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Posts Tagged ‘consciousness’

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! 

I’m asleep. At least I think I am. We’re altogether this time, sitting round the glass table in the garden. We are wrestling with the problem of how to find out if my head has any other entities lurking beneath consciousness and if so, how to get in touch with them. We’ve postponed trying to reach agreement on how to reflect more often and more effectively until we’ve sorted this issue out.

‘We don’t seem to be getting very far with our watching brief plan. And I don’t think we’re going to. We need to do something more proactive.’ He paused for a moment and when no one else spoke he added, ‘Why don’t we try using an ouija board?’ Frederick Mires seems slightly embarrassed to be making this suggestion.

‘Good to see a brain scientist prepared to put something so discredited to the test, Fred.’ Christopher Humfreeze finds it hard to conceal his pleasure at scoring such an unlikely point. For once he is not on the receiving end of Mires’s unremitting need to test the validity of his faith in meditation.

‘Too easy to fake, isn’t it?’ comments the pragmatic Emma Pancake dismissively. Anything so flaky is unlikely to receive the support of such a hard-line campaigner in the socio-political sphere.

‘What’s an Ouija board?’ asks the bewildered William Wordless. Exploring and rhapsodising about mountains and forests has obviously given him too little time to explore the esoteric.

I feel it’s time I stepped in.

‘I don’t think we have to explain that to you, Bill, I’m happy to say. I’m not convinced that tables, letter cards and up-turned tumblers are going to get us very far towards solving this problem. We’re not in a material space now but an immaterial one: dreamland requires a different approach, I feel.’

There is a period of silence.

‘I have an idea but it’s unlikely to work,’ Mires muses.

‘We’d be glad to hear it, whatever it is,’ is my attempt at an encouraging response.

The Conscious Universe IRM‘Well, you know I’ve been investigating consciousness for decades now, and there is one method that in my view, if it can work at all, could just possibly work as well in dreamland as in waking time.’ He pauses dramatically.

‘Come on, Fred. Don’t keep us hanging in suspense.’ Pancake has little patience with anyone’s dramatics except her own.

‘Calm down, Emmie! I’m going to tell you now. If we had access to a psychic, a spirit medium, we could possibly detect and access whatever is there.’

‘That puts the kibosh on that one then,’ gloats Pancake. ‘We haven’t got a medium.’

‘Slow down a moment, folks. Not so hasty.’ Bill clearly doesn’t like Pancake’s knee jerk dismissal of this idea. There’s always been a tension between them. He knows she despises his love of poetry: she sees it as an impractical waste of time. He, on the other hand, distrusts the frantic activity with which she chases her dream of changing the world.

‘Maybe we have someone who doesn’t know they’re a medium.’

‘How likely is that, Bill?’ asks Mires. ‘We’ve been together in here for decades. We know each other really well. I don’t see anyone among us with a secret gift for contacting spirits.’

‘That’s where I think you’re mistaken, Fred. You’ve never been convinced that meditation does what Chris says it can. What if he’s right? What if he is closer to his soul than any of us? What if that means he can tune in to the world of souls and spirits that we can’t sense?’

‘Steady on, Bill, for heaven’s sake,’ Humfreeze butts in. ‘It’s my head you’re talking about here. Don’t let your poetic imagination run away with you. I have never had, and I do not expect ever to have, psychic powers, whatever they are. That’s not why I meditate.’

‘I’m not suggesting that is why you do it, only that it might have helped you be able to do it and not even know. Why don’t you just give it try? We really need to find a way to do this.’

Humfreeze seems to be shrinking with repugnance at the whole idea.

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

Image adapted from the Taschen edition of Renee Magritte

‘I know this probably cuts across everything you feel you are trying to do,’ Mires interjects sympathetically, ‘and I will respect and understand whatever decision you make in the end. However, I think there is something here that trumps your reluctance. If there is a hidden entity inside Pete’s head and if contacting it results in us all becoming more able to do more good, then there’s no blame attached to your testing the existence of a possible skill you never tried to acquire. It can do no harm and might do a lot of good.’

‘That’s an awful lot of ifs,’ laments Humfreeze. He pauses for a moment as he ponders what to say. We all realise this is a tipping point and keep schtum.

