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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

This is an age when the poet is not the only seer we have on earth, but is the seer particularly endowed to sing of what he sees.

(Bahíyyih Nakhjavání in Artist, Seeker and Seer)

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

Bahiyyih Nakhjavani

I now have to confront the awkward problems of whether Browning was justified in pursuing so relentlessly his preoccupation with the dark side of humanity, and whether being a better human being trumps being a better artist.

There are all sorts of theories about the relationship between art and life, from Baumeister’s supposition that the huge demands on will power that producing art requires depletes our ability to control our impulses in the rest of our lives. Then there are, secondly, the madness-and-art marriage hypothesis, and after that, the supposition that all creativity requires a degree of anarchism in the artist that inevitably leads to transgression of boundaries both moral and social. And last of all for now, the transliminality model which suggests that art leaks through an artist’s filters, whose permeability makes them more prone to madness or gross immorality at the expense of others.

As far as I know there have been no systematic explorations of these models. There is plenty of evidence I could cherry pick to support any of them up to a point, but it wouldn’t amount to any kind of scientifically valid proof.

Their relevance here is the clear, shared implication that being a great artist is never going to be compatible with sanity, stability, any form of normality, or any kind of caring relationship. On this model artists are by definition anarchic and/or narcissistic and socially, emotionally and/or morally toxic, at least to a significant degree more than most of the rest of us.

Are the Arts as dark as we think?

Is that true, and if so, is it inevitable or perhaps even desirable?

That so many examples to support that position are so accessible and spring to mind within microseconds, makes me tempted to give in right away: Caravaggio, Christopher Marlowe, Ann Sexton, Byron, van Gogh, Shelley, Wagner, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Edward Thomas, Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas,  – the list would seem almost endless.

Even so, it is almost certain that if we were to systematically examine the life of every creative artist, musician and writer for whom there was sufficient objective information, and compare it with the rest of the population, we would find a more complex picture emerging. Not even a significant minority of creative people might in the end cross the line and move significantly beyond the norms of a comparative population of non-artists.

The whole idea of art and life being in conflict may be a myth generated by our focus on prominent examples of that problem, not a probable fact rooted in systematically generated evidence. We haven’t managed to define normality accurately and completely yet, so how could we justifiably define most artists as abnormal? Only extremes unarguably qualify. If we wanted to confine our investigation to great artists, there’s no commonly agreed definition of great art. Also the whole of life is characterised by conflicting priorities, with which almost all of us struggle a lot of the time. The art/life conflict is just a glamorous example of how hard it is to achieve a work/life balance.

Mirror of the DivineAchieving a Balance

This means that I have to answer both the questions at the start of this post in basically the same way. The best any of us can achieve in our efforts to live our lives as constructively as possible, and/or create valid representations of our lived experience, is an imperfect but slowly improving holistic balance.

Ludwig Tulman gives a complex and nuanced explanation of just some of the factors that might be relevant. This is his list:[1]

… the artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity attained at a given point in his life, along with the characteristics he may be assimilated from his national culture, his local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate . . . .

I would add the multiple perspectives and even prejudices they have absorbed as they grew up and moved through their various flawed worlds.

To only honour limited aspects of such rich experience so that in the art we produce we show only the dark or the light and not both, betrays art’s purpose, I think. I acknowledge that a single work of art – whether it be a painting, a poem, a short story or a play or even a novel – may not represent all that is necessary for a complete depiction of the artist’s reality. Their work as a whole should come closer to that ideal though. I also feel that to live life in a bubble to protect our art risks constricting the breadth and depth of understanding upon which we draw for our art.

Robert BrowningThe richer and less egocentric our life the greater the art is likely to be, though I accept that time, energy, resources and personal space would have to be safeguarded to protect the creative process. But not to such an extent that the compass of compassion narrows too much and the lens of wisdom grows too dark.

Interestingly there is evidence that Browning, for all his attraction to the dark, did not avoid involvement with the ordinary world around him. Pamela Neville-Singleton makes this abundantly clear at a number of points. Early on she comments that[2] ‘he looked more like a prosperous man of business than a poet,’ and later quotes one of his contemporaries to prove it. Henry James felt there were ‘two Brownings’:[3]

The wholly original, passionate poet and the fashionable, practical man about town.

