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Archive for the ‘Mindfulness’ Category

It was a bit of a hassle organising our visit to a National Trust site for the first time since before lockdown. My wife and I tried to find a pre-booking slot at Berrington Hall, the nearest location, for the Saturday or Sunday. All slots were fully booked. We had more success trying for the next mid-week slot: Wednesday at 13.30 was ours for the taking.

My calendar dutifully informed me on the day that the roads were clear and it would take 24 minutes to get to Berrington Hall. The temperature outside was 28 degrees before we set off. Even allowing the car doors to remain open for a good ten minutes before daring to sit down inside, the seats felt scorchingly hot through the seat of my shorts.

We set off with the aircon blasting away and eventually cooled down. The ordinary entrance gate to the hall was closed, so we had go in through the lane that was usually the exit, not our first strange reversal of the norm in these Corona days.

As we approached the car park, the lady with a clipboard greeted us from under a shelter.

I wound the window down and asked, ‘Do you need to see our tickets?’

‘No, just tell me your name,’ she shouted back, carefully keeping her distance.

I did, and we were waved in with no further ceremony.

We parked the car under the shade of a tall hedge thinking that would keep it cool for our return.

We decided to have our walk first, then come back for nibbles and drinks if we could find cool shelter nearby. As we left, we passed a group of elderly ladies sitting under the shade of a young tree, enjoying tea and cakes.

‘Enjoying your tea under a tree?’ I couldn’t resist rhyming loudly in their direction.

They grinned back.

Even though the day was sweltering we enjoyed our walk once we got to the woodland near the pond.

When, after emerging from the shade of the woods, we were unable to cope with walking anymore in the heat, we made a detour back to the car park via a coffee and ice cream hatch near the stables. Zarin opted for an ice-cream and I risked a coffee despite the heat.

We arrived back at the car park after an hour or so away, to see the car baking in full sunlight. We both groaned aloud.

Fortunately the ladies had left the shade of the tree, so we took some cake and water out of the car with a sheet to sit on, and headed back to snap up its protection from the sun.

After my cake and coffee, with my head feeling more alert than usual from the caffeine hit I usually avoid these days, I tucked into the book I’d brought, as Zarin read through her yoga manual.

It was David Fontana’s Psychology, Religion and Spirituality.

I was already more than halfway through my re-reading of it. I’d bought it in 2005 and the occasional highlight indicated I had read at least parts of it before, but nothing had stuck in my mind in spite of the complimentary comment I’d scribbled in the flyleaf.

I’d enjoyed the book so far but nothing had prepared me for the pages I was about to read.

His references to Assagioli began to suggest I might be entering important territory, dealing as they did (page 163) with the personal self and the higher self and the concept of disidentification, all of which had strongly influenced me (see link).

Things calmed down again for a few pages until the topic of consciousness came up.

First of all Fontana reminded me of the Jungian model of consciousness (page 175), one that I had internalised many decades ago: it consists of four levels – normal waking consciousness, the preconscious, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious.

I won’t dwell on those or explain them further. I was just pleased to find myself on the home ground of my earlier days, but it was hardly a world changing insight.

It was when he began to refer to Ken Wilber’s The Spectrum of Consciousness that light bulbs started flashing. I have had that text on my shelves since October 2000 but have never bothered to read it. Apparently, according to Fontana (page 177) Wilber highly praises the Advaita Vedanta ‘developmental model of consciousness.’ And he quotes it at length.

There are six major levels, from the material (the most basic) through several levels to the ratiocinative level, the last one before the two highest levels kick in if you have worked hard enough or been very fortunate. It’s the last two levels that most engaged my attention.

The causal level (5) is where ‘consciousness can experience pure contentless awareness, or pure consciousness in and of itself.’ Level 6 is the Brahmanic level. Where ‘consciousness is aware of reality as a unified field of energy in which the material world, the individual, and the source of all phenomena, Brahman or the Absolute, are in essence identical with each other.’

In one way I was a bit surprised that I was getting so excited as levels of consciousness was not exactly a new and undiscovered topic for me (see links). When I paused to reflect though, I realised why these concepts were more alive for me now than they had been before.

One very recent poem, and particularly the experience that triggered, it have a bearing on this. I had been sitting in the garden at home with a cup of coffee and my notebook. To begin with I was just staring at the sky, as I thought. Then four lines of poetry came straight to mind, with appropriate scansion and full rhymes.

That poem broke abruptly through my cloud of thoughts like a shaft of sunlight. Since I wrote down those lines I have only changed five words, to help the potential reader understand better what I think my unconscious was trying to tell me. This is the amended version. It is rare for me not make many radical changes in a number of lines of the first draft of a poem: in fact that has only happened a handful of times at most in all the years I’ve been writing poetry.

Before I read the description of level 5, I felt the poem was simply providing me with a metaphor to capture the same point about consciousness as the mirror metaphor, namely that consciousness is not the same as its contents, just as a mirror is not what is reflected in it. I thought the poem’s insight was particularly helpful in this respect, as before I wrote it I had never thought to distinguish between clouds and the sky, just as, in a way, until I encountered Vipassana meditation[1], Assagioli’s disidentification and Koestenbaum’s reflection, I had been content to continue confusing my mind with what it was thinking, feeling, imagining, remembering and so on.