‘OK. This is the deal. I want to hear everyone’s opinion on this insane suggestion. If I end up feeling that all of you are definitely in favour of this plan, I will give it a go. I will try three times and three times only. If nothing happens, I’m not doing it again, do you all understand?’

‘Thank you, Chris. That’s very gracious of you, and we really appreciate how much it cost you to say that. So, what do we all think of the plan, then? You first, Emmie.’ Mires gives Pancake a searching look.

‘Did you have to start with me, Fred?’ Pancake complains. ‘I need more time. Ask someone else.’

Mires’s stops himself from commenting that this is the first occasion to his knowledge that she has wanted more time before deciding to act.

‘I’ll come back to you then. What do you think, Bill. Are you still for the idea?’

‘Definitely. I think we have to give it a go.’

‘Pete, what do you think?’

‘Well, I’m not very happy to go down this road, but I can’t think of a better idea. I have a really strong sense there is some kind of being underneath our awareness that we absolutely need to get in touch with, so I feel we should accept Chris’s generous offer and see if he’s psychic after all.’

‘Back to you then, Emmie. I’m in favour of trying this out even though I’m anything but sure it will work. It can’t do any harm and there’s a lot at stake here, and I’ve been wrong before.’

‘Can I have that in writing, Fred, for use in future arguments?’ quips Pancake. We all laugh, glad to have an excuse to break the tension a little.

‘I’ve had time to think and I agree we should go with this idea. I find it hard to believe it will work but we’ve got nothing to lose by trying.’

‘That’s it then, Chris. I come back to you with a unanimous decision that we ask you to try.’

‘I was afraid that would be how it turned out. I said I would do it if you all agreed and I’ll stick to my word. Can you give me just a bit more time to prepare?’

We all nod and agree to meet as soon as Humfreeze lets us know he’s ready.

Coming through the open window in the heat, the sound of the milkman’s van outside wakes me up. It’s light already but far too early to get up. I turn on my other side mulling over the contents of the dream as the mist of sleep slowly blots out my thoughts.

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Bee & Snapdragon

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! 

My Parliament of Selves is in furious session. It’s a bit early in the day even for them. I’m barely halfway through my first cup of coffee. I’ve known for a long time about their constant squabbling, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier.

William Wordless, smelling the fuschias hanging from the basket by the wall, scowls as he speaks.

‘I feel we really need to set aside quality time for writing poetry. It’s been months since I’ve written anything worth reading in that line.’ His long grey hair mimics the swinging of the blossoms in the breeze.

‘For God’s sake, Bill, grow up!’ Frederick Mires is lounging in his garden chair at the long glass table with a book in his hand as he growls. There is a pile of several thick volumes on the table beside him. ‘You can’t have your head in the clouds singing about daffodils the whole time. There are far more important things than that.’ The sunlight flashes dazzlingly from the lenses of his reading glasses.

‘Like what for heaven’s sake, Fred? What’s more important than singing about nature in words that reach the heart.’ Wordless blinks as he speaks and can’t meet the glare of Mires’s gaze.

‘The mind, Bill, the mind. Even if I spent the rest of my days working to understand consciousness, I’d still be only just scratching the surface when I died. But consciousness is what we truly are, and we must understand it better. It’s vital, and psychology is by far the best path.’

‘May I get a word in edgeways here?’

A tall figure in a kaftan moves out of the shadows at the far end of the garden. Christopher Humfreeze hates arguments. In fact he doesn’t like company of any kind much, feeling that his time alone communing with his spirit is far too valuable to squander on small talk.

Wordless bares his teeth in a wide grin. ‘If you must!’

‘Poetry and psychology are all very well as far as they go, but they don’t go anywhere near far enough. They are word-blocked. We have to go deeper than words can carry on us: we have to learn how to travel the path of silence.  That’s the only way to get to the very heart of things in themselves.’

‘But that’s what poetry does as well in a different way, you bigoted idiot!’ blurts Wordless somewhat tactlessly.

‘Calm down, Bill,’ soothes Mires in a slightly condescending fashion. ‘Give him a chance to explain himself. Psychology teaches that every perspective is valuable in helping us understand a reality as complex as . . . .’

‘Thank you, Fred. Can I carry on now?’ interjects Humfreeze with the calm under provocation that only his many hours of meditative practice enable him to do, and with only the faintest tinge of contempt for Mires’s patronising tone.