Or, as he later expressed it[4] in his story, The Private Life, Browning was ‘a genius’ and ‘a bourgeois, and it is only the bourgeois who talks, circulates, and is so popular.’ This suggests that Browning could at least present as normal, though, of course, it does not prove he was. This image left people somewhat baffled[5] about how the bourgeois could ever have written the poetry, as ‘[t]he gulf between the “two Brownings” – the genius and the bourgeois – became ever wider.’

Poetry Review 2011Going beyond self-clinging

Perhaps I should close with some quotations from The Further Reach, an article in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, by the Buddhist, Maitreyabandhu, the first of which goes back to where I started from in the first post, where I linked the potential clash with ordinary life to the pursuit of both art and science:[6]

[Imagination] is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The ego can still be a trap, as he acknowledges:[7]

But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

But, he implies, we have a duty to transcend this limiting temptation if we are to be true to our art in its greatest sense. This leads us back to the very edges of revelation:[8]

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion:

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

And the link he suggests exists between acts of true imagination and ‘everyday kindness and generosity’ because both involve going ‘beyond ourselves’ is, I feel, profoundly important and a good place to pause for now.

References

[1]. Mirror of the Divine page 118.

[2]. Robert Browning: A Life After Death’ – page 5.

[3]. Ibid. – page 153.

[4]. Ibid. – page 171.

[5]. Ibid. – page 203.

[6]. The Further Reach – page 68.

[7]. Ibid. – page 69.

[8]. Ibid.

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Guernica

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

(MaitreyabandhuThe Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69)

On the run-in to Christmas during this difficult time in terms of the current context of political uncertainty and division, it seemed a good idea to republish one of my longest sequence of posts ever, which focuses on the power of art.

In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.

Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’

In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):

For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.

Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):

With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.

Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:

He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):

For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Psychology’s Angle

There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.

Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes).[6] There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).

The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.

The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[131]

A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:

Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.”[161] As cited by von Franz,[162] according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”[163]

I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.

The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.[178]

OatleyWhat Art can Achieve – The Novel & Consciousness-Raising:

Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.

The general point can be summarised by Geoffrey Nash’s view (from Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.

Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.

So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.

He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

In a previous sequence of posts I looked in depth at the nature of poetry, focusing in particular on the thinking of Maitreyabandhu, who has a rich and subtle take on this whole issue.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.)

We’ll come back to that quote later.

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. I want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. . . . . illuminat[ing] meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. . . . .

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative – beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert HaydenFrom the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):

. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].

If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.

I’ll follow up on that in the next post.

Related Articles:

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Guernica

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

(MaitreyabandhuThe Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69)

On the run-in to Christmas during this difficult time in terms of the current context of political uncertainty and division, it seemed a good idea to republish one of my longest sequence of posts ever, which focuses on the power of art.

In the last post I tried to pin down what it is that makes a poem. Now I’m moving on to a survey of the creative process from other perspectives than mine, trying to include a sufficient variety of angles without being able to cover all possibilities in such a relatively short post.

What the critics and the poets say about the process:

I’ll start with some hints derived from Peter Conrad’s over-ambitious overview, Creation: artists, gods & origins.

Looking at the ‘psychogenesis’ of art, he quotes Picasso as saying that art is (page 525), ‘the fire of Prometheus,’ by which Conrad thinks he means it is ‘a weapon to be used against orthodox divinities.’ Rank, however, in 1932, apparently took a different view and asserted (page 528) the ‘fundamental identity between art and religion.’ He felt that ‘art made possible our advance “from animism to religion,” because art is our only means “of exhibiting the soul in objective form and giving personality to God.”’

In a chapter titled Protoplasts Conrad notes the descriptions Byron and Shelley used to describe their experience of writing poetry (page 308):

For Byron, a poem was the lava-flow of imagination, a molten river of feeling. . . . . . . Shelley, less eruptive than Byron, called the mind in creation a fading coal, implying that the poet had to work fast before it cooled.

Ann Wroe sheds more light on that (page 311-12):

With inspiration, Shelley told Trelawney, the pressure within himself was . . . a sort of internal combustion under which his brain simmered and boiled ‘and throws up images and words faster than I can skim them off.’ Only after a while, when they had cooled, could he start to put them in order.

Shelley clearly also felt that suffering played a part in the genesis of true poetry. In Julian and Maddalo he puts these words into the mouth of the Byronic character:

He said–‘Most wretched men
Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’

Mondrian apparently connected creativity with his sexuality (Conrad: page 530):

For Mondrian the rigour of creation required strict sexual abstinence: ‘a drop of sperm spilt,’ he calculated, ‘is a masterpiece lost.’