Suddenly though I was lifted to a different level of understanding for which my poem and the triggering experience had prepared me. I saw an immediate connection between the phrase ‘pure contentless awareness’ and my description of a ‘blue’ and ‘unchanging sky.’ ‘Blue’ is obviously the equivalent of ‘pure.’

However, the fact that the sky is not changed by the clouds that cross it, they simply hide it from us, had eluded me, just as the fact that consciousness is not changed by the thoughts and feelings that pass over or through it had also evaded my mind’s grasp. I had not only allowed my thought and feelings to hide the purity of consciousness from me but I had at some level not truly grasped that they had no effect on the ground of my consciousness at all.

Such is the power of metaphor for me.

This all goes further, though, and relates to level six also.

In another earlier poem, about whose triggering experience I now found myself forcefully reminded, I had described another experience of clouds and sky:

The key section reads:

When I was a child, delirious
they said, I floated lonely on a
cloud, bathed in sunlight. I’m serious.
Was it real? That I’ll never know for
sure. I didn’t see eternity
that day, but an OBE is far
from impossible. The clear beauty
of the blue expanse of sky, vivid,
serene, stays with me still. I could see
the sunlight streaming down, and tried
to turn and see the disc itself, but
failed.

Here I was above the concealing cloud of thought and feeling. I was as close to the sky in all its vivid purity as I could get. I obviously had not reached level 6: I could see the sunlight but not its source, the sun itself. When I recovered from the illness whose fever delivered me this gift, all the adults around me dismissed it as delirium, and I accepted that explanation, but the vivid memory of the experience has never left me. We didn’t understand in those days that factors that impair aspects of brain functioning can open the doors to different levels of experience that are ordinarily inaccessible.

I am beginning to suspect, or even to sense, that I had been steered into an unwise dismissal of something more like a peak experience, though not quite an epiphany, with important implications for my understanding of reality.

Ever since I can remember I have been on a quest for deeper understanding and still am, and am also haunted by a painful sense of having lost something infinitely precious. I think I may at last be getting closer to a convincing explanation for both those factors. The poem I am about to post next time, which was written after this post, is a kind of declaration of intent. Not quite the same as taking effective action though, I suspect.

Footnote:

[1]. As an article on the Buddhist Review website explains, ‘The meditator is trained to notice more and more of his own flowing life experience.’

 

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Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is often called the father of modern mindfulness. Photograph: Sarah Lee

Friday’s Guardian published an insightful article by Ronald Purser on the limitations of mindfulness practice as it is currently being marketed. Below is a short extract: for the full article, see link.

It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism.

. . . what exactly is this magic panacea? In 2014, Time magazine put a youthful blonde woman on its cover, blissing out above the words: “The Mindful Revolution.” The accompanying feature described a signature scene from the standardised course teaching MBSR: eating a raisin very slowly. “The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st century,” the author explained.

But anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary – it just helps people cope. In fact, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, mindfulness says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. And yet mindfulness zealots believe that paying closer attention to the present moment without passing judgment has the revolutionary power to transform the whole world. It’s magical thinking on steroids.

There are certainly worthy dimensions to mindfulness practice. Tuning out mental rumination does help reduce stress, as well as chronic anxiety and many other maladies. Becoming more aware of automatic reactions can make people calmer and potentially kinder. Most of the promoters of mindfulness are nice, and having personally met many of them, including the leaders of the movement, I have no doubt that their hearts are in the right place. But that isn’t the issue here. The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged. Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.

. . . .

The fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads. By failing to pay attention to what actually happens in each moment, we get lost in regrets about the past and fears for the future, which make us unhappy. Kabat-Zinn, who is often labelled the father of modern mindfulness, calls this a “thinking disease”. Learning to focus turns down the volume on circular thought, so Kabat-Zinn’s diagnosis is that our “entire society is suffering from attention deficit disorder – big time”. Other sources of cultural malaise are not discussed. The only mention of the word “capitalist” in Kabat-Zinn’s book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness occurs in an anecdote about a stressed investor who says: “We all suffer a kind of ADD.”

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I read an interesting article by Yuval Noah Harari in the Guardian some time ago, entitled The New Threat to Liberal Democracy. Astonishingly, from reductionist premises with which I completely disagree, such as that we have no free will, he arrives at the same conclusion as I do about a key mental skill: ‘renouncing the myth of free will can kindle a profound curiosity. If you strongly identify with the thoughts and desires that emerge in your mind, you don’t need to make much effort to get to know yourself. You think you already know exactly who you are. But once you realise “Hi, this isn’t me. This is just some changing biochemical phenomenon!” then you also realise you have no idea who – or what – you actually are. This can be the beginning of the most exciting journey of discovery any human can undertake.’

This is reflective disidentification in effect. More of that in a moment.

The article, from vastly different premises, confirms my feeling that developing the ability to step back from our automatic reactions is a key skill we need to acquire, but our culture militates against it – in fact, all the subliminal influences in our society are working in the opposite direction.

In Tart’s terms, our ‘trance’, and in Bahá’u’lláh’s words our ‘vain imaginings,’ ’superstitions’ and ‘delusions,’ control us, not because we have no will power, but because we fail to tune into the deepest levels of our being and we invest our trust in false gods.

On top of that, our reptilian brain, the amygdala, drowns out the soul’s whispers with its fear and rage.

