Monthly Archives: September 2013

Part 1 – The Democratisation of Knowledge

Part 1 – The Democratisation of Knowledge:

Collectively Enlivening what and how we know


I had the pleasure to teach a morning session at The ASHA Centre in Gloucestershire last week, as part of a 5 day residential on “Youth in Action for Sustainable Development”. My brief was to introduce the participants to alternative way of knowing the world through using the example of Goethe’s Scientific inquiries. However, as I am re-discovering again and again in my practice of Phenomenology, if we just look at what Goethe did in his scientific explorations of the natural world, such as studies on colour, light, and plants, we are very much missing the dynamic that sets his work so far apart from mechanistic investigations of the same phenomena. What is truly important in his work is not what he did, but how he did it. His studies are the finished product of a certain way of seeing and being with the world that he managed to cultivate within himself and call forth during his investigation – it was a dynamic way of seeing.

Goethe Colour wheel

 I am aware that speaking of ‘ways of seeing’ can seem rather abstract to the listener, so I combined some perceptual exercises with the ideas from Iain McGilchrist’s work on the bi-modal brain, as a framework for interpretation. Through a drawing exercise and some visual exercises I tried to lead the group into a direct living experience of shifts in their cognition and perception. So, together we were able to experience how we respond differently to things in life that we ‘think’ we know, and those that we are knowing for the first time. We were also able to experience how difficult it can be to move beyond the idea of what we ‘think’ we know, and that this can very much get in the way of us being able to presently engage with what is directly in front of us, in its uniqueness and particularity, without constriction or reduction.


 We did this by using the Face/Vase drawing exercise that I was introduced to at Art School 14 years ago. The exercise came from the book “Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. I first asked the students to draw a side profile of a face, using a quick, simple line drawing. Whilst drawing this, I asked the participants to carefully pay attention there experience whilst drawing.

face vase first side

Together we experienced how smoothly, and relatively quickly we could manage this. We all ‘knew’ what a face looked like, so it was a quick and easy task. The lines that were used to draw were mostly smooth, bold, solid and certain. Next, we drew two parallel lines at the top and bottom of the ‘face’ profile, and drew a mirror image of the face at the end of the parallel lines.


Photo credit:

The experience of the second drawing task felt to us all very different in comparison to the first. The quality of the lines used also looked quite different. As an experience, it was a much more tentative, delicate journey, and we really felt the shift in attention and processing that was required to do it. We realised together that you have to be much more present to newness and uniqueness that is immediately before you. You can no longer copy an idea of something that you already ‘know’, you must instead relate to what is directly in front of you. You must also attend to its context, carefully comparing spatial proportions, as well as the particularities of, and relationships between the space and shapes. The overall of the second face felt quite of the opposite of the first – and I feel it is a great way of concretely exploring the experience of how we attend to the world in two very different ways, depending on whether we already think we know it, or not.

The master and his emissary

 In terms of the work of Iain McGilchrist, you could say that this is a demonstration of how we experience the world using the two different brain hemispheres. The sure, certain, quick, smooth experience being the left hemisphere, and the more present, delicate, context focused, tentative approach being the right hemisphere.

To further explore our lived experience of cognition and perception I showed the picture of the Giraffe to the group, which was created by Henri Bortoft’s wife Jackie to illustrate Henri’s concept of the ‘organising idea’.

giraffe henri

I used this picture to illustrate what McGilchrist calls the ‘sticky’ nature of the left-hemisphere, and the difficulties it presents us with moving beyond the organising idea of something, our mind’s re-presentation of it, and further upstream to the presencing of what is directly in front of us, in its uniqueness. Once you have seen the Giraffe it is almost, if not completely, impossible not to see it! We found as a group that ourselves, as the inquirer, had to dramatically alter our perspective when looking at the picture if we were to see it as anything other than the Giraffe; either by turning the picture sideways, or by going much closer up to it. Only then could we focus on the particular details and relationships that made up the whole picture, beyond what our minds kept trying to organise it into.

duckrabbitold lady young optical illusion

 We also looked at some well-known pictures of what are commonly known as ‘optical illusions’ – the Duck/Rabbit, and the Young/Old lady. The term ‘illusion’ is only really relevant, and presents a paradox, to our rational mind however, as to our experience there is no ‘illusion’ as we see both, just not at the same time. Together we experienced just this, it was never possible to see both organising ideas at once. We observed a kind of ‘flicking’ sensation in our experience, as our perception quickly switched from one image/idea to the other. For me, this is a great experience of how stuck we can become in our knowing and perceiving the world, as one way of seeing something can literally block out the potential for it to be appear in any other way.

