Tag Archives: Iain McGilchrist

Green Spirit Article – Spring 2014

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Here is the article that I wrote for Greenspirit magazine. It is “The Art of Seeing and the Evolution of Being” and discusses the missed dimension of cognition in perception. Basically, how we think affects how we understand the world around us, but in ways that we are often not aware of in our everyday lives. This ‘missed dimension’ often remains invisible until attention is brought to it, yet it can drastically affect how we understand, relate to and behave in the world around us.

Click here to read the article. GreenSpirit-Kidd[1]

I would like to send many thanks to Tilley and Mirella for being such wonderful, supportive editors.

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.

 

What the Frack?!?

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Photo credit: globaldashboard.org

What the Frack?!? How can we evolve humanity beyond our culture of violence, self-centeredness and domination into one of peace, partnership and creativity?

“The Sky is Pink!” by Josh Fox and the Gasland team

Fracking has been on the periphery of my awareness for a while now, but it wasn’t until I met with friends at the weekend, and had the process, and the dangers explained to me that my outrage began. I have since done some of my own research and came across the video that I have posted above. I found it gave me a more in depth yet concise account of what fracking is, how it is obviously very harmful to people and the environment – including infiltrating our drinking water through the invading the earths’ water tables with potentially carcinogenic chemicals, and not to mention destroying acres of natural habitats and farmland.

The video also reveals that the same PR company who were hired for a dis-information campaign by tobacco companies in the 1950’s to dispel the rumour that smoking causes cancer, and to promote cigarettes as ‘good for you’ , have been hired by the American Natural Gas Association to promote fracking, like smoking tobacco in the 1950’s, as perfectly harmless. Watch the video, do some research and you make up your own mind.

My question is how can any individual in a position of great collective responsibility advocate for a process that is so incredibly destructive, both for human and non-human life? Especially in the face of so much scientific, geological and medical evidence, not to mention pleas from everyday people not to deface their nation’s land, or to compromise their drinking water? What could be the possible dynamics of their being and experience that motivate their actions?

Well, to me the possibility for that kind of denial suggests a closed mind, most certainly a closed heart, a strong self-interest above and beyond everything and everyone else, and probably deep down, fear. Their minds are closed to scientific evidence, their hearts are closed to emotional pleas from citizens, they are interested only in maintaining the source of their personal wealth, and they are probably living in fear of losing their wealth, power and control. In terms of how they are experiencing and reacting to the world, they have closed themselves to life, shutdown, restricting themselves to a mere fraction of their possibility ‘to be’ human.

When I understand that those few, so far removed from my everyday experience of life, who make decisions for the many, that affect my possibilities in everyday life to experience clean drinking water or enjoy my country’s natural habitat, are functioning in this way, as a mere shadow of humanity, I end up feeling rather dis-empowered. So how can I practically effect lasting change within my personal remit, other than spreading information to raise awareness of the issues?

Well, I can challenge myself to change, and to live a life that is a polar opposite to the greed, and narrow minded self-interest of a closed, fearful person. I challenge myself to live life fully awake and alive, to practice being and becoming the fullest, liveliest possibility of what it means to me, to be human. To have courage to come alive and to appear in my fullness, to lead the way, by example, in being human – to be open; receptive; welcoming; participatory; sensitive to the dynamics and context of all facets of life; and mindful that each and every move I make is from love and gratitude, not from fear and control.

I can choose to be aware, moment by moment, of my living context and the context of all my actions and decisions. I can choose not to be deceived by appearances, the ‘thing’ before me, but to go further and to participate in exploring its process, its life. I can begin to understand that there is a ripple of consequences that follow all of my actions.

I can wake up to the fact that I have a cognitive capacity to ‘see’ the world in different ways, re-presenting through my left hemisphere, or presencing through my right hemisphere (see my article ‘The Art of Seeing’ referencing the work of Iain McGilchrist), and that making a conscious choice in how I see the world affects what I see. I must understand, when exploring the dynamics of life, that diversity is an expression of unity, not of separation. It is only the cognitive process of the left hemisphere that separates. I must remind myself that the dynamics ARE the life of a ‘thing’, not the ‘thing’ itself. The product of thought, word, or creation, is just a snapshot of its history of being, just an illusion of solidity fixed in space and time. I need to employ my imagination and intuition to see and to understand the process beyond that ‘snapshot’ which presents itself to our immediate senses.

