Exploring the Divided Brain

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White checks in from a four-day retreat in Tewksbury, where he’s been Exploring the Divided Brain with fellow participants and been sharing Finding Blake.


I’ve been lucky to have been invited to come and film this deep immersion into the divided brain with renowned neurosceptic philosopher and noted Blakean Iain McGilchrist.

Organised by powerhouse trainer and facilitator Samantha Field of Field & Field, this retreat has run for the past four years, and participants gather for four days to go on a deep journey with Iain into the thinking and research behind his work looking at our divided brain hemispheres, its relevance to modern life, and the implications of left-hemisphere dominance for our humanity, health, and happiness.

Iain McGilchrist with James Murray-White
Iain McGilchrist with James Murray-White at Exploring the Divided Brain.

Iain has been taking us on a journey through fourteen detailed lectures, ranging from ‘The value and limits of Intuition’, ‘ The value and limits of Imagination’, ‘What is language for?’, ‘Are we becoming machines?’, and so much more. The days are long and intense, and the thirty of us participants roll into bed late in the evening full of stimulation and questions; Iain’s talks are complemented by a range of optional workshops from within the group.

I offered a workshop on the first day, explaining the Finding Blake project, showing a few clips of the film so far, talking about why Blake feels so relevant now, and encouraging the participants to respond creatively to Blake in their own way, using a quote from Iain that very morning: “attention is how you dispose your consciousness into the world”. One participant wrote a magnificent poem about a tree, which she has given permission to share later.

Feedback from James's workshop
Feedback from James’s workshop

I’m delighted to have been invited to come and film and participate in this retreat. It has pushed at the edges and given the tools to see and sense the world in new and exciting ways, ever mindful of this divided way of thinking; and some new tools to heal this split, which clearly manifests in humanity and the external world. Iain is a big believer that the arts stimulate the imagination, and without that we are nothing, hence the relevance of Blake. I’ve been invited to do a few more Blakean workshops across the summer, including one in early July in Nenthead in Cumbria with the noted poet Josephine Dickinson.

The media from the retreat will be available once Samantha and I have had time to work through the images and footage and decide how best to use it to promote the next retreat, next year. But I can give Finding Blake readers one wonderful shot, of Iain discussing Blake’s use of the spiral in his work.

Iain McGilchrist on William Blake
Exploring the Divided Brain: Iain McGilchrist on William Blake

Notes

Iain McGilchrist gave the 2016 Blake Society Lecture, The Infinite Brain and the Narrow Circle. You can explore Iain’s ideas and work at his website — including a download of the introduction to his 2009 book The Master and His Emissary. There is a 2015 interview with Iain McGilchrist at Interalia Magazine. 

Kevin Fischer drew on Iain’s work in his Finding Blake post Imagination, Experience and the Limitations of Reason.

You can find more about the workshop Exploring the Divided Brain at the Field & Field website.

Update: Another participant at the event, Jenny Mackness, has also blogged about her experiences there, including her workshop exploring the implications of Iain’s work for education.

Blake & Nature Spirituality: 3 — Pantheisticon

In this series for Finding Blake, James Fox has described psychological experiences he later came to understand through William Blake’s writings. The series is adapted from a talk James gave to the Mental Fight Club — a charity assisting recovery from mental illness through inspiring creative events and projects — and in this final part he outlines Pantheisticon, a Blakean-inspired project he is working on for cultivating the experience of feeling at home in the world. 


In my previous posts, l described my own experiences of both the manacled egoic state (Blake’s Satanic mills) and the liberated ‘mystical’ state (Blake’s awakened Albion). I then elaborated Blake’s doctrine of the four zoas, relating them to underlying ideas of the psyche that may be met with in various belief systems throughout history and across cultures. (See also my previous post, Divine Madness.)

My own response to Blake’s vision and the task he announces is a manifesto, a programme of practice and study, to effect a nature spirituality. I call it Pantheisticon, a term I’ve borrowed from the eighteenth-century philosopher and pantheist John Toland.

