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The Embodied MindCognitive Science and Human Experience$

Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780262529365

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262529365.001.0001

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(p.xxxv) Introduction to the Revised Edition

(p.xxxv) Introduction to the Revised Edition

The Embodied Mind

Eleanor Rosch

The MIT Press

This book is about something real. For that reason it does not fit easily into any of the usual academic disciplines. It is not science, it is not philosophy, it is not phenomenology, and it is certainly not Buddhism, although it touches on all of these. Nevertheless, for twenty-plus years the book has served as a provocateur for academic and nonacademic readers alike. During that time, the issues with which it deals, such as relations between the sciences of mind and human personal experience (your personal experience), have become more prominent and culturally visible, but by no means resolved.

A bit of history: I confess that working on The Embodied Mind with the late Francisco Varela sometimes felt to me like entering an Indonesian shadow-puppet play. A central part of these plays is a sequence in which the protagonists cross into “the forest,” a charmed space where it becomes possible for beings from different orders of reality—humans, gods, clowns, heroes, demons—to meet and interact, thereby propelling the drama on its way. In a somewhat analogous fashion, the aim of The Embodied Mind was to create an open space in which normally separated aspects of human knowledge represented by different modes of discourse and different academic disciplines could meet, speak, and perhaps cross-fertilize one another. We were particularly concerned with the gulf between the human mind as studied by science and the mind as personally experienced—now often spoken of as the disconnect between first person and third person knowledge. To approach this disconnect we juxtaposed three disciplines usually considered worlds apart: the new interdisciplinary science of the mind called cognitive science, the phenomenological tradition in philosophy, and some aspects of the Eastern religion of Buddhism. Through the interplay of these three voices we emerged with the outline of a new kind of cognitive science (p.xxxvi) called enaction that we argued would provide the ground for a science both embodied and experientially relevant.

Now, twenty-five years later, much has changed in the cultural and intellectual environment in which ordinary people live and in which research on body and mind is performed, changes that make The Embodied Mind even more relevant and probably more accessible than when first published:

  1. 1) This is the era of body, particularly of the brain. New techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and an enhanced electroencephalogram (EEG) have made it possible to observe changes in blood flow and electrical activity in the brain in real time, thus providing a window into the relation between thoughts, emotions, and brain activity. Increasingly the prevailing assumption in psychology, cognitive science, and many other fields is that the mind (and hence experience) is just the brain and that the gold standard for studying anything human is to observe changes in the brain. Note our new vocabulary: not only is there neuroscience but also neuro-economics, neuro-ethics … even neuro-theology. But body is not necessarily the same as embodied; what is that body that is under scrutiny?

  2. 2) This is also the era of personal technology. Hence it is not surprising that the brain (and thus the mind with its experiences) is increasingly assumed to work like a computer, that is, for all its subtlety to be a machine that should be studied accordingly. A personal side of this technological change may be the overriding of much self-awareness. Where once there were spaces in the day between events to digest information, reflect on occurrences, notice one’s reactions, and be with one’s thoughts and emotions, now there is only time to whip out the cell phone.

These first two trends have to do with the objectification of science and the externalization of our lives; they provide the background from which the quest of this book and our concept of enaction stand out as contrast. The next three, more local in scope but potentially of great generative importance, are efforts toward reclaiming the mind.

  1. 3) Interest in phenomenology is growing, particularly in Europe and Latin America. In strict usage, phenomenology refers to work stemming from the school of philosophy originated by Edmund Husserl, (p.xxxvii) Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but it is now also applied to research that looks into experience through a variety of other methods. While phenomenology is the province of my coauthor Evan Thompson, I wish to make just one point about it here. We began The Embodied Mind with a single phenomenological insight that can turn objectivist science (and one’s world view) on its head if one allows it to. Everything perceived, believed, theorized, researched, and known is done so by an observer. The brain is seen, dissected, experimented on, believed to be the cause of mental events … by the minds of scientists—and likewise for the other sciences. (This is what those circular diagrams in the first chapter are trying to convey.) From that point of view, the brain is inside the mind rather than vice versa. And it is from that point of view that phenomenology throws down the gauntlet and challenges cognitive science, thus initiating, though by no means closing, our conversation.

