Nowadays, we hear the phrase “lived experience” everywhere. We use it to express the idea that every person’s subjective experience is valid and important. We use it to point out what at first appears obvious, but upon examination is not so obvious: Your “lived experience” and my “lived experience” are not the same, and that’s OK. That’s the nature of reality.

The term “lived experience” has come into vogue in popular usage because it is a useful concept. It explains, for example, how one person can see history as a march toward freedom and another can see history as an endless story of subjugation and warfare. Yet, as so often happens when a philosophical idea somehow gets loose from the academic world and enters the popular imagination, in common usage, it is not fully expressed or nuanced.

But that’s one of the things we Humanists attempt to do: think things through. See some nuance.

The idea of “lived experience” comes from a European philosophical tradition called phenomenology. The whole point of phenomenology is about how to live in our bodies. Hence the term “lived experience.” Lived experience is your subjective narrative based on how you have existed in your body in the world.

I, for example, grew up very poor and experienced malnutrition as a child. So, my bones did not develop correctly. I have bent legs and a swayed back. The older I get, the more that matters in terms of how I navigate the world: every step I take is a reflection of my lived experience of malnutrition. It’s part of who I am, even though that experience was five decades ago.

I’m not saying “poor me.” That’s a silly use of my time and your time. Rather, I am saying that for all of us, our bodies and what those bodies have experienced is of the utmost importance in our own understanding of ourselves in the world.

“Lived experience,” however, as a concept can stay abstract and all in the head, because the idea ignores another part of phenomenology, a term called “lived body.”

“Lived experience” comes about because of our experience in a “lived body.” This is a concept explored by French existentialist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He wrote,

True reflection presents me to myself not as idle and inaccessible subjectivity, but as identical with my presence in the world and to others, as I am now realizing it: I am all that I see, I am an intersubjective field, not despite my body and historical situation, but, on the contrary, by being this body and this situation, and through them, all the rest. (Phenomenology of Perception)

“Being present.” That’s just a couple of words. But it’s one of the most difficult things any person can ever imagine. We just don’t learn to do it in mainstream US culture.

Merleau-Ponty used a simple exercise to explain the importance of “lived body.” Whatever you are doing right now — sitting, standing, walking, lying down — whatever you are doing, stop and mentally examine how your body feels. What does “sitting in a chair” feel like? What is it doing to your knees? Your ankles? Your muscles? Try to express what your body feels like to yourself in words.

For most of us, that is very difficult.

Merleau-Ponty insisted: right there is our first human problem. We don’t even know what it feels like to be in our bodies. Sure, we are aware of extraordinary things — stubbing our toes or running up several flights of steps. We do not, however, grasp what it feels like from moment to moment to live in our bodies.

Merleau-Ponty’s work is there to tell us that the way Christian Europe — and all its many colonies and outposts — the way Christianity has taught us to deal with the very natural human feelings of angst and unease in our lives is to ignore the body. The equation taught is: spirit, good; flesh, evil: Ignore the body and improve your soul.

Merleau-Ponty is there to say this is exactly the wrong way to go.

To be in any way whole and present, we must embrace both our own lived experience and our own lived body. Countercultural, yes. Impossible, no.

SOURCES and Further Reading

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception,1945.

Dan Nixon, “The body as mediator: The phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.”

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