Cosmos Café [7/9] - Reading and the Body

Recorded 9 June 2019

Quotes taken from online preview of Thomas McLaughlin’s book Reading and the Body, the Physical Practice of Reading

“Reading appears to be a disembodied, purely mental act. The avid reader seems lost in a textual world, cut off from the life of the body and the real world that surrounds it. This image of the reader is derided in adolescent popular culture in the figure of the nerd with his nose in the book, wearing thick glasses and unfashionable clothes, oblivious to the social and physical surround, physically inept, and asexual. However, the assumption that reading is disembodied also pervades literary and cultural theory. We routinely define reading as an act of consciousness—a matter of cognition, emotion, or spirituality—all traditionally and implicitly cast as the sheer opposite of the gross physical body.” p.9

Case in point in Cosmos: In the Clean Language session John led with Doug and TJ, when they are reading at their best, they perceived this as ultimately a headspace ordeal. Neither Doug nor TJ described sensations within the body or the “bodily act” of reading.

“But reading is undeniably a bodily act. Eyes scan the page, hands hold the book, body postures align the entire musculoskeletal frame around the visual and manual requirements of reading, adapting to the materiality of the book and to the physical space the reading body inhabits. Somatic habits develop, integrating reading into the daily life of the body. We read as we eat, as we fall asleep, as we ride the subway, and as we lie on the beach. These bodily procedures and habits have not been factored into our understanding of the work of the reader. Until recently, literary theory has tacitly framed the act of reading within a simple body/mind dualism, ignoring the eyes and hands, the postures and habits of reading, and denying any connection between the transcendent life of the reading mind and the immanent life of the body. The entry of cognitive and neural sciences into the conversation of literary theory has complicated this dualism, forcing theorists to recognize the physicality of the brain and nervous system, where mind and consciousness seem embodied, but the gross physical body still resides on the other side of the dualism, outside our analysis of the practice of reading. p. 9


“The practice of reading makes procedural demands on the reading body. The eyes must move across the page in disciplined but flexible leaps, and the hands must grasp and manipulate the book so the eyes can do their work. These physical tasks must be taught and learned, at first quite consciously, so the novice reader can get physical access to the text, but eventually they must become unconscious, so the reader can focus on cognitive work. That is, the practice must become embodied and thus “absent” from conscious awareness.”

No reading required for this Cafe, though you may find yourself reflecting on your body as you read. The act of reading is part of the “cognitive unconsciousness”. The body is profoundly involved in the mental act of reading. The acquisition and operation of the cognitive unconscious is a social process in which the values and beliefs of the society become embodied through everyday practice.

Take the opportunity this weekend to note a day in the life of the reader, yourself. How do you read? Where do you read? Where is your body when you read?

Are you reading from a book in hand or from a desktop or handheld computational device? Or both?

Where are you when reading at your best? Alone? At a Cafe? At a desk or in bed? Sitting up or lying down?

Seed Questions

  • What does it mean to read in a digital age? Does the format of the text make a difference? How does the body respond to the digital experience? the analog experience?
  • We bring our solitary readings to the forum . . . how can we best take what we have read are bring this into the world?
  • How does culture shape how we read? Does the Western “reading imaginary” omit some aspects of “reading at our best?” Does it make a difference if we read right to left or left to right?
  • What happens when we practice heart reading, when we are guided by the heart and gut? When we place our reading focus outside of the head and into “feeling”?* How does one embody a text?
  • What does it mean to read a text collectively? To have collective bodies reading a text? What happens when we practice reading aloud to ourselves or with others? What happens to reading when it is performed?
  • When reading at your best, it is like what?

Context, Backstory, and Related topics

Agenda items

  • Check ins
  • Reflect upon reading and the body



Then there’s the original reading long ago & far away,the environment the human body came to move in,through & beyond in-into space?


I would never call reading a headspace ordeal. I am glad you pointed out the metaphor I actually used. Tarzan sounds much better.

I got addicted to reading as a way of working with intense physical pain. I had an accident when I was a teenager and was paralyzed in my right leg. Rather than take pain killers I turned to reading instead. I was able to enter into a story and forgot the pain states. When I stopped reading the pain returned. During that three year period of healing my leg, I read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and memorized Hamlet. So, reading was not a headspace ordeal! I went to other realms, I suffered with strangers in fairy lands forlorn. The imagined suffering of others made me forget about my own. I learned the difference between suffering and pain, an important difference.

