“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