A basic insight is not the same as an embodied insight. The former is a mere fact, a novel nugget of knowledge or uncanny perception. The latter differs from the former by intensity–an embodied insight is something felt on a deep physiological level. Two examples:
My most recent training session consisted of kettlebell movements and ended with time on my homemade balance beam. The aim was to accumulate three total minutes of balancing on each leg. Somewhere around the fifth minute I “got” posture.
For a while, I’ve known about posture’s relationship to various things; strength, co-ordination, perception by others and personal psychology. However, being 6′ 3″ (6′ 2.5″ if I’m not being generous) I’ve spent most of my life stooping. For the first five minutes I saw the consequence of this. Observers of those minutes would have seen me teetering and tottering, flailing my arms and non-balancing leg in a borderline-insane manner.
But past the fifth minute? I raised my eyes and my chin. I set my scapula and relaxed my shoulders. I held my femur close to its socket, where it belongs. And then it was easy. So easy.
2) Power Generation / The Nervous System.
My day job is in a factory. A few weeks ago, I was at one one end of the room when my colleague dropped a pallet to the floor. For those who haven’t heard it, when a pallet is stood vertically on its edge and tipped over it hits the ground with a gunshot-like sound. Especially if that floor is concrete.
I was standing at the other end of the room. As soon as that sound hit my ears, I felt an electrical current flow down my spine, through my leg, into my heel and dissipate in the ground. I make it sound like something out of a fantasy series but that is how I experienced it.
I have a history in various sports and martial arts and one of the things I was taught early on is that all power is drawn from the ground and ends up back there. The gathering steps for a vertical jump; the windup for a punch or a kick; the throwing of an object. They start and end with the ground. This is why we regard professional athletes with such awe–their movement doesn’t usually leak energy. They have a profound economy of movement.
As with posture, I’d understood this intellectually. Now, I had lived it.
Embodied insight is something more advanced than basic insight. But there are higher levels. I suspect that we would call enlightenment is an accumulation of embodied insight in a very specific domain. Expertise is probably similar. Embodied insight is perhaps the atom that makes up beings or states of enlightenment and expertise. This isn’t revolutionary. However, it is confined to the individual. Is there an analogous process for collectives? Are there cultural instances of embodied insight? I suspect so.
The examples I referenced above are, in the grand scheme of things, mundane. Nothing special. But they triggered a profound reaction to something already intellectually acknowledged. Sound familiar to current events? The Black Lives Matter protests going on around the world were sparked by a similarly innocuous event–by that, I mean George Floyd’s death was another instance of an established pattern of police brutality, not an irrelevant, unnecessary loss of life. Somehow, and for some reason, a transition from basic insight to embodied insight was triggered.
Systemic racism is an undeniable part of our culture. See this thread from criminal defense attorney Greg Doucette–it contains 450+ instances of police brutality from the recent weeks alone. As many point out, if this is what happens on camera with the world watching, imagine what happens without witnesses. Or consider an anecdote I saw (and have since been unable to find again) on Vinay Gupta’s Twitter. It reminds me of the concept of the veil of ignorance. The anecdote:
A race educator is giving a lecture and asks all students who would like to be treated like black people to raise their hands. No response. She repeats the request: raise your hands if you would like to be treated like a black person. Nothing. This, she explains, demonstrates that you all know there is a pervasive problem.
So, if racism is systemic–if it is an established pattern in the weave of society–why has nothing like this happened before? Why does it take so long for culture to embody such insights? A possible answer: the masses are female and the ruling classes (elites, incumbents, the “haves” etc.) are male. Let me explain.
The fourth book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series is called Tehanu. It marks a shift from a coming-of-age story with a male protagonist to an examination of female roles in everyday life during times of great deeds. Early on, Le Guin writes:
‘What’s wrong with men?’ Tenar inquired cautiously.
As cautiously, lowering her voice, Moss replied, ‘I don’t know, my dearie. I’ve thought on it. Often I’ve thought on it. The best I can say it is like this. A man’s in his skin, see, like a nut in its shell.’ She held up her long, bent, wet fingers as if holding a walnut. ‘It’s hard and strong, that shell, and it’s all full of him. Full of grand man-meat, man-self. And that’s all. That’s all there is. It’s all him and nothing else, inside.’