Edmundson, in a piece he wrote for Harpers, spells out the sense of something subliminal going on in more prosaic terms: ‘But poems, especially vivid, uncanny poems — ones that bring stunningly unlike things together in stunningly just and illuminating ways — don’t come from anywhere close to the front of the brain, the place where (let us say) judgment sits. Poems, we’ve been told more than once, come from a dreamier, more associative place in the mind (and heart).’

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Lord Byron by Richard Westall (for source of image see link)

Psychology’s Angle

There are also many approaches to creativity within psychology. A Wikipedia article painstakingly draws attention to all of them, for those who are motivated to pursue this aspect further.

Among the approaches mentioned are the four Ps model: process, product, person and place (according to Mel Rhodes).[6] There are variations on that. For example, there are theories invoking divergent rather than convergent thinking (such as Guilford).

The article places some emphasis on the work of James C. Kaufman and Beghetto , who introduced a “four C” model of creativity; mini-c (“transformative learning” involving “personally meaningful interpretations of experiences, actions and insights”), little-c (everyday problem solving and creative expression), Pro-C (exhibited by people who are professionally or vocationally creative though not necessarily eminent) and Big-C (creativity considered great in the given field). Again this has been an influential model.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has defined creativity in terms of those individuals judged to have made significant creative, perhaps domain-changing contributions.

The relationship between creativity and mental health has been much explored (see the article itself for the full coverage which has many interesting links). The data they adduce is perhaps relevant here, given the tendency of contemporaries to label both Shelley and Byron as ‘mad,’ and in Byron’s case, ‘bad, and dangerous to know’ as well: however, their final caveat is probably the most important point:

However, as a group, those in the creative professions were no more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders than other people, although they were more likely to have a close relative with a disorder, including anorexia and, to some extent, autism, the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports.[131]

A reference that maps on more closely to my existing biases is also mentioned:

Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung, noted that in these unconscious scientific discoveries the “always recurring and important factor … is the simultaneity with which the complete solution is intuitively perceived and which can be checked later by discursive reasoning.” She attributes the solution presented “as an archetypal pattern or image.”[161] As cited by von Franz,[162] according to Jung, “Archetypes … manifest themselves only through their ability to organize images and ideas, and this is always an unconscious process which cannot be detected until afterwards.”[163]

I have already noted the possibility of social facilitation effect when I referred to David Gilmour’s creative process and Shelley’s first contact with Byron. This aspect has also been much explored.

The key idea of this perspective is that a deeper understanding of how creative outputs are generated and become accepted can be achieved only by placing the individual within a network of interpersonal relationships. The influence of the social context in which individuals are embedded determines the range of information and opportunities available to them during the creative process. Several studies have begun to expose the network mechanisms that underlie the genesis and legitimacy of creative work.[178]

OatleyWhat Art can Achieve – The Novel & Consciousness-Raising:

Although Ricard’s book on altruism has almost nothing to say about the role of the arts, in a much earlier post I have discussed how systematic evidence points to the power of the novel to increase empathy. This is the only significant text I have so far come across that deals in any depth with the power of an art for positive moral good, so I will quote from it at some length here.

The general point can be summarised by Geoffrey Nash’s view (from Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald):

Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.

Keith Oatley expresses his view by saying (from the Preface to his book Such Stuff as Dreams) ‘. . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’

Obviously I need to be careful not to overextend to poetry what might only apply to novels but I do think his points are worth consideration here.

Keith Oatley’s book tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value.

So, what justifies my belief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?

He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art. Clearly there would be forms of verse that fit this kind of description and are merely entertainment. Similarly with his category of debasing fiction that, for example, promotes violence or abuse.

He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 177):

In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.

Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.

He sees fiction as prosocial and moral, and finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar, he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects – page 159):

The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .

Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):

Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.

He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):

The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).

You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog  This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):

The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.

Others have looked back into history and discerned the same patterns (page 168):

Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.

Samadhi_Buddha_01What Art can Achieve – The Power of the Poem

In a previous sequence of posts I looked in depth at the nature of poetry, focusing in particular on the thinking of Maitreyabandhu, who has a rich and subtle take on this whole issue.