The four zoas in Pantheisticon
The four zoas in Pantheisticon

Based on the four zoas and working with these functions or aspects of ourselves, this Pantheisticon manifesto includes four components: a mental engagement with natural philosophy (which corresponds to Urizen); a sensual engagement with the landscape (which corresponds to Tharmas);  an intuitive engagement with the Imagination (which corresponds to Urthona); and an engagement of the feelings through the artistic expression of mystical experience and philosophy (which corresponds to Luvah or Los).

Urizen: mental engagement 

The first component of Pantheisticon is mental engagement with natural philosophy. I use this term instead of ‘science’, not to be deliberately archaic, but to emphasise that this is an activity of the ratio when it acts in the service of spiritual nourishment. In our study of natural philosophy we draw on the products of the ratio as applied to the natural world.

Technology enables us to probe the world beyond the limits of our own senses:

new and strange creatures are revealed in the depths of the oceans;

life forms such as bacteria that are too small for us to see with our eyes are brought into experience through the microscope;

spacecraft provide us with a view of the atmosphere which, whilst beautiful in itself, reveals it to be the thinnest of envelopes, its apparent vulnerability and preciousness to all life on Earth made plain;

the Apollo programme enabled humans to watch the Earth rise from the Moon — and the beauty and preciousness of our planet, a droplet of blue in a bottomless void, is shockingly revealed to us;

and the great space telescopes peer beyond the stars of our galaxy and reveal the universe to be a soup of galaxies, each containing billions of stars — a glimpse towards the infinite and the eternal.

All this provides an awesome spatial and temporal backdrop to our own sense of being: it is Urizen rehabilitated; it is the rational faculty nourishing our spiritual selves.

The world is a manifestation of the infinite, and our particular human experience of the world we divide into the solid, the liquid, the gaseous and radiant energy. These elemental forms of our experience — earth, water, air and fire — we explore in our first component of Pantheisticon — the mental engagement with natural philosophy, or science — as we familiarise ourselves with the principal forms, processes and histories of our rocky world, its oceans and rivers, its climate, and that supreme source of energy without which there would be no life — the Sun.

We also familiarise ourselves with the basic nature of organic life, of the kingdoms of life and the history of their development. Finally, we familiarise ourselves with the universe beyond our little planet. Not extensive in-depth study; we do not become experts in these different sciences. But we gain sufficient of their essential flavour that we obtain a mental grasp of our place in the world and experience the awe, beauty and wonder of the forms that are all around us.

A Dartmoor Grove. Photograph by James Fox
A Dartmoor Grove.
Photograph: James Fox

Tharmas and Urthona: sensation and intuition

Having utilised the power of the intellect through natural philosophy to grasp our place in the natural world and engage with its forms and processes, we proceed to our second component of pantheisticon: we inject into this mental engagement with the wider world the power of our faculty of sensation.

We venture into the landscape and experience those elemental forms most vividly, at first hand: the touch of a rock – its hardness, its smell, the little crystals embedded in it glistening in the Sun, the colourful strange lichens spreading across it. We hear the bubbling of the brook, we smell its earthy cool wetness rising up. We hear the bleat of a lamb, the swoosh of a crow cutting through the air. We feel the breeze on our face, hear it stirring in the trees. We feel an expansiveness in our hearts as we look up, the horizon stretched away, and we feel the warmth of the Sun on our skin.

In our third component, we engage our power of intuition. We find ourselves a secluded place where we will not be disturbed. We may be by a stream in a wood; we may be on a cliff top; but we are comfortable as we sit facing the Sun. We seek now to open ourselves to what Blake calls Urthona or the power of Imagination: to allow into our awareness that which seems to come from nowhere; to enable ourselves to become vessels as it were for spontaneous, intuitively received insight. This is the source of spiritual awakening. We cannot make it happen at will. Indeed trying to will it is a sign that the mental-ego is active — yet it is precisely this ego that must be annihilated, or at least disempowered.