Tenar pondered awhile and finally asked, ‘But if he’s a wizard–‘
‘Then it’s all his power, inside. His power’s himself, see. That’s how it is with him. And that’s all. When his power goes he’s gone. Empty.’ She cracked the unseen walnut and tossed the shells away. ‘Nothing.’
‘And a woman, then?’
‘Oh, well, dearie, a woman’s a different thing entirely. Who knows where a woman begins and ends? Listen, mistress, I have roots, I have roots deeper than this island. Deeper than the sea, older than the raising of the lands. I go back into the dark. … I go back into the dark! Before the moon was. No one knows, no one knows, no one can say what I am, what a woman is, a woman of power, a woman’s power, deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon. Who dares asks questions of the dark? Who’ll ask the dark its name?’
‘But you said you don’t get unless you give. Is it different, then, for men and for women?’
‘What isn’t, dearie?’
‘I don’t know,’ Tenar said. ‘It seems to me we make up most of the differences, and then complain about ’em. I don’t see why the Art Magic, why power, should be different for a man witch and a woman witch. Unless the power itself is different. Or the art.’
‘A man gives out, dearie. A woman takes in.’
Towards the end, Le Guin concludes:
‘”A woman on Gont” can’t become archmage. No woman can be archmage. She’d unmake what she became in becoming it. The Mages of Roke are men — their power is the power of men, their knowledge is the knowledge of men. Both manhood and magery are built on one rock: power belongs to men. If women had power, what would men be but women who can’t bear children? And what would women be but men who can?’
‘Hah!’ went Tenar; and presently, with some cunning, she said, ‘Haven’t there been queens? Weren’t they women of power?’
‘A queen’s only a she-king,’ said Ged.
‘I mean, men give her power. They let her use their power. But it isn’t hers, is it? It isn’t because she’s a woman that she’s powerful, but despite it.’
She nodded. She stretched, sitting back from the spinning wheel. ‘What is a woman’s power, then?’ she asked.
‘I don’t think we know.’
‘When has a woman power because she’s a woman? With her children, I suppose. For a while. . .’
‘In her house, maybe.’
She looked around the kitchen. ‘But the doors are shut,’ she said, ‘the doors are locked.’
‘Because you’re valuable.’
‘Oh, yes. We’re precious. So long as we’re powerless . . . I remember when I first learned that! Kossil threatened me — me, the One Priestess of the Tombs. And I realised that I was helpless. I had the honour; but she had the power, from the God-King, the man. Oh, it made me angry! And frightened me . . . Lark and I talked about this once. She said, “Why are men afraid of women?”‘
‘If your strength is only the other’s weakness, you live in fear,’ Ged said.
In Le Guin’s world, and indeed in our own, women have less power. Yet, despite that, men–the ones with power–yield. Why is that? It is because women–by refusing to yield, by erecting barriers of inconvenience–can make men’s power irrelevant.
Switch back to thinking about this at the cultural level, as the ruling classes as men and the masses as women. In the wannabe-libertarian UK, why was the prospect of a strict lockdown so thoroughly detested by the government? It didn’t matter that it would save lives because it would damage the economy. Nevertheless, the populace demanded some action so something was done, though with reluctance. Around the world, why do establishments decry protests? Because protests–violent or not–interrupt standard operating procedure.
That is how women gain power relative to men, how the masses gain power relative to the ruling classes; by slowly and periodically crossing things from the list they’re willing to tolerate.
This could also be the key driver behind the ideology of capitalism. Imagine the ruling classes stopped pushing for more and instead were content with enough. How would that change the balance of power? Answer: the masses would slowly gain ground on the ruling classes. Being masculine, they don’t want that. So they push and push and push, at worst preserving their advantage, at best enlarging it. And this is the biggest question for the future of human society: Can the masses grow their intolerance faster than the rulers can grow their advantage?