He takes up the spiritual thread in a way that complements the psychological explanation (The Farthest Reach: in Poetry Review Autumn 2011, pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc – breakthroughs into a new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.)

We’ll come back to that quote later.

So how does Maitreyabandhu approach these challenges overall? He sets his colours firmly to the mast almost from the start (page 59):

I want to make a case for imagination as an intrinsic faculty that can be recognised, enriched and matured so that it becomes the decisive force of our life. I want to make a case for imagination in the Coleridgian sense ‑ a faculty that unites and transcends reason and emotion and points us toward a deeper understanding of life beyond the limitations of the rational. I want to suggest that imagination has within it something that goes beyond our fixed identity and narrow certainties.

He is not blind, though, to the dark side of this force (pages 59-60):

At the same time ‘imagination’ can also be used to glorify the irrational or as another weapon in the war against reasoned thought. . . . With fancy, nothing more is being got at ‑ there is no inner cohesion, no imaginative unity of meaning, no deeper perception: it is novelty for novelty’s sake.

Then he states a central idea about imagination as a powerful positive force (page 61):

Imagination spontaneously selects sights, sounds, thoughts, images and so forth, and organises them into pleasurable formal relations that draw out their deeper significance, expressing fundamental truths beyond the machinery of conceptual thought. . . . . illuminat[ing] meanings that lie beyond the reach of words. The poem becomes a symbol for something beyond the poem. That ‘something beyond’ is experienced as taking up residence within the poem, without at the same time being reducible to it.

Imagination, for him, is about accessing meanings that lie deeper than words and giving us the ability to express them in the special form of words we call a poem.

He even formulates a kind of diagnostic test we can apply to determine whether a poem is the product of fancy or imagination (Footnote: page 64):

In practice, it’s not always clear if our writing is the product of fancy or imagination. The test is how it leaves us (and hopefully our readers) feeling at the end ‑ enhanced and unified or enervated and distracted?

Given our capacity for self-deception in such matters I am less than completely convinced about the reliability of the test, but it may be the only one we’ve got.

Incidentally, the diagnostic distinction he makes at the end is close to the one in Erich Fromm‘s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, which we dealt with earlier. Fromm defines two types of stimuli (page 269):

What is usually overlooked is the fact that there is a different kind of stimulus, one that stimulates the person to be active. Such an activating stimulus could be a novel, a poem, an idea, a landscape, music, or a loved person. . . . .

The simple stimulus produces a drive – i.e., the person is driven by it; the activating stimulus results in a striving – i.e., the person is actively striving for a goal.

While the two writers are not describing things which are identical, there is clearly a close relationship involved, a substantial degree of overlap.

Maitreyabandhu moves on, in the remainder of his article, to analyse this issue more deeply in terms of the contribution that imagination, as opposed to fancy, makes (page 65):

Imagination has within it this impulse to ascend to higher and higher levels of meaning and ‘revelation’. It is this ascending nature that accounts for the best of the best – writers, artists, composers etc., for whom the word ‘genius’ is needed to make a distinction between capacity, even great capacity, and imaginative gifts of quite another order. As the imagination ascends, there is a greater and greater sense of unity, discovery, aliveness and spontaneity. This is coupled with a deepening sense of pleasure as well as an intensifying revelation of meaning – a powerful and transforming satisfaction that is both aesthetic and cognitive.

I would want to make a distinction between ‘revelation’ and ‘genius’ for reasons that I have touched on in an earlier sequence of posts on Writing & Reality (see links below). At least, that is, if he means Revelation in the scriptural sense. If he is using ‘revelation’ more in the sense of ‘epiphany‘ as popularised by James Joyce or ‘peak experience‘ as Maslow would have it, then I have no quarrel with seeing it as heightened in works of genius.

What he says earlier suggests that this sense of ‘revelation’ is what he means (page 62):

When we manage to write a successful poem there’s often the feeling that all along, beneath the effort of drafting and re-drafting, some greater thought, some more unified perception was trying to be expressed. You – the person who sits and writes and worries about publication – you could not have written it. This is what Keats was getting at in that famous letter to his brother: “Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

From about this point his discussion takes what, for me, is an extremely interesting turn. He draws on Buddhist thought to make a distinction between two tendencies in human beings when confronted by the mysteries of experience (page 66).