What follows may not be entirely coherent as it was only recently, while sitting in the garden with a coffee, that an important penny dropped.

I asked myself whether, in my past attempts to look at what narrows the compass of compassion, eg labelling, the reptilian brain, inequality, power differentials etc, I had missed the more generic point that any kind of identification with a feeling, thought, judgement, self-concept, ego function, by definition:

(a) narrows compassion potentially to zero, and

(b) shallows wisdom to the same extent.

Strong identifications of this kind could lead to a container, whose width is compassion and depth is wisdom, to become the size of a thimble – an obvious but useful symbol. Using reflection to remove these false identifications would create an ocean, by comparison. When you add into the mix how reflection facilitates true consultation as a means of enhancing our simulations of reality through a constructive process of comparing notes with others in a spirit of objective exploration rather than adversarial debate, then the potential becomes even greater. The opposite is also true: failure to reflect impedes consultation and fosters conflict, resulting in impoverished representations of reality.

The other important factor is what we choose as our guiding light. As Reitan points out, simply believing we believe in God is not enough: the God we choose to believe in has to be worthy of worship. To make a god out of our ego or a dictator is a fatal mistake. Even our ideals have to be approached with caution, as Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ points out. In his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Another recent article in the Guardian by Michele Gelfand points up the impact of feeling threatened on our openness to others.

His core point in terms of this issue is: ‘Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.’

This maps onto my long explored idea that fear narrows the compass of compassion and makes intolerance and prejudice more likely. The narrower the container, the more likely we are to experience feelings of threat and a strong sense of difference between us and other people.

I’d maybe been putting the cart before the horse in seeing the feelings as ultimately causative rather than secondary. The wider we set our compass of compassion, and the deeper our wisdom becomes, the less likely are we to be fearful, threatened and reactively aggressive. When something disturbing happens and it’s a drop in the ocean you feel no fear. When something happens and it’s a drop in a thimble, all hell spills out.

This may be a two-way street, though, in that fear will reduce the size of our container, just as the smallness of the container is conducive to fear. There is, however, no guarantee that an absence of fear would be conducive automatically to compassion, as the combination of narcissism and fearlessness is found in the psychopath.

Where the process starts may be different for different people in different situations. If it is basically true, however, that fear shrinks compassion and reduced compassion fosters fear, and it seems likely, the dynamic I’ve described would create a vicious circle of a most pernicious and self-defeating kind. I still need to clarify these implications.

This is what I plan to do in a later sequence.

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Ring and Book

After my relatively recent preoccupation with dreams it seems appropriate to republish this sequence which is a fictional attempt to project my inscape into words. Dreams and day dreams feature quite a lot! 

Leaning back against the pillows, highlighter pen in hand, I pick up my newly acquired copy of Browning’s The Ring & the Book. I’ve been so lucky to find an affordable replacement for the copy I gave away all those years ago, thinking I’d never want to read it again. Since savouring the rich switching of perspectives in Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much, which reminded me so much of Browning’s masterpiece, I’d been itching to get my hands on another copy, and there it was – a Penguin Classic, with its colourful Millais cover, tucked away in a small second-hand bookshop at the unlikely end of the Castle Arcade in Cardiff – only £6, instead of the £25 for the previous copy I’d seen.

When I’d betrayed how keen I was, the vendor said, ‘In that case I’m doubling the price.’

As I made totroutmark-books-cardiff head for the exit he added, ‘Only kidding!’

I’d known that of course, and he knew also that I’d be back again at Troutmark Books as soon as I could.

On the way back from Cardiff on the train I’d finished the first book of the twelve. I was captivated again. Browning manages to capture the ambiguous chaos of experience without losing hold of the imperfect variations of coherence we each manage to impose on it. And he does so, as I remembered, from so many different points of view.

Now just as I am settling down to savour the second book, they start up again, my Parliament of Selves.

‘Where’s Chris?’ Emma Pancake hisses anxiously of their mystical mystery colleague, Humfreeze. Instead of sitting feet up on the table as usual she’s finding it very hard to stand still, shifting from one foot to the other when she isn’t pacing back and forth.

‘He’s deep in his last meditation of the day,’ Frederick Mires whispers. ‘He won’t hear a thing. Why does it matter, Emma?’

‘Well, he – you know who I mean, Fred?’ Mires nods.

They’re talking about me behind my back. No amount of whispering will completely shield them now I know they’re there: I can always hear enough to get their drift.

Pancake fills in the details. ‘He’s got some crackpot plan to meditate more so he can – what’s the word he uses? – reflect is it? He thinks that’ll make him a better poet. Mad, he is.’

Mires looks worried. ‘Is that what he means by reflection? I thought he just meant thinking hard. He doesn’t give me enough time to read all the books I need to anyway. If he’s going to squander more hours on this nonsense I’ll never get all the information and ideas I need to get to the bottom of consciousness. I can see why you don’t want Chris to hear this. What are we going to do? D’you think Bill will help us?’

Mires realises they will need the help of the poet manqué, Wordless, if they’re going to block my plan.

‘I’m not sure. He’s been dithering on this one. He really likes quiet moments staring at trees and lakes and stuff like that. He says it helps his poetry. I know he hates the way Chris rubbishes words but that may not be enough to get him on our side and stop this whole daft plan before it gets off the ground. I bet he thinks a bit more meditation will solve his writer’s block. Hang on, here he comes.’