Just a few items I would put on the table, There are so many things going on in this post. Collective bodies? We are, of course, separate bodies, sharing a text, with our own idiosyncratic thinking-feeling. That is why I was interested in modeling this in the group experiment.

The pleasure for me in reading with a group is the perforated boundaries between readers and writers. We are open individuals and a shared language entangles our minds, perhaps. I find all of this kind of puzzling.

I think Kripal has written a lot on this in The Flip. The chapter on the Symbolic. This is a lot to handle though in a Cafe. I want to chunk down a bit.

What I would ask is what is the most important question that you have for the group? I am not sure that I sense where you want to go with this?

And what kind of body is a body when a reading body?

And what happens to body right before reading? And what happens after reading? And is there a relationship between the before and the after?

I will read the Quixotic Manifesto. Maybe there are some overlaps between the experiment we conducted and Andrew’s essay? I will check it out.

Have a great weekend!


Since You asked John?Is reading to be defined as a Mental-Rational activity without the sensation/s ,in/of the physical body,no matter the shape,sex,color or environment in which Reading is Happening? I like You have found reading a useful way to work with the difference between suffering & pain. One of the lived experience in doing so is the act of reading began to tap into a instinctual way of reading being deepened from within & moving outward,this skill had a rhythm as I literally drove into the mix of imagination & the sensation/s of making my pain make sense( a alchemy of high risk,yet a skill). What is the most basic fleshy body we have that also is more than just Flesh? What infinite possibilities are there in our Fleshyness,we seem to have Lost the Joy ?


Wow! As a librarian, and a lifelong reader, as well as someone who is fascinated and perplexed by the reading process, i.e. what actually happens when we read (I guess phenomenologically mostly), I am absolutely in love with this topic!

I am not going to be able to make it to the discussion because of work, but I wanted to throw out a few ideas.

First, if people aren’t sick of reading my Medium posts, here is something related to the Quixotics stuff, about overlaps between reading and meditating:

I think the idea that I’m most interested in, and about which I’d really love to hear from people about, is the argument that there is a relationship between written language and vibratory level. I am new to using this concept/term “vibratory level,” but I’m not sure how else to put it. In other words, when we are absorbed by and in a book, and have the experience @johnnydavis54 described, where we forget our empirical world and enter into somewhere else, (and when we return to the empirical, we are like, “oh yes, here is the empirical world again!”), why and how does that happen? I’m not as interested in differentiating too much the mind and the body - of course both play an immense role. But in terms of absorption, what makes a story, essay, novel, poem, absorbing?

I’d like it if we could avoid circular answers like “well, it is compelling.” Yes, but what makes it compelling? “Well, it is intense.” What makes it intense? Here is a book I’ve been meaning to read that might be relevant here:

I guess what I’m positing is that the intensity of a reading experience often depends on the degree to which one is absorbed in the book, and, concomitantly, the degree to which the book reaches one or “speaks” one. But what does it mean for a book to reach or speak to one? Again, here I would invoke the notion of “vibratory level,” i.e. that language is produced by consciousness, and that consciousness vibrates at different levels, and great works of literature, in addition to all the traditionally studied aspects of language (figuration, structure, symbol, catharsis, etc.), also has a vibratory aspect that figures into the reading process/experience, and can help us explain why we find certain books absorbing. Such an account could then give us a more complete picture of what actually happens when we read.

For example, each day I read something from a book called “Whispers from the Brighter World” (they are sent to me as emails, and I pasted one below). The book is supposed to have been the product of a French woman (I do not know her name) channeling the second guru of the Heartfulness lineage, Babuji. Anyways, in these “Whispers,” there is occasional talk about the vibratory level of the words, and their power to effect change and “speak” and “reach” one - essentially a great example of what I mean by “heart reading.”