So we close our eyes, we observe our body as a vessel empty of thoughts, and we simply observe the feeling of the movement of the breath inside that vessel; returning the attention when we discover it has been hijacked and taken outside the body into the world of ideas of things.

We maintain our meditation for fifteen minutes, or more. Then, we contemplate the intention of the practice, the spiritual ambition or goal one might say, which is to cultivate a mental state of clarity and tranquillity and to use the good qualities we happen to have in the service of others, and of oneself.

This is a process that disempowers the ego and allows the opening of one’s awareness to the intuitive and the imaginative. This results in the enhancing of the sensual experience of the place and a sense of existential immersion in the natural environment. It might even lead to mystical experience or the spiritual awakening to oneself as both divine and eternal. It is also the occasion in which one can become aware of those desires, those forces of nature, whose realisation as action in the service of others provides a purpose in life — a felt joy, meaning and vitality that arises when these forces flow through you.

If a feeling of reverence towards our natural surroundings has arisen through this meditation process, we express this by a simple devotional ritual of sensually engaging with the presence of the Infinite and its elemental manifestations. For example, the placing of the lips to a rock, the placing of a hand in a stream, feeling the breeze on the face and inhaling deeply of it, facing the Sun and feeling its heat on the skin, and, by shielding the eyes from the Sun, we see the azure dome of the sky: we become aware of the stars and the cosmos beyond, a vision towards the Infinite – which is eternal, unmoving, all-pervasive, and which manifests itself to us as this fire of the Sun, this air of the breeze, this water of the stream, this earth of the rock and of all the living creatures and ourselves made thereof.

William Blake self-portrait 1802
William Blake self-portrait 1802

Luvah: artistic expression of mystical experience 

Finally, in the fourth component of pantheisticon we concern ourselves with the artistic expression of mystical experience and models of the mystical conception of the universe. This may be through the mediums of literature, poetry, painting or music, and concerns the expression of our own experiences, if we have had any, and also the experiences of others, so that, in the words of John Middleton Murry which I quoted in Universal Awareness, the first post in this series, about moments of mystical experience, “if we have not known them, there — in those four simple lines [of Blake’s poem] — one is offered to us”.

About others’ experiences of feeling profoundly at home, of a sense of existential immersion, in the world, we may read for example the English mystic Richard Jeffries. We may engage with its expression in poetry, in the English Romantics (e.g. Tennyson, Shelley, Wordsworth); or in painting (e.g. Turner, van Gogh, Caspar Friedrich), or in music (e.g. Vaughan Williams, John Tavener, Beethoven).

We examine the basic pantheistic model of the universe, before comparing it with other theological/cosmological models, such as the panentheism found in Kabbalah, Sufism and Christian mysticism. We then focus on the expression of pantheism in Eastern mysticism, in modern physics, in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and finally in the poetry and painting of Blake.

Being at home in the world

Those are the four components of my manifesto of study and practice, of natural and mystical philosophy, of meditation and landscape experience. No doubt some will find this pantheisticon eccentric, peculiar even. But there is a serious point behind it, which is this. We modern men and women, we sons and daughters of Albion, cannot return to the Stone Age, before Urizen became misplaced.

Home for the pantheisticon: Earthrise from Apollo 8, December 1968 Photograph by Bill Anders / NASA
Earthrise from Apollo 8, December 1968
Photograph: Bill Anders / NASA

We cannot remove from the world or our memory all that our excessive and misplaced ratio has brought about. But I share Blake’s vision, which is of a future in which we have awakened from our present human condition of feeling shut out from the sense of being at home in the world, and instead find ourselves living in our day to day world as one that is experienced as suffused, more or less, with the Countenance Divine; a living in which we have ceased to experience ourselves as separate, finite beings, trembling and sick in fear of the annihilation we suppose is inevitable, and instead experience all things, creatures and human beings, the Earth and the heavens above, as suffused with divinity: as radiant, at one and timeless.

