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The University of Southampton
Doctoral College

Social Distancing and Embodied Presence

By Aline Giordano, Doctoral College Manager

The response to the Covid-19 crisis means that most of us are working/studying from home, with severely restricted opportunities to go outside for the next few weeks. The UK is in lockdown and we must practise social distancing.

I was meant to attend a training course on ‘Embodied presence at work and beyond’ facilitated by Ann Shuptrine, Associate at Relational Change. Needless to say that the module could not be delivered in London as planned. Here we are, a few weeks later, and I’ve just taken part in the first workshop of this interactive course, online. With most of our days and evenings spent looking at our screens, I realise the timeliness of it is rather fitting.

What is embodied presence?

If you are not familiar with the terminology and google the phrase, you may find yourself being inducted into various exciting theories and approaches. I’ve narrowed down the fun of the excitement in order to save you a bit of browsing time; and have decided to present ‘embodied presence’ from the discipline of Gestalt. The reason being that this is where it actually belongs.

‘Gestalt involves attending to the fact that we are real and tangible physical beings and not simply minds perched on top of bodies.’

(Malcolm Parlett, 2014)

To that I would add: ‘Nor are we just minds suspended in the air staring at a computer screen.’ Hunched over our keyboard or tablet, it is far too easy to forget about our body. I invite you to read the full article, What is Gestalt? by Malcolm Parlett. It is one of the finest introductions to Gestalt I have come across. 

Why embodied presence at work?

Many reasons. But let me start with two. The first one that comes to mind is because effective work relies on our ability to relate to one another in a healthy way. How do we interact with our peers, our colleagues, supervisors, and tutors? How do we meet them, face-to-face or from behind our screen? What’s our experience of it? The second reason is what we sometimes hear being referred to as ‘authenticity’. How can I be at my best doing what I need to do right now? That sense of ‘at my best’ is usually tainted with value judgement. But for me, being at my best means being myself, not pretending, being honest with my thoughts, my longings and the tasks to hand; in other word, being authentic.

Ok, but…

I hear you. I’m rambling on… How can ‘embodied presence’ be beneficial to us? First of all, when you pay attention to your body, you are giving a well-deserved break to your mind. So get up, stretch your body. Relax the face. Relax your shoulders. Take your shoes (or slippers) off. Feel the sensation on the sole of your feet. Be curious about the sensations as you walk. I can still hear Ann say: “Don’t over-think it. Just let your body move.” Taking a few strides in a playful and mindful way did my body, and therefore, my mind, a lot of good. Yes, very timely.

Embodied presence is not just physical presence

You might think, well, this is a fancy phrase just to say, take a break from the screen. Yes and no. Yes. Because this is how you get started with embodied presence. No, because embodied presence is much (much) more than that. It is a way into discovering how the body turns out to be our best ally to help us become more resilient at work (and beyond); and dare I say it… to thrive. Todays’ workshop was a wonderful and gentle introduction to embodied attention and awareness. More on this soon.

Follow my journey as I write further about this great course. Meanwhile, get in touch if you have any question. It would be lovely to hear from you.

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