But there is another aspect that I haven’t mentioned, that is tied to heart reading, vibratory level, and consciousness transfer. And that is the idea of “kenosis,” from the Greek which means “emptying.” Kenosis is used in Christian theology to refer to Christ emptying himself into his disciples, or God emptying himself or herself or itself to create the Cosmos, but it doesn’t have to be an exclusively Christian concept. Actually, Bloom uses the idea of kenosis in his Anxiety of Influence, but I’d like to use and mean the term in a different way. So let me say first, that when I use the term “kenosis,” I do not mean to connote in any way whatsoever the idea of “sacrifice.” In other words, if we are thinking about God emptying himself or herself or itself to create the Cosmos, I do not think, contra to the Wiki entry on kenosis, that this involves a depletion for God, or Christ, or whomever, whatever. If we are to talk about kenosis in the context of reading, then, I do not think we should theorize about it in the context of depletion, diminishment, or sacrifice. This just does not make sense to me, because I believe that ideas are strengthened when you share them, not diminished, and that kenosis is a form of sharing.

This post is probably getting too long, so let me quickly sum up. I think kenosis should be thought about in the context of reading and writing (and teaching, too). When one writes, or teaches, one is “emptying oneself” out onto the page, into the classroom. In that sense, he or she or they are literally giving their self to another, i.e. the reader, the student, etc. When a reader reads a writer, or a student encounters a real teacher, said reader and student are in essence being given a new self, or at least having their self augmented. This is a hugely important aspect of, and possibly synonymous with, what I’ve been calling elsewhere “consciousness transfer,” the idea that consciousness can transfer or travel between people, and that reading is a great example of said process.


If people don’t mind, just wanted to add something here. Voice is very relevant in the contexts mentioned above (kenosis, vibratory level, consciousness transfer). Why? A voice of a strong writer is, in many ways, a highly individuated voice, which means a developed voice. When we say, “oh, his or her voice in his or her poetry is instantly distinctive and recognizable,” in many ways what we are really saying is “he or she has individuated to the further reaches of the human; for that reason, their voice gives us a deeper sense of our self, our own dormant potentials.” Literature is, in many ways, a chorus of utterly individuated voices, that give us access to our own dormant potentials. Reading, then, is a process whereby these potentials are activated, in a sense.



Centering Prayer-Lectio Divinia has been my entry into what You describe @AndrewField81.Zen came first as a housecleaning of Interior grasping & the sitting at the Edge of Open-Close Habits that one carries over one’s early life ,before a Irruption of Intensity that one can embrace change & be open to change & put one’s Feet on the Surf Board (your unique Practice),feeling the vibration/s with your aboriginal self.As you seem to point to does not belong to any one wisdom tradition and yet maybe in all? Thank U for bringing forth Your Voice, the Vibration is happening,hope to Create more soon.


According to the Kybalion (among other sources, I suppose), and as I mentioned elsewhere, in the thread on music, where it was more obvious, the third Hermetic principle or axiom is All is vibration.

Personally, I find the notion vastly overlooked and underrated, so I appreciate you bringing it up here, Andrew. In even other contexts, such as CCafés, we have tossed the notion around, often in the sense of “resonating” with whatever (or however) someone was saying something.

To my mind, it is an aspect of reading, as well, that is well worth pursuing.


In our first Axial Age call, I pointed out mulling and musing. I preferred musing, you preferred mulling. You then said musing was lighter. And in the context, you preferred mulling with a different kind of associations. We agreed that there were different associations. And musing was more for poets.

Is all of this just idiosyncratic? When does the idiosyncratic become Imaginal? Imaginal has an objective aspect. We draw upon a scale of intensities and this is perhaps what we mean by vibratory. We were doing this registering of verbal intensities in our mother’s womb, coordinating sound and rhythm and speech, through the Big Mama Voice. We can also detect through the womb the father’s voice. The baby will, after birth, recognize these two very important voices. The baby is ready to learn a language.

I actually agreed ( whole heartedly) as that is my response to musing as well. If a word which is virtually synonymous with another word, but is lighter then is this not a synesthesia? Mu is followed by s and mu is followed by l these consonants shape the mouth feelings in ways that are objective. They carry different affective qualities and shape the sound/feels.

And is there a relationship between synesthesia ( overlapping senses) and vibration?