‘Not if I have anything to do with it!’ Emma Pancake snorts as she strides across the garden, throwing her handbag and a stack of leaflets onto the table. ‘I’ve heard all this a zillion times before.’ She throws herself into a vacant chair, pours a cold coffee from the cafetière and sits back with her feet on the table.

‘Do you really believe that sitting still for hours on end is going to change the world for the better? Never in a million years! You all need to grow up and get real. Yes, I agree that words aren’t enough in themselves, but decades of navel-gazing isn’t the answer either. We’ve got to get out there and do something fast. We can’t wait until our words tinkle like bells, until we’ve got completely bogged down trying to understand everything completely, or only after we’ve plumbed the depths of our own mind to the bottom of beyond.’

‘We’ve heard all this from you before as well, Emmie, as you dash around too fast with your half-baked plans,’ Humfreeze cuts across her quietly, ‘and anyway it was my turn to speak and you interrupted.’

‘Sorry to say this,’ Wordless butts in clearly not meaning it. ‘We can all say that. We’ve heard your icily detached take on things a million times or more, Chris, and to be fair we’ve sat through mine and Fred’s as well. We can go over and over this for another thirty years and end up in exactly the same pointless stand-off. I will be writing no real poems. You won’t understand consciousness any better than you do now, Fred. You’ll still be skating across the mind’s surface, Chris, and you, Emmie, will have done almost nothing to change anything. Until we learn to work together we are never going to get anywhere.’

‘And how are the hell are we supposed to do that, if you don’t mind my asking?’ she retorts acidly.

Bee in Snapdragon 3I take another sip of coffee and gaze at the three bees foraging on the snapdragons. The skill with which they lift each flower head’s petal lid to gain entry is spellbinding to watch.

Wordless is right. How am I ever going to get these warring selves in my head working together?

Till now I’ve given each of them a parcel of my time, switching between poetry, meditation, psychology and activism. As a result I’ve not got very far with any of them. It takes focus and almost endless effort to achieve excellence in any field, but I have seemed unable to decide what to focus on in this way for any length of time. A pentathlete can win a gold medal across five disciplines, but of course is unlikely to overtake a specialist in any of them. In this case, at least though, all the skills are in the domain of physical prowess. I’ve not put anywhere near even that level of effort into any of the four fields I am pretending to plough, and they are not even closely related at first glance. No wonder excellence seems to be eluding me across the board!

From my supraliminal point of view, I’m being taken over by each of them in turn in a blind and random way, rather than choosing consciously and deliberately to identify with whichever of them best suits the current situation and my carefully chosen purposes.

Could Humfreeze be right in one sense at least, though they didn’t give him a chance to explain it? Mastering the art of deep reflection might not just benefit him, but lift the poet, the activist and the psychologist within me to higher levels of functioning which will benefit me as well.

If so, how to make a plan that would achieve this? And who’s going to make it?

‘That remains the challenge of the moment,’ I think as I get up, say farewell to the foragers, pick up my cup, and go back indoors to rinse it in the sink as mindfully as I can.

Wish me luck, whoever I am!

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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 – no I’m too tired to say: but I see it: and this will affect my book… (18.11.35)

(A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf – page 259):

A Blast from the Past

When I was writing the closing post of the last sequence on Virginia Woolf, a name rose up from the depths of my memory store, a name I had not consciously been aware of since I took my borrowed copy of A Glastonbury Romance back to the library more than 40 years ago. That in itself would not be particularly remarkable. I assumed he’d just popped into my head, as these things do, in response to my need at the time for the name of a reasonably well-regarded novelist who didn’t stick strictly to the materialistic script.

I checked with Wikipedia that my memory was basically accurate in that respect. But the name did not go away. I fuzzy fragment of half-remembered pleasure lingered on in connection with his work. Maybe more than that, as I discovered when I began to read the copy of Wolf Solent I had brought back from Cardiff.

Cardiff’s Castle Arcade hides a gem of a bookshop – Troutmark Books. Readers may remember this was where I found a replacement copy of Robert Browning’s The Ring & the Book, a treasure I had lost decades before. We were in Cardiff on other business on this occasion, but I had time to sneak off down one of my favourite rabbit holes into a bookaholic’s Wonderland.

