Tag Archives: Phenomenological inquiry

“What is Education for?”

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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.

 

 

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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

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“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!

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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.

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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 )

A Handbook for “How to Be Human”

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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!

 

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

 

 

 

Seeing with New Eyes – An Adventure in Perception

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Photo credit: J. van As

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better” – Einstein

Seeing with New Eyes – An Adventure in Perception

Between February and April this year, I led a series of workshops at Schumacher College in Devon which I called ‘Seeing with New Eyes – An Adventure in Perception’. The workshops were designed to allow students to experience the practice of a phenomenology of Nature – which can also be called Goethean Science – without an overload of theory, just learning through participation.

These workshops took the form of an experiential nature study and walk – observing yew trees on the Dartington estate – guiding people gently and playfully towards a more sensuous and intuitive way of perceiving and experiencing life. 

I worked with a variety of different groups of people including; a group of MSc Economics in Transition students, MSc Holistic Science students, short-course participants, Transition Town Totnes and the ‘Holistic Science Now’ short course group. The aim for me in these workshops was to facilitate an experience of getting to know the world in terms of itself, without getting caught up in explanations and abstract ‘knowledge’ of Phenomenology, instead just allowing the participants to practice it and to gain an embodied understanding from the outset.

I chose the Yew tree as our phenomenon of study because I knew of three very different size and shape trees within walking distance of the college. A very straightforward aim for the workshop was helping the participants to see how unique and particular each manifestation in Nature is, and using comparison in phenomenology works excellently for that, as they get to see the ‘same’ phenomenon becoming itself in very different ways, in different instances.

The workshop is an adventure and an experiment in perception and also in humanity. The participants are first invited to consider the question ‘how do we meet the world?’ and ‘how do we get to ‘know’ the world?’, while I describe a little of the thoughts and processes that brought these workshops into being.

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Information v.s experience and ‘About’ thinking v.s. ‘withness’ thinking

The nature of our analytical/Intellectual mind (left hemisphere) expresses itself through separating things into parts, fixes into certainties, and reduces to commonalities. It puts separate parts together and tries to make them belong. This can be very useful but the danger is that it can lead to static, ‘dead’ knowledge, mechanism and reductionism. We end up with information and use it to know things about other things.

The nature of our sensuous/intuitive mind (right hemisphere) sees relations, wholeness and relationships. It is present to the natural unity emerging organically and dynamically from multiplicity. It presences the world, before the left hemisphere has had the chance to re-present it, and expresses itself by embracing diversity, dynamic and living knowing. It gets to know the world through direct experience primary to the abstractions of the analytical mind and enables us to think with things, not just to think about them.

Iain Mc Gilchrist, author of “The Master and his Emmisary”, urges us not to slip into cognitive reductionism, as every function is mediated through both ways of seeing (hemispheres),  but there is neverless a strong cognitive distinction that affects how we perceive the world. The left hemisphere re-presents the world, the right presences it.

The approach of this particular workshop is phenomenological and hermeneutic, and so focuses on process and relationship, which in turn allows for intuitive perception through direct sense experience – and apart from a brief introduction to set the scene, it is always centred on practice, not on theory.

In this way of working, as noted by Henri Bortoft in “Taking Appearance Seriously”, by returning to the senses through active seeing and exact sensorial imagination, we bring about a shift from the left-hemisphere dominance of the verbal-intellectual mind, to the right hemisphere experience of the wholeness of what is livingly present, which is characteristic of the sensuous-intuitive mind.  

 “According to Empiricists see-ing the world is purely a sensory experience.” (Henri Bortoft). However, the answer is contrary to that – it is the way of seeing which ‘sees’ a leaf, tree, giraffe. The way of seeing and what is seen cannot be separated.

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There is more to seeing than meets the eye. Cognitive perception gets confused with just being sense perception. “We live in a dimension of mind which is, for the most part, as invisible to us as the air we breath” (Bortoft). Ordinarily our way of seeing is invisible, Husserl called it “everyday naïveté” – but we can make visible the activity of the mind to itself.

 Disenchantment with the world emerges when we miss the active, dynamic, receptive dimension of cognitive perception and ‘see’ ideas onto everything as fixed, static, finished products, rather than letting something be seen in terms of itself. When we engage with the world in a dynamic way of seeing, getting to know the world in terms of itself, be can begin to understand the uniqueness, creativity and dynamism inherent to life. 

An Adventure in Perception = An Adventure in Humanity

Integrating ways of knowing = Becoming fully human

 Getting to know the world in terms of itself, involves engaging in conversation that brings forth our fullest human capacity to be in relationship with another living being, both human and non-human. Engaging from your heart space, not just your head space, and your right hemisphere, not just your left hemisphere.

During the workshop we work to let go of habitual ideas, assumptions and generalizations. Organizing ideas such as ‘tree’, ‘chair’, ‘leaf’, are useful in everyday life, but they can be limiting in a deeper search for living knowledge.

To begin to more fully understand Nature, and life, we  must develop the capacity to encounter what is active and living.

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Photo credit: Tim Strasser

Goethean Science/Phenomenology of Nature

The practice of phenomenology asks us to become increasingly aware of how we meet the world and cultivate our relationships with it; to become more whole, authentic and human in our communication and conversation with the world.

