Tag Archives: A Pathway to Living Knowledge

First Book Review for First Steps to Seeing: by Simon Robinson

This is an excerpt from First Steps to Seeing‘s first ever book review! The review is from my wonderful friend, colleague and fellow aficionado in a dynamic way of seeing, Simon Robinson – editor of Transition Conciousness and co-author of the wonderful new book Holonomics.

Simon has been been supporting and encouraging my philosophical work on exploring and understanding a dynamic way of seeing, almost from the very beginning. So it is with great pleasure that I share with you his reflections on First Steps to Seeing – and with much gratitude that he is the first person to review it. To see the original book review on Transition Consciousness click here.

BOOK REVIEW: FIRST STEPS TO SEEING BY EMMA KIDD

July 6, 2015 · by Simon · in Reviews. ·

If I were only to say that I have been looking forward to reading First Steps to Seeing: A Path to Living Attentively you may not quite realise how much. So I thought I would first start this review by mentioning that I first had the pleasure to meet Emma at Schumacher College in 2009, just after I started my masters degree in Holistic Science and just after Emma had graduated, also in Holistic Science, the year before.

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Photo credit: Emma Kidd

In fact, I think I may have first heard of Emma I believe before meeting her, since Henri Bortoft, who was giving the first week of lectures on wholeness, did in fact quote from Emma’s dissertation in one of our classes. This is the quote:

A phenomenological inquiry, as conducted with Goethean methodology, is a form of dynamic engagement with the world – dynamical doing by dynamical seeing; it allows you to see the whole within the parts and brings the world to expression.”

In bringing a phenomenon to expression, perceived qualities have to be expressed, but also simultaneously expressed to be perceived; as if the phenomenon is an active subject that reaches out to us. This calls for a hermeneutic understanding of expression as a reciprocal dynamic process, with perception and expression being intrinsically related.

To read the rest of the original post click here – Book review

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Seeing Our Work As A Gift

Toucan

Photo credit: E. Kidd

Sitting at my tiny desk, looking out of the window at my small backyard, I have a rather large question looming before me; now that I have finished taking time out to write my first book, First Steps to Seeing, what should I do with my life? I learnt years ago that working just to earn money is not enough for me. I don’t want a job, I want a life, and a livelihood, that I love. And to complicate matters even further, not only do I want to do what I love, I want my work to contribute towards making a positive difference in the world.

For various reasons, both personal and ethical, I have forgone most of the accoutrements of a modern, western lifestyle, such as owning a car, a house, buying new clothes or gadgets, and going on regular holidays. Instead, I either walk or use public transport, I live with my family, mostly buy second-hand clothes and spend my vacations staying in the homes of my friends.

This change in lifestyle has decoupled me from the common, pressing need to be tied to a ‘9 ‘til 5’ job, or a guaranteed monthly salary, and means that I currently find myself profiting from a resource which is far more valuable, fleeting and finite than money; this resource is time. With my current schedule almost completely clear, I have time in abundance. This time is giving me the space and the opportunity to press the reset button on my life, and in so doing, I am finding that my attention is drawn to the unknown path ahead of me as if it were a fresh, new canvass – completely empty yet bulging with unseen possibilities, daring me to bring forth creations and ways of working that are not only new, but also different.

As I feel my way into the depths of this creative potential I am finding myself confronted with the tension between doing what I love, and doing what I feel would be of most help to the world. These two options, at least initially, seem fundamentally incompatible when held together, yet lacking when considered alone. On the one hand, I am naturally drawn towards ‘helping’ people, but I am also aware of how complex the world is, and the way in which reactive ‘help’ can often be misguided. On the other hand, I am intuitively led towards creative pursuits, such as writing and photography, which allow me to bring beauty into the world and, in return, nourish me during the process.

When I lean back from my immediate environment to contemplate the social, cultural and environmental destruction that is currently occurring throughout the world, the thought that I should be devoting myself to what I love – regardless of what is occurring around me – seems utterly absurd. Even as I write, as we continue push the ecological and ideological boundaries of what is humanly possible, war torn countries, communities and families are being ripped apart and the planet is unmistakably being destroyed.

In the face of this destruction, selflessly abandoning all interest in what brings me to life and devoting myself to a worthy social or environmental cause appears to be ‘the’ answer (and I do have great admiration for those who do so). However, I am very aware  of the way in which this approach can create an inequality between the individual and the world, one which elevates life-above-oneself. I have tried this approach of abandoning the self in favour of the world, and maybe I just wasn’t very good at it, but experience has taught me that I can not fully give myself to the world when I neglect my own needs, whether physical, emotional or mental, no matter how much I believe in the worthiness of the cause.

