Blake & Nature Spirituality: 1 – Universal Awareness

In Divine Madness James Fox described how he’d found in Blake’s work a poetic and visual representation of a psycho-spiritual philosophy that accounted for his own embroilment in the machinery and over-thinking of the rational ego, and the suffering that follows from that. He’d found in Blake glimpses of a consciousness freed from the egoic state. In the first of a new three-part series, James expands on his experiences of mental states and of universal awareness. Later posts will elaborate Blake’s doctrine of the four Zoas, and outline a project James is working on: a manifesto, a programme of practice and study to cultivate a mental space that has an understanding of its place in the world. 


Following a chance meeting with Robin Hatton-Gore at Blake’s new gravestone in August, following its unveiling the day before, I was invited to give a talk to the Mental Fight Club, a charity of which he is a trustee and which aims to assist recovery from mental illness through inspiring creative events and projects. Blake is regarded as the spirit guide of the club through founder Sarah Wheeler’s love of his work. The material here is based on the talk I gave at the Dragon Café in Borough, London, in November 2018. 

Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion (copy E, printed c1821) Source: The William Blake Archive www.blakearchive.org

Mental fight

A few years ago I would awake in the middle of the night, heart beating quickly, my nerves jangling, a vice around my forehead and a nauseous feeling of something sour and rotten welling up. Unable to return to sleep I would get up, make a cup of tea and settle down in another room with a notebook and pen to sort out my problem. I would try to work out, think out, what it was that was disturbing my sleep and producing the unpleasant physical sensations. 

As well as my day job in publishing I was working in my spare time on a philosophical project of my own, which was intended to solve (don’t laugh) all those apparent dilemmas that philosophers have been working over for more than 2,000 years – and continue to do so today. What is the meaning of life? Where is it to be found? Are we really annihilated at death? What is the ultimate nature of the world, of ourselves and of our relationship to it?

This was an over-ambitious project, following on from a PhD in the history of philosophy, alongside work editing academic texts. My rational faculty was in overdrive – though I could not see this at the time. And so the knotted ball of string that was my mind, the stress of which was waking me in the night, was pulled yet tighter when I got up to think my way out of my problem.

I had always been interested in the fundamental nature of the world. One of my earliest memories is of my mother teaching me astronomy prior to attending primary school. My first proper job had been in the natural sciences – meteorology. But I was also interested in the fundamental nature of ourselves as human beings – and this had led me into philosophy. The desire to pull together my philosophical interests and express them in my latest project was therefore my raison d’être – and so, despite finding myself in a situation where I was suffering from stress and insomnia, I could not give up this project that was overtaxing me. And nor was I prepared to change my day job or my other day-to-day living arrangements, out of a concern that it would disrupt my supposed life’s work. Worse was to come. Writing, something I had always done since my first novellas at age ten, became an increasingly fraught process, adding to stress. I was creatively blocked, able neither to realise my raison d’être nor to change my situation.

A universal awareness 

During those disturbed months I would find solace in a secluded grove I frequented on the edge of Dartmoor, near to where I live. Rarely encountering other people there, the only sounds are those of the birds, the breeze in the trees and the grass and the gently flowing stream.

On one such visit, after sitting in the sunlight for some time, trying to relax and calm the ideas competing for attention inside my brain, each with their own self-imagined importance and urgency, I opened my eyes to see the tree by the stream had been invested with some strange, new, enhanced presence. And as I gazed upon it a light-headedness possessed me, as not just the tree but everything in my experience – the very nature of experience itself – began to undergo a transformation that was both alien, entirely novel and unknown. This was not frightening, but came with the immediate sense that something very remarkable, very unusual, was announcing itself to me.

Jerusalem, Albion Rising - a universal awareness. From The William Blake Archive
Jerusalem, Albion Rising Source: The William Blake Archive http://www.blakearchive.org/

Had the world changed or had I changed? The raging swarm of ideas that had been plaguing me had been miraculously taken away: whether a million miles away, or even annihilated entirely, essentially beyond the world I now found myself in. My mental space, cleansed of thoughts, had become a crystalline substance, as had the world of things: my mind and the world were one. There was nothing left of ‘me’ except as a particular point of view in space and time at which a universal awareness was disclosing itself – to itself.