Faced with the ungraspable mystery of experience – and our deep sense of insecurity in the face of that – we will tend to fix the mystery into the shape of God or into an unaided, ordinary human being. These two tendencies (really they are deep pre-conscious beliefs) are what Buddhism calls ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism.’ Buddhism is trying to suggest a third alternative – beyond the polarisations of religion and science, beyond the Pope and Richard Dawkins.’

He explains that Buddhist thought defines two groupings of ‘conditioned processes’. (‘Conditioned’ here means basically the effects resulting from conditions.) Buddhaghosa, the fifth century Theravadin Buddhist scholar, wrote of them as follows (page 67):

He grouped all conditioned relationships into five different orders of regularities called the five niyamas. Put simply, the first three niyamas are those regularities discerned by the sciences: regularities that govern inorganic matter; organic life; and simple consciousness, including instincts. So for instance, we live in a world governed by the laws of gravity, by the processes of photosynthesis, and by the migratory instincts of swallows.

Buddhaghosa then goes on to enumerate two further levels of conditioned processes. Firstly, a patterning or regularity that governs the relationship between self-conscious agents (you and me) and the effects of our actions (kamma-niyama); and secondly the regularities governing the transcending, progressive potential within human consciousness, culminating in the emergence of a Buddha (dhamma-niyama).

It makes clear that, in the second pairing, ‘kamma-niyama processes are those laws that govern ethical life.’ He also makes the implications of that clear (pages 67-68):

Kamma-niyama processes mean that our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience. Pratitya-samutpada is saying this is a law, like the law of gravity or thermodynamics – you can know about it or not, believe in it or not, but it’s operating just the same.

This still does not explain exactly what this has to do with the relationship between imagination and reality, though the clue is in the sentence: ‘our states of mind broadly condition the kind of world we experience.’

He then begins to tease this out (page 68):

Imagination is the mind working under the laws of kamma-niyama. As such, it always takes us a little way beyond ourselves into a richer dimension of experience. It is not the sole domain of artists and poets, though it’s typically discussed in reference to them. It informs the best of science and mathematics, the best in human endeavour. It is essentially ethical, a going beyond self-clinging.

The first part of that quote, up until the last sentence in fact, is not in the least problematic for me. It’s where humanity should be heading at least, though we’re not quite there yet – and that’s an English understatement in case anyone thinks I’ve completely lost the plot.

But he also realises the truth is more complex than that last sentence seems to be saying. He puts it so well I’ll quote him at some length (pages 68-69):

The main difference between spiritual life and the path of the poet is that the first is a self-conscious mind-training, while the second is more ad hoc — breakthroughs into new modes of consciousness are accessible to the poet within the work, but they fall away outside it. (This accounts for the famous double life of poets – how they can oscillate between god-like creation and animal-like behaviour.) Imagination’s sudden uplifts are sustained by the laws of kamma-niyama. But as soon as we want something, as soon as the usual ‘me’ takes over – tries to be ‘poetic’ or clever or coarse -we’re back on the stony ground of self. Egoism in poetry, as in any other field of life, is always predictable, doomed to repetition and banality or destined to tedious self-aggrandisement.

What he says is true of the poet must also apply to the scientist. That’s why scientists as well as poets can end up serving very demonic purposes in their lives outside the laboratory/study and sometimes inside it as well, I think.

Interestingly he then leads us back to the very edges of revelation (page 69):

In our best readings of the best work, we sometimes feel intimations of an order of reality that completely transcends us, as if the work took us to the very edges of form and pointed beyond itself to some formless, timeless mystery.

And in the end he points up the link that I too feel is there between the best kinds of creativity in the arts and true compassion (ibid):

And transcendence is not vacancy or negation, but the complete fulfilment of everything – a breaking down of all boundaries. This mystery, this dhamma-niyama aspect of conditionality, finds its roots here and now, in every moment we go beyond ourselves, whether by acts of imagination or in our everyday kindness and generosity.

Where Maitreyabandhu distinguishes between fancy and imagination, others take a slightly different angle on the problem of where artistic inspiration comes from. Yeats’s resonant statement –

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

(The Circus Animals’ Desertion – last lines)

– maps onto a century old concept, explored at length by FWH Myers and discussed in the Kelly’s excellent book, Irreducible Mind: ‘subliminal uprush.’ It’s a double-edged sword (page 430):

Not all [its] products are of equal value, however, for “hidden in the deep of our being is a rubbish-heap as well as a treasure-house” (HP v1, p72).