It didn’t take me more than a minute to locate a couple of books by John Cowper Powys. One I didn’t recognise: the other I did – Wolf Solent. One of his handful of best works that I had never read. I’d wanted to find Weymouth Sands or A Glastonbury Romance in order to pick up the thread where I had left it off and to confirm my own vague memory of his mix of mysticism, humour, deft plot twists and weird characters.

But Wolf Solent it was meant to be and I bought it. I checked with the bookseller before I left, but she couldn’t find any other of his novels.

I’m glad I made the purchase.

Maybe my subconscious knew that it would be the perfect novel against which to test the ideas that brewed as I read Virginia Woolf. I needed a novel that captured consciousness but in a more balanced way than The Waves or To the Lighthouse. I wanted to pick up from her tentative formulation as expressed in my diagram at the time.

Somehow ‘Not I’ and ‘Outer’ were so much the same in my mind I couldn’t find a way of using them to test a narrative. I had to find an alternative set of co-ordinates for my quadrants, not completely different, but making the distinction she apparently does not.

Critical Quadrants

As a result I tweaked her wording and came up with the diagram a few paragraphs below.

As a way of explaining fairly simply what kind of narrative might fit into each quadrant, I’ve decided to pick some early passages from Wolf Solent. This will also flag up just how perfect a match this novel is to my needs of the moment.

I need to add here that I am aware that Powys’s narrative technique is far more conventional than Woolf’s, and does not rise to the levels of transliminal intensity that her novels achieve. Even so he makes a good enough fist of it for my purposes, especially given his tolerance for the eccentric, even mystical, in consciousness.

Right from the very first lines of the novel we are in Quadrant A (Penguin 1978 Edition -page 13):

From Waterloo Station to the small country town of Ramsgard in Dorset is a journey of not more than three or four hours, but having by good luck found a compartment to himself, Wolf Solent was able to indulge in such an orgy of concentrated thought, that these three or four hours lengthened themselves out into something beyond all human measurement.

Much of the text occupies this quadrant, but not at the expense of both what bubbles up in Quadrant D and impinges on his consciousness from Quadrant B.

Page 15 touches on Quadrant D:

One of the suppressed emotions they had burst forth on that January afternoon had had to do with the appalling misery of so many of his fellow Londoners. He recalled the figure of a man he had seen on the steps outside Waterloo Station. The inert despair upon the face that this figure had turned towards him came between him now and a hillside covered with budding beeches. The face was repeated many times among these great curving masses of emerald-clear foliage.

One more example of Quadrant A will hopefully convey something of the intensity Powys manages to achieve at times (pages 16-17):

As he stared through the open window and watched each span of telegraph-wires sink slowly down till the next telegraph-post pulled them  upward with a jerk, he indulged himself in a sensation which always gave him a peculiar pleasure, the sensation of imagining himself to be a prehistoric giant who, with an effortless ease, ran along by the side of the train, leaping over hedges, ditches, lanes, and ponds, and easily rivalled, in natural-born silent speed, the noisy mechanism of all those pistons and cog-wheeels!

He felt himself watching this other self, this leaping giant, with the positive satisfaction of a hooded snake, thrusting out a flickering forked tongue from coils that shimmered in the sun. And as the train rushed forward, it seemed to him is if his real self were neither giant nor snake; but rather that black-budded ash tree, still in the rearward of its leafy companions, whose hushed grey branches threw so contorted a shadow on the railway bank.

His only companion in the carriage is a bluebottle. Quadrant B pops up. He is not oblivious to its antics as it crawls across the adverts of seaside resorts (Page 21):

The bluebottle fly moved slowly and cautiously across Weymouth Bay, apparently seeking some invisible atom of sustenance, seeking it now off Redcliff, now off Ringstead, now off White Nore.

I’ll come back to Quadrant C in a moment.

Basically then, Quadrant A captures the unexpressed workings of a character’s mind. Quadrant B takes in the external world as it impinges consciously on the senses of a character.

Quadrant D most probably focuses most of the time as here upon leaks from the unconscious as they surface, and is therefore technically speaking no longer the unconscious from that point on.

However, it might theoretically be possible for the actions or emotions of a character to indicate that (s)he had been affected subliminally by some form of trigger although I am almost certainly going to treat such moments as belonging more appropriately in Quadrant C.