And is this just arbitrary? I think not. This is the stuff that dreams are made of…


Definitely . . . and I hope this dumping does not send you and others into overload and a distaste for the topic. I like that so many others have already responded and have given direction to the conversation.

Pardon the misphrasing; I intended to state that TJ and I as the ones doing the Clean Language exploration, expressed reading at our best as (mostly) occurring or accessed from the headspace. You mention near the end of the call that when you are reading at your best, you are electric. You embody the characters and authors language and are moved emotionally and aesthetically. I have learned much from observing you when you respond to such questions and realize I still have much to learn.

McLaughlin also conveys that reading is cultural. Little VIncent, now picking up books cannot read the words but, by observing his older brother Miles (the intonations, gestures, facial expressions), he is now an expert “reader” . . . Vincent will pick up a book and sound just like a librarian or author reading a book to an enraptured crowd. Tones go up and down. Hands are moving. Face is emoting. I have a surface level reading of Donald’s mimetic culture but I assume I am seeing this occur in real time. And the core of mimetic is gaining awareness of the body of the self and of others. Vincent is also observing where our eyes go when we read, noticing that we read from front to back, left to right. He is watching our hands as we turn the page, point to words and images. . .the list of bodily actions go on and on.

Miles, now five years old, is expressing Donald’s Narrative, reading alone + reading to others + combining stories to form his own imaginative narrative. He can read in any space and at any time but he reads at his best when he is alone on his bed. But also, perhaps inexpressible, he is reading at his best when he is witnessing how we read to Vincent and then reading to Vincent on his own, teaching Vincent how to read.

If we zoom forward to the collective here…is to focus just on how we as an individual experience reading a limiting thing? The act of reading may be done alone, but I keep all of you in mind when I read at my best collectively. Our reading groups and Cafe sessions have been some of the most intensive reading experiences around, without the anxiety of having to take a test once the reading is over.

This “electric feeling”’ when we feel the vibrations and rhythms, when the need to run around the block after reaching the climax or the moment of epiphany, is perhaps when we feel closest to the reading, when we become the reading and it becomes us. Perhaps at this moment we are literally vibrating with the physical text and exchanging our elemental being. The reading becomes us; we become the reading.

@patanswer shared his epiphany during the EST Magician call which I feel is highly relevant and applicable to the axial age explorations along with discussions on culture. I imagine TJ felt an entingling sensation when this moment arrived!


This is a very astute observation, Doug, and that is, of course, something that TJ could best answer. Sharing our drawings gives an added dimension to our group grope for finer attunements to warm data.

As we are moving rapidly from a first order to a second order culture, I sense that there are signs that we are moving towards a third order. I have worked at the edge of the third order for decades, waiting patiently, for groups to start to register this increase in capacity. This would be very bewildering without a methodology and that has been what these Clean Language sessions have been a prelude for. There is much, much more that needs to be done but phenomenology, hermeneutics and metaphor will be be the foundation for the vast vibratory sciences of the future. We are the past of the interiors of a future people ( which will include non-humans) that we are not able to register currently except by a few, ( the poets get there first). The majority of our species still speak with forked tongues. This is the bind and double bind of our species mind. Soon, we may disentangle from this habit and become entwingled in far greater reality/desire structurings than is currently conceivable. How do I know this? A little bird told me.

Your careful observations of Miles and Vincent, persuades me, that the co-creation of the interiors of these brave new worlds are being laid down in the father’s speech acts. The child is father to the Man.

I salute your efforts, Douglas. A long time ago, in one of your posts, I noted a metaphor you used and I thought yes…metaphor is his mother tongue! I am glad that you are using all of your knowledge and using all of it well. But forgive me for saying this…we still need to learn how to chunk down and chunk slow…


A passing side note here in California the Mother Earth is shaking & Rattling,if that’s not a Vibrational sensation under one’s Feet.!!

John I am chunking down & chunking slow at the Rhythm of Mother Earth’s Voice coming through my Feet,is that Good?


Is this not similar to Keat’s negative capability? The capacity to get a felt sense of what is absent?


This continues to be a very interesting area of our social research. I imagine that we are re-constructing what mental and rational could become. Gebser and Wilber diverge. Gebser was a poet, primarily, and WIlber is focused on science. I think the ones we are missing here are Rudolph Steiner and Owen Barfield.