The garden gate squeaks on its hinges, and a disconsolate figure in a long black coat closes it carefully behind him.

‘Hi, Bill,’ Pancake calls out.

William Wordless turns round in surprise, completely unused to such warm and friendly tones coming from that quarter.

‘What do you want?’ he mutters, trying to walk on past to the garden table.

‘Just a few quiet words, Bill,’ Mires charms in, ‘before Chris comes back to reality to join the rest of us.’

“What about?’ Wordless seems less than enthralled at the idea.

‘Have you cottoned on to what you-know-who is planning to do?’ Pancake tries to keep her voice soft and calm.

‘I think so. This reflection idea. It seems a good one to me as long as Chris doesn’t stretch it too far.’

There’s a short silence as Pancake and Mires exchange a brief glance and try to work out what best to say next.

‘I think I’ve had a brilliant idea,’ Pancake’s voice vibrates with excitement. She pauses as though not sure whether to say anymore.

‘Come on, then,’ Mires bursts out. ‘Tell us what it is. Don’t keep us on tenterhooks.’

‘Well,’ she said slightly more calmly, ‘I know we were talking about stopping him altogether, but maybe that’s not going to work. We’ll just have a wrestling match and none of us will win. Maybe we don’t need to work together to stop him doing this completely. We need instead to work together to find a way of getting him to implement it so that it benefits us all.’

‘Even Chris,’ she adds reluctantly.

Browning

This book deals with the period of Browning’s life, after the death of his wife, during which he wrote ‘The Ring & the Book.’

‘That could make sense,’ Wordless nods. ‘He’s already started reading poetry again – or pretending to. You can see him at it now. Not that I like Browning much. He’s more interested in people than he is in nature. He’d be right up your street, Fred.’

“I’m not sure I can see how I could ever benefit out of a plan like this,’ Mires grumbles.

‘You don’t really get it, do you, for all your reading and for all your degrees?’ Pancake mocks, before twigging that she needs to soften her tone if she’s going to get him on their side.

‘I know it’s hard for someone who is so much into books, and is always looking out for the next one to read so you don’t miss out on anything. It’s a bit like me with my meetings and my contacts. I’m scared that, if I don’t keep up with the crowd, I’ll get left behind and achieve nothing. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a better way to do it than that, but we won’t find out if we’re not prepared to stop and think quietly about it first. D’you follow? You must do. You believe in the scientific approach, doing experiments, that kind of thing.’

‘I understand what you mean but I’m not sure I agree,’ Mires mutters doubtfully.

‘If you go down this road, Fred, you’ll have me on your side. But if you just try and stop him and block it completely, I’ll do all I can to make sure you lose,’ Wordless asserts firmly. Then you’ll probably be worse off even than you are now.’ He clearly means every word of it.

‘OK, Bill,’ Mires says sourly after a slight pause. ‘Let’s see if we can work out something that makes sense to all of us.’

They share a long silence.

‘We’d better talk to Chris then, when he’s finished his meditation,’ Mires suggests. ‘I’m not sure how we’ll get him to work a plan that suits us, but if we can – and I think it’s a big if – I’m prepared to give it a try.’

After that things went quiet, and all I could hear was the entrancing colloquial swing of Browning’s pentameters until I fell asleep (page 65 – lines 1-4):

What, you, Sir, come too? (Just the man I’d meet.)
Be ruled by me and have a care o’ the crowd:
This way, while fresh folk go and get their gaze:
I’ll tell you like a book and save your shins.

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. . . . the role of the fine arts in a divine civilization must be of a higher order than the mere giving of pleasure, for if such were their ultimate aim, how could they ‘result in advantage to man, . . . ensure his progress and elevate his rank.’

(Ludwig Tulman – Mirror of the Divine – pages 29-30)

A Test

As I explained earlier in this sequence, I’m not contending that mapping consciousness is the sole criterion for judging a work of art but it is a key one for my purposes as a student of consciousness, as the mind map above illustrates. I’ll unpack what the mind map is about later.

My ability to apply to ongoing experience what I have learned in theory was about to be tested. How clearly could I catch hold of and write down an experience under pressure?

The day I sat planning at some point to work on this post proved interesting. Two letters plopped through our letterbox. They looked like the ones I had been expecting, telling me when my next hospital appointments were.

I didn’t pick them up straightaway as I was keeping an eye on the pressure cooker as it built up a head of steam, ready to turn it down when the whistle hissed. No, I don’t mean my brain as it coped with all my deadlines. We were beginning to get the food ready for the celebration of the Bicentenary of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh in two days time. The lentils apparently needed cooking well ahead of time.

Once pressure cooker duty was over, I dashed upstairs to tweak the slide presentation for the following day. I’d been enlisted to do the presentation at a friend’s celebration event. While the slide show notes were printing, I thought I’d better check the hospital letters out, not my favourite activity. The first one I opened was as I expected, an appointment for the ophthalmology department. I moved on to the second one. When I opened it I saw it was identical, same date, same time.

‘They’ve messed up,’ I groaned inwardly. ‘I was supposed to go for an MRI scan as well. I’d better give them a ring.’

I stapled the slide show notes together, picked up my iPhone and rang the number they had given me on the letter. A robot answered.