This suggests that being open to our subliminal processes might carry the risk of succumbing to the ‘rubbish-heap’ rather than being exalted by the ‘treasure-house,’ with unfortunate consequences for the way we live. We have to learn to distinguish between the two both as poets and readers.

In the end, for me, great poetry must combine music with a kind of algebra. By the latter word I mean what John Hatcher refers to in his book on Robert HaydenFrom the Auroral Darkness (pages 16-17):

. . . . . the one quality of poetry which in every interview and discussion about Auden, Hayden inevitably mentions is Auden’s analogy between good poetry and algebra. This notion of poetry as a process of ‘solving for the unknown’ [captures the theory that influenced him].

If a poem can successfully combine these two things in a positive way, the experience it creates will raise consciousness to a higher level and enable us to connect with all life more effectively, and will almost certainly stimulate us to act in ways that enhance the world we live in. These are the criteria I will now seek to apply to three of Shelley’s poems in order to assess their quality before analysing the possible sources of their inspiration.

I’ll follow up on that in the next post.

Related Articles:

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Consider to what a remarkable extent the spirituality of people has been overcome by materialism so that spiritual susceptibility seems to have vanished, divine civilization become decadent, and guidance and knowledge of God no longer remain. All are submerged in the sea of materialism. Although some attend churches and temples of worship and devotion, it is in accordance with the traditions and imitations of their fathers and not for the investigation of reality.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 221)

The previous post ended with a key question: can we redress the imbalance, described by Margaret Donaldson in her book Human Minds: an exploration, that has tilted our culture towards the intellectual transcendent mode with a current mistaken emphasis on a purely materialistic science at the expense of the more spiritual approach of the value-sensing transcendent mode?

This is a question that matters.

We have been here before on this blog, though from a slightly different angle. Iain McGilchrist in his brilliant survey of the problem in The Master & his Emissary reaches a conclusion that pins down exactly why addressing this kind of problem matters when we look at our western society:[1]

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Donaldson’s Take on Redressing the Balance

She feels that developments in science itself have begun to undermine dogmatic materialism:[2]:

 . . . Following upon the work of Max Planck from which emerged quantum mechanics, earlier conceptions of matter itself – those lying at the very basis of the ‘materialistic’ theories of nature – were shown to be mistaken.

Consciousness plays an unexpected part. She quotes Eugene Wigner as saying[3] that ‘it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.’ As a result ‘[t]he intellectual intellectual construct mode reaches its limits and the extension of knowledge depends ever more heavily upon mathematical reasoning.’

Donaldson’s feels that materialism as an explanation for everything is finished:

[4] . . . The activities of science can no longer reasonably be taken as tending to the conclusion that the universe is a mechanism which we can expect soon to understand completely. That idea is dead.

What grounds, though, does she have for also feeling that ‘[t]he way is now open for a general recognition that the value-sensing modes need not compete with the intellectual modes but can properly function in their own way.’

My recent reading of Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain and Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future suggest that the way may be open but it is certainly not unobstructed. By the way, I accept that there are valuable insights in both those books, and in Mason’s case a large number of crucial points that we need to take on board if we are ever to avert the collision of the Titanic of our global civilization with the various icebergs of imminent disaster. However, even Mason does not see the possible wisdom of adding Donaldson’s insights into his remedy.

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

She launches her case with a quote from William James that resonates strongly with the emphasis the Bahá’í Faith places on the essential harmony of science and religion. James recognized, she says, that science and religion are[5] ‘both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure house;’ that ‘neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other’s simultaneous use;’ and that religion at its higher flights is ‘infinitely passionate.’

Then, from within her modal model which I hope this does not muddle, she mentions our different ways of dealing with problems[6] ‘from within the line and core construct modes’ for example, via psychoanalysis or cognitive therapy. However, she adds, ‘there remains another kind of possibility: instead of trying to redeem a troublesome mode we may try to leave it, at least for a while,’ explaining that ‘[a]ll of us have at least some variety of the point mode to escape into.’ ‘For some people though[7] ‘the intellectual modes also provide a way out.’

Those are not her favoured modes of transcending problems because:[8]

. . . there is a whole different human tradition in which sitting still is held to be an essential feature of the effort to control suffering and thus to be a way in which many hours of a life can properly and profitably be spent.