On the other hand, doing work that I love for no other end than to satisfy and enliven myself just seems to follow our current damaging consumer culture, which elevates the importance of the individual and creates a hierarchy of self-above-all-others. However, I believe a third possibility – or a middle path –  does exist, one which neither excludes nor elevates the importance of self or the world; this third possibility is the approach of seeing our work as a gift.

Successful gift giving is an art form, one which considers the giver and receiver to be on equal terms. The art of giving a gift requires us to notice, to pay attention and to be responsive to the needs and wishes of the receiver. However, it is also a very personal gesture, one which respects our individuality, our wishes and inevitably takes our own needs and capabilities into account. And the actual gift that we give is only part of the process; we also give the receiver the thought, time, love and attention that is necessarily involved in the contemplation, and the giving, of the gift.

In terms of satisfaction, gift giving is a circular (or hermeneutic) process – when we give a gift we offer the receiver something that we hope will be of value and meaning to them, and in the process we derive meaning from giving that which we wish to give.

To approach, to see and to create our work as a gift we must first take time to notice the world around us, to really see life as it is. We must then give the same level of attention to ourselves, to see ourselves as we are, noticing what inner resources we have to give and what kind of engagement we most derive meaning from or feel enlivened by. This information, or these ingredients, can then be mixed together to create our work, our gift. Similarly to a baking a cake or a loaf of bread, when combined these ingredients, which are derived from noticing and being attentive to both ourselves and the world, can come together to create an idea, a project or an organisation that is far more than just the sum of its parts.

Seeing our work as a gift values the self and the world, on equal terms, and aims to meaningfully satisfy both. In taking the time to notice not only what we think the world needs or wants, but also to notice what we would most like to give, or feel most able to give, we are respecting and honoring ourselves and the world.

Therefore, in response to my own question of what to do with my ‘post-book’ life, I will begin from the position of seeing my work as a gift. As the case studies in Chapter 8 of First Steps to Seeing demonstrate – such as The Nature Institute, Hiut Denim Co., the ‘Learning in Depth’ educational initiative, and the economic development work of Manfred Max-Neef – by seeing our work as a gift, and dwelling in the space between the self and the other, we are best placed to work and to act upon our hearts’ desires, with love and integrity, whilst simultaneously answering the call from a world which is unarguably in need of our help.

First Steps to Seeing: A Path Towards Living Attentively will be released on the 18th June and is now available to pre-order as an e-book  or in paperback

Workshop by Craig Holdrege: “Thinking Like a Plant”

DSCF1236Workshop with Craig Holdrege at the South Devon Steiner School

“Thinking Like A Plant”

20th September 2014

 On a sunny Saturday in September I joined a group of people gathered in the gardens of the South Devon Steiner school to practice ‘thinking like a plant’. This is a method of studying plants that is a type of phenomenological inquiry and is closely linked to Goethe’s way of Science. Craig Holdrege is a biologist based at The Nature Institute in the US state of New York. This is my summary of the workshop:

Thinking like a plant involves a process of allowing our thinking to become as alive and flexible as nature itself.

 

One aspect of this living form of thinking is cultivating an open ‘receptivity’. Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to this as ‘sauntering’. We do not need a particular focus, other than opening out to the world and watching what catches our attention, without going into great detail. This capacity for receptivity needs to be ‘exercised’, like the practice necessary in learning to play a new musical instrument. In the workshop Craig asked us to ‘saunter’ around the gardens for 10 minutes but he said that an hour would be more appropriate.

 

This practice allows for a slowing down that is almost antithetical in our culture. It develops a presence of mind that notices what comes toward us in life rather than relying on our discerning capacities which lead us to be critical and to judge.

 

There is so much in Nature and in life that we miss, especially when we are overly focused on specifics. Developing the practice of ‘sauntering’ can help us to regain some of what we habitually miss and give us a richer, fuller experience of life.

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The next aspect of the ‘living thinking’ that we were aiming to develop was to focus in on the details of life as exactly as we possibly could. In a circle we described a Hazel leaf, not what we felt or thought about it but what we saw, exactly in front of us. This was to focus us on our exact sense perception. Sauntering leads us out into the world, focusing leads us in. Science today gets lost in the detail but a whole approach to life such as Goethean Science moves back and forth, in and out of detail. Craig stressed that focus is just as important to openness, as if we don’t go into detail then we are not really seeing the world.