I need to understand that absolute separation is only an illusion, stemming from our way of attending to the world. I need to understand that the life, the living essence, and intrinsic value of anything will never be fully present before me in a fixed, object form, and that only through understanding its dynamics will the life of that thing be able to appear before me, and to live within me.

I must take care to attend to the world with care and with focus to what is directly available to me in my living experience through engaging and participating in a relationship with it, so that I am not just attending to the thing through my judgements, preconceptions, assumptions, fixed ideas and concepts. I have to learn to let go, to be vulnerable and to accept the unknown, if I am ever to stand a chance of truly and deeply getting to know anything, or to fully and confidently stand in my own knowing, rather than always deferring to the thoughts or words of another.

I have to meet the world in my nakedness, and to see the world with naked eyes, removing the filters and veils that we layer ourselves up with to maintain control and to keep fear at bay. Only then am I in a position to get to know anything in life in terms of itself, and to participate in a healthy, living relationship that in turn may allow life to live and thrive, within and between us.

I cannot personally change the closed minded, closed hearted people in responsibility at the top of our collective systems who are protecting their self-interest, motivated by fear and control, limiting themselves to being only a shadow of a human – but I can open myself and relate to them, if I ever get to meet them, and to those who are around me in an open and receptive way. I can attend to context and process, participating with and accepting all I meet with an unconditional positive regard, or, you could call it, love.

I can use my imagination and intuition to work out how I can affect positive change in the systems and actions of which I am immediately and experientially a part of, such as, where I buy my food from; how I use the energy that the fracking is destined by some to produce; and what and how much I buy from the dazzling, ubiquitous array of energy intensive, mass-produced consumer goods that are on offer to us in the western world.

I can become adept at exploring the living context and dynamic processes of all my actions, seeing how and what they are in relationship with the rest of the world and its systems, and thus act accordingly. I can continue to become more curious, getting to know the world in terms of itself, and acting from a deeper, more awake and aware, receptive space – that is a response to life as it is, rather than reacting to the static abstraction of what I, or others, think or tell me it is.

I can also direct this inquiry inwards, which is of equal importance. I can curiously explore with wonder my own being, and what my personal needs are that need meeting for me to thrive, beyond those that society, the government and international bodies tell me they are, and that usually amount to no more than survival and subsistence. I can learn to explore, to experience and to identify what my physical needs are, such as food, shelter, warmth, and also what my non-physical needs are, such as love, affection, sense of belonging. (See the work of the Chilean economist Max Manfred-Neef for the most comprehensive, contemporary view on this).

Once I have identified my own, authentic needs as I experience them in my everyday life, I can then mindfully work to meet them, with regard to the process and context of how I do so, so that I can thrive and, in combination with all that I have suggested above, be a living example of what is possible in the quest to becoming fully human. I can live by example so that others can witness and experience the benefits that it could bring them, so that they may understand that they can also become more of who they are by becoming something other than they already are.

And so, my hope is that the seeds of life may germinate, one by one, until eventually the ripple of open-minded, receptive, welcoming, unconditional positive regard may eventually reach across the counties and the oceans, to the shores of those pinnacles of self-interest – and that on meeting this way of being human, it may strike a chord somewhere deep within them, or spark a deep recognition of intuitive understanding that I believe they too hold somewhere inside of them, and that one day, that seed may start to germinate and come into being within them also.

This is not a prescription or a doctrine for how to be human. It is just a personal exploration of the capacities that human beings hold, that enable them, that enable me, to be human. So from my own lived experience, and from observing human and non-human life, I do believe that by developing a more dynamic way of seeing, being, and living, personally – and professionally through creating new living systems based on context, process and relationship – we will spread the potential of becoming more fully human through cultural transmission, by seeing and living more dynamically.