And so, you, and the students, may have been wondering how this is all related to Goethe’s scientific inquiries? Well, for Goethe to have produced such comprehensive, relational, dynamic accounts of the life, livingness and process of the things he studied, he must have been able to go beyond what he already thought he knew about things, beyond his organising ideas, to see them relationally, delicately, in context – so that he could attend, in the present moment, to what was directly observable in his lived experience. He offered the thing he was studying his ‘cognitive space’ so to speak, becoming a vessel for receiving the exactness of a thing, rather than projecting his own ideas onto it, and then using instruments and apparatus to prove them. He would have had to allow the thing the space to become other, to be in process, dynamic and in flow, to be a be-ing not just a has been. Goethe managed to cultivate a dynamic way of seeing, beyond the limitations of his rational mind. The result was a series of scientific investigations, rigorous studies of natural phenomena, but carried out with the converse yet complementary capacities of a Poet’s artistic mind.


A Handbook for “How to Be Human”


I was sitting at breakfast this morning and we were musing about the wonders, trials and tribulations of our fascinatingly bizarre human mind. Some of the students had just been meditating before breakfast and so we were discussing the processes that some of us experience whilst trying to meditate, or to still our minds. One such musing was how funny, or slightly annoying, it is when you think you’ve finally managed to still your mind, and halt the torrential river of thoughts, when all of a sudden a little voice pops up and praises you for doing such a good job! Or once you feel like you are finally ‘in the zone’ your mind starts a lively running commentary noting the fact that you’ve actually managed to start meditating –when in fact, it is the commentary itself which halts that wonderful flow of meditation that was actually happening before it butted in. This left us all feeling rather bemused and that is when the idea arose of a handbook on ‘How to be Human’.

Why is it that, maybe not at birth, but perhaps on our 16th birthday or suchlike, we are not given a handbook on how to be human? A kind of guidebook, like a Lonely Planet guide, that follows the evolving experience of the many billions of humans that have lived before us, on what it means to them to experience being human. How they feel their minds and bodies work – maybe with some hints and tips that they have accumulated over the years?

I don’t mean the type of book that is filled with information that has been abstracted, and separated from life, by experts. Nor do I mean some high-brow, impenetrable, academic philosophy; or for that matter some overly poetic prose from a creative genius. What I think we were heading more towards, as we reflected on our bemusement of ‘being human’ around the breakfast table, was something a lot more grounded, down to earth – like a guide or manual, maybe a map to the territory of our potential to be and to become human.

When we go upstream, and understand all individual humans as an interconnected expression of the possibility ‘to be and to become’ human, as diversity in unity – there must surely be some patterns of experience that emerge between us, that would be quite useful to know about, at whatever age. As I reflect on our group of 20 and 30 something’s sitting around a table pondering the experience of our thought processing minds, and our sometimes uncontrollable bodies who prefer to sleep than to meditate, I wonder how many millions of humans who have come before us have had similar such reflections? Reflections that maybe repeat in a pattern, and come together to form a consensus – such that we could possibly derive a practical wisdom from them.

A practical wisdom of lived experience, such as an understanding that many others have experienced X about Y, and have found that doing Z alters ones experience a little, or that doing A completely alters the playing field. Just like the millions of young people who pick up a Lonely Planet guide before adventuring off around the world, wouldn’t it be nice if we could have evolving editions of a ‘Being Human Guide’ to offer us a little prior experience from those who have already lived their adventures? A map maybe, with a few handy hits, some recommendations, some ‘must see’s’ and ‘must do’s’ for our body, soul, heart and mind. Not a prescription or guilt laden ‘should do’, no remonstrating rules or regulations, no dogma or fundamentalism of a scientific or religious nature – just the patterns, the emerging consensus, manifesting from the thoughts and experiences of everyday human beings, themselves just trying to be and to become human. I would, and I guess the rest of our breakfast table, would most definitely want to buy one!