Jung gives a perfect example of this when he describes walking with friends and being overtaken by a sudden inexplicable feeling of sadness. It was so strong he felt compelled to leave the group to walk on ahead while he backtracked to see if he could find what had triggered this feeling. It did not take him long to walk past a hedge through which the scent of a particular flower was wafting in the breeze. Its associations brought back a painful memory. When he first walked past he had not consciously registered the scent but it had affected him subliminally and powerfully nonetheless.

Quadrant C could also contain neutral descriptions of the inanimate world, the material conditions surrounding the character at the time, by which the character is probably neither consciously nor unconsciously affected. It might even include the appearance of the character himself, as with Wolf Solent at the start of the book (page 13):

He was tall and lean; and as he stretched out his legs and clasped his hands in front of him and bowed his head over his bony wrists, it would have been difficult to tell whether the goblinish grimaces that occasionally wrinkled his physiognomy were fits of sardonic chuckling or spasms of reckless desperation.

It is hard to read this as Wolf Solent’s own view of himself. Occasionally then in this book we are going to find the ghost of the narrator stepping out of Wolf Solent’s mind.

There is a residual problem.

I am not yet sure where I should place mystical or transcendent experiences. Should they be in Quadrant A or Quadrant B? Perhaps this will depend upon what I conclude John Cowper Powys believes. If he clearly writes as though the transcendent world is real for him, descriptions of it could belong in Quadrant B: if not, they would belong in Quadrant A. The presumption then would be that they could not be shared with other characters, only experienced by one.

I am really looking forward to seeing whether this approach succeeds in teasing out how well John Cowper Powys captures consciousness in a broader context than Woolf was attempting to do in the novels I explored in the previous sequence, and whether that makes for a more satisfactory experience for me as a reader who is fascinated by the idea of learning more about this elusive yet all-pervading experience.

John Cowper Powys (For source of image see link)

Possible Plot Spoiler

I am now more than 100 hundred pages into this 600 page narrative, and can already detect that, for the right balance to be struck between consciousness and context, not only has the rendering of consciousness to be credible and engaging, which it has been so far for the most part, but the context also has to feel the same. Both have to be credible enough at least not to undermine my willingness to suspend my disbelief. I’m not so sure on that last point yet.

An example might help to illustrate what I mean.

What follows contains a plot spoiler so if you plan to find the novel and read it you may prefer to stop reading this post right now.

Wolf Solent has gone back to his roots and to the place where his father planted more than a few wild oats. Unexpectedly one day he learns that his mother is arriving that evening and planning to stay. He has to find her a place to sleep that night, prior to her moving with him to a cottage on the estate whose owner he is working for. He drops in on an old family friend, Selena Gault, and finds she has a child with her, Olwen Smith. Olwen almost immediately remarks upon the fact that his nose is the same as her Aunt Mattie’s.

On the very first page of the book I had learned that Solent has a hooked nose.

When the child twigs his mother needs somewhere to stay, she insists that it be with her aunt and her granddad, the hatter his father knew.

When he takes his mother to the hatter’s house he meets Mattie for the first time. His Quadrant A reactions to Quadrant B data are significant (page 140):

Mattie turned out to be a girl with a fine figure, but an unappealing face. She looked about twenty-five. She was not pretty in any sense at all, in spite of what [his mother] had said. Her thick, prominent nose was out of all proportion to the rest of her face. Her chin, her forehead, her eyes, were all rendered insignificant by the size of this dominant and uncomely feature.

This must be what Solent notices about Mattie as it is described as the result of his study of her. This, as we will see, is a Quadrant D trigger for some Quadrant C subliminally leaked reactions (page 142): ‘What was this queer attraction which he felt for her, so different from the interest excited in him by her father and by the little girl?’

This example is a good one as it contains material from all four quadrants and therefore illustrates the way in which Wolf Solent as a novel balances internal and external more completely than Woolf’s The Waves.

So what is the credibility problem here?

Given that the novel up to this point has conveyed a picture of Solent as both observant, perceptive and very tuned in to his own mind and its reactions, I find it hard to believe, given his understanding of his father’s waywardness, that it did not occur to him almost straightaway that there might be a family resemblance here resulting from a closer than socially acceptable connection between his father and her mother. The need to tease me as reader, which is quite amusing I agree, has trumped the need for consistency in Solent’s character, or so it seems at this point.