  2. 4) “Mindfulness” training derived from Buddhist practices has been shown to have both physically and mentally therapeutic effects, and use of it is spreading exponentially. There is a corresponding outpouring of research on mindfulness not only to confirm its clinical effectiveness but, as we might expect, to relate it to the brain and to develop methods to define it, measure it, and to understand it within the framework of our already existing mechanistic science. Such work has been anointed with names like contemplative clinical science and contemplative neuroscience, and one can only hope that this will be a case of “If you build it [here “if you name it”] they will come.” One positive result is that Buddhism and the large family of concepts being called “mindfulness” are no longer treated as visits from an extraterrestrial as they were twenty-five years ago; both are now—however poorly understood—on the cultural and scientific radar. On the other hand, much that Buddhism and contemplative practices in other traditions could contribute to science, not to mention human life (some might say the heart of what they have to contribute), is being overlooked or downright banished in the name of science.

  3. 5) The theory of enaction has itself developed. It has been refined and more clearly described (Evan Thompson has been the leader in this),1 and there have been advances in knowledge of the phenomenological background of the theory. Of most interest to cognitive (p.xxxviii) scientists, enaction is gaining traction as a philosophical paradigm and has staked claims to be a scientific program under which research can be performed.2

In the rest of this essay I will: 1) summarize the clarified version of enaction—twenty years of emails from confused readers of chapter 8 have shown how needed this is; 2) show how understanding enaction in full requires input from Buddhism, including its later forms; 3) appraise the new concept of Buddhist modernism being used in academia to delegitimize serious study of living Buddhism; 4) critique the research on mindfulness that is in vogue and suggest alternatives; 5) discuss the enaction–science interface; and 6) open questions about future contemplative neuroscience and the future of enaction.

Enaction Clarified

Phase 1 Enaction

Enaction can be understood in two stages. The core idea of enaction is that the living body is a self-organizing system. This is in contrast to viewing it as a machine that happens to be made of meat rather than silicon. Mechanisms act and change their state only because of input and programming from sources outside of themselves, whereas the living body continuously reorganizes itself to survive and maintain its own homeostasis. (Notice how this alone is a radical departure from the dominant view of the body in present research.) Survival means that the organism must preserve the integrity of its boundaries while having constant interchange with the environment. Even the simplest one-celled organism exchanges materials through the semipermeable membrane of its cell walls and performs overt actions relevant to its self-maintenance, such as swimming toward a detectable food source or away from insupportable temperatures. Actions of the organism are thus purposive and have been said by enactivists to be the embryonic forms of cognition, of mind, and even of values.

The environment of a given living body of whatever degree of complexity can only be what is knowable and known to its sense organs and cognitions, and that environment is in turn constantly changed by the organism’s actions on it—in the terms we use in the book, neither side is pregiven. The lived body, lived mind, and lived environment are all thus part of the same process, the process by which one enacts one’s world (in (p.xxxix) phenomenology speak, “brings forth a world”). Humans, of course, can enact self, boundaries, survival, environment, exchange, desire, and aversion into symbolic castles of great subtlety, but that does not change the basic processes.

This is a phase 1 account of enaction. It seems self-contained as it is; what need is there for Buddhism? In fact a description of sentient beings almost identical to the above portrayal of enaction is provided in the teaching of the five skandhas (heaps) of early Buddhism. We present the skandhas in chapter 4 as an example of the Buddhist deconstruction of the self, but they can also be seen as a logical and temporal account of how the false sense of self is constructed. It begins with a living body with its dualistic senses; develops through that living being’s perception of the world through the filter of what is felt to be good, bad, or indifferent for the subject pole of the dualism; develops yet further into habits based on actions to get the good, shun the bad, and ignore the indifferent; and ends with birth into a moment of consciousness already situated in a complete inner and outer “world” stemming from whichever of the basic impulses (desire, aversion, or indifference) of the subject toward its objects predominates.3 But there is one major difference between the phase 1 enactive and the Buddhist accounts: in Buddhism, this is the beginning of the story, not the end.

Phase 2 Enaction

From the Buddhist point of view, both phase 1 enaction and the skandhas are portraits of the confused and ignorant body, mind, and world that is called samsara, that is, the wheel of life through which sentient beings cycle in ignorance and suffering (see chapters 4 and 6). The good news is that there is an alternative. There is another mode of knowing not based on an observer and observed. This ushers in phase 2 of enaction, what in the book we call groundlessness (chapter 10).

