The Body Remembers Everything

There’s always more going on than you think

I am fascinated by an idea that runs contrary to the popular idea that “We are Our Brains”, as put forth by Dick Zwaab, for whom I nonetheless have a lot of respect (see: we are our brains). It is my contention, however, along with many others, that there is more to memory than than what goes on in our brain. Experience is lodged in pathways that transcend the brain, as such. This is a vast and complex topic, and like I said, it is one to which I will return again and again. For now, in this post, as a kind of teaser, or as a way to start the ‘conversation’, I want to point to the words of others. In a thought provoking article, Lia Mack, the author of Waiting for Paint to Dry (Pen L, May 2015), writes:

Your body, believe it or not, remembers everything. Sounds, smells, touches, tastes. But the memory is not held in your mind, locked somewhere in the recesses of your brain. Instead, it’s held in your body, all the way down at the cellular level. Ever notice how, on a stage full of professional dancers, everyone still moves in their own way? That’s because our cells store memories – information – about our experiences, habits, sensations, everything. We are all unique and it’s in our bodies – our skin, muscles, tendons, nerves – which we actively participate through our day to day experiences; good ones and bad.

Sometimes, the memories that our body stores are not always memories that we consciously, as the survivor, remember. You may have been too young to remember. You may have blacked out. For whatever reason, you don’t know what your body knows. As Renee Fredrickson, Ph.D. says in A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse, “The traumatic and the trivial are the two kinds of information your mind represses.”

Yet, your body remembers.

Your body may tense up, protecting you. “I don’t like that,” it says. “I remember that touch, sound, smell…and I don’t want it.” However, for a survivor of sexual abuse that has overcome and healed from the abuse, you may think you’ve done all the work to be done. You’ve healed. You’ve moved on.

Yet, your body remembers.

The way in is the way out

In this sense, we can see that, for a traumatized person, going into the body and coming into contact with their physiological experience is the way out of their distressing symptoms. The way in is the way out. Many models of treatment focus on eliminating symptoms and behaviors, but SE takes the client into the symptoms knowing that the symptoms are the key to healing trauma. With Suzanne – as with all of my clients – I will begin my work with her wherever she is and with whatever her body is displaying in the moment. By focusing on one aspect of her physical sensations, we will be led into her body’s memory of the trauma. By moving slowly, and utilizing various techniques that prevent re-traumatization, her body will guide her through her own natural set of experiences, and gradually release the stuck pattern.

Philosophy of Mind-Body

Part of the problem in thinking about memory and the body is that we think about these things as separate entities. This is fundamentally a Cartesian perspective (you know, the “I think therefore I am”). The truth is, there is very little sense in talking about memory in these terms, as if it were something that could exist outside the experience of the mind or the body. Take, for example the history of psychoanalysis, which has traditionally sought to ‘dig up’ or process trauma and memory by working back in time, or by talking through and working through – in short by using the mind to heal the mind. Before delving into another approach – which is where massage and meditation and nutrition comes in (but more about that later), let us first look more closely at the epistemology or phenomenology of thought surrounding the body-memory question. As Thomas Fuchs puts it:

In traditional psychoanalysis the unconscious was conceived as a ­primary intra-psychic reality, hidden ‘below consciousness’ and only accessible to a ‘depth psychology’ based on metapsychological premises and concepts. In contrast to this vertical conception, the present paper presents a phenomenological approach to the unconscious as a horizontal dimension of the lived body, lived space and intercorporeality. This approach is based on a phenomenology of body memory which is defined as the totality of implicit dispositions of perception and behavior mediated by the body and sedimented in the course of earlier experiences. What belongs to body memory, therefore, is what perseveres, not in the form of an explicit memory, but as a “style of existence” (Merleau-Ponty). This corporeal and intercorporeal unconscious “… is not to be sought in our innermost [psyche] behind the back of our ‘consciousness’, but before us, as the structure of our field” (Merleau-Ponty). Unconscious fixations are like restrictions in the spatial potentiality of a person, caused by a past which is implicit in the present and resists the progress of life; this includes traumatic experiences in particular. Their traces are not hidden in an interior psychic world, but manifest themselves – as in a figure-background relationship – in the form of “blind spots” or “empty spaces” in ­day-to-day living. They manifest themselves in behavior patterns into which a ­person repeatedly blunders, in actions that she avoids without being aware of it or in the opportunities offered by life which she does not dare to take or even to see. The unconscious of body memory is thus characterized by the absence of forgotten or repressed experiences, and at the same time by their corporeal and intercorporeal presence in the lived space and in the day-to-day life of a person.

One of the things to be concluded from this is that, what we are, the person we have become, has much to do with things we have remembered of which we no longer are aware, and that this is not something that lies in past but in the present way in which we – our bodies – continue to move through the space of everyday life. Our very identities are processes that are ongoing and always changing. The upside to this is that, if memories are processes we cary with us in our beharviours, not just in deep vestiges in the brain’s forgotten cavities, then we also have the potential to shape and reshape our bodies and thus also our memories. The very notion of self is not static and not identical with the episodes in the past in which memories were first made:

The content of memory is not identical with an episode and does not exist independently of the act of remembering. Rather, the content of episodic memory is infused with the act of remembering. The act of remembering sculpts the content remembered out of the marble block of the remembered episode. This, I argued further, has everything to do with understanding how our memories can make us who we are, autobiographically speaking. memory-and-the-self

Other Bodies

To change the tone a bit now, and to add to the confusion, or rather, to the wonderful complexity of memory, consider that our body also remembers the bodies of others whom we have touched or have been touched and moved by – both positively or negatively.

In a short article, called, “The Body Remembers All”, the Yogi mystic Jaggi Vasudev, associates this kind of meeting and remembering bodies with karma (I will be posting more on the common misconceptions of Karma another time). Drawing from his own traditions, he calls this runanubandha .

Runanubandha is a certain aspect of karma; it is a certain structure of karmic substance. It happens because of a certain amount of meeting and mingling that happens between people. Wherever there is a certain amount of meeting and mingling, some runanubandha is created.

Especially when two bodies come together, the runanubandha is much deeper. It is a kind of recording in the body; the body is keeping a record of everything that has happened. If intimacy happened with another body, it is keeping a record of that particular kind of energy. The Body Remembers All

A Body of Words


“… it is not enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.” rilkean-memory

There are so many ways in which we can think of how the body remembers, and what to do with this insight. Take, for example, the following poem by Gjoko Zdraveski:

THE BODY REMEMBERS EVERYTHING one should sit still for days. be quiet with his eyes closed. but be awake and observe. for days on end one should, bit by bit, patiently sharpen up the mind. not let even a scratch under the nose fly off, not even a dimple along the back, a shimmer of the nerve from the top of the head to the heels. one should stand on the side and observe. bereft of passion of a supporter. free of judgment. no stone cast. no wrath, but no joy either. free of yearning. just as is. prostrate. without the space and the time. and only then can one start. for the body remembers everything. even the fear of your mother as you were turning in her womb. © translated by Lazar Popov
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Practical Memory Release

What if we start seeing our body discomforts, pains and tensions from the perspective of an informative friend? Not to mention that it always is working on your side: do you have to think and work hard to breathe, digest? Experience the gift of your tensions. Listen to what they tell you and see them as the road back to balance. how-to-reconnect-with-our-body-and-attain-health

 More links on the practical side of working with Body Memory:

More links on Memory, The Uncanny, Trauma, Body, etc.


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