 

Through exact sense perception we can take the time to notice and describe details without worrying about understanding them. By doing this the details of relationships also start to emerge, like the contrasting elements that appear when we pay attention to the two very different sides of a leaf. When comparing details insightful ‘aha’ moments emerge as the qualities, expressions and characteristics of the plant begin to reveal themselves.

 

The next aspect of ‘living thinking’ was to deepen our exact sense perception by visualising our experience in our imaginations, Goethe called this Exact Sensorial Imagination. We can re-picture our sense experience of the leaf by remembering exactly how it felt to touch, what its edges looked like, how the veins came out of the stem, the different colours of leaf apparent on both sides, etc etc. We each do this re-picturing process differently. Some people have a type of memory that allows for the ‘whole’ picture to be recreated at once, some people need to work through it and move around it bit by bit.

 

What is profound is that by doing this re-picturing we realise that the plant has left an impression on us. The sensory experience that we can re-create in our imaginations is not fantasy, as long as we stick to what exactly we experienced. This process also shows us what we have missed or not paid attention to. By exercising our exact sensorial imagination we are connecting ourselves and the plant inwardly in a way that we could not achieve otherwise. This builds a mobile plastic inwardness that allows us to perceive the plant more vividly and vibrantly.

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To compare our exact sense perceptions we all passed our leaves around the circle, so that for a short time we could each see and experience everybody’s leaf. If we just take one example of something and base our knowledge upon that it can be very dangerous. It is just one instance, one expression. By comparing and looking at different instances we can notice generalities but we can also notice lots of difference. Henri Bortoft said that this enables us to see parts of life “being themselves differently”. A plant is an activity that brings forth the ‘same’ but always in different ways. The process of a ‘plant’ is a dynamic that brings forth difference. By seeing 20 leaves that were the ‘same’ but ‘different’, as a group we were able to get a sense of quite how dynamic a ‘leaf’ is.

 

We then explored context. We can take something out of its context to focus on it but we must then do our best to reintegrate it back into context. We can look at which bit of the stem the leaf came from, which part of the plant or tree, and what the conditions of its location are, such as sunny or shady, to see how its unique form might be expressing the environment that it is in. By becoming context sensitive we start to see that life is always connected to the context in which it is unfolding.

 

Focusing our attention to life through exact sense perception and opening to it through our imagination and ‘sauntering’, gives us a closeness that we might not have otherwise had. By engaging in a direct relationship with a part of life we naturally start to welcome and feel grateful for its presence.

 

Through practicing a longer study of a tree or a plant we can get a sense of how it is being in the world, not just what is it. This allows us to have a much deeper and richer experience of the world in a way that requires us to be active not passive.

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During the workshop we used drawing exercises to find different ways of experiencing what is there. This allowed us to use drawing as a tool to focus our attention, not to focus on creating a work of art.

 

Craig teaches this method of studying life as a way to get out into the world and out of our head, without losing our heads. He believes that we can grow through the life that we study, to understand more of life.

 

Taking the time and energy to acknowledge the wonders that plants display, and are, to the world can enable us to find a way of knowing that is more appropriate to the plants themselves, rather than just trying to ‘explain’ them through mechanisms.

 

As a teacher, letting people experience and reflect is a good way to engage students in learning. This approach as an educational method is experiential and allows the world to speak for itself, to the student themselves.

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This is a rough description of the “Living Thinking” Tree study that we carried out:

 

  • First impressions –

 

Walk around the tree of your choice and have a first meeting with it. Write down your first impressions of it.

 

  • Exact sense perception – leaf outline – 1

 

Do a ‘negative space’ drawing of a leaf. Instead of drawing an outline, leave the ‘leaf’ white and shade in the edges to re-create the leaf shape.

 

  • Exact sense perception – leaf outline – 2

 

Now draw the leaf outline paying careful attention to what you are exactly seeing, not just drawing your ‘idea’ of the leaf.

 

  • Imagination –

 

Imagine the leaf coming into and out of being. All forms in life come out of movement and by re-tracing that we can come to kind of inner movement.

 

  • Exact sense perception – branch

 

Take a branch and observe from the bottom upwards. Notice the stem, the leaves, the buds, notice how they are joined and related to one and other and how they are arranged.

 

  • Walk around and find different examples of the same tree, notice how the ‘same’ tree is expressing itself differently.

 

  • Repeat all previous exercises with a different type of tree.

 

  • Use Exact Sensorial imagination to bring your sense perceptions to life in your imagination,  either during the observation or at the end of each session or each day.

 

By moving from one tree to another, through the medium of us, the characteristics of different types of trees can be illuminated. For instance, your experience of ‘Oak’ will inform your experience of ‘Birch’.

“What is Education for?”