At this point we have gone beyond phenomenology. Yes, this is a controversial claim given Heidegger’s account of Being-in-the-World (in-der-Welt-sein) where there is no split between subject, object, consciousness, and world,4 followed by Merleau-Ponty’s psychology that extends this foundational idea.5 Added to these are the new interpretations of Husserl based partly on material of his not available when our book was originally written.6 But there is a difference between such ideas as philosophy or scientific (p.xl) theory and what results from the actuality of a mind in the nondual awareness that can be brought about (uncovered is probably a better term) by Buddhist meditations, contemplations, transmissions, and other practices.

Here is the difference. In foundational European phenomenology (for convenience I will use Heidegger’s terminology), the central image of a mind that does not make distinctions between subject and object, that is, of a mind in the pre-reflective natural state, is of a person actively engaged in the world, a person with interests, cares, concerns, and goals who is vigorously pursuing those goals using whatever comes before him as a tool. It is when there is some breakdown in that state (something doesn’t work) that the person will draw back, assume the abstract attitude, reflect on experience, and give birth to those distinctions. From the Buddhist point of view, this is a romanticization of samsara. What that actively engaged person is engaged in is vigorously trying to grasp and cling to what he wants, flee from or attack what he does not want, and ignore what he feels is irrelevant to himself—all while using objects, other people, and the environment only as instruments to foster his desires. The opposition between self and other is not a matter of abstract reflection but is built into the engagements of a consciousness birthed via the skandhas or, in our terminology, enacted without awareness of its nature. When the unaware person is actively, even skillfully or harmoniously, engaged in his life, he is generally in a state of absorption, his mind cushioned by a cloud of fragmented perceptions, attentions, intentions, fantasies, thoughts, efforts, feelings, and memories that give him the sense of who he is and what he is about, but do not make him fully present (in Buddhist terms he is in “the ghostly confusion of phenomenal existence”). And when that person attempts to stop and look at his experience, the shadow of an ever present but slippery separate observer already present in the cloud comes to the fore, another kind of fragmented duality that makes it difficult to look. There is no first person here and only a ghostly sense of any second or third person.

What Buddhist practices have to contribute to this conundrum is that there is a different mode of knowing altogether in which the mind is neither absorbed nor separated but simply present and available. There is no longer that observer claimed in the first chapter here; experience is simple and self-known. This is the mind that can actually know firsthand the (p.xli) groundlessness of the enacted edifice in which humans live (chapter 10), thereby clearing the way for transformative wisdom to emerge (hinted at in chapter 11). (A note to phenomenologists: if Nishida and Nishitani7 appear to be counterexamples to what I have said in general about phenomenology, remember that both are speaking from a background of Japanese Zen Buddhism.)

What next? The title of our book promises insight into the relation between personal experience and cognitive science, perhaps even a rapprochement between them. Enaction was proposed as the form of cognitive science that could accomplish this. What is there to say about such claims now twenty-five years later? I will discuss the experience side first, and then the science.

Personal Experience: Why Buddhism?

If you are going to look into personal experience in a manner sufficiently rigorous to make it relevant to science, you need some method for doing so. We turned to Buddhism because, in our judgment, it provided what both Western psychology and phenomenology lacked, a disciplined and non-manipulative method of allowing the mind to know itself—a method that we (in retrospect naively) simply called mindfulness. There are currently two main objections to using Buddhism in this manner that need to be addressed.

