baseball player. In other words, please do not miss the forest for the trees.

I like to say that we usually come to embodiment work to repair, but we stay with it to transcend. To transcend the limitations put upon us by dissociation from our felt experience. When we can safely embody again, life goes from black and white to technicolor, from pixelated to high definition, from 2D to 3D.

Before embodiment, I knew I loved my wife, after embodiment, I could feel my love for her. 

So, with inspiration from Ann’s wonderfully simple definition and incorporating the specific purpose of embodiment as I have applied it in my own life and that of my clients, I took the liberty to form the following definition:

Embodiment: verb // The act of expanding one’s self awareness to include the felt experience of the body, such as sensory, sensational, emotional and physical experiences, and incorporating that information into one’s overall conception and conduct of themselves, their identity, beliefs, behaviors, and ways of being. // Using embodiment, she was able to realize that her short tempered outburst had nothing to do with her child asking for more snacks, but because she felt physically trapped and overwhelmed.

My hope is that this exploration of the meaning of embodiment expands and deepens your conception of what the term is really about. That it makes you curious to experiment with what’s possible with yourself and/or your clients when you choose to fully step into your embodied self, not just as a practice or form of therapy, but as a way of life. Because in the end, embodiment is how we experience life

Karden Rabin is a mindbody practitioner specializing in psychophysiologic disorders and the co-founder of CFS School

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

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