And from this springs inevitably a sense of care towards our precious environment, and a compassion towards all creatures and human beings. Then we awaken spiritually. Then we begin to feel at home in the world once more; to open ourselves to the creative forces of the imagination which provide us with our purpose, joy and vitality.

My manifesto is an attempt to help bring about this kind of spiritual awakening which would avert the increasing psychological, social and environmental damage that our misplaced Urizen is causing. Pantheisticon is a Blakean-inspired re-imagining of nature spirituality for the twenty-first century. 


Notes

James Fox is a philosopher and former researcher at the Open University and is a co-author of A Historical Dictionary of Leibniz’s Philosophy (Scarecrow Press, 2006). He is now mostly interested in mystical texts, especially pantheistic nature-based doctrines and practices which he sees as key to transforming our conception of ourselves in relation to the world: a transformation that can lead to the spiritual experience of total at-homeness in (at one with) the natural environment and hence to the feeling of a reverence and duty of care towards that environment. Prior to pursuing philosophy, he held a position in a climate research department at the UK Meteorological Office.

You can find out more about John Toland, the eighteenth-century philosopher, and his original writing on pantheisticon at Wikipedia.

Blake & Nature Spirituality: 2 — Four Zoas

In Universal Awarenesspart 1 of his new series for Finding Blake, James Fox described his psychological experiences that he later came to understand through William Blake’s writings as either manacled, ‘egoic’ states (Blake’s Satanic mills) or liberated, ‘mystical’ states (Blake’s awakened Albion). In this second part, James elaborates Blake’s doctrine of the four zoas. This series is adapted from a talk he gave in November 2018 to the Mental Fight Club — a charity assisting recovery from mental illness through inspiring creative events and projects — and builds on his earlier post for us, Divine Madness


In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell William Blake writes:

If the doors of perception were cleansed
Every thing would appear to man as it is – infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees
All things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

Blake’s mythological world refers to ‘four zoas’, from the Greek meaning ‘four powers’. These represent four primary aspects of our human experience, our human being you might say.

The first concerns our sensations, our raw sensual experience, the things of the world: Blake calls this first zoa Tharmas. The second is Urizen, our rational intellect, the power of nature in us that enables us to abstract generalities from our particular sense experiences and to apply the principles of logic to formulate ‘laws’ and predict our future experiences. The third zoa, a force which he calls Luvah or Los, is the power of desire: that which seeks to express itself, to realise itself creatively in the form of production or action – Art in general, according to Blake. The fourth is the power of Imagination, which he calls Urthona, to which are assigned ideas and images that arise intuitively and spontaneously, out of thin air as it were. It is through the Imagination that we may be provided with mystical experience.

In Blake’s work Milton we find the following illustration:

The four zoas. Plate from Milton
The four zoas. Plate from Milton, object 34, copy C.
Source: the William Blake Archive The four zoas. Plate from Milton

Here is Luvah, the power of desire and creative action; Urizen, the rational power; Tharmas, the power of sensation; and Urthona, the power of intuitive imagination. We can see a parallel here immediately with the work of Carl Jung, who also proposed four functions of the human psyche by which consciousness orientates itself:

Jung’s four functions of the human psyche
Jung’s four functions of the human psyche

Like Blake, in Jung we find a function for feeling, thinking, sensation and intuition.

Microcosm mirroring macroscosm 

The same fourfold division of the psyche or microcosm is something that appears again and again in psycho-spiritual belief systems throughout history and across the world. It is present in the spiritual alchemy of the West and in shamanistic doctrines past and present, where particular emphasis is placed on corresponding the microcosmic or human qualities with those of the external world or macrocosm:

Microcosmic and macrocosmic correspondences
Microcosmic and macrocosmic correspondences

Thus in a typical alchemical or shamanistic arrangement we might find the power of the intellect as a microcosmic manifestation of the same power that manifests itself as the element of air in the macrocosm of the natural world; for our ideas, being rarefied and intangible, yet nevertheless moving us to action, relate most closely to invisible air, whose presence is known when it stirs itself as the breeze.