Admittedly we might adduce a degree of resistance in Solent to an unpalatable truth, so I am probably rushing to judgement a bit here. It seemed worth including it, even so, as a possible early example of how the capturing of consciousness can be compromised by the demands of a plot – not a problem that Woolf allows to happen given her abandonment of plot in any meaningfully accepted sense in the two novels I have examined so far.

Subsequent twists and turns of plot in Wolf Solent may cause me to revise my current estimate.

More of this later maybe!

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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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My strongest sympathies in the literary as well as in the artistic field are with those artists in whom I see the soul at work most strongly.

Vincent to Theo – March 1884 (Letters of Vincent van Gogh page 272)

Distraction

Last Monday was not my best meditation day.

I was doing quite well till my mind got hooked by my shirt. I found myself suddenly remembering how I thought twice before letting its red corduroy comfort go to the charity shop as part of our current declutter. Red shirt led to blue shirt, which led to blue jacket, blue trousers and Crewe Station. I was there again. Just as I was boarding the train, one foot on the platform and one foot in the air above the step, carrying luggage that should have made it clear I was a passenger, someone tapped me on the shoulder thinking I was a guard and asked me what platform the Liverpool train was leaving from. I turned to look at them and put my foot down between the platform and the train, scraping the skin neatly off my shin as I did so. Fortunately I dropped my bags on the platform and not on the line. I used a tissue to staunch the blood between Crewe and Hereford. Rather than go straight home, I called in on a friend who got out the TCP and Elastoplast. I still remember the sting to this day. I remembered that this was the friend I’d called on once before 20 years earlier, when – and this came vividly back to me despite the span of time – driving home tired down the Callow at the end of a long week, I was overtaking (legally at the time) in the middle lane (they’ve blocked that option since for downhill traffic), when I saw a car coming up the hill doing the same thing. The long lorry I was halfway past was picking up speed. All I could do was brake. As I tried to pull in slightly too soon, I caught the Lada on the back end of the truck. Fortunately the Lada was made of sterner stuff than most cars at the time and didn’t completely cave in or get derailed, but it was pulled out of shape and the near side front tyre was blown. I pulled into the side of the road and, with the help of the lorry driver who had stopped to check I was OK, changed the tyre. The car was slightly wobbly as I drove off and I knew it was not a good idea to drive it all the way home. I was amazed to pass a parked police car on the way with no interest shown on their part. So, I drove to my friend’s and parked the car on his front lawn, the only safe space off the road. He had a bit of a shock when he got home from work. At this point I snapped out of my trance of associations and brought my mind back to the focus of my meditations, shaking of my irritation with myself and my slight reactivation of the Lada-on-the-lawn stress as best I could.

Incidentally, I don’t wear blue anymore when I’m travelling.

Reflection

For this and other reasons I am revisiting an all-too familiar theme: reflection. To bring on board those who might not have read all my earlier posts on this issue I’ll pull in now a brief quotation from some time ago. It comes from a book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy by Hayes et al. It is attempting to explain that transient states of mind and mere self-descriptions are all too often mistaken for our true self. To help people step back from such identifications the authors liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

Peter Koestenbaum makes essentially the same point more abstractly in his excellent book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Personally, while I find the ACT analogy helpful, I prefer the idea of a mirror and its reflections, partly I suppose because it uses the same word in a different but helpful sense. Our mind or consciousness is the mirror and all our experiences, inside and out, are simply reflections in that mirror: they are not who we are, not even the most intense feelings, our most important plans, or the strongest sense of self. We have to learn to see them as simply the contents of consciousness. Only that way can we tune into deeper and wiser levels of our being. Mindfulness at its best can enable us to identify with pure awareness rather than with whatever transient trigger has grabbed our attention.

I have been working fairly hard (not hard enough probably, as the derailed meditation at the start of this post suggests) to put the insights explored in that sequence of posts into action.

Virginia Woolf in 1902 (for source of image see link)

Capturing Consciousness

It has led into me into some interesting territory.