Just as the overly analytical, static, closed way of seeing of the Western world, with its over emphasis on quantification, mechanisation, reductionism and control, has been culturally transmitted to nearly the rest of the entire world ; so, in turn, can we spread the love, the dynamics of life, that are openness and receptivity, with an unconditional positive regard for all, an evolution in being, that sees beyond just the ‘things themselves’, to understand their life processes, and the interconnected web of relationships that is their living context – and so spread the potential for each and every human to feel and to be, to become more fully alive by doing so. Evolving humanity beyond our culture of violence, self-centeredness and domination into one of peace, partnership and creativity.

The Art of Seeing – An Evolution of Being

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“And yet, I know artists whose medium is Life itself, and who express the inexpressible without brush, pencil, chisel or guitar. They neither paint nor dance. Their medium is Being. Whatever their hand touches has increased life. They SEE and don’t have to draw. They are the artists of being alive.”The Zen of Seeing, by Frederick Frank

There is more to seeing than meets the eye, and there is more to being than just living. What I have discovered through my journey of practicing phenomenology and a dynamic way of seeing, is that when we explore beyond our habitual ways of seeing and being, and start to re-engage with our direct living experience of the world, we can begin to understand how we and the world are both more alive, more dynamic, and profoundly more meaning-full than we could have ever previously imagined, and thus can begin to participate in the dance of life accordingly. However, as I try to reveal to my students when doing  phenomenological studies of Nature, is that seeing and knowing life in terms of itself, requires a refinement in our capacities to see and to know life, which I believe involves a fundamental evolution in being human. I will endeavor to describe this evolution for you below.

 

Possibly the greatest learning that has been revealed to me over the past 5 years of my young life (I am now 32), is that there is more to seeing than meets the eye, as what lies further upstream from ‘what’ we see in the world, is the cognitive process of ‘how’ we see the world. For me, and I think for humanity in general, this is huge. This means that there is also more to knowing than what we think we know about something, and these both then obviously have an effect on how we are be-ing in the world. This ‘missed dimension of cognition in perception’, or how we see, has been explored extensively in my former teacher’s study of a dynamic way of seeing, Henri Bortoft, in “Taking Appearance Seriously”. As well as in Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece exploring the left and right hemispheres of the brain, “The Master and his Emissary”. Both of which have been pivotal in my work of practicing a phenomenology of perception, and of getting to know life in terms of itself, and I would like to explore this ‘missed dimension’ with you first.

 

One way of seeing that is available to us, and according to McGilchrist is associated with the left-hemisphere of the brain, re-presents the world for us into organising ideas, concepts, symbols and abstractions, creating universal distinctions and separation between things. This allows us to analyze and create maps of our experience of the world, very useful for our physical and intellectual navigation and communication of it. It focuses quite specifically on content and solid physicality, and occurs in all mammals. Think of a bird surveying a detailed patch of ground for a worm, it does this with it’s right eye, which coordinates to it’s left brain hemisphere. At the same time it needs to survey the territory, the living context, for predators, and it does this with its left eye/right brain. Bortoft describes this content specific, left hemisphere way of seeing as following the logic of solid bodies; it can name, label, analyze, quantify and focus on the separation every thing that is physically ‘there’ before us. It creates a generalized picture of our experience of the thing, which Bortoft calls the organising idea. We can then conveniently use the ‘idea’ of the thing when we need to refer to, or look for something at speed and to communicate to others that we know something about this thing in the world. It can enable us to bridge the chasm between my physical experience of the world and yours, both of which we will never experience directly for ourselves, but with generalized symbols, names and labels, we can communicate in a way that tries to reach a shared understanding, enough at least for us to physically get by together in the world. I call this way of seeing in-organic, as it’s qualities are static, fixed and absolute, it contains no life.

 

However, before the in-organic generalizations that this one way of knowing, the left-hemisphere of the brain, conveniently organizes for us; there is our experience of the dynamic, living world, the territory as it is, appearing in terms of itself – organically, in its living-ness. This is the world that appears to us when we employ our other way of knowing, using the right-hemisphere of the brain, which has the effect of presencing the world we experience, on its own terms. This organic, dynamic way of seeing allows the phenomenon you wish to understand to be a being,  and allows you to engage with it as a becoming; dynamic, alive and continually in process. This type of encounter is participatory rather than controlling; in relation with rather than separate from; enlivening rather than constricting; and allows the implicit essence, or meaning, to emerge rather than being blinded by only what is explicit, its physicality. As this way of seeing occurs prior to the separating, organizing mode of the left-hemisphere, the right-hemisphere is concerned with context and ambiguity. It focuses on the unique and the particular instances of what you are seeing, and the relationships to all that surround them.