‘Thank you for calling the orthoptic department. We are currently dealing with a new electronic patient record system [I didn’t relish being seen as an electronic patient] and may be delayed in returning your call, [change of voice undermining the impression of caring that was to follow] but your call is important to us. Please leave your hospital number, the name of the patient, and a brief message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Thank you.’

I responded after the beep, fortunately also remembering to give them my number as I wasn’t convinced they’d pick that up automatically. Most robots check whether they have absorbed your number correctly.

Rather than waste time waiting, I got my laptop and brought it downstairs to rehearse my presentation. I set up AppleTV and was just about to set my timer and start, when my phone rang.

‘Orthoptic Department. How can I help?’ She sounded pleasant and surprisingly unstressed.

‘The new system must be taking some of the pressure off,’ I thought.

I explained that not only had I got double vision but I was also now getting my letters twice as well. Well, no not really. I told her I’d got two identical letters when I’d expected one to be for an MRI scan.

She checked out what I meant and then explained that the letter I’d got was for my routine appointment. The other was an error on their part. I should also be getting a letter for the MRI scan, I clarifed, but they did not know anything about that. I added that after that I should get an appointment from a consultant about the scan. She couldn’t help with that either, even though he was in her department.

She agreed to put me through to discuss the MRI.

‘Radiology here. How can I help?’

‘Is that where you do MRI scans?’ I asked, not being sure whether they counted as radiology or something else.

‘Yes, it is.’

I began my explanation.

‘I’m sorry. I need your name and date of birth.’

‘Will my hospital number do?’

‘Yes. That’s fine.’

Once she knew who I was, I told her my problem and asked when I could expect my scan to be as were we hoping to be away some time in December.

‘It’ll take 6-8 weeks from the time they sent the request.’

‘So when might that be?’

‘It’ll probably be the week beginning 27 November.’

‘And when will the consultant see me to discuss it after that.’

‘I can’t say because he wouldn’t send out appointments normally until he receives the scan.’

‘So how long is the gap likely to be then?’

‘We don’t deal with that. You’d have to speak to his secretary.’

She couldn’t put me through so I rang Ophthalmology again and got the robot. I hung up and rang the hospital switchboard and they put me through straightaway. Must remember that next time.

I spoke to the same person as before. She explained that she didn’t really know. She was just the receptionist. His secretary was off till next week. She’d leave a note for her and if I could ring back then she might help.

I hung up and made a note in my diary to ring next week.

Before this all happened, I’d jotted down in the notebook I always carry: ‘It doesn’t matter whether I’m enjoying myself or not, as long as I’m squeezing every drop of meaning out of the lemon of the present moment.’ The phone calls to the hospital where a particularly sour experience, so my note was intriguingly prophetic. I had managed to stay calm, and even found the whole experience slightly amusing with its many examples of ‘I don’t know. That’s not my department. You need to talk to…’

At last I was able to settle down and rehearse the presentation before finally returning to my plan to draft this post.

The whole episode highlighted for me the need not only to slow down and keep calm, but also to sharpen my focus. Not that I will ever be able to write as well as Virginia Woolf, but without that combination of skills I doubt that anyone would ever be able to capture consciousness in words on paper, or even in speech.

A Valid Criterion?

So now we come back to the critical question. Is its skill in conveying consciousness a valid criterion by which to judge a work of art? As I indicated earlier, I’m not arguing it is the only one, nor even necessarily the best. What I have come to realise is that it is a key one for me.

I also need to clarify that capturing consciousness is not the same as conveying a world view or meaning system. So, you might argue that when Alice Neel is painting people that the art world usually ignores, just as I gather Cézanne also did, while the act of painting itself is sending a clear ideological message that these people matter, unless the portrait is more than a realistic rendering of the subject’s appearance we have not been capturing the artist’s consciousness. If any distortions of sensory experience merely serve to strengthen the message, these would be more like propaganda than maps of consciousness. Also the culture in which we are immersed, as well as our upbringing and individual life experiences, influence the meaning systems we adopt, or perhaps more accurately are induced into evolving.

Capturing consciousness is also a tad more demanding than simply conveying a state of mind or feeling, whether that be the artist’s own or their subject’s, something which music can also do perfectly well. That is something I value very much, but it’s not my focus right now.

Taking that into account, what am I expecting?

Woolf gives us a clue in her diaries ((page 259):

I see there are four? dimensions: all to be produced, in human life: and that leads to a far richer grouping and proportion. I mean: I; and the not I; and the outer and the inner – … (18.11.35):

I have quoted this already in an earlier post of this sequence. I also added the date on which she wrote it to emphasise that it was after the completion of both To the Lighthouse and The Waves, as if she sensed that her approach up to that point had been too inward looking. Her question mark after ‘four’ suggests she was entertaining the possibility of more dimensions.

The diagram maps what Woolf said very crudely. Most of To the Lighthouse and The Waves takes place in the top right hand quadrant. They are brave experiments. In places they work beautifully but are uneven and at times disappointing. She sensed that I suspect.

However, other novels she wrote take more account of the other quadrants except possibly the one on the bottom right, although there are places where she seems almost to be attempting to tune into the inscape of natural objects.

Clearly then it might be appropriate to judge a novel by how well it balances the three main quadrants, ie excepting the bottom right.