The first is called Buddhist modernism. Buddhism has changed throughout its history, and a recent book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism,8 has argued for a link between changes occurring in Buddhism since its contact with the West and aspects of modern Western culture. Interestingly, although the evaluative import of the historical data detailed in this wideranging work is sufficiently ambiguous that it could have led equally to the title The Decline and Fall of Buddhism or to The Making of the Buddhist Renaissance, the Buddhist studies community seems to have landed primarily on the negative side to the point of using the term Buddhist modernism almost as an epithet. From this viewpoint our assumption that Buddhist teachings are related to Buddhist meditations and that both can reveal important aspects of the mind is itself just another expression of Buddhist modernism.9

(p.xlii) I come to these issues not from a context of historical scholarship but from the study of Buddhism as a living tradition and from a background in psychology and the cognitive and social sciences. That makes for a different lens. There is a sharp contrast, for example, between the ways Buddhist texts are treated by academic scholars and by contemporary Buddhist practitioners. Some of the Buddhist doctrines, texts, and teachings that the scholar would claim unrelated to meditation experience (because meditation was so rare historically and/or because Buddhist treatises and classification systems bear the marks of ordinary scholastic discourse) I see being used in contemporary Buddhist centers as guides to meditation, pointers to experience, and programs for action in life. Furthermore, if you look again at the textual record you find that the attribution of doctrinal origins to meditative realization is not new but actually as old as the canonical story of the Buddha himself, a pattern that is repeated in the origin stories of major texts and the hagiographies of important teachers throughout Buddhist history. If not a reality, it was certainly an ideal, as was meditation itself. In contemporary Buddhist sanghas (communities), there is often a core of dedicated practitioners who are working toward such ideals in their meditation—also their lives and community—and some consider themselves pioneers in a Buddhist renewal. It is easy to miss such communities if sidetracked by the penumbra of new age and other cultural banalities that tend to surround contemporary Buddhist movements—a cautionary note about judging contemporary activities from too great a distance.

Of course neither meditation nor writing is ever done in a vacuum. Previous texts and teachings provide the view for what is to be done and the rationale for why; meditations and life practices provide the experience to instantiate or amend what was given; and out of that will come new teachers and, perhaps, new teachings, all of this at play within the social structures and background of cultural beliefs and practices of the time. Buddhists look on this as natural, not as somehow a disconfirmation of their teachings. In fact it is considered part of the skillful means of a realized teacher to be able, in response to the needs of people of a particular time and place, to generate new meditation techniques (as occurred in the burst of creativity in Theravada countries upon liberation from colonial rule), new teachings (such as Shambhala and Socially Engaged Buddhism), and perhaps new social structures for the sangha (as in Shambhala (p.xliii) and Sarvodaya Shramadana). Evan Thompson describes this kind of cycling back and forth in enactive language in his introduction; in Buddhism it is known as path.

The second main objection to our use of Buddhism as a window into personal experience is a variant of the general argument that experience cannot be used as a basis for research either in science or religious studies (in psychology, for example, this is the view that gave rise to behaviorism). The particular form of this view leveled at us is the phenomenological objection that by looking at experience closely or in any other particular way, one is thereby changing the experience10 (an argument that would apply equally, of course, to phenomenological investigation). For Buddhism this critique is a confusion of path with results and a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of path meditation.

From the nondual perspective there is no you looking inwardly at a separate experience, but from the beginner’s dualistic viewpoint there appears to be; thus meditation instructions make use of the marvelous human capacity to move one’s attention in order to direct that attention in ways that will reveal aspects of experience hitherto unnoticed or unacknowledged. For example, a practitioner may be told to attend to her breath as it goes in and out. Shortly she sees that this is difficult; her mind leaps around and she cannot control or even find the looker. Here you find the seeds of later recognition of impermanence (the movement) and egolessness (no separated looker to look). Such discoveries are not about particular contents of experience but of parameters of its nature, and they are the necessary forerunners for even a glimpse of the nonduality of the Madhyamaka as direct experience rather than only as philosophical theory.

Science and Buddhism

Because Buddhist practices involve working with experience, one would expect the science–Buddhism interchange to be a poster child for what we have asked for in a dialogue between experience and science. Instead it may presently be a cautionary tale.


In the years since we wrote our book, the word mindfulness has achieved rock star status and attracted an exponentially expanding amount of (p.xliv) research. Various trends have fed into this. In 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center put together a pioneering program consisting of two Theravada mindfulness meditations, hatha yoga, and a number of exercises allied to Western clinical techniques. He called the program Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)11 and it proved remarkably successful at helping chronic pain patients who had hitherto been finding no relief from standard medical techniques. Since then the use of mindfulness in therapies, many modeled on MBSR, has burgeoned, with corresponding research showing its benefits for a large variety of physical and psychological ills as well as benefits for people without clinical diagnoses.12 A further encouragement for research has come through support from His Holiness the Dalai Lama who holds conferences in which he dialogues with Western scientists and supports research in other ways through his Mind and Life Institute.