And she goes on to ask whether we are ‘talking only about becoming happier, or also about becoming in some sense wiser or better?’

The Example of Buddhism

She then explores the path of Buddhism at some length, describing it[9] as ‘a particularly resolute attempt to develop skill in leaving undesirable modes at will.’

She states:[10]

Two possible escape routes are proposed in the early Buddhist texts and accepted in much Buddhist orthodoxy. Paul Griffiths calls them ‘the cultivation of tranquillity’ and ‘the cultivation of insight’, the first being an attempt to overcome attachment, and the second and attempt to overcome ignorance.

And in the end she explains:[11]

we are brought to the conclusion that, within the Buddhist traditions we have been considering, escape from the line mode and the core construct mode mainly entails movement into two other modes: a special detached or objective kind of point mode, and a version of the transcendent mode.

. . . Both systems depend on detached, uninvolved, direct observation, used in conjunction with some transcendent function.

Basically, for her,[12] ‘[t]he idea is therefore closely akin to the belief that meditation can help us achieve some kind of breakthrough from the finite to the infinite.’

Her detailed comparison of the intellectual and the value-sensing transcendent modes has at least one clear implication concerning the unhelpful asymmetry of our Western culture’s approach to science, religion and spirituality. Most of us trust the products of the obscure and effortful scientific process, even though we lack even a shred of confirming personal experience in some cases. This is true even though that trust has been eroded by post-modern thinking and climate denial amongst other things. However, most of us refuse to extend the same kind of trust to the equally effortful exertions of advanced meditators: we simply do not believe the data drawn from their experiences, at the very least dismissing it all as ‘anecdotal’ and/or ‘subjective.’

From a personal perspective, when I was studying for my MSc in Clinical Psychology at Surrey University, I came across substantial amounts of Buddhist literature in the library there. I was so impressed by the depths of psychological insight I found on the shelves, I then used every opportunity to attend talks and meditation training at the Buddhist Society in Eccleston Square, London.  I did not convert to Buddhism though, because there was much, in terms for example of reincarnation, that I could not accept, but I remained deeply impressed by many of its insights none the less.

Other Opportunities

Art has a part to play, as we heard from her before in a previous post. She quotes Iris Murdoch[13] as saying that art gives us ‘intermediate images’ which most of us could not do without, but which ‘can lead to a full stop if they are taken as being for real.’ This maps onto McGilchrist’s description of part of the right-hemisphere’s skillset, in The Master & his Emissary, his in-depth exploration of how we can balance the two hemisphere’s distinct kinds of functioning more effectively.

None of this is a level playing field within our culture.[14]:

… our inner cities have become particularly ‘impermeable’ to spiritual experience. . . . Reports… often mention as external triggers specific encounters with nature or art. Also there are repeated suggestions that being alone is helpful or even necessary. The lives of the least privileged people are clearly in all these ways seriously short of opportunity.

Even so, she declares optimistically:[15]

It is at any rate clear that experiences in the value sensing transcendent mode are not extinct among us. They surge up still in spite of the power of other modes which have threatened to exclude them. . . . The experiences come occasionally… but they do not constitute a resource that can be used for living. They cannot be counted as part of the modal repertoire.

So, we are a long way from having redressed the balance. What other challenges lie ahead in her view? That will have to wait for the next post.

References:

[1]. The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[2] Human Minds: an exploration – page 186: unless otherwise stated all references are from this text.
[3]. Page 187.
[4]. Page 188.
[5]. Page 189.
[6]. Page 210.
[7]. Page 211.
[8]. Page 212.
[9]. Page 213.
[10]. Page 214.
[11]. Page 224.
[12]. Page 227.
[13]. Page 230.
[14]. Page 234.
[15]. Page 235.

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My solitude shall be my company, and my poverty my wealth.

(Bashō 1693 – quoted in the Penguin Classics Edition – page 45)

This is becoming rather weird.

Until the 9th April I hadn’t watched the BBC4 programme about Dufu, an early Chinese poet (712 – 770). It’s rather bizarre that I had already had the vivid experience of blossom, which I recorded in the poem I’ve just published, with its Chinese and Japanese associations, on the 7th, and then rediscovered Wang Wei (699–759) more recently on the 10th, which led me onto another rediscovery, Japanese this time, which I’ll come to later.

Wang Wei is another solitario, someone who had lost his wife far too early, after the pattern of Machado.