Conversing with the natural world is more challenging as it does not share our language of spoken word, so we need to develop other capacities for knowing/engaging with it in different ways such as intuition, direct sense perception and imagination. Although, these skills and processes are just as useful and valuable when applied in human encounters.

A phenomenological ‘conversation’ is a mutual interaction and participation – a two way process. Through it we discover the ‘limitless’ nature of connections and relationships and also our potential to grow and adapt ourselves to new, alive ways of knowing, more adequate for the study of Life.

During the workshops, and any further practice, you are treading a path of conscious development. 

Entering into a conversation, a riddle. Ponder, observe, ask questions. Being careful that it does not dissolve into chit-chat, nor become too narrow or rigid in focus.

The encounters embody openendedness, openness, and an active receptivity. Expect to discover newness. Listen to what is revealing itself to you, with fresh new ears and eyes. It is a two way conversation, don’t be afraid to respond and interject with new questions. Goethe called this process a ‘Delicate empiricism’.

I took the participants to work with three Yew trees that we observed, described, imagined and intuited. Each was a different size, shape, age and in a different location.

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Even when walking I encourage you to see everything as if it is new to you, even the feeling of walking on the ground.

Maintain the space within you for adventure and experiment. Cultivate a child-like wonder, see everything with fresh new eyes, as if for the first time. Be curious, open and gently expectant.

Be aware and focused on all that you perceive.

Be open – mind and heart. With a deep with of ‘getting to know’, like befriending.

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Photo credit: Tim Strasser

 Getting to know the Yew

With each tree we visited we followed this series of exercises:

Exact sense perception

Observe up close, in detail. Form, touch, qualities, pattern, particularities, colour texture – but no association or judgment.

Describe as a group – qualities, time, process, aliveness/livingness. (How do you know it’s alive?)

 Exact sensorial imagination

Imagine, replay your exact sense perception like playing a video of it in your mind.

 Imagine growth and decay, coming into and going out of being. Backwards and forwards.

Observe from a distance

Look for gestures, intuit patterns. Sketch the gesture as you intuit it.

Repeat atleast three times with different trees, and after the second tree, compare and contrast the different trees.

In summary…. 

This workshop is taste of how we can learn how to encounter what is active and living in the world, rather than just relying on the simplified generalities of our everyday naïveté; or the abstractions of our intellectual mind to show us only separation, and what is ‘finished’.

I graduated with an MSc in Holistic Science from SchumacherCollege in 2009 and have since continued refining my skills and cultivating integrated modes of knowing. I am passionate about sharing my insights into new ways of seeing and relating to the world from an organic, relational and dynamic perspective. I believe that the shift in perception that these workshops aim for fosters a sense of wonder and an inner transformation which supports the transition that our world is desperately in need of.

If you would like more information or to book a session with me, please email me: emmakidd81@gmail.com

 

Spring leaves and notes from ‘An Ecology of Mind’

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Photo credit: Emma Kidd

As I walked outside today I was admiring the vibrancy of the yellowy-green-ness that is displayed on the trees here at the moment. In a sunshine fueled surge of Spring-ing into action, they are dynamically releasing all of their new leaves into the open air. I noticed that the leaves had a very tender quality of expression to them in the way that they were hanging from the branches. They were sitting there tentatively, as if still not fully awake yet. Still forming themselves, not yet bold enough to assert their fullest presence. I was drawn to touch one of the leaves, and an utterance of surprise and of joy leapt out of my mouth as I did so, as the delicate infancy perceived through sight was reconfirmed in touch. The leaf was so thin, fine and felt like flimsy yet rubbery plastic tissue paper. It felt astonishin. I guess my fingers are used to the feel of older, firmer leaves, and even though could sense that their was a difference through sight, it was a new and surprising experience for my sense of touch.

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Photo credit: Emma Kidd

Today, as well as admiring the new tree leaves, I was also revisiting some notes that I had taken whilst watching a screening of “The Ecology of Mind” by Nora Bateson at Schumacher College this Spring. The film is a documentary about her father Gregory Bateson. To illustrate the essence of the wisdom that I took away with me, here are some quotes I noted from Gregory speaking in a variety of clips during the film:

The thing is not a thing.

Stand back and perceive in a different way.

The major problems of the world are in the differences between how nature works and the way people think.

Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all.

We live in a world that is only made up of relationships.

Pathology is in the pattern of relationships between, not in the individual.

The division of things into parts tends to be a convenience.

The ‘difference that makes a difference’, is a way of describing contrast AND a process of understanding relationships.

What is the pattern that connects?

Floating in a world that is nothing but change, only in the creation of change can we perceive something.

Any attempt to lock down process becomes an abstraction.

With a correction to our epistemology, you may find that the world becomes more beautiful.

The perception of separation is an illusion.

You are set free from material and logic terms when you are trying to think about living things.

Commerce and politics are defaults of the mistakes in our thinking.

Quoting Heraclitus – “No man can step in the same river twice.”….Just like no one can kiss the same person twice, pick up the same baby twice, or touch the same leaf twice – everything is in process.

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 Photo credit: Emma Kidd