I now experienced my own awareness as that of this universal awareness – and I saw, I felt, that I was eternal. The idea of my own death meant nothing to me now. Sure, my own body would one day cease to function organically and be transformed by fire or worms; but my awareness, my sentience, my very self – that was eternal. And so I found myself in a state of bliss, of the profoundest tranquillity – of the revelation of Heaven on Earth – in which a divine presence seemed to penetrate and radiate out of every thing, tranquillising all movement such that I seemed to become aware of a stillness in the motion of the leaves in the trees and of a silence in the sound of the pouring of the stream. And yet, this blissful state, this Heaven on Earth, I now saw, is present always – it is here now – we just have to awaken to it.

In this state I felt that I had arrived at that which I had been searching for philosophically for many years. The sense of completion, of having found the Holy Grail. Yet, as is usual with mystical experience, I found myself sinking back into the ego-world, the vision afforded me now reduced to a mere memory. In the return to my old state I found myself still creatively blocked, and the stress returned and the feeling of rotten acidic bilge water seeping up once more – if anything, worse than ever.

An opened door  

Previously I had been on a quest for treasure, the nature of which I knew not what. Now I knew its nature. Now I had touched the philosopher’s stone and had to touch it again. But how? For the treasure had been revealed to me. The door had been opened for me. I did not have the key myself. I had never had it.

Then one day, in the spring of 2017, I found myself in Glastonbury, browsing in a second-hand bookshop while Mrs Fox did some shopping of her own. Not looking for any special subject in particular – and Blake was certainly not on my mind – I somewhat apathetically pulled out a book simply entitled William Blake. It was written by John Middleton Murry, the prolific author of more than sixty books and editor of the Adelphi magazine. Murry was married to Katherine Mansfield and was part of a scene that included the likes of D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley. Both Lawrence and Huxley were interested in mysticism. The title of one of Huxley’s books on the subject, The Doors of Perception, is taken from Blake’s work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Doors rock group took their name from Huxley’s work.

John Middleton Murry
John Middleton Murry Source: Pinterest

I opened the covers of William Blake. Murry begins with a quote from Blake’s An Island in the Moon:

When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.

Murry then writes:

There is the magic. One’s heart sinks to rest; and everything else becomes still. Stillness within, stillness without. For those voices are not heard with the bodily ear; that laughter breaks no silence … The clamour lapses into an eternal moment, and the world is born anew. The sentient soul is bathed in the waters of the spirit. The doors of perception are cleansed; and the world gleams forth with the bloom and brightness of a new creation.

As I read, a spiritual sun began to glow inside me. Almost immediately I sensed the presence of that key I’d been searching for since what Blake calls the Countenance Divine had shone forth for me in that green and pleasant grove on the edge of Dartmoor.

Murry continues:

This experience, whether it comes to us mediately through the creation of art, or immediately in a timeless instant of pure contemplation, is twofold in its character. It reveals the world without, and it reveals the world within. Objectively, that which we contemplate – be it sight or sound, directly or at one remove – is, as it were, clarified. The veil of quotidian perception is lifted. Subjectively, we are also clarified. The world and we, alike, are cleansed. Both pass into a new medium: the medium of Imagination, as Blake called it. In that medium we touch a new order of reality – a new reality in ourselves, and in the object which we contemplate.

I quickly saw in those opening pages of William Blake that Middleton Murry himself had experienced the Countenance Divine; and when I later began reading the book properly was satisfied that it was this, what Blake terms ‘spiritual sensation’, and all its psychological and philosophical aspects and ramifications, that is at the core of his work. 


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.

James attended the unveiling of Blake’s new gravestone at Bunhill Fields in August 2018. Here, you can see a short interview he gave there to Finding Blake’s James Murray-White.

Building on the Countenance Divine and universal awareness, in his next post, James elaborates Blake’s doctrine of the Four Zoas, and relates them to underlying ideas of the psyche that may be met with in various belief systems throughout history and across cultures.

Mental Fight Club describes itself as, “in essence, an adventure story.” Founded by Sarah Wheeler, drawing inspiration from poets Ben Okri and William Blake and other muses, the club’s mission is “to put on imaginative events for people of all mental experience. All our events seek to connect our inner and our outer world and ourselves to one another, whoever we may be.” Mental Fight Club created and meets at the Dragon Café. 