SONY DSC

This is a selection of notes that I took at a talk by Craig Holdrege at the South Devon Steiner School last Wednesday. Craig is a biologist, co-founder of the incredible research centre The Nature Institute in New York State, and worked as a Steiner Teacher for over 20years, as well as a Teacher trainer and mentor for Steiner education for many years. His phenomenological approach to researching plants and animals is pioneering a complimentary approach to mainstream science that looks at the whole organism in context. Listening to him speak on the topic of “What is Education for?” illuminated for me a way of teaching that has concern for the whole individual in context.

 

These notes are more of a dictation than a summary and cover most of his talk, so it is quite a long piece of text, but very worth reading if you are interested in education. I will write a follow up blog post to summarise and convey my thoughts.

 

Notes from Craig Holdrege’s talk at the South Devon Steiner School:

“What is Education for?”

17th September 2014

 

Why do we need education?

 

As humans we go through an ongoing process of development that doesn’t just happen biologically. A nurturing environment is required to allow the full development of a human being to take place, for example, if a baby was left all alone at birth it would not survive. We are not born ‘finished’, or fully formed, in the sense that we are not able to look after ourselves from birth. We rely on our living context, our families and our communities to assist our development through childhood and adolescence, until we have physically and socially developed enough to look after ourselves and to independently engage in the world.

 

Education begins from birth. As humans, we are living beings that form in response to our immediate environment, and so all forms of interactions in the world are educative. They in-form, shape and guide our development as an individual, in positive and negative ways. Today we have ‘schooled’ education, taken an idea of education and ‘put’ it in the format of a ‘school’. However, anyone who interacts or works with other people is an educator – and gaining an appropriate education for life does not necessarily involve going to school.

 

To illustrate this Craig used the example of his grandfather. This was a man who he very much respected and always thought of as well educated. After recently reading his grandfather’s memoirs he realised that he had only attended around 2 years of formal schooling. His Grandfather’s life was his education, being part of a family, a community, being immersed in nature, chopping wood, riding horses.

 

What is education for?

 

Mainstream education has become synonymous with preparing children for the ‘workplace’. It has become business driven, preparing for competition, to create individuals that will work to eventually ‘out-compete’ each other. It is mostly centered around short-term, business focused goals such as preparations for University or job training, to compete in the world of work, and societal ‘business’ goals such as how to be a good citizen, in society which itself revolves around business and competition.

 

The three ‘R’s’, reading, writing and arithmetic have always been the basic foundations of education, they create cultural capacities that enable us to be a part of society, but in education today the drive to prepare children for ‘something’ overshadows the possibility of them learning even these most basic capacities. Most mainstream schooling systems are based on testing a wide range of subjects, not just assessing these basic skills. Educators often get frustrated with this model as they experience how this perpetual preparation for assessment gets in the way of real learning.

 

In attracting new students to a school, even in more ‘alternative’ forms of education, rather than proudly promoting the quality of their education, nowadays schools sell their education on proving how successful they are at ‘preparing’ children, often by listing which Universities their students get into.

 

In the process of testing, children are constantly being prepared for something that they are then told they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at. It is a game and it distances the child from the learning process, they are not engaged in anything for its own sake. The children, and young adults at University, are often aware that this style of learning is a game and focus on how to learn and win the game, rather than learning how to learn.

 

John Dewey, the father of experiential education, was a philosopher who also put his ideas on education into practice. He wrote, “When preparation is made the controlling end then the potentialities of the present are sacrificed to a suppositious future”. When our educational aim is to prepare children for what is ‘supposed to come’ next in their future, we prevent them from engaging in a learning experience that allows them to live and thrive in the moment. If there is preparation to be done for a test, as educators we should ask, is it a learning experience? If it is not then it should not be done.

 

One of the biggest hurdles in education is to get away from the focus on preparation. In our Universities we overload students with ‘information’, getting them to memorise an endless stream of facts and bombard them with power point slides at the rate of 100 slides per 100 minutes. It is remarkable how rigid and resistant to change our educational institutions are.

 

The short term goals we prepare children for are actually very little related to life, they prepare for a ‘pseudo future’. If the future is exactly what we prepared for then the ‘future’ is actually just an extension of our past. Engaging with the future involves being present to life as it is occurring right here, right now. As humans we always live in the present moment, and we can never fully predict what that moment will bring. Engaging in the ‘now’, involves learning how to respond to the present moment. This can only be learnt by having engaged in many ‘now’ moments in the past.

 

A fundamental insight of Dewey regarding the process of education is that it should involve engaging meaningfully in the world, engaging in the now, interacting, responding with what we are doing and experiencing in the present moment.

