movement + meaning

Last week (21/11) Performing Arts Lab hosted a Movement and Meaning symposium. It was a brilliantly stimulating and inspiring event. I gave a 15 min talk that made links between movement, metaphor and mindfulness, dualism, paradox and living in balance. I also gave some physical demonstrations of nonduality and paradox using exercises from Lishi, the Daoist arts system I practice. The text of my talk is below:

In trying to understand the causes of the current ecological crisis, many scholars and some activists have turned their attention inwards, to explore what is going on with our psychology that has inspired such destructive behaviour to the planet.

One line of enquiry is how we conceptualise our relationship as humans with the rest of nature. It finds that perceiving nature solely for its instrumental value as a limitless resource to be used and exploited for human benefit is at the core of our problems [1]. Indeed, Ronald Wright in his book ‘A Short History of Progress’ argues that living beyond our means and bankrupting the land has been a cause throughout history of the downfall of all the great civilisations. Hostility to change from vested interests and inertia at all levels of society means we don’t learn our lesson, and “each time history repeats itself, the price goes up” he says, quoting graffiti he saw somewhere [2].

The notion that humans are somehow separate from nature, that we are ‘above’ nature, and that we can control and dominate it, can be traced back through the Enlightenment period with Descartes’ dualism all the way back to early Christianity which authorised human dominion over other life forms. Many authors over the centuries have written on this subject [3].

Now of course, the connection between humans and the rest of nature is still there; we have never actually been disconnected: what we do affects the rest of nature and vice versa. It’s just that our capitalist society has chosen to deny, ignore or not recognise the interconnections – it makes more money that way. We have been living AS IF we were separate, with huge ecological consequences that we are now all too familiar with: climate change, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, topsoil erosion, contributing to global social issues of poverty, food and water shortages, social unrest, war and disease. The consequences are felt on the personal level too: connecting with nature enhances our health and sense of wellbeing [4].

Current research shows that those who have a strong sense of self-identity as part of nature, that see nature as part of their in-group and who recognise that nature has inherent value in and of itself regardless of its utility to humans, are much more likely to engage in ecologically responsible behaviour [5]. This seems obvious. Of course they would, we might say.

What is perhaps not so obvious is that this way of seeing ourselves is subversive. It’s at odds with public discourse; it runs against the grain. In fact it is amazing if we can sustain self-as-part-of-nature as a concept at all, because we are continually being pushed towards a concept of separation, of a human-nature split.

How does this happen? The answer is our use of the English language and the evidence is everywhere.

In their seminal book Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson explain how the language we use reveals a lot about how we conceptualise the world. Our conceptual systems matter because they influence our reasoning and structure how we perceive and think, what we do, and how we relate to others. Conceptual systems are largely metaphorical but metaphors are incomplete representations: they privilege one way of seeing and obscure others [5].

English emphasises objects over processes. It is a language of physical containment, spatial boundedness and differentiation. It likes to objectify and quantify our experience of interacting in the world. So it describes objects as discrete entities with boundaries, and these objects are separated from each other by space. They have inherent properties that can be measured, and these properties are used to categorise them and differentiate one type of object from another. But in this view the object is a system without inputs and outputs, the definition doesn’t describe how it interacts and relates to other things. Objectivist metaphors are fragmentary; they separate us from our environment [6].

We can see this language of separation in phrases like “being in nature”, “going into the wild”, with the implication that there are places where you are and nature is not. But even in the most extreme built environments there is still nature. There are life forms everywhere though we may not see them with the naked eye. Every day for the whole of our lives we live in symbiosis (and competition) with trillions of bacteria, within and on the surface of our physical bodies. Are we aware of them as nature? We are always ‘in’ nature. We breathe air, feel the sun. We eat and are eaten.

Conceptualising nature as a place also involves power relations – who determines who has access to where, and on what terms? This issue has dogged wilderness conservation projects, throughout the years, with indigenous peoples often being displaced from their traditional territories to fulfil a western industrial construct of wilderness as a place without humans [7].

Furthermore, being ‘in’ a natural place does not necessarily mean we feel connected. There is a degree of mindful awareness and quality of attention needed to reach through the boundaries in our perception separating us as a discrete object from our environment. Otherwise we might just be looking ‘at’ nature or standing ‘on’ it rather than feeling truly immersed within it.

As well as ‘nature as place’, there are other metaphors we use e.g. ‘nature as a person’ for example, when we talk about nature as a teacher or healer. These are also object metaphors.

The perception of separation from nature is so deep in our conceptual system, according to Lakoff, that we cannot simply wipe it from our brains [8]. However, this dualism is not necessarily inevitable or innate.

There are many world languages that do not emphasise objects over processes; that instead express a subject-subject relationality – a concept of nature derived from direct experience of a specific place and its specific communities rather than as something abstract. Some languages don’t have a word for nature or wilderness as a thing in itself. Wilderness is a state of mind, as well as being something useful. Unfortunately, many of these languages (and cultures) are under threat of extinction [9].

Lakoff & Johnson state that the conceptual metaphors we use are grounded in our everyday experience of interacting with the world. So it is our experience of our physical bodies as having an inside and an outside that we project onto other things ‘out there’ in the world.

