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The Experiential Iceberg

The image of an iceberg is often used to model the mind. Our everyday conscious awareness is just the tip of the iceberg and about 95 per cent of our mental processing occurs below our consciousness (Thrift, 2000). A lot is going on down there; if it weren’t filtered out, it would overwhelm our everyday awareness. However, that filtering can cut out too much, and a great deal of valuable information can be missed.

Like most iceberg models of the mind, mine has everyday consciousness shown at the tip – the top of the cone in my diagram. I’ve labelled this as ‘awareness’ rather than conscious for reasons that soon will become apparent. Below the wavy line is a dotted area labelled ‘gut feelings’. Here is where our intuition resides and where we access what Focusing calls ‘felt senses’ (Gendlin, 1981). Further down the iceberg is the vast space I call the Deep Body.

The Experiential Iceberg

On most iceberg models of the mind, the boundary between conscious and unconscious is fixed: following Freud, these two areas are taken to be distinct. But I suggest that it’s much more complicated than that, and we are not bound to remain in the narrowness of everyday awareness. The Embodied Pathways of Connection enable our awareness to dip below the wavy line at the top of the experiential iceberg and expand into the Deep Body.

As our awareness broadens into the deep body, we can access more of our embodied knowing. Being able to access our embodied knowing is vital for our wellbeing and can help us tackle some of the most challenging issues facing us today, including racism and the climate crisis. It’s no exaggeration to say that the embodied pathways are essential to the survival of life on Earth.

In the area labelled as the Deep Body, you’ll notice more and more gaps appearing on the sides of the iceberg. These gaps illustrate how the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’ becomes increasingly blurred as our awareness sinks downwards. The conventional Western idea that we are all enclosed individual selves is a myth. The Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh spoke about “our illusion of separateness”, as have many philosophers. Research in psychology, social science and neuroscience agree: the notion of a fixed distinction between a self ‘inside’ and everything else ‘outside’ doesn’t make sense.

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

As our awareness descends into the deep body, we begin to encounter increasingly potent altered states of consciousness. Some of the embodied pathways, such as mindfulness meditation, can gradually guide our awareness into the deep body. However, psychedelics can rapidly plunge our awareness into the depths of the Experiential Iceberg. This can be a disorienting experience, underscoring the need for a suitable guide or framework to navigate this territory.

I first developed the Experiential Iceberg to make sense of my PhD research when it was called the ‘cognitive iceberg’ (2008). It’s evolved since then, and I’ve used it in many other contexts over the last decade (Harris, 2013 and 2016).

Gendlin, E. 1981. Focusing. Bantam, New York.
Harris, 2008. The Wisdom of the Body: Embodied Knowing in Eco-Paganism. PhD Thesis, University of Southampton.
Harris, 2013. “Embodied Eco-Paganism” in the Handbook of Contemporary Animism (ed. Harvey, G). Acumen Publishing, Sheffield.
Harris, 2016. “The Knowing Body: Eco-Paganism as an Embodying Practice”, in Contributions to Law, Philosophy and Ecology: Exploring Re-Embodiments (eds. Thomas-Pellicer, De Lucia and Sullivan). Routledge.
Thrift, 2000. ‘Still Life in Nearly Present Time: The Object of Nature’. In Body & Society, vol. 6, No. 3-4, 34-57. Sage, London.