 

How do we allow the ‘real’ future to emerge in the present?

 

We can look at significant events in our own life. How much did we prepare for them? Like key events in history such as the Berlin wall coming down in 1989, often we are not aware of their possibility much before they actually happen. Nobody really understands the dynamics of historical processes, such as quite how the first World War started. Are we prepared for the moment when we meet the person who becomes our life partner? Or the moment we hold our first born child in our arms? We are often not prepared for such dramatic life events but the present moment calls forth something in us that allows us to work with them. Challenging experiences are educative.

 

To enable individuals to become flexible and responsive to life as it unfolds, we need an education that can ‘live’ out of people, rather than allowing people to become a ‘result’ of their education.

 

A question for teachers to students can be; “Who are you? What do you need?”. They are open ended questions that can guide us towards how we serve the individual. These questions do not need to be asked directly and explicitly, but can be held internally as a guide for how we interact with them. The simple intentionality of such an inquiry is very profound.

 

We can ask, why do we feel the students need to learn that? How is it an educative experience? Beyond just abstract information to learn about, how is it a process that engages the whole person? Find at least three reasons, minimum, why it is important for them to be learning that. Teaching something just because it is on the curriculum is not enough.

 

A learning experience is rich and multi-faceted, engaging the student in different ways of experiencing something. We can lead students into a living style of thinking by including history, context, cause, and effect. This encourages a thinking experience, rather than telling them what to think. By focusing on engaging them in a thinking experience the students come out knowing things. The learning has gone through them, not just into them. A person exercises themselves through the challenges we bring. By considering ‘who are you? What do you need?’ we can engage individuals in a process of being who they are and getting to know who they are.

 

When educating for the ‘unknown future’, the real future, it is important that as educators we realise that we are moving and changing too, and push forward to create our own new questions, not just rely on old answers.

 

If we go deeper we realise that there is more to life than meets the eye, we can explore where we don’t know and allow the students to explore where they don’t know. We can find open ended ways for the students to explore, experiment and go places that we have not gone before. We can deal with something like it is a riddle and allow the students to find answers that bring out new questions, quests, that lead us forward into the unknown.

 

The real value of education is allowing students to do what we did not expect or plan for. There is a fearfulness growing around what we let children do and a growing pressure to organise every minute of a child’s time, which can be hard to combat on our own.

 

Technology

 

Today technology places our lives in a set of special conditions – ones which disconnect us from our living context and the processes that are involved in producing the world that we experience. For instance, the experience of warmth from having done work, such as chopping and stacking wood for the fire, is very different to experiencing warmth from having turned on the button to our central heating system.

 

Albert Borgmann is a philosopher of technology who wrote about ‘device culture’, “Devices dissolve the coherent character of the pre-technological world of things.” Technological devices stop our encumbrance and engagement with context, they make life ‘easy’ and ever more ‘skill repellent’. Constraints of time and space become dissolved and encourage a disembodied connectedness with the world. A lot of technological devices are sold as being ‘cool’, this is a bad educative principle that is usually based on money – and is the reality of the world that children are currently engaging in.

 

The disembodied, disconnected dissolution of time and space that technology and devices bring calls for a more concrete engagement in space and time to counter balance the effect, such as creating, making things and directly experiencing nature.

 

Borgmann wrote that we need “commanding presences” in our lives, “focal experiences” from which to learn. A commanding presence involves a seriousness, and a genuineness, an embodiment and disclosure of something in the world that has a rich, deep past, such as an oak tree, the ocean, or a grandfather. Stories are one example of a ‘commanding presence’, we can immerse ourselves in the dynamics of being that live through them.

 

Children need to become rooted in the world and technology does not allow that. We can recognise the usefulness of technology but also lead them to the embodied will that comes from engaging in experience. An activity such as boat building would be an educative experience based around ‘commanding presence’ – the wood, the tools and the action of boat building, working out how to put yourself in relation to the wood and the tool, allows us to be presently engaged in concrete experiences of life that is rich and deep.

 

As educators we can ask ourselves, “How is what I am doing a ‘commanding presence’ for the students?”, This can help us create an educative experience that has multi-faceted, deep meaning.