There are endemic problems with research on mindfulness. My coauthor has provided a critique of this work through the perspective of enaction; here I want to indicate briefly some of its weaknesses as ordinary science. It is basic scientific logic that if you want to study the effect of something (the independent variable) on a resultant mental or physical state (the dependent variable), you have to know what the independent variable is and have evidence that it is actually present in your subjects. You must also be able to define and measure the appropriate outcome variables(s). However, defining and measuring mindfulness, as either kind of variable, is problematic. Even in early Buddhism there were debates over just what kinds of attention constituted mindfulness (Pali: sati, Sanskrit: smrti) and about what other virtues were or were not to be included in it.13 The situation today is even more intricate since some teachers in all the forms of Buddhism have begun to use the word mindfulness to refer to everything from the most beginning practice to their version of presence with a fully enlightened mind. Therapists contribute their own mindfulness descriptions, as do popular authors in a variety of genres. Researchers usually settle on a single verbal definition, perhaps from another researcher, without considering what it might imply or questioning whether their subjects are in fact doing that.

Here are some of the problems with the resultant research:14 1) The major mindfulness measurement scales basically measure Western mental health variables with little reference to any of its prior meanings. Not only does (p.xlv) this elide what might be new and interesting about mindfulness, but methodologically the operational definition of mindfulness becomes the same thing as the desired outcome of being mindful—a circular process. 2) A widely used de facto definition of mindfulness is that subjects have taken MBSR, but the genius of that multifaceted program is that people can benefit from it in many different ways,15 and so benefits may well not correspond to the researcher’s definition of mindfulness. 3) If a would-be mindfulness instruction is given, and subjects show a brain response, it is assumed that this is the brain signature of mindfulness—but as every meditator knows, instruction is not equivalent to performance, and as every neuroscientist is coming to know, anything that one does affects the brain. 4) Mindfulness is often treated as a mechanism, a pill that should work in the same way regardless of context, but, as we have seen (and as is basic in enaction), context is important in how people interpret and proceed with what they are doing—even for pills.

Perhaps the final indignity is that when researchers come to explain mindfulness, they inevitably assimilate it to an already established and well-domesticated theory in clinical or, increasingly, brain science. This assumes that our scientific knowledge is already complete with nothing new to learn. Is it?

Beyond Mindfulness: Basic Knowledge Questions

Are the mind and its experiences only the brain? Is the mind limited to the body? Mainstream neuroscience assumes the affirmative to both questions, but the only evidence for that position is that changes in the brain can affect experience and behavior, and vice versa. To take such two-way interactions as a brain monism depends on a scientific materialist metaphysics, not on science itself. It also depends on the assumption that we now know everything basic that there is to know about matter and living bodies. And finally it assumes that there is no faculty of knowing beyond the dualistic mind of samsara and phase 1 enaction.

Evidence contrary to these assumptions has been slowly accumulating for the past century. Best known by Westerners are the alternative physiologies offered by the yogic (and Asian medical) views of the body in which the body is regarded as a pattern of energy. The energy channels described in these systems do not correspond to the nervous system of Western physiology but can nonetheless be manipulated by techniques such as (p.xlvi) acupuncture to produce both experiences and health benefits. In Tibetan Buddhism, inner subtle-body visualizations and guidance are a part of advanced practices, at least one of which, the inner heat practice of tummo, has readily observable physical effects; for example, practitioners can raise their body temperature enough to sit in freezing temperatures and to dry wet sheets wrapped around them.16 Less dramatic, but perhaps more to the point, is that movements of energy in the subtle body are understood in Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist yogas to be the origin of mental effects, such as wildness versus stability of mind. In fact both later Buddhism and Daoism offer inner-energy paths that can transform both the actual embodiment of the practitioner and, if comprehended, could potentially transform the understanding of embodiment of the scientific community as a whole. Interestingly, hatha yoga and/or qi gong exercises form an integral, though in research generally ignored, part of MBSR and thus may play a correspondingly important role in its health benefits. In short, what we have here is an organized and detailed alternative map of a body-mind, consonant with enaction, that cries out for serious scientific investigation.17

Even more scientifically challenging is evidence that there could be aspects of mind that are separable from the brain and perhaps even the body. Tibetan lamas give mind-to-mind transmission of various kinds of wisdom states. Unlike the design of multitudes of failed extra sensory perception experiments in the West, such transmissions are not of mental contents but of what are considered deeper aspects of mind. Although the transmissions are not conveyed by ordinary sensory or intellectual means, they can be experienced—as is attested by many Western students of Tibetan teachers. Less exotic phenomena such as experimenter bias or placebo effects may or may not be in the same category as this.