While I was exploring the concept of transliminality even further back in time I came across A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the diary of Virginia Woolf edited by her husband Leonard after her death by suicide. I was drawn to examine what she wrote in case it shed light on my attempt to link creativity, thresholds of consciousness and so-called psychotic experiences together.

Long before I could integrate what I found there into my model, my focus of interest had typically moved on: my mind is still more of a butterfly than a bee, despite my best efforts so far.

However, the Woolf issue was still stalking the door of my consciousness, whether I was aware of it or not.

As part of my decluttering, I am in the process, as I have mentioned elsewhere, of checking whether I still need all the books I have bought over the years. I take a book off its shelf at random from time to time, open it and see if I have read it or not. Sometimes there are highlighter pen marks within and I put it back, at least for the time being. Sometimes there aren’t and occasionally it’s not even got my name signed on the flyleaf. In which case I dip into it and read a few random pages. I reported on having done that recently with a biography of Hardy. I repeated the same process with Julia Briggs’ account of the creative life of Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf: an inner life.

Same outcome: no way that was going to the Oxfam bookshop.

Why not?

Basically her book was a brilliant tour of the writer’s mind. Within that there were a host of insights into aspects of the creative process related to mental health and reflection, or perhaps more accurately in Woolf’s case, creative introspection. Whatever the right term is, part of her genius lies in her capacity to capture in words the subtleties and complexity of consciousness, including the rambling associative networks that can hijack attention at any moment.

Before we tackle that head on, in the next post I’m going to make a detour via some paintings.

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To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

Each day we drove into Strathallan from Dundee. This was because my health issues meant that I needed to make sure I had enough rest each day. Being a resident at summer school means that you have the benefit of more activities but with that goes a greater expenditure of energy that I couldn’t afford this time round.

So, after the long ribbon of the bridge over the shining waters of the Firth of Tay and the 17 miles of dual carriageway under alternating showers and sunshine, we arrived back at the school in time for prayers and Khazeh Fananapazir’s engaging exploration of the significance of this year. Two hundred years ago Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was born in Tehran. This year therefore Bahá’ís are taking every opportunity to remember His life and connect with Him spiritually, as well as to deepen our understanding of the spiritual connection between Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God for this day and the Báb as His Herald .

After that, and a cup of coffee and a cake, we headed for our workshop.

Consensus Consciousness

It might help if we begin more or less where we left off. Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ begins his analysis of social reality and its impact on the individual by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

In the workshop at Strathallan School we delved deeply into this down side and its costs from a spiritual point of view. In a mystical work of poetic power and great beauty Bahá’u’lláh writes (Seven Valleys – pages 19-20):

Thus it is that certain invalid souls have confined the lands of knowledge within the wall of self and passion, and clouded them with ignorance and blindness, and have been veiled from the light of the mystic sun and the mysteries of the Eternal Beloved; they have strayed afar from the jewelled wisdom of the lucid Faith of the Lord of Messengers, have been shut out of the sanctuary of the All-Beauteous One, and banished from the Ka’bih of splendour. Such is the worth of the people of this age! . . . . .

Clearly, this kind of tunnel vision is more than enough to account for why Bahá’u’lláh can dismiss much of what we think as superstition, illusion, delusion and ‘vain imaginings.’ There was some discussion in the workshop as to whether invalid should be taken to mean ‘sick’ or ‘unconfirmed/inauthentic.’ Fortunately we had the chance to check out with Khazeh, the presenter of the plenary sessions and a reader of both Arabic and Persian, what the word in the original text meant: he said without the slightest hesitation, ‘sick’.

Also, what we see is still very much in the eye of the beholder. In an exploration which compares reality at the spiritual level to the sun, whose pure light is white, Bahá’u’lláh illustrates how different what we observe is from the light itself (pages 19-20):

In sum, the differences in objects have now been made plain. Thus when the wayfarer gazeth only upon the place of appearance–that is, when he seeth only the many-colored globes –he beholdeth yellow and red and white; hence it is that conflict hath prevailed among the creatures, and a darksome dust from limited souls hath hid the world. And some do gaze upon the effulgence of the light; and some have drunk of the wine of oneness and these see nothing but the sun itself.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that these subjective differences, which result from the imperfections of our vision, can give rise to utterly toxic conflicts, conflicts whose origins are in essence delusional.