There is a catch here though. It all depends upon on what the prevailing culture defines as ‘outer.’ Is this to be confined only to the material realm? Mysticism is present in all cultures to some degree, though its legitimacy has been downgraded in the West. The critically endorsed novel has, with some rare exceptions such as John Cowper Powys and perhaps what is termed ‘magical realism,’ been seen as needing to focus on the world of the senses, the stream of consciousness and social interaction.

Is that enough?

Woolf expresses this whole dilemma with wry humour in To the Lighthouse (page 152):

The mystic, the visionary, walking the beach on a fine night, stirring a puddle, looking at a stone, asking themselves “What am I,” “What is this?” had suddenly an answer vouchsafed them: (they could not say what it was) so that they were warm in the frost and had comfort in the desert. But Mrs McNab continued to drink and gossip as before.

Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, for example? Should mysticism be normalised and not be either excluded or presented as eccentric?

Given that I think expanding our consciousness is the key to enabling us to mend our world I am sceptical of any school of thought that would devalue and marginalise novels that attempt to treat outlying ways of thought and experience as of equal interest and legitimacy. It has already been demonstrated that the novel, in its present form, enhances empathy. It helps connect us in a more understanding way with the experiences of others very different from ourselves. Art in general is one of the most powerful means we have for lifting or debasing consciousness. It reaches more people in the West probably than religion does, especially if we include television, cinema, computer games etc.

I must add a word of warning here. Consciousness can be seen as expanding in all sorts of different ways.

Sometimes, though, I feel that just by pandering to our desire for exciting new experiences we might not be expanding our consciousness at all, but narrowing it rather.

Alex Danchev, in his biography of Cézanne, quotes an intriguing passage from Hyppolyte Taine (page 104):

In open country I would rather meet a sheep than a lion; behind the bars of a cage I would rather see a lion than a sheep. Art is exactly that sort of cage: by removing the terror, it preserves the interest. Hence, safely and painlessly, we may contemplate the glorious passions, the heartbreaks, the titanic struggles, all the sound and fury of human nature elevated by remorseless battles and unrestrained desires. . . . It takes us out of ourselves; we leave the commonplace in which we are mired by the weakness of our faculties and the timidity of their instincts.

I draw back instinctively from the elevation of the titanic, the fury, the remorseless and the unrestrained in human life. Exploring those aspects of our nature unbalanced by other more compassionate and humane considerations is potentially dangerous for reasons I have explored elsewhere. To express it as briefly as I can, it’s probably enough to say that I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. Suzy Klein’s recent brilliant BBC series on Tunes for Tyrants: Music and Power explores what can happen when the arts are harnessed to violent ends in the name of some dictator’s idea of progress.

And where does this leave me?

I am at a point where I have decided that I need to explore consciousness more consistently, perhaps more consistently than I have ever explored anything else in my life. It blends psychology, literature, faith as well as personal experience, and therefore makes use of most of my lifetime interests. This object of interest would give them a coherence they have so far lacked. Instead of flitting between them as though they had little real or deep connection, I could use them all as lenses of different kinds to focus on the one thing that fascinates me most.

I have ended up with the completely revised diagram of my priorities at the head of this post, repeated just to the left above in smaller size. The blurring at the edges represents its unfinished nature. It seems to express an interesting challenge. It shows that I am on a quest, still, to understand consciousness. Does the diagram suggest the idea that consciousness is both the driving force and destination of this quest? It looks as though consciousness is seeking to understand itself, in my case at least: that makes it both the archer and the target. Mmmmm! Not sure where that leads!

What is clear is that my mnemonic of the 3Rs needs expanding. It has to include a fourth R: relating. In the diagram I have spelt out what the key components are of each important R.

Relating

This involves consultation (something I have dwelt on at length elsewhere). It also entails opening up to a sense of the real interconnectedness of all forms of life, not just humanity as a whole. It has to entail some form of action as well, which I have labelled service, by which I mean seeking to take care of others.

Reflecting

How well a group can consult, as I have explained elsewhere, depends upon how well the individuals within it can reflect. My recent delving into Goleman and Davidson’s excellent book The Science of Meditation suggests that there is more than one form of meditation that would help me develop my reflective processes more efficiently (page 264): mindfulness I have tried to practice (see links for some examples), focusing I do everyday, using Alláh-u-Abhá as my mantra, and loving kindness or compassionate meditation is something I need to tackle, as it relates very much to becoming more motivated to act. I have baulked at it so far because it relies, as far as I can tell, upon being able to visualise, something I am not good at.

They also describe another pattern, which I’ve not been aware of before (ibid.): ‘Deconstructive. As with insight practice, these methods use self-observation to pierce the nature of experience. They include “non-dual” approaches that shift into a mode where ordinary cognition no longer dominates.’

Reading & Writing

Readers of this blog, or even just this sequence of posts, will be aware of how I use writing and reading in my quest for understanding so I don’t think I need to bang on about that here.

The Science of Meditation deals with the idea that long-term meditation turns transient states of mind into more permanent traits of character. I have placed altruism in the central space as for me, having read Matthieu Ricard’s book on the subject, altruism is compassion turned to trait: it is a disposition not a passing feeling. I am hopeful that insight may similarly turn to wisdom, but as I am not sure of that as yet, I just called it insight.