Looking back over his poems in a book bought in the early 70s triggered me to remember the poem Poet in the Country,which I wrote with my tongue in my cheek many years ago, when I was living in Hendon, overlooking a park and its brook. I tracked it in my notebook of draft poems: it was 1983 — just before my 40th birthday and soon after I became a Bahá’í.

Poet in the Country

River mist – no tinge of dawn –
Brackish tang – bird silence –
A specialist in Chinese loneliness –
Exiled – no Emperor to blame.

Even though I had found my Faith, in my diary I was still writing such entries as ‘my life is drained of all meaning by my yearnings for something lost (if it ever existed) in childhood. That’s how my life has been – making me the Chinese specialist in loneliness of my poem.’ Just over a year later I married, which certainly helped change things for the better, but it was only when I went on Pilgrimage to the Bahá’í Shrines in 1987 that I understood more deeply what at least some of those feelings of exile were about. Pilgrimage felt like coming home after a lifetime in exile.

I’ve a number of pared-back poems in that notebook, clearly influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry – this one from April 1981.

Parting

The cold Plough shines and shines.
The stream’s flow glints.
I walk out, my eyes cloudy.

This refers to that same Hendon brook at a difficult time of my life, when divided affections were causing a great deal of pain.

There is a haiku I’ve always remembered, from the same year, written in my time at the Manor Hospital in Epsom when I was in training to qualify as a clinical psychologist. I can even remember the gravel path I was standing on as I stared towards a faraway copse of trees after a shower of rain.

Walking in Spring

Green mist gleams in distant trees.
I splash through puddles
reflecting cherry blossom.

Cherry blossom again – no surprise there then. Even more importantly, I didn’t know at that point how important the concept of reflection was going to become for me.

I was influenced not just by Wang Wei at this point in my life.

The Japanese Buddhist poet Bashō (1644–1694) was a favourite of mine as well. I don’t think I was consciously trying to pattern the poem on the model described by Noboyuki Yuasa in his introduction to Bashō’s writing when he says of a poem about a frog jumping into a pond that ‘the action thus described is not merely an external one, that it also exists internally, that the pond is, indeed, a mirror held up to reflect the author’s mind.’[1] I think there was a subliminal influence at work though nonetheless.

At the front of my notebook of draft poems I wrote these words of his:[2]

In this mortal frame of mine . . . there is something . . . called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business.

Elsewhere he refers to the ‘everlasting self which is poetry.’[3]

This led to a more complex poem in February 1982:

Candle in the Night

Flickering Spirit!

Poised like a frightened snake
to wound the dark —

or is it the dog dark
worrying the spirit?

more like a cat

trapping the soul
but taunting it
with illusions of release

before extinction bites.

Interestingly, in my diary  I was quoting from Yeats’ Byzantium as well, shortly before the writing of this poem:

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

I saw poetry at that time as something that ‘endorses life, accepts death and always affirms.’ The best poetry, possibly, but not all of it.

It was not just their poetry that drew me to them. The power of solitarios, dwellers in solitude, such as Bashō and Wang Wei haunts me even to this day, as my sequence on Los Solitarios testifies.

Poems like Huatzu Hill by Wang Wei, whose Buddhism was a strong attraction for me at the time, were like looking in a mirror:[4]

Flying birds away into endless spaces
Ranged hills all autumn colours again.
I go up Huatzu Hill and come down –
Will my sadness never come to its end?

I must revisit him again, and I must also read more of Dufu as well. I have only a handful of his poems in my Late Tang collection (referred to as Tufu in my Penguin Edition): I don’t remember reading him at the time.

He resonates also:[4]

My ambition, to be pictured in Unicorn Hall:
But my years decline where ducks and herons troop.

The Unicorn Hall refers to his brief experience of thwarted ambition at the Emperor’s Court.

At this time of enforced isolation, for anyone who missed it, Dufu: China’s Greatest Poet, with Michael Wood’s enthralling commentary and Ian McKellen’s quietly powerful renderings of the poems, is well worth catching up with on BBC iPlayer.

Footnotes

[1] Bashō (Penguin Classics Edition – page 33).
[2]. Bashō (Penguin Classics Edition – page 71).
[3]. Ibid: – page 30.
[4]. Wang Wei (Penguin Classics Edition – page 27).
[5]. Poems of the Late Tang (Penguin Classics Edition – page 42).

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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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