 

McGilchrist suggests that we have evolved into a pattern of cognition which allows the left-hemisphere to dominate our everyday experiences of life. And so due to it’s inorganic nature, we are then left with an inability to recognize life in its livingness, and in instead separate it from its living context and reduce it to the physical sum of its parts. This has been very clearly manifested in the human systems that we have created from the scientific revolution onwards; industrialization, capitalism, national centralizations of resources and power. I think that we are all experiencing the limitations that this in-organic way of seeing inherently contains, whether it be through the credit-crisis, being witness to climate chaos, frustration at continued privatization of national services, youth unemployment or the mechanistic nature of a healthcare system focused solely on pharmaceuticals and quick ‘mechanical’ fixes.

 

I do not want to raise one way of seeing above another. Our capacity of re-presenting the world is just as integral to our ability to thrive, as our capacity of presencing the world is, but what we do need to recognize collectively is that an evolutionary over-emphasis on the left-hemisphere has led us into a hall of mirrors that is literally squeezing the life out of us. Next we need to realize that we can escape it, and we can do it without losing all of the wonders that this over-emphasis on the in-organic nature of knowing has allowed to come into being, such as the technology for the internet, and the engineering of mass-transportation; without losing focus on the importance of the individual, or forgetting the living context of the Earth from which all life springs, including the individual. It just means waking up to limitations of our dominant way of seeing, and mode of cognition, and making a practical effort to readdress the balance, such as I try to do in my workshops. The path to evolving our way of seeing and being does not mean that we revert back to a pool of gooey oneness where there is no distinction between the one and the many, but neither is the current way of seeing ourselves and the world numerically as many ‘ones’, all separate from and independent of one another and their surroundings, leading us anywhere apart from a fast-track to mass-extinction.

 

I feel the evolutionary dance move that we now need to aim for is, in the words of my wonderful teacher Brain Goodwin, one of “Maximum freedom to the parts, maximum coherence to the whole.” A way of seeing and of being that gives equal attention to content and context, to the implicit and explicit, to individual expression and collective cohesion. It calls for what Bortoft has described as a ‘dynamic way of seeing’, and I believe that it re-addresses the balance between our use of the left and the right hemisphere. Rather than L, L, L,….ad infinitum which, generally speaking, is where we are collectively right now. Without a doubt it is certainly where we are in mainstream education and in politics. McGilchrist suggests that we need a movement towards a cognitive pattern of R,L,R. Context, content, context. This way of seeing meets the world in terms of itself, allows the appearance of generalized pattern to occur, but then has the ability to let them go, and return to a stance of open receptivity, to meet the thing we think we know again and again with fresh new eyes. Or as in the words of the 20th century phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, when we learn to let go and meet the world in its living context we return, “To stand in wonder before it.”. In this way we allow life not only to be, but to become, and in this process we are ourselves are becomed by life, we allow life to live within and without us. The gesture of this way of seeing, and way of being, is actively welcoming and receptive, and its essential nature is openness. We refine and expand our capacity to become more fully human by becoming receptive and welcoming – and it is an actively receptive stance that is a step beyond imposed activity or mere passivity. The nature of this way of seeing is openness; it is welcoming and allows things to be exactly as they are, with no need to fix or to change them. To me, this actively receptive openness feels like it stems just as much from my heart as it does from my mind. It require us to see with fresh new eyes and to proceed with child-like wonder, as if meeting something for the first time, every time we meet it. In this way we are open to perpetually allow the phenomenon we perceive to become more than just the sum of our past experience of it, and more than just the inorganic abstractions of the left-hemisphere will allow us. And as a nod to the financial systems currently in crisis, this way of seeing and being focuses and invests not in accumulated credit based on an inorganic abstraction, but in life, the dynamics of an organic being and its living potential to become.

 Emma Kidd , MSc SchumacherCollege – Practitioner and practical researcher of Phenomenology, editor of http://www.sensinglife.net and co-founder of the independent think-tank http://www.hologramcollective.com