However we do also experience our bodies as dynamic processes. Overcoming social modeling to attain this perspective requires dedicated and committed practice; it’s a discipline, but it is possible. Livia Kohn reports that through persistent body awareness practice such as yoga or Qigong, various body-mind patterns can begin to unravel, allowing the practitioner to become aware of different experiential and interactive possibilities [10]. So with mindful awareness we can consciously experience nonduality directly and physically in and through our bodies. It is an embodied and pre-reflective understanding. You have to actually do it, talking about it can only get you so far!

yin-yang symbol

In a Daoist physical arts practice such as Tai chi or Qigong, dualities are understood as complementary poles. They are non-absolute and dynamic – there is always movement and each pole contains an aspect of its opposite, as is shown in the yin-yang symbol. It is the harnessing of oppositional forces, for example, of up and down that generates dynamic balance. It is not either up or down but both and. The movements are in circles, not straight lines. With a circle there are no opposite ends. The line is an illusion created by looking at the circle from the side so its 2D shape become one-dimensional. [DEMONSTRATE]

It is a conceptual system that embraces paradox, and is present in many wisdom systems throughout the world including Christianity. For example, the Bible talks about strength through weakness (II Corinthians 12:10), gaining through losing (Phil. 3:7-8) and living through dying. In the practice I do, Lishi, we have an exercise that demonstrates how softness is stronger than hardness. [DEMONSTRATE]

But the conceptualising of things as dualities in western society is strong.

One study found that Chinese research subjects particularly liked paradoxical proverbs, whereas American participants preferred proverbs without contradictions [11]. It’s the “You’re either with us or against us” mentality that George Bush was so fond of. Conservative political rhetoric in the UK pits pro-environmental action against economic prosperity, the assumption being that you can’t have both.

It is exactly this kind of dualistic thinking that is holding us back from finding creative, positive ways forward.

Dualistic thinking affects our ability to regulate behaviour. All systems need feedback to self-regulate. A perception of separation from nature leads to disregulation because we are not paying attention to feedback about the impact of our actions, so we are unable to respond appropriately to keep the system in dynamic balance.

Iain McGilchrist talks about the brain as a “system of opponent processors containing mutually opposed elements whose contrary influence make possible finely calibrated responses to complex situations” [12].

As a Daoist arts practitioner, I would say that a mindful movement practice not only helps develop the sensory acuity and sensitivity to feedback needed for such finely calibrated and dynamically balanced responses, but also helps us get beyond the effect of objectivist dualistic language. Mindfulness meditation trains the practitioner in achieving a state of detachment from immediate automatic response to stimuli; there is choice in how to respond. Indeed research shows that dispositional mindfulness is associated with ecologically responsible behaviour. Regular practice affects how we perceive ourselves – our values, virtues and limitations – and our interdependencies with our environment, including the way we perceive the impact of our decisions and actions [13].

In summary: to effectively address the huge social and ecological problems we face, we need to move away from unhelpful dualistic objectivist metaphors and use language of relational interconnectedness and process instead. I am arguing that a physical mindfulness practice can help us conceptualise our relationship with nature in this nondual way, enabling us to live in dynamic balance within ourselves and with the rest of nature.


  1. Lakoff, G. 2010. Why it matter how we frame the environment. Environmental Communication: a journal of nature and culture, 4(1) 70-81; Wright, R. 2006. A Short History of Progress. Canongate Books; Dryzek, J.S. 1997. The Politics of the Earth: environmental discourses, Oxford University Press
  2. Wright, R. 2006
  3. For example see Marx, K. 1999. Capital. Oxford University Press; Merchant, C. 1983. The Death of Nature, San Francisco: Harper & Row; Midgley, M. 2003. Myths We Live By, Routledge
  4. Moss, S. 2012. Natural Childhood, National Trust; Newton, J. 2007. Wellbeing and the Natural Environment: a brief overview of the evidence, University of Bath; MIND 2007. Ecotherapy: the green agenda for mental health; Howell A.J. 2011. Nature Connectedness: Associations with well-being and mindfulness, Personality and Individual Differences, 51 pp.166-171
  5. Schultz, P.W. et al 2004. Implicit connections with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24 31-42; Schultz, P.W. & Tabanico. J. 2007. Self, Identity and the natural environment: exploring implicit connections with nature, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37(6) 1219-1247. Crompton, T. & Kasser, T. 2010. Human Identity: the missing link in environmental campaigning,, 52(4) 23-33; Mayer F.S. & Frantz, C.M. 2004. The connectedness to nature scale: a measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24 pp.503-515; Mayer F.S. & Frantz, C.M. 2008. Framing the question of survival: psychological insights and limitations, Conservation Biology, 22:4 pp.823-825
  6. Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. 1980. Metaphors we live by, University of Chicago Press; Johnson, M. 1987. The body in the mind, University of Chicago Press; Larson, B. 2011. Metaphors for Environmental Sustainability: redefining our relationship with nature. Yale University Press
  7. Larson, B. 2011
  8. Lakoff & Johnson 1980; Raynor, A.D. 2011. Space cannot be cut – why self-identity naturally includes neighbourhood, Integrative Psychology and Behavioural Science, 45 161-184
  9. Larson, B. 2011
  10. Kohn, L. 2008. Meditation Works, Three Pines Press
  11. McGilchrist, I. 2009. The master and his emissary, Yale University Press
  12. McGilchrist, I. 2009 p.9
  13. Brown, K.W. & Kasser, Y. 2005. Are psychological and ecological well-being compatible? The role of values, mindfulness and lifestyle. Social Indicators Research 74(2) 349-368; Brown K.W & Ryan, R.M. 2003. The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4) 822-848; Zollo, M. et al. 2007. Understanding and responding to societal demands on corporate responsibility, final report. INSEAD
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