Finding Blake – Our First Year

We start the New Year with a timely update from Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White. As well as looking back at our first year, a highly eventful journey and the successes for Finding Blake, James also shares a couple of sneak previews of what’s coming up next. 


Blimey, as Blake might have said. It’s January 2019 already — a year on from having raised the funding through our crowdfunding campaign and cracking into the Finding Blake Project.

Albion Rose by William Blake (1793-6)
Albion Rose
William Blake (1793-6)
Source: the William Blake Archive
http://www.blakearchive.org

And what a year it’s been on the Blakean trail! From that first interview with poet David Whyte in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford — where Blake was right there with us — all the way through to the ceremony to set Blake’s new ledger stone in Bunhill Fields, London, on the 12th August. And, in-between: journeys down into the underground quarry where that piece of Portland stone came from; coming face to face with Blake’s paintings and words, and with Blakean scholars and creatives of all hues; and a deep encounter with the stone itself, which now bears his name, dates, a quote, and the words ‘Poet – Artist – Prophet’.

The ledger stone is a huge focus of the film I am making: Blake, his stone and its creation by a master-craftsperson of this age and, I hope, the themes of his vision — infinity, eternity, time, and hope.

No simple answers

Have I found Blake? That’s the question that is spinning around me now, and has been for the last few weeks as I’ve been focusing intensely on editing the material. Well, thinking hard on that, I don’t think I have — not in a rounded shape that I can put in my pocket and say, yes, here’s Blake. But of course poetry, mysticism, articulating a vision — these aren’t and shouldn’t ever be that simple or clear-cut.

Life itself isn’t clear-cut (if it is, you’re doing it wrong), and the journey is never about the destination. For me definitely, it’s about the meanderings on the road and the twists and turns. So alongside the cutting and splicing, and the giant jigsaw of the filmed story of the last year that I have in front of me, I’m reflecting upon a year in search of William Blake: his extraordinary words, images and overall vision; the physical life he lived over 70 years; what the impact of all this is, what folk say and feel about him and that vision now; and ultimately, the impact of Blake for today’s world, for today’s Britain.

Folk have asked me recently, ‘Tell me about Blake’, and I can’t articulate his life and work into a sentence or paragraph. Maybe I can with poets like Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, WB Yeats, or John Clare — all of whom I’ve had a longer engagement with over many years and a physical affinity to the places they inhabited: Hull, Yorkshire, Ireland, and the Northamptonshire / North Cambridge territory that John Clare tramped around. Maybe my antipathy towards the city of London has hampered me on the Blake trail (sorry Londoners! I always will be a village lad).

A simple resonance

Walking on concrete constantly creates that physical disconnection. I deeply resonate with Blake’s three nearly harmonious years in Felpham, where he was surrounded by the elements, able to see and sense the sea, and grow things in his garden. I’ve never been interested in trying to ‘explain’ Blake. But filming Carol Leader’s rich lecture on how she uses Blake’s work in psychoanalysis, and the presentations by Reverend Malcolm Guite and Reverend Christopher Rowland on Blake as a Christian icon, have both been wonderful experiences for me, a witness to inspiring efforts to explain or understand him in specific, focused ways.

I would recommend Will Franken’s deep and visceral film Red, White & Blake for his efforts to engage with some of the specifics. And, on the subject of connection to land, friend of Finding Blake Matt Wilmshurst is in the thick of producing Blake in Sussex, a feature drama about William and Catherine’s three years in Felpham. We’re greatly looking forward to seeing that and wish Matt and the team great success.

My film and this project are not about ‘me’ finding Blake. It’s about a shared journey, for all of us: exploring. I’m steering and mediating it, and my voice is there asking questions, commenting and reflecting. I ask a lot of questions of everyone I’ve met along this road; I’m good at asking questions, though in interviews we’ve stuck rigidly to three simple ones:

  • How has William Blake influenced you, personally and professionally?
  • What examples of his work — poems, engravings, images — or his life resonate with and inspire you?
  • How do you feel William Blake is most relevant to the current day: as artist, spiritual visionary, political inspiration?