 

 

How can an organisation become more like a Mighty Oak than a machine?

tree and machine

Photo credit: izthistaken Flickr.com

How can you develop an organisation to become more like an alive, living being? I think you could start by exploring what it means to actually be a living being, alive and full of life, living in the world. So here is some food for thought for anyone wanting to walk in the steps of a Mighty Oak, rather than deaden themselves and the planet further by developing yet another re-presentation of a machine…

A living being has an invisible and indivisible ‘wholeness’, an integrity that is expressed through its parts. This wholeness is a living coherence that ‘holds together’ the essence of the particular life form, whilst manifesting recognizable, repeatable characteristics of form that hold true to its essence. However, the parts of each being are never the same. They develop in participation with its local environment, which allows room for differentiation, uniqueness and flexibility to emerge- i.e. such as the particularities of local sun/shade levels, nutrient levels, wind exposure that occur in relation to the plant’s location.

There is no hierarchy. The parts do not arrive before, or without, the wholeness, and neither does the wholeness emerge before, or without, the parts. The potential for Oak is already present in the Acorn and vice versa. The Oak tree would not come into being without the acorn, and the acorn would not come into being with the Oak tree, or the leaves, or the trunk, or any other part that emerges through the being’s temporal life processes. The parts emerge as necessary processes of the whole of the being, belonging together, naturally and organically, one out of the other – but NOT in a linear fashion.

 There is no strict definition of linearity, in time or space, within a living being. If you watch the whole growth of plant it does not just grow up – it grows out, in, up and down, it is also living and dying simultaneously. In time, a new bud forms and opens at the same time that an older leaf dies and wilts away. In space, the new growth of tiny leaves emerge directly out of old growth of the stem.

 There is also no trace of classical logic within a living being. In classical logic – on which we base most of our education, everyday thinking and organisational structures –  A=A and A ≠  Not A. However in the more holistic logic of a living being, or new ways of thinking and doing such as in Quantum Physics, A = Not A and A ≠ A. So, within the realm of a living being it is no contradiction for an Acorn to also equal the potential that we call Oak. An Acorn isn’t an Oak, but also isn’t Not an Oak, and neither is it actually an Acorn (we just all call it that for ease of communication). This doesn’t mean that living beings fall into a quagmire of uncertainty and ambiguity just because they follow a rather different type of logic than we are used to using. Quite the opposite – if I give you a carrot seed, and you plant it in conditions that are favorable to its growth, I’d say the odds are pretty high that you would grow a carrot.

 However, your carrot would not be the same as any other carrot that has ever existed in time and space, as the success of the healthy growth of your carrot is highly contextual. Its life depends on its ability to relate effectively and efficiently with the unique circumstances that our within its local environment. It’s no good for the carrot to know what the growing conditions are like for a different carrot, in a different climate 6000 miles away. It’s experiencing what it can touch, here and now, and develops its growth accordingly.

 All living beings require a constant inner transformation and evolution, as stasis in natural systems equals death. If a plant did not constantly keep transforming itself from the inside out, it would cease to exist. Imagine if a pea plant got to the stage of having leaves and stems and then decided to stop moving from the inside. It wouldn’t matter what its external expression of physical form and matter was, if internally it stop carrying water and sunlight and nutrients around to nourish its life systems it would die.

 Notably, there are no straight lines or impenetrable boundaries in living beings. Physical processes flow in between the parts, and elemental processes flow between the living being and its environment. Therefore there are no such concepts as complete isolation or absolute separation within living beings. There are distinctions of form and process, distinguishing for example a leaf from a stem, and a respiratory system from a cardio vascular system, but they are intrinsically relational with regards to the particular form or process of the whole being and its environment.

 A living being knows what it needs or wants from its local environment to maintain its life and its wholeness, and it develops an intrinsic ‘knowledge’ of how to get it. But rarely, if ever, will it leave behind anything that can not then be composted back down into the earth, ready be turned into new life by its offspring and/or other living beings. However, as an individual, it is flexible, and adaptable, and will modify its physical form to thrive within the local environment that it has found itself in – changing its physical, extrinsic nature, in order to remain the ‘same’ expression of its essential intrinsic nature.

 Living beings also have rhythm. A plant has periods of activity and rest, if you watch a speeded up time sequence film of a plant’s growth, you will see that it develops in external ‘bursts’ of activity. These bursts of development embody the qualities of contraction and expansion, just like a human breathing in and breathing out. The seasons themselves also follow intermittent periods of activity and rest. Seeds lie dormant for the winter and then spring to life in a burst of activity when the weather warms. A tree loses its leaves over winter and then outwardly ‘comes back to life’ in the spring.

 Living beings, such as plants, are not by nature hierarchical. There is no top-down management, and neither is it bottom-up. They embody a different dynamic which the biologist Brian Goodwin described as “maximum freedom to the parts, maximum coherence to the whole.” They have an invisible and indivisible essence that we can call wholeness, which is there essential nature and somehow emerges from within. This is an intrinsic coherence which is expressed through the parts, but can not be reduced to the sum of its parts.