Similarly, intuition and fire are seen as manifestations of the same power, for inspiring ideas fire us up, they arise like lightning, they energise us like the Sun.

Our feelings have a propensity to flow, to spread and move out, like water in the stream, as they seek to express themselves.

And our bodily sensations are most vivid when they touch solid objects, such as the rock of the element earth.

Directional placement and displacement 

The directional placing of these powers is nearly always related to the Sun, for it is by far and away the principal source and visible sign of energy. So, for example, intuition is placed in the east where the Sun rises – where the new energy and fire announce themselves.

What is key in all this is the intention to associate essential qualities of the human being to related qualities in nature, and — through various psycho-spiritual practices — to effect the felt experience that we are in fact, after all, integral to nature.

Blake himself attaches a similar importance to the directional placing of the four zoas:

Directional placing of the four zoas

So we have Luvah, the power to act creatively, at the east; Urizen, the rational power, at the south; Tharmas, the power of sensuality, at the west; and Urthona, the power of intuitive imagination, to the north. But when our microcosmic forces cease to be in alignment with those of the macrocosm — when we become psychically disconnected from the world, due to the rational faculty becoming over-bloated and tyrannising the other aspects of the psyche — then we fall from Heaven and enter the despondency of the ego-world. Blake describes this lapsed state as one in which the zoas have been displaced directionally:

The displaced zoas

Urizen is now in the west, Tharmas is in the east and Luvah is in the south. And this is the state most of us find ourselves in. But when Urizen is rehabilitated and the individual awakens spiritually, then the zoas are returned to their pre-lapsarian positions where they are once again aligned with the forces of the cosmos. Reason is returned to the south and once more functions as instrument, as emissary, of the spiritual soul.

At home in the world 

In the last plate of Jerusalem Blake shows Los or Luvah resplendent, having built Jerusalem. Now, the ratio is the instrument of art and imagination. Now, Los is at home in the world, at one with its divine presence that shines forth in its elemental modes: the earth upon which he stands; the river, the Moon; the fiery Sun; the translucent air through which the stars and the infinite universe are seen.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

At the heart of Blake’s work is mysticism, specifically pantheism – a nature spirituality in which all things and oneself are conceived as infused by the Infinite, a single universal and infinite substance. In the words of the most famous philosopher of pantheism, Baruch Spinoza, ‘Deus sive natura’: God and nature as interchangeable terms.

The task that Blake has Los perform – the building of Jerusalem amongst the dark satanic mills of the Urizenic mind and the industrial world of its externalisation – is the spiritual awakening of the sons and daughters of Albion – we modern men and women – to a felt and lived experience of this nature spirituality. And the means by which this task is accomplished is through the re-placing of Urizen, the rehabilitating of the rational faculty, from one who supposes himself to be the master and originator of our actions and reifies himself as the supposed mental-ego, to one who instead serves our desires and our imagination, one who enables the spiritual nourishment of the soul.  


Notes

James Fox is a philosopher and former researcher at the Open University and is a co-author of A Historical Dictionary of Leibniz’s Philosophy (Scarecrow Press, 2006). He is now mostly interested in mystical texts, especially pantheistic nature-based doctrines and practices which he sees as key to transforming our conception of ourselves in relation to the world: a transformation that can lead to the spiritual experience of total at-homeness in (at one with) the natural environment and hence to the feeling of a reverence and duty of care towards that environment. Prior to pursuing philosophy, he held a position in a climate research department at the UK Meteorological Office.

In the third and final part of the series, James outlines a Blakean-inspired project he is working on at present: a manifesto, a programme of practice and study, that has as its aim the cultivating of a mental space that has both an understanding of its place in the world and the experience of feeling at home in the world.

You can view William Blake’s manuscript of The Four Zoas online at the British Library.