Evidence for separation of the deep mind from the brain occurs in even more paradigm-challenging circumstances. At death Tibetan high lamas enter into what is called the death samadhi. The lama is medically dead: no brain activity, no organ activity, but his heart center remains warm, and transmissions of enlightened mind states can emanate from him even more strongly and clearly than in life. This may continue for days, even weeks or longer. The Vajrayana yogic explanation is that the subtlest energies of the nondual mind have withdrawn from the outer body into the central channel, have then united in the heart center, and are now radiating to the world.18 Typically when the lama’s mind, in its most subtle yogic sense, is (p.xlvii) judged to have merged with the dharmakaya (the fundamental ground of being), and his body is cremated, rainbows appear. I have witnessed all of this twice; it definitely shakes one’s scientific preconceptions.

Science and Enaction

The idea of the mind as embodied—now generally called embodied cognition—has become an active field of research, often hailed by its adherents as the new paradigm for cognitive science. Such research occurs under a loosely knit consortium of headings that include: embodied cognition, enaction, embedded cognition, extended mind, grounded cognition, situated cognition, nonrepresentational cognition, emergent cognition, and anti-Cartesian cognition. The differences in name, to some extent, map differences in theoretical orientation and research methods. Thus you can see that enaction, in its particulars, has now become one part of a more general scientific movement. Interestingly, The Embodied Mind is commonly cited as one origin of this entire movement.

All of this makes sense if one thinks in terms of the sociology of science. New theories should not only be able to generate multiple experimental or observational results that older theories could not, but they are even more likely to gain prominence if they are in direct opposition to those previous theories. In cognitive science and psychology it helps if some of the new results are provocatively, perhaps charmingly, counterintuitive. Embodied cognition meets all of these criteria. It sets itself in clear opposition to what it sees as the prevailing stance in cognitive science and psychology, that is, cognitivism and computational methods that abstract mental performance from the full functioning of the body in its environment (see chapter 3). It is likewise in adamant disagreement with the mind seen as a product of the brain alone. From this quite general basis (perhaps “battle cry” in Wittgenstein’s sense), it is relatively easy to generate a torrent of experiments and studies by showing that a particular movement of the body or interaction with the physical or social environment makes a measurable difference in cognition or vice versa, all of which count as confirmation of the basic proposition of embodiment. A final spur to interest in embodiment as a new paradigm is its ability to generate surprise. One example: holding a cup of warm versus cold liquid in one hand changes how experimental subjects evaluate other unrelated stimuli.

(p.xlviii) The content of what is being studied and of what is or is not considered confirmation varies with the particular theory and aspects of embodiment under consideration—as might be expected from the proliferation of names for embodiment. However, the overall relationship of these differing perspectives to one another is more like an extended family than an adversarial court case; the adults (the theories) may bicker and dispute, but the children (the experiments) can be shared. In fact, older experimental work, particularly in psychology, done under rather different auspices, may be repurposed as examples of embodiment, cognitive dissonance being one obvious example.

Enaction as such has fared well in this environment. It has not lost its integrity amid the other forms of embodied cognition and has maintained its close association with phenomenological thought. Enaction brings a distinctive perspective into the embodiment conversation. Whereas most embodiment research focuses on the interaction between body and mind, body and environment, or environment and mind, enaction sees the lived body as a single system that encompasses all three.19 Systems analysis thus becomes the basic framework that guides much enaction research. Although at its most abstract theoretical level enaction could be considered a philosophy too broad to be subject to empirical testing (is there anything that cannot be interpreted in an enactive framework?), at present a coterie of enthusiastic enactivists are finding ways to translate that overarching view into hierarchies of increasingly specific descriptions, hypotheses, and mechanisms that at their most concrete can connect with science.20