 All non-human life also participates and develops in accordance with the local environment, and all waste products, with time, integrate back into the earth.

 So, the essence of living beings contains an intrinsic capacity for distinction, uniqueness and flexibility. There is no absolute linearity in their spatial or temporal life development, and their livingness does not express a classical logic – yet their coherence, inner transformation and metamorphosis keep them ‘whole’, and alive. A living being expresses itself through a series of diverse, complex relationships; nothing is isolated or separate, either within them, or without them, as they are always responding in relation to their environment. And lastly, for now, but not least – individual living beings have a rhythm to their growth and a development pattern that balances physical inactivity and activity –  in nature no one part is ever fixed on constant output and exponential growth, other than when it signals danger, such as the abnormal proliferated cell growth that is found in cancer.

The Democratisation of Knowledge – Part 2: Collectively Enlivening what and how we know

Part 2 – The Democratisation of Knowledge:

Collectively Enlivening what and how we know

Willow tree

“To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower;

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Continued from Part One: To allow the participants at the ASHA Centre to experience how, or what, it means to them to give the phenomenon of their inquiry their ‘cognitive space’ to become other, and to be seen in process I led them through a phenomenological (or Goethean) study of a Willow tree.

Phenomenology is primarily concerned with how human beings experience the world, and also how we can learn to get to know aspects of the world ‘in terms of themselves’ through our experiencing it, by participating with it in an open, receptive, yet critical way; so as not to constrict or narrow our understanding of the world by squeezing it into our pre-formed (already existing) “rational” assumptions, labels, concepts, or objectifications. It is about being present to ‘what is’, ‘as it is’ – in one’s experiencing of it. Through careful, exact, direct observation, description, and qualitative interpretation, you try to allow the phenomenon to ‘speak for itself’, so that your understanding of it, can be as authentic, and true to the actual phenomenon as possible.

This type of understanding/knowledge is called inter-subjectivity. It transcends the dualism of objectivity (thinking that you are completely separate from something – which is only a rational/intellectual illusion) and subjectivity (thinking that the ‘truth’ of your experience only belongs individually to you, and reduces your experience to just being an ‘interpretation – also an illusion). It confronts, and honours, the paradox of what it means to be human; that we have individual autonomy and free will, yet are also inextricably intertwined with everything that we experience.

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Phenomenology takes into account different dynamics of life than are commonly considered in other research methodologies, such as; the whole expressing itself through its part, intrinsic value expressing itself through extrinsic form, the inherent interconnectedness of all life, social and physical; and it includes all facets of human experience and knowing within its process of inquiry. For example how we ‘feel’ when engaging with a phenomenon, becomes just as important as how ‘see’ it. Unlike other forms of research, they do not need to be set aside to allow precedence to what we ‘think’ about ‘it’. We also make space for our intuition and imagination, not for fantasy, but to be used as tools for thinking. Phenomenology is not a theory, or a model – it is a disciplined approach to a certain way of being human, a way that gives voice to the world as we fully experience it, in our particular, unique existence. Intellectualisation, generalisation and objectification are consciously set to one side.

The ‘living context’ (network of relationships) of a phenomenon is just as relevant to the inquiry as the direct experience of the phenomenon itself, as phenomenology recognises that there are no absolute separations between anything, and so understanding the living context of the phenomenon in relation to the phenomenon itself allows us to build a much richer, more alive understanding. Studying the living context, the ‘ground’, as well as the phenomenon, the ‘figure’, gives the research much more grounding, more depth, and more accuracy as a whole, than if you were to only study the phenomenon in isolation from all that it interacts with, and is surrounded by.

 Phenomenology also acknowledges the ‘naiveté of everyday experience’ (Husserl), which means that some of the most important and relevant information that we need is right under our noses, but that we often skip straight past it in everyday life due to how we learn to perceive and interact with our life-world and our thought-world.

So, back to the Willow tree!

willow leaves

I led the participants into an individual process of observing parts of the tree through ‘exact sense perception’, allowing their eyes to feel their way around a small part of the tree that caught their interest, noticing the details of shape, form, texture, colour that are exactly there in front of them. This is a process of noticing and being present to something exactly as it is, rather than relying on what you think you already know about it. By using our eyes more like fingers, to feel our way around the form in front of us, we suspend our capacity to constrict the world through generalised labelling and judgement, and what opens up is the possibility to see the immense and infinite complexity and diversity of detail that is immediately in front of us. This ‘revelation’ is often the source of much awe and wonder bursting forth from the participants. What starts out as 10cm square section of tree bark suddenly becomes seen a whole universe within itself.