Gebser is, I would say, a Dichter (which is most often translated into English as “poet”) but it is used to identify anyone who works well with words. Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and other philosophers were referred to by that term, as was Goether, even when he was writing science and not literature. Thomas Mann, known for his prose, is also considered a Dichter. Yes, Gebser was also a poet in the sense that he wrote poetry.

And there’s another little linguistic twist I’d like to mention. The German word for “science” is Wissenschaft, and this term can, and is, applied to any area of serious investigation and study. So we have Literaturwissenschaft (lit. “literature science”), Sozialwissenschaften (lit. "social sciences), Ingenieurwissenschaften (lit. "engineering sciences), and so on. So when you say “Wilber is focused on science”, I understand that he’s focused on the natural sciences. In English, the term has taken on a very focused meaning that is not shared everywhere. We in English, and this is part of Kripal’s case, separate the sciences from the humanities; but in German there are the Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften (and the word Geist in there probably means “mind” as well as “spirit” as well as “soul”, which are all common translations of the word). Whatever struggle there is between them is qualitatively different here than in North America where there is a movement to have them eliminated, as far as possible. (Of course given the nefarious spread of neoliberal ideology and a continuing Americanization of much of European culture, I am not maintaining that it will stay that way.)

One of Gebser’s most admirable accomplishments was that he had a flash of insight that he developed and explicated almost exclusively from within the mainstream. When you look at the sources he uses to document his opus, they are not marginal at all. He was certainly sensitive to the margins, but bringing them in to substantiate his case would have been risky. He’s ignored more than rejected, I believe, because he played the game well in making his case, and if he’s correct in his assessments, a whole lot of rethinking needs to be done. And I think we all know how that is going to play out.

Barfield’s primary possible contribution, Saving the Appearances, didn’t appear till 1957. I think it is clear that Gebser wouldn’t include Steiner in his work, as Steiner is perhaps the most well known of the “traditionalists” (in contrast to the “evolutionists”) from whom Gebser made great efforts to distance himself. And let’s face it: it is only most recently that a scholar like Gidley could even make a serious statement of any kind mentioning Steiner, Wilber and Gebser. I’m not sure that would have even been possible 10 years prior.

Having said all this, though, I agree … at some point I’m sure that we’ll invite both Steiner and Barfield to the table. And I, for one, am looking forward to it.


I 've this working image of the future gathering around The Table, place your food & drink preferences with MindfulBot :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye::stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye::stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Thanks for asking. Actually, no, that is not really what I mean. I am familiar with Keats’s negative capability - the avoidance of reaching for certainties, fixities, etc., and the ability to stay with and accept the uncertain, to put it baldly - but that is actually pretty far removed from what I’m interested in re: kenosis. I suppose tangentially that one experiences kenosis when one is, in a way, tuned into a sort of “negative capability-isness,” so that one can really and truly absorb a text, movie, work of art, without reaching egoically or otherwise for false certainties and fixities and (too easy) answers, but in essence I mean kenosis as a giving one’s consciousness, one’s self, to another, through the “cognitive music” of one’s voice or vision or what have you. Maybe this analogy will help: sometimes - I’m not sure if anyone here has experienced this, but I’d love to hear about it if it has - if I watch a movie by a director I like (Ingmar Bergman is a good example here), and then I leave the room or theater in which I’ve watched said film, I will experience the world around me, at least for a few minutes, as if I were inside a Bergman film. I will be more conscious of “chiaroscuro,” at least in a cinematic sense, and the world itself will be intensified and somehow more lyrical, stark, austere and poetic, a la Bergman. This is what I am getting at - the film involves kenosis, i.e. Bergman emptying himself, giving the viewer his vision, and this happens as what I’m calling consciousness transfer, where I see the world momentarily through Bergman’s vision, his consciousness, at least in some sense. It can happen through looking at art, or reading poetry, or whatever else. I’m not alone in this - I’ve talked to the critic Michael Clune about this phenomenon, who claims he experienced “consciousness transfer” (though not in those words) in a deep way after reading the Tale of Genji. He has also written about a kind or sort of consciousness transfer through the experience of virtual reality here. This book about Henry James by the literary critic Sharon Cameron, which I am looking forward to reading, also seems relevant:


Back in the 80’s, during the AIDS epidemic, while I was working at the largest mergers and acquisitions firm in the World, I took a break from the fast lane, and read a half dozen novels by Henry James. I had a close friend, who read as much as I did, and we started a support group. James, I found to my surprise, was a very queer writer. We went through The Bostonians, The Portrait of a Lady, Roderich Hudson, Princess Casimissima, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, and some short stories.