I am already aware that the diagram inadequately accounts for such things as the exact relationship between the 4Rs, understanding and effective and useful action. It does not emphasise enough that my desire to understand consciousness better is not purely academic. It is also fuelled by a strong desire to put what I have come to understand to good use.

I am also aware that I failed to register in my discussion as a whole that there are distinctions to be made between capturing consciousness in art and other closely related scenarios, such as describing experience in terms of its remembered emotional impact (conveying a state of mind) or giving an account of what happened through the lens of one’s meaning system (evaluating an event). It is perhaps also possible to attempt to convey only the basic details of what happened with all subjective elements removed (a ‘factual’ account).

I can’t take this exploration any further than this right now but hope to come back to the topic again soon. I also said in an earlier post that I might delve more deeply into the soul, mind, imagination issue. However, this post has gone on long enough, I think, so that will have to wait for another time.

Rita and Hubert 1954 (scanned from Alice Neel: painter of modern life edited by Jeremy Lewison)

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Despite your illness you have never before done such well-balanced work, without sacrificing any feeling or any of the inner warmth demanded by a work of art, . . . .

Gauguin to van Gogh in 1890, quoted in the Penguin Letters of Vincent van Gogh – page 494

Having inched my way to this point through art to illustrate what I was talking about, Woolf’s depression and possible transliminality, and whether she intended to convey our inscape or not, I can finally come to the crunch question.

Did Woolf succeed in capturing consciousness?

At this stage I can only base a carefully considered answer to that question on a complete reading of To the Lighthouse. I’m only halfway through The Waves.

This is where my own diary entries might come in useful, at least to explain the initial impact of To the Lighthouse.

Within the first 30 pages I was writing ‘there are already intriguing hints about Virginia Woolf‘s experience of consciousness, eg (page 28) ‘to follow her thought was like following your voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil… all of this danced up and down like a company of gnats… in Lilly’s mind.’

When I was halfway through, though I felt it was uneven, there were ‘many places where she achieves the almost impossible. She transitions from inscape to inscape.’ I think I need a fairly long example to illustrate this. Pages 97-98 provide a good one.

We begin in Mrs Ramsay‘s head, pitying Mr William Bankes:

. . . she concluded, addressing herself by bending silently in his direction to William Bankes—poor man! who had no wife, and no children and dined alone in lodgings except for tonight; and in pity for him, life being now strong enough to bear her on again, she began all this business, as a sailor not without weariness sees the wind fill his sail and yet hardly wants to be off again and thinks how, had the ship sunk, he would have whirled round and round and found rest on the floor of the sea.

“Did you find your letters? I told them to put them in the hall for you,” she said to William Bankes.

And suddenly we are in Lilly Briscoe’s mind which has a very different take on things:

Lily Briscoe watched her drifting into that strange no-man’s land where to follow people is impossible and yet their going inflicts such a chill on those who watch them that they always try at least to follow them with their eyes as one follows a fading ship until the sails have sunk beneath the horizon.

How old she looks, how worn she looks, Lily thought, and how remote. Then when she turned to William Bankes, smiling, it was as if the ship had turned and the sun had struck its sails again, and Lily thought with some amusement because she was relieved, Why does she pity him? For that was the impression she gave, when she told him that his letters were in the hall. Poor William Bankes, she seemed to be saying, as if her own weariness had been partly pitying people, and the life in her, her resolve to live again, had been stirred by pity. And it was not true, Lily thought; it was one of those misjudgments of hers that seemed to be instinctive and to arise from some need of her own rather than of other people’s. He is not in the least pitiable. He has his work, Lily said to herself.

This leads Lily to recall her own true focus: painting.

She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she had her work. In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid that awkward space. That’s what I shall do. That’s what has been puzzling me. She took up the salt cellar and put it down again on a flower pattern in the tablecloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree.

I found that last moment an astute observation on Woolf’s part.

It seems to me that Woolf picks up skilfully on how one character sees another in a different way from that in which the person sees themselves. Where the truth lies is for the reader to decide.

I was getting completely carried away by this stage and wrote: ‘She is so astonishingly good at creating a convincing simulation of consciousness in To the Lighthouse. It’s as though I can experience some of her characters more clearly and completely then I experience aspects of myself.’

Conveying Consciousness

Reading Woolf was making me realise that having my primary focus on the nature of consciousness and the means to enhance it does not entail my turning my back, as I have over the last few years, on the novel. It simply provides me with the criterion by which to judge whether a novel really interests me. If it sheds no light on consciousness and is only concerned with plot and personality, then it is of no interest to me. Character and consciousness are key for me.

It raised a wider question. Is what I am after in a novel, poem or any written art form, the conveying of a state of mind? My reaction to Woolf suggests it is. At first I had thought that I shifted from studying literature to studying psychology because I was more interested in people in general than I was in the words that describe them. And that was true up to a point. Now I realise that I am not just interested in understanding people in ‘objective’ terms: I am also interested as much, if not more than anything else, in inner experience – something that psychological science and brain imaging cannot directly access, even if they can shed some light on how brain activity relates to inner experience and external action.

This goes beyond simply capturing routine streams of consciousness. I also believe there are aspects of reality that lie along a spectrum beyond our usual sensory settings. These can break through from the brain and its workings below ordinary consciousness, or break through from beyond the brain, from what I term a transcendent reality, whose exact nature tends to be defined in primarily metaphorical terms.