Work on social interaction appears emblematic of enaction research and can illustrate this process. Embodied social interaction is seen as “mutual participatory sense-making.” How is this to be translated into specifics? In the first place it is mutual and thus system based; this differentiates it strongly from theory-of-mind and other current models that place the internal cognition of individuals (who must use verbal and physical cues to guess one another’s states of mind) as the nexus of social dynamics. Second it is participatory; the participants who are interacting are doing something, thereby creating a system that is changing. Such systems can be subjected to a dynamical systems analysis using variables within that method such as dynamical transitions in coordination patterns. Finally there is sensemaking, which is defined as the ongoing emergence of roles, values, (p.xlix) dispositions to act, and meanings. These terms could potentially be given operational definitions and then be measured by whatever methods are available considering the species under study and other particulars of the situation. Because all of this is seen as enabled by lower-level mechanisms in the body and brain, a universe of possibilities is opened for specific hypotheses and research. For example, according to the enactive “interactive brain hypothesis,”21 the brain is primarily an organ of relational cognition. Thus it has evolved so that organisms have “quasi-automatic attunement to others.” Evidence for this can be gathered from a wide range of sources, from the stereotypical threat displays and maternal behaviors of many species to the brain patterns of humans that characterize being “ready to act.” While much of the experimental research presently cited in enaction papers comes from work previously performed within theoretical frameworks remote from enaction, increasingly studies are appearing that are inspired (at least in part) by enaction itself.

The Future

Neuroscience and the Mind

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argues that science proceeds by increments within a given accepted paradigm until the usefulness of that paradigm for new discoveries wanes, and observations that do not fit accumulate sufficiently to force a shift to a new paradigm. At this particular juncture of historical time, discovering brain correlates of experience is new enough to enthrall researchers and the public alike and to appear to explain everything. But ten years from now? Richard Davidson, a pioneer in brain research on emotions and on mindfulness puts it this way: “… it wasn’t that surprising that meditation produces distinct patterns of brain activity. That goes without saying—anything the mind and therefore the brain does is marked by specific patterns of neuronal firing in specific areas, just as your muscles have particular patterns of electrical activity when you work out.”22 Davidson is looking for changes that last over time and are part of a more general theoretical understanding. We can predict that increasingly the dialogue between experience and science called for by The Embodied Mind will require more than finding simple brain correlates of mental activity.

(p.l) Meanwhile observations that do not fit the mind-is-only-brain (or even mind-is-only-body) paradigm are building. In recent years, two books have thoughtfully addressed this issue. Edward Kelly and Emily Kelly23 provide a compendium of well-documented case studies and experiments indicating that the mind is something in its own right apart from the brain. Some examples are: extreme psychosomatic effects, out-of-body experiences during clinical death while undergoing surgery, feats of Hindu yogis who remained alive and cognizant for long periods with heartbeat and respiration suspended, physiological changes induced by hypnosis, and many others. The death samadhi of Tibetan lamas is the most extreme example. Charles Tart24 offers a similarly motivated collection. He also ranks categories of such paradigm-challenging phenomena as to how well documented they are.

What would put these presently marginal studies center stage, of course, would be if physics were to discover something measurable about the mind, apart from the brain, that fit within the ever-expanding domain of what is considered material. We now have particles without mass, dark energy, bosons of various types, and, at least theoretically, vibrating strings of energy that constitute the universe—how about massless mentons that operate within a mental energy field? Not impossible; we don’t know everything.

The Future of Enaction

Enaction occupies a liminal and potentially fertile place in cognitive science. It is a philosophy that is shape shifting into science. As such it may be unique, but it runs some risks. One of the signatures of enactive language, inherited from phenomenology, is its ability to evoke a sense of humanity and deep respect for life. But as it reaches the level of specificity where it is reframed into the impersonal world of dynamic systems analysis, brain mechanisms, and so on, it can easily lose the mind/experience aspect of the lived body and drift toward a body-based reductionist materialism much like brain reductionism. Retaining input from Buddhism or one of the other contemplative traditions could be helpful for anchoring it in its original roots.