My friend and I were at the Piers, a run down board walk with holes in it, where many gay men gathered, to catch the rhythms of the urban underclass. We cleaned houses, and offices, performed off off Broadway, had temp work in big corporations, made ends meet somehow. We liked to read late into the night, and listen to Maria Callas over cocktails before we went out to the Bars. We slept until noon.

But at the Piers, that afternoon, surrounded by the call of the gulls, and the lapping of the Hudson River, my friend Gary, screamed, threw the cheap paper back a few feet away from him. He was in a state of ecstasy, his head spinning, his breathing rapid and high in the chest, pupils wide.

" Don’t tell me," I said, for I was a few pages behind him. I felt the mounting tensions of the heroine, Olive Chancellor, the rich aristocratic lady, as if they were my own, and I felt bewildered as an overwhelming decision was being demanded of her. I, too, read the last page, felt chills, and screamed." Oh my God! Oh my God!"

For months, afterwards, we parodied ourselves. We started to take on slightly British accents, and recited snatches of dialogue that we relished. We were in several worlds all at once.

Years later, I absorbed Eve Sedgewick’s Epistemology of the Closet, a brilliant appraisal of James, Proust, Cavafy, Oscar Wilde, as she traced the contours of a hyper-ironic queer aesthetic that she, as a heterosexual woman, totally loved. She clearly was able to enter a world of critical evaluation, which Gary and I, as common readers, could not. I did, eventually, get a feel for Sedgewick, and she entered the weave of my already warped imagination. Hers was pretty warped, too, and the authors she focused attention upon, were really weird. I realized that Eve was pointing to a cultural dynamic, peopled by people, like Gary and myself. We lived in the cracks, like the weeds, that came up out of the cement, in crooked back streets. What a cliche!

Gary had moved away but I had more James to read, on my own, and that was a great blessing, as I went to my corporate sponsored office job, and took care of the sick and dying. and engaged in high risk political organizing, as well as being bombarded by the alien forces of contemporary music, Ingmar Bergman movies and bullshit politics. It was a landscape dominated by Reagan and Thatcher. Our brief window of opportunity was shutting down .

So, kenosis, is a term, that has been used by Plotinus, to describe his altered states, and your altered states, too, Andrew, can be described in your own inimitable way, borrowing from an already large lexicon. We have inherited a huge vocabulary, from many cultures. I am a bit cautious as I find so much of this to be very ungrounded talk. What is an altered state of consciousness? Compared to what?

I know you are wanting to avoid circles within circles, and that is a great thing, if you can break out of that. So, negative capability, satori, samadhi, kenosis, transmission, nirvana can have a lot of zest, at first, but pretty much falls flat, for the common reader, like myself. There are no end of language games to be pursued and commentaries upon commentaries. But I like to slow down, sometimes, and go into the cracks between words and word games. There are lots of cracks in the Cosmos. It is a queer thing to do.

A well known novelist, thought it was the critic, rather than the poet, that had anxiety about influence. What in the world do critics have to offer anyway to us hardworking, distracted, common readers? Eve Sedgewich and Harold Bloom are a hard act to follow!


John I get what U are bringing forth.The question of bringing together of our different tempos…I sometimes have difficult time of slowing down too much,I’ve been described as dancing like a epileptic elephant(use to hurt,now I think of Dumbo ,talk about Imaginal).I wonder John how to herd the cats so speak with this coming Cafe’? I for one feel there’s enough framing to just enjoy cats play?


A great image. Shakespeare would have loved that. And what is that epileptic elephant right before the epilepsy? And what happens after epilepsy? And cat’s play? And herding cats. And with all of that what happens at the next Cafe?