The body topographic in emotional atmospheres


The final full moon of the 2010s. Photo: NASA.

There is a reason why the moon is particularly alluring when it appears ‘full’. The sunlight allows us to see a whole hemisphere of the lunar landscape. It is a big unveiling. This suspended state between waxing and waning prompts us to notice and reflect.

The final full moon of the 2010s inspired my following reflections on ’emotional atmospheres’ from a perspective of embodied awareness in anecdotal scenarios. The below is not intended to make a particularly academic argument; these musings are experimental, intrasubjective and to be taken lightly.

When you are observant of and attentive to the energetic sites of amplification associated with the nervous system, the body becomes topographic in everyday scenarios. Ascribing a topography to the body can help, I think, to understand how emotional atmospheres are distributed. 

For example, returning on foot to Victoria Station today, under the full moon, a woman passed me by hurriedly. Her sigh as she sidestepped was an aimless projection of frustration that undefined obstacles (other humans) should be in her way. For a split second, we were invested in a non-verbal, primordial struggle for priority in the space we shared. Her frustration existed in me for a pre-reflective moment. Bundles of nerves in my solar plexus — just between my lower ribs — gave a jolt.

Electrified, physical and physiological reactions like this one occur repeatedly in bodies throughout the busy streets of London, giving rise to a distinctive emotional atmosphere. Sometimes it feels like a barely-quelled mania, other times it is exciting and the air is full of possibilities. Such an atmosphere is, of course, not the result of emotions randomly ‘floating in the air’. It’s more of an echoing vibration or electric current whereby complex combinations of external conditions are transposed by our sensory channels into an overarching experience of immersion.

Ascribing a topography to the body and then by inference a notion of directed energy that moves across this landscape is a common visualisation technique in yoga postures (asana). During my yoga practice this morning, for example, my teacher described shoulder stand (‘sarvangasana’ in Sanskrit), a pose in which the body is inverted, as a ‘waterfall’: legs in the air became a vertical pouring, the belly a calm pool and the imagined water then swells over the chest to pool again at the face.

Thinking the body as topographic might help us to envisage how atmospheres are dynamically transposed by currents moving through us, subject to our pre-existing state and level of awareness. Harnessing this awareness is not just a quirky thought experiment. Being ‘mindful’ towards the atmospheres in which we participate helps, in my experience, to navigate everyday life with integrity, allowing us to react more consciously.

Just as breathing is an involuntary process by default, we cannot separate ourselves from these emotional atmospheres. Their forces are involuntarily intercepted, as the walkway scenario illustrates. However, also like breathing, we can voluntarily intervene to an extent through observing our immersed experience and redirecting our attitudes or energy levels from a stiller place, by practising a conscious response, as in the waterfall visualisation.