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Exact sense perception can provide quite a challenge to some as it requires a quality of attention and focus that many are not used to using in their everyday lives. We largely live and navigate our way through the world by using what we think we already know about it as a reference point. So, to set this aside can feel a little uncomfortable to start with, but with perserverance…even just 30 seconds concentrated effort, we can manage to bypass the fast-paced intellect, and actually start attending to what is directly before us, engaged in a process which most of the participants find relaxing, calming, absorbing and flow like.

The next part of the process we entered into was trying to describe our experience of the tree, as exactly as possible. In Husserlian phenomenology this is called the Reduction. We try to set aside, to bracket, what we think about the phenomenon, our judgements and explanations, and instead to try allow the phenomenon to come into being as exactly and concretely as possible through our descriptions. This can also be quite a challenge, as the tendency is again to use what think we already know about it, as a reference point for what we have experienced. So, what we learnt at school about photosynthesis or some other biological plant processes may try to creep into our descriptions, rather than noting what we saw directly in front of us. I asked the participants to describe the part of the tree they observed as if it was to someone who had never seen it before, as this can help to bring their attention back to what they directly experienced.

Willow_Salix_babylonica

After our study of the Willow tree and a phenomenon of choice within the gardens at ASHA, we had some group reflection on the process and some beautiful insights emerged in relation to what I call the ‘democratisation of knowledge’. We experienced collectively that by engaging directly with the phenomenon of your inquiry, a much more grounded, empowering sense of knowing emerges – one that is simultaneously aware of the first-person, concrete, lived depth of your own experience, as well as the limits of your own knowing through understanding exactly how much time you have spent with the phenomenon, and gaining a sense of how much more there is still left ‘to know’, or more to the point, to experience.

To the individual, the quality of knowing that is come to through direct lived experience of something, and challenging your knowing beyond what you think you already know, is vastly different than how it feels to just be given second-hand ‘information’ about something. Then, to engage in this process of ‘getting to know the world in terms of itself’ collectively, individuals realise that there is validity inherent in their lived experience of the world, that they have something worth saying, and that if patterns keep emerging within the group that reinforce their individual experience, then this consensus equals a knowing, a knowledge about something that is just as valid as the ‘information’ that have been given about something, if not more so, because they themselves have experienced it.

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What arose from the participants during our session, was that through participating directly and engaging with the unique life of something, we overcome the illusory subject/object divide that our rational mind creates for us, and by coming together to compare our individual experiences, we create a space for consensus to emerge. This creates the possibility for the non-‘expert’ to build more solid, democratic, empowering foundation for knowledge to arise, both individually and collectively.

I feel that the societal implications are such that if at least some of our collective ‘knowledge’ was constructed in this way, we would not be so locked in to class and money oriented cul-de-sacs. Knowing through direct experience and allowing patterns of experiences to emerge from diverse, particular instances, to form ‘consensus’, gives us the chance to come together within our diversity; to be aware that we have the possibility to know the world in fundamentally different ways yet still arise at a shared language of the world. A living experiential inquiry of the world favours the word or thoughts of no man or woman over and above any other, giving everyone an equal voice in our collective efforts of getting to know the world in terms of itself.

This democratic process of knowing, and phenomenology, requires a personal discipline in terms of how we attend to and describe our experience of the world and, to fully understand why we need this discipline, a personal, experiential exploration of how and where our cognitive and perceptive tendencies lead us – but imagine that this is what our ‘educational’ system is based on; an understanding and exploration of what it is to be human, alongside a guided process of allowing the world to come into expression through us, but in terms of itself through our direct experience and participation with it; focusing not on ‘what’ we know, but ‘how’ we know, and letting the knowing unfold from there….that would be my kind of school, based on lived experience, naturally and inherently democratic, empowering both the individual and the collective….a “School of life ‘as it is'”.

If you would like to explore together what a School of Life ‘as it is’ would look like, feel like, be like in practice, feel free to email me! emmakidd81@gmail.com

(This workshop was held twice, with my great pleasure, at the ASHA Centre, for twenty-something youth workers, youth leaders, students and volunteers working in the field of Sustainable Development.

The programme, which started in October 2012, has enabled 196 participants from across the UK to take part in a five-day programme devoted to Sustainable Development education and was funded by the EU’s Youth in Action programme.

The ASHA Centre is a UK charity working for the empowerment of young people, sustainable development and peace & reconciliation worldwide. www.ashacentre.org )

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.

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 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.

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Photo credit: www.todayicreated.com

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.