Directors: Antonio M. Battro, Kurt W. Fischer and Fernando Vidal
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Bodily experience and the making of Personhood: An ethnographic case study of Daoist self-cultivation
Self-cultivation disciplines rooted in spiritual traditions constitute a significant anthropological context for addressing the topic of personhood. They provide not only conceptions of an ideal self based on cosmological worldviews, but also and more importantly pathways for achieving that. This paper will focus on a form of Daoist self-cultivation, popularly known in Chinese culture as qigong (literally “life energy cultivation”), which is informed by energetic conceptions of the human body, and which centers on the perception of life energy through bodily practices. Drawing on an in-depth ethnographic case study of a group of lay-practitioners in Taiwan, I will investigate what role bodily experiences of life force play in the making of personhood. In this group, practitioners are advised to focus their attention on inner bodily feelings and sensations, in order to enter altered states of consciousness and learn to attend to the body in a more authentic way. Then, they are taught to feel the body directly, rather than to relate to it as a theoretical entity. A key ¬aspect of this consciously cultivated somatic mode of attention is the heightened awareness of life force, which is experienced as a series of uncanny bodily states and perceptions. These can be either objectified in connection with Daoist analytical theories, or used as modalities of knowledge in interpersonal relationships. Data gathered through in-depth interviews reveal that these processes have implications in both the subjective and intersubjective space of the everyday life. With respect to the “neuroscientific turn” that biomedical and psychological sciences are experiencing, this case study makes two points. On the one hand, it shows that bodily modalities of knowledge, alongside cognitive or reflexive elements, are crucial to developing a sense of self, person, and personal identity to a lesser extent. On the other, it highlights the significance of experience-near ethnographic approaches to self-cultivation (broadly defined) in addressing the theme of personhood.