And I have been delighted when interviewees go wildly off with their answers: there is no right Blakean answer!

Finding Blake  — the film

But back to the product: the intangible tangible thing that this project has been created around is and is nudging toward in this chunk of Blakean time. I have a file full of sections and rough cuts, and an overall structure that I’m slotting sections into. I’m thinking about where interview clips go, and which sections resonate with others and with which words, and how much to mess around with linear time.

I’ve done a big chunk of this initial editing and structuring up in a quiet cottage in Cumbria, thanks to a great friend of and contributor to the project, Clare Crossman. While there, I discovered that Kathleen Raine — probably the single person who did the most to promote Blake into our era — had a house nearby. So in seeking the quiet places for inspiration and focus, Blake comes with me and crops up again, not just in written word and image (I had a big box of books to keep me going), but in the most wonderful ways.

The plan is that I’ll do some test screenings here in Cambridge in a week or so, mainly to invited critical eyes and those closely involved in the project, and then there will be the first public screening with the Blake Society in London on Wednesday 16th January. Anyone is welcome to this event, but please check with the Blake Society, of course.

Following this, we’ll take in some of the comments and feedback, think about further ideas we have in mind to film, and then take it forward. Any ideas you have for screening opportunities, please shout!

Blake's new gravestone unveiled - a key moment in our first year
Blake’s new gravestone unveiled
Photograph: Lida Cardozo Kindersley © 2018
www.kindersleyworkshop.co.uk/

So a huge shout to all who chipped in a year ago: your sterling efforts have helped get the project to this point! Thank you! Your funds have been spent on travel, paying for filming and a tiny bit of my editing time, hard drives, memory cards, the odd Blake book or four, and hosting the website.

Without your support, ‘Finding Blake’ could never have started out on this Blakean journey …

We made that start without attracting all the funds we needed, because it was important to begin the journey and to share the benefits of our exploration through our film and website. We are actively seeking further funds to complete all the activities we set out to do. If you would like to make a donation, please use the button on the site or get in touch. And if you have suggestions for other funding ideas, we’d love to have them!

Our first year — and beyond

I just want to end this post with some further thank yous for Finding Blake’s first year: two specifics and a general one. To Mark, for astonishing perseverance and clarity in progressing with this website, dealing with words, images, layout, and fielding questions and responding. To Linda, who has been a marvel: digesting, processing Blake, driving us, interviewing, providing emergency sausage rolls, liaising, and more. And to so many in my technical and feedback crew, who respond to my questions and calls for help, and give the critical feedback that keeps me semi-sane and on the creative meander in this crazy world. And finally, to Mr William Blake: poet — artist — prophet …

A happy New Year to all. May it bring us clarity, deep visioning, and the energy to live richly.

The Sun at His Eastern Gate
William Blake
Watercolor, over traces of black chalk
Source: The Morgan Library & Museum www.themorgan.org

A few extra things to look out for soon:

  • In a few weeks, we’ll start posting a regular series of extra footage and material that is additional to the film, a kind of ‘DVD extras’ bundle if you like.
  • I’ve really resonated with one or two of Blake’s images when I’ve met them in the flesh this year (see The Unfolding and Unveiling, about the exhibition at Petworth and in particular Blake’s image, The sea of time and space), and of course there have been some I haven’t connected to. This year, Finding Blake wants to start a mini-series of posts from you telling us about the images you love, or hate, and why.
  • The wonderful Tyger painting by Linda, from her residency at a Cambridgeshire school, will shortly go on sale online by auction to raise further funds for this project. More details will be announced here soon.

 


Notes

You can find a 2018 review by Jason Whittaker of Will Franken’s film Red, White and Blake at Zoamorphosis | The Blake Blog 2.0

There is more information about Blake in Sussex, the forthcoming film from Matt Wilmshurst at the Blake in Sussex site.

James will be discussing the Finding Blake project and film, and presenting material from his film at a screening after the AGM of the Blake Society at Waterstones Bookshop (82 Gower Street, London WC1E 6EQ) on 16th January (6.30pm). See the Blake Society events page for info (scroll down to January and mention of ‘Finding Blake’).