This raises a further question. Should the novel, drama and poetry be concerned with those, and to what extent? It even includes the question ‘Should a work of art, could a work of art, express some kind of world consciousness, a sense of our global interconnectedness at some level beyond the purely material?

How far does Woolf take it?

For now I will examine just how far Woolf goes with this in To the Lighthouse and to a lesser extent in The Waves.

At various points in the novel Woolf offers glimpses into how a character experiences their mind. I think it’s worth sharing some of these to indicate how broad her understanding is of these patterns.

Even the same character at different points has different experiences. Take Lilly, for example. At one time (page 168) ‘… a question like Nancy’s— opened doors in one’s mind that went banging and swinging to and fro and made one keep asking, in a stupefied gape, What does one send? What does one do?’

At another (page 184):

Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.

And shortly after is something about as close as she comes to the mystical most of the time (page 186):

And, resting, looking from one to the other vaguely, the old question which traversed the sky of the soul perpetually, the vast, the general question which was apt to particularise itself at such moments as these, when she released faculties that had been on the strain, stood over her, paused over her, darkened over her. What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come.

And there is one moment captured that must reflect Woolf’s own struggles as a writer (page 206):

Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind.

James, Mr Ramsay’s son, has another kind of experience (page 195):

He began to search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain…

And his combing of memory continues (page 214):

Turning back among the many leaves which the past had folded in him, peering into the heart of that forest where light and shade so chequer each other that all shape is distorted, and one blunders, now with the sun in one’s eyes, now with a dark shadow, he sought an image to cool and detach and round off his feeling in a concrete shape.

Whether one of Lilly’s later thoughts is meant to capture a more final view is hard to say (page 224):

It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.

Maybe, maybe not, but there is something heroic about Woolf’s battle with herself and her material.

In any case, the clear balance in To the Lighthouse is tilted heavily in favour of the inner life as against external events, of which latter there are very few.

Even though I have still some way to go with The Waves, I can share one impression that is beginning to take shape in my mind.

This novel seems to be exploring in part at least the nature of the self. Whether there even is a self perhaps: Rhoda clearly doesn’t think so (page 47). ‘Identity failed me. We are nothing,’ she declares. Bernard is at something of an opposite extreme (pages 49-50): ‘I do not believe in separation. We are not single. . . . . we are one.’ He even sees his own self as multiple (page 56): ‘I am not one and simple, but complex and many.’ Neville feels connected but doesn’t like it (page 61): ‘How useful an office one’s friends perform when they recall us. Yet how painful to be recalled, to be mitigated, to have one’s self adulterated, mixed up, become part of another.’

Bernard, of course, sees it differently (page 66): ‘For I am more selves than Neville thinks, We are not simple as our friends would have us to meet their needs. Yet love is simple.’

Louis is more of an outsider but people still bug him (page 69): ‘ People go on passing; they go on passing against the spires of the church and the plates of ham sandwiches. The streamers of my consciousness waver out and are perpetually torn and distressed by their disorder.’ Susan on the other hand can feel more connected with nature (page 73): ‘I think sometimes . . . I am not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground. I am the seasons, I think sometimes, January, May, November; the mud, the mist, the dawn.’ Jinny, which incidentally was Woolf’s pet name, has a different take again. After dancing at a party her fancy takes off (pages 78): ‘I fill my glass again. I drink. The veils drop between us. I am admitted to the warmth and privacy of another soul. We are together on some high Alpine pass . . . There! That is my moment of ecstasy. Now it is over.’

I’m not sure yet where all this is going to lead in The Waves. What I see so far is an exploration of the poles of interconnectedness, an almost mystical concept, and isolation. This is a key aspect of consciousness for me and I am intrigued to see where she will take this theme. What I am still delighted by is her fusion of the poetic with the person, how she lifts language to a level where it almost becomes capable of doing justice to inner experience in a stable and consistent way. She can’t quite sustain it though and not all passages are equally convincing. Even so it is a rare and fine achievement.[1]

Where now?

There is another set of questions that I plan to explore next time: is success in the capturing of consciousness a valid standard by which to evaluate a work of art? Would it even be possible in such a diverse and global village as we live in now for a novelist to bring all shades and styles of consciousness together between the pages of one book? And when they failed how could that be seen as a defect? We are clearly only able to capture a small part of the spectrum. How much would we have to capture to be seen as a success?

I think there are ways of resolving the possibly specious problem raised by those questions.

More of that next time.

Footnote:

[1] I have now almost finished The Waves. Sadly I have to say that I do not find it as satisfying as To the Lighthouse. The forward to the Penguin Modern Classics edition expresses the problem with it clearly (page xxxiii): ‘Of all Woolf’s novels, The Waves is the one which most readily lays itself open to the charge of esoteric remoteness from the ordinary world.’ Even so it is a brave attempt to dramatise (page xi) ‘how identities themselves do not stand, ultimately, clear and distinct, but flow and merge into each other.’ Though her theme of ‘interconnectedness’ (page xii) strongly appeals to me I have to admit she does not satisfactorily achieve her aim in conveying it here for reasons which I hope to address in more detail in the last post of this sequence.

The Endless Enigma 1938 by Salvador Dali (the link for source of image no longer works)

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