Cleansing the Mirror

As individuals, brainwashed by flawed worldviews, what can we do to transcend the resulting limitations?

In exploring this angle on the issue I am not discounting that steps also need to be taken to address the limitations of our culture, but, in seeking to capture the flow of consultation around the quotations we were considering, it’s easiest to start from here and deal with the wider issues later.

Bahá’u’lláh writes (Gleanings – XXVII):

. . . These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp. The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror. Neither the candle nor the lamp can be lighted through their own unaided efforts, nor can it ever be possible for the mirror to free itself from its dross. It is clear and evident that until a fire is kindled the lamp will never be ignited, and unless the dross is blotted out from the face of the mirror it can never represent the image of the sun nor reflect its light and glory.

I have dealt at length elsewhere on this blog with the idea of the human heart as a mirror that needs to be burnished if it is to reflect the light of spiritual reality and that we also need to be sure that we do not mistake what is reflected there for the mirror itself. It is enough at this point simply to quote a writer whose insights, along with my experience of Buddhist meditation, helped prepare me to understand Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation sufficiently to choose the path He reveals to us. What this writer says covers what our consultation on the day disclosed to us about the power and challenges of separating consciousness from its contents, a process he calls reflection.

In his brilliant book on existentialism The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy, Peter Koestenbaum states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.

An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:

. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .’

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life.

Koestenbaum explains this (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

I feel this brings us in psychotherapeutic terms close to the exact place ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is describing in Paris Talks. These are the quotes we wrestled with at the Summer School, striving to understand the role of silence more fully (page 174-176):

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate.

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed. . . .

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit — the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . .

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

. . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . .

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .

Therefore let us keep this faculty rightly directed — turning it to the heavenly Sun and not to earthly objects — so that we may discover the secrets of the Kingdom, and comprehend the allegories of the Bible and the mysteries of the spirit.

May we indeed become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities, and may we become so pure as to reflect the stars of heaven.

Bronze mirror, New Kingdom of Egypt, Eighteenth Dynasty, 1540–1296 BC. For source of image see link.

This paved the way for our attempt to understand the relationship between achieving oneness and cleansing the mirror of the heart, which Bahá’u’lláh describes as burnishing, a process of intense friction involving metal against metal, not just picking up a duster and some polish to bring the shine back to a modern glass mirror. Once again a quick confab with Khazeh confirmed that the original word implied effort and friction. This suggests that Bahá’u’lláh may have had the early metal mirrors in mind when He wished to convey how difficult, even painful, the polishing process would be for the heart’s mirror. A Wikipedia article states:

. . . . stone and metal mirrors could be made in very large sizes, but were difficult to polish and get perfectly flat; a process that became more difficult with increased size; so they often produced warped or blurred images. Stone mirrors often had poor reflectivity compared to metals, yet metals scratch or tarnish easily, so they frequently needed polishing. Depending upon the color, both often yielded reflections with poor color rendering.[6] The poor image quality of ancient mirrors explains 1 Corinthians 13‘s reference to seeing “as in a mirror, darkly.”

The art of making glass mirrors was not perfected until the 16th Century.

If we become capable of polishing the mirror of our hearts, then we can potentially become capable of reflecting the pure undivided light of spiritual reality, thus transcending both our inner conflicts and our conflicts with others.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes this possibility in the following words (Selected Writing of ‘Abdul-Baha 1978 – page 76):

For now have the rays of reality from the Sun of the world of existence, united in adoration all the worshippers of this light; and these rays have, through infinite grace, gathered all peoples together within this wide-spreading shelter; therefore must all souls become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

This then will remedy our current conflicted state, wherein we are at war with ourselves as well as with others. This is Bahá’u’lláh’s description of the challenge we face compared with the reality most of us are blind to (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh = CXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

He is unequivocal about the role of religion in this healing process (ibid. – CXXVIII):

The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity and dissension. . . . Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book. This is a decree of God in this Most Great Revelation.

And now we come to a cusp where we move from looking mainly at the individual to where we look at the community. And here it is that we will see where words can change from misleading labels or names, corrupted by misguided worldviews, to lamps of guidance.

That needs to wait for the next post.

When we got back to Dundee that evening, from the window of the flat where we were staying we could see the lights of a cruiser docked at the harbour side. Though purely material, it had a beauty of its own.

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