Sense, Think, Act – the book review by Emilyn Claid
This book is based on a premise that awareness of our basic human faculties, and developing these through practice, can become a source for personal, political and cultural change. The ideas for the book were seeded in the 1960s and 1970s when performing arts practitioners and Avant-garde artists were eagerly soaking up new (mostly American derived) experiments in somatic movement, collective and therapeutic practices. These influences were non conventional, encouraging a sense of embodied power and an undoing of hierarchical structures and modes of living. Stefan’s experiential involvement in these practices influenced his research into a triad – sense, think and act – which forms the core content of this book.
Sense Think Act begins with an informative chapter on each of these themes, drawing attention to many different perspectives and elements that comprise these interweaving human faculties. The chapter on Senses introduces seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching, integrating rhythm and emotion. The chapter is a very enjoyable read, full of analogy, imagination, information, facts, fictions and practical illustrations. Lively connections are made for instance between smell and attention to breathing, harmony and world peace, and how smell/taste awareness is essential to survival. Which makes me wonder if the current tendency to child obesity might be in part an effect of a lack of smell/taste awareness. Enlightening is the link made between smell/taste and class history and how architecture and fashion are dependent on our sense of thermal sensing. I like the notion that living in caves might be healthy for the regular thermal temperature that this environment creates. I laugh when Stefan reminds me of how the use of soap might destroy the essential balance of the body’s bacteria, remembering some powerful body odor filled days in the 1970s! In the section Moving in Gravity, Stefan makes important links between body posture and emotion, demonstrating his therapeutic knowledge of how emotion resides in the body, a knowledge that we might now associate with psycho-somatic, developmental or sensorimotor psychotherapy.
The section on Thinking includes a wealth of theoretical and practice led research; the writing on symbolism of language, association and memory is particularly stimulating. This chapter includes a richly layered and imaginative reflection on intuition, laying a pathway towards what might now be labeled as a constituent of habitus. I like the idea of practicing meditation as a way to avoid ‘imaginative follies’!
Continuing an earlier observation, Stefan makes a sensitive connection between feelings and thinking echoing back to the 1970s, an era of primal screaming, frenzied dancing, letting it all hang out – hit those pillows! The 1970s encouraged therapies that emphasised cathartic release of emotion, often frowned upon now in the world of psychotherapy as triggering, rather than healing, past trauma. Emerging out of that era, Stefan reminds us that ‘tears are not the hurt – the tears are the resolution!’ An understanding of mind body awareness that remains pertinent in therapeutic work today. The section on emotion continues to have deep relevance, although the language has changed. We may now talk of attunement rather than ‘uncritical attention’ – yet the emphasis on listening empathetically continues to be crucial to child development and world change.
The introductory chapter on Action begins by emphasising the principles of practice and that through practice we learn new ways of acting. This chapter provides information on basic body movements, such as breathing, standing, sitting, walking running etc., and lays the ground for the following exercises. The connections between body posture and wider issues are fascinating – an efficient balance of the spine is healthy yet has connotations of pride and upper class values. Links are made between action and expression, and how we often sacrifice efficiency of physical action for expression. Once again Stefan’s awareness of how the body stores emotion as a cultural phenomenon is indicated in this chapter.
From chapter 6 onwards we are in the realm of exercises, framed by the themes of the previous chapters and offering a range of imaginative, useful, sometimes quaint, sometimes humorous tasks that, through practice, help to increase awareness, sensitivity, knowledge and control of our faculties. Chapters 6-11 offer sensing exercises. What is immediately obvious is that although the focus might be on a particular sense, each task also engages the other two faculties and throughout the following chapters the exercises are more about where we choose to put our focus rather than actually separating out the three faculties. For instance an exercise on learning new movement combines visual sense, thinking and acting to remember a sequence of movement and is a very useful practice for developing all three human abilities.
Wider field connections are made – an exercise on social listening suggest attentive listening to someone’s story and then links to a therapeutic emphasis on un-critical listening and unbiased witnessing, drawing on the tools of re-evaluation co-counseling introduced to the UK from America in the 1970s at the same time as Contact Improvisation.
The exercises using intuition are introduced with associations to developing a positive frame of mind, cultural background awareness and include visual, mime and movement improvisations. Although I am slightly confused by the difference between imagining and image-ing, these exercises make links to creativity that are innovative and politically aware.
The reasoning exercises begin with a suggestion on how to undo our fixed presumptions and ways of making meaning about each other and the world. This is so relevant today as a mindful, phenomenological practice of ‘being with’ otherness without judgment, separating what we see from the meaning we make. Also relevant is how much of our rational thought is based on early emotional experience, linking cultural and family background. These tasks make connections between rational thought, analogy, ambiguity, validity, value and opinion.
Glancing at exercises – I admit to doing physical stretching to the music of Wim Mertens. I smile when Stefan brings in his personal experience of hot and cold showers with a ‘bit of jogging’ beforehand to ward off colds and flu. I like the jokes – a meditation exercise suggests that I gaze at 2nd hand of a clock for half hour and if I am successful I might reach ‘Satori’, suggesting that Satori is only half an hour away!
The last few chapters focus on movement exercises, from breathing and sleeping to running and jumping. Again links are made between posture and emotional patterns, suggesting psychosomatic connections. Many of these tasks have a history in somatic movement practices such as Alexander and Release Technique. The progression of exercises from standing to walking to running to jumping are sound, following basic principles of developmental somatic movement practice and help to increase physical flexibility and a sense of confidence. Tasty tips that I take with me from these last chapters include: a breathing exercise to practice before eating, how to get a good night’s sleep, buying a good mattress, how to start the day, tying shoe laces with postural correctness, how to move between sitting and standing; imaging my pelvis as a bowl of water; imagining a centre line between tail bone and skull; running without effort; giving conscious attention to ‘handling’ by drawing around my own hands with a pencil and being with each other without words.
Many exercises in this book offer words of wisdom, ways of being and attitudes to life that are well worth practicing, and are often offered with tongue and cheek satire! The line drawings are charming, adding cartoon-like character, detailed liveliness and visual explanation.
The connections Stefan makes between Sensing, Thinking and Acting with politics, culture, therapy, philosophy and arts practices are intelligent, perceptive and make for a curious and factual read. The entire book is playfully written, avoiding academic jargon and drawing our attention with short sharp bursts of wide ranging and intriguing information.
Also attractive about this book is its situated-ness in 1970s history and its continued contemporary relevance. The dated quality gives hyper texting free reign allowing us to expand on ideas, theory, philosophy and artistic practices. At the same time, as a practical guide, the writing demonstrates forward thinking, particularly in the thoughtful connections between body mind practices and cultural/social politics. As an online source, this book is easy to manipulate, allowing access back and forth between chapters, giving us freedom and pleasure to engage with practice led research.