Enaction would also do well to continue to expand its analysis of the processes that psychology calls “higher-level cognition.” In complex (p.li) organisms like humans, how does the principle of self-organization (survival, boundaries, exchange with environments, purposiveness) relate to the multiple and possibly hierarchical systems that make up the body and mind? How does enaction account for and work in relation to symbol systems, language, and all of the vast symbolic extensions of the human definition of self and its boundaries? And what is it that breaks down in pathologies of self-organization and self-maintenance such as autoimmune disease, cancers, and emotive thought patterns so self-destructive that they may even lead to suicide?25 What might enaction have to say about social systems and their pathologies or about other challenging societal endeavors such as warfare and peace negotiations?

Is there a place in all this, either in the philosophy or science of enaction, for its type 2 counterpart? At present, this would seem to rest on the intelligence and awareness of individual people. For example, there are forms of therapeutic bodywork based on the principle of self-organization and possible reorganization,26 but beyond the theory, what is so striking about them is that from numerous case studies and patient narratives, one can see the therapist, operating perhaps from a vantage point past the ordinary restricted consciousness of phase 1 enaction, reaching out to connect with the inner intelligence of the client and probing for what will initiate the needed reorganization. The same can probably be said for founders and skilled practitioners of other kinds of therapies. For example, the Bill Moyers documentary on MBSR27 reveals Kabat-Zinn as an inspired and inspiring teacher who is tangibly conveying more to his patients than any simple automated technique. Perhaps the extreme of this kind of intelligence is the presence felt from some religious teachers whose wisdom seems to go well beyond their doctrine—a specialty of Tibetan lamas whose ability to function and palpably transmit beyond concepts is almost part of their job description. And, of course, in our not-yet-very-enlightened society, it is at the level of the individual that some people will be able to break out of the constraints of dynamically escalating destructive interactive systems (such as domestic quarrels, obedience-to-authority psychology experiments, and group aggression). Something of this type of vision may also be needed for scientists; that is, researchers need to be able to look at their subject matter from a position of understanding beyond where their field already is in order to make creative contributions.

(p.lii) Ending Note

For a real dialogue (or trialogue) to occur, all sides need to speak and be heard equally. That has not happened yet for the topics we explore in The Embodied Mind. Where science, as it is done now with its mechanistic and materialist assumptions, meets experience, Buddhism, or anything else, the science simply takes over like a colonial ruler. This is body imperialism, not dialogue. It need not always be that way. There is also a quantity of goodwill being generated, and that could become fertile ground for a more responsive future.

We have offered enaction as a form of science that may help bridge the communication gap between experience and science. It will not do this automatically. Ideas such as the lived body and enaction can easily become merely a romanticization of the old paradigm of a corporeal form limited to self-survival and self-aggrandizement; on the other hand, such ideas could be a transition to a new paradigm for what body and mind are altogether. The key to progress is to keep an open mind—and while we are at it, it would not hurt to also have an open heart. Actually that is good advice for doing anything, including reading this book. So bon voyage, and enjoy!



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(13.) For accounts of the first texts on mindfulness and subsequent debates, see Grossman and Van Dam, Mindfulness by any other name, and the whole issue of Contemporary Buddhism 12 (1).

(14.) Everything in the following paragraphs is treated in detail in Rosch, Emperor’s clothes.

(15.) From interviews in Rosch, Emperor’s clothes.

(17.) There is one related study; it describes and brings neuroscience to bear on movement-based Eastern practices. See Schmalzl, Crane-Godreau, and Payne, Movement-based embodied contemplative practices.

(18.) Sogyal, Tibetan Book of Living and Dying; Rosch, Tibetan Buddhist dream yoga and the limits of Western psychology. At an even deeper level, the mind is understood to be nonmaterial and not measurable—in life as well as death.

(19.) This should help explain phenomenological terms such as “intentional tissue,” “life space,” and “phenomenal field.”

(20.) A prime example of this is the multitude of materials available on the website of Ezequiel Di Paolo, https://ezequieldipaolo.wordpress.com, accessed October 5, 2015 through October 26, 2015.

(25.) One example is Hanne de Jaegher’s detailed and movingly sympathetic account of the multiple factors that can compose the experienced world of a person with autism. See De Jaegher, Embodiment and sense-making in autism.