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.

Going Beneath the Grains of Sand

As an accompaniment to our recent video teaser of William Blake's new stone finally in place at his grave in Bunhill Fields, we bring the story 'full circle' with this post and video from James Murray-White on his visit to the birthplace of that stone monument: Portland Head in Dorset. Here, beneath the 'grains of sand', is a place resonant with Blakean names: the Jordans Mine of Albion Stone.

One of the real highlights of my process of starting in on a project is the research time I always undertake, and then the physical journeys I get involved in to explore and create and find stories within the story. It is all about uncovering and hearing stories: following my nose and my gut into the underworld, or the meta-narrative, of the bigger story.

This has been true of many of my projects: a year spent while in my final year at Hull University on the trail of Eric Gill (which leads nicely back into this Blake Project); my undergraduate dissertation of the Dekalog films of Krzysztof Kieślowski; my five years living with and experiencing the life of the Bedouin tribes of the Negev Desert; my two films and research for a bigger project on the life and work of poet John Clare in North Cambridgeshire (my homeplace) and Epping Forest; and now, this wonderfully rich and curious journey into the life, work, and legacy of William Blake.

To Albion Stone

This has now literally taken me down into the bowels of the earth, under the “grains of sand”, down to the seam layer of Portland stone thousands of feet underground, to see the place where the new stone marking Blake’s burial place was cut from, in preparation for the careful work of Lida Kindersley to cut the letters.

Going in
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

Hallam Kindersley — Lida’s son — and I set off on an eight hour round trip to Portland Head, to visit the mine where Portland stone is hewn from. Last year I made contact with Albion Stone in preparation, to think about the process of stone being cut, right through to it being carved and created, through to the setting ceremony on August 12th.

For various reasons, I wasn’t able to go before Christmas, and the piece of stone that is being used had already been cut and was sitting in a stoneyard in Cambridge, from where Lida chose it (see the short film showing this, under February in our The Story Continues timeline). So I’m being open that here I’m ‘cheating’ the natural timeline and filming after the event — although forget you’ve read this when it comes to the film, as I’ll play around with the sequence of events and ‘pretend’ that we’re going to choose the piece of stone direct from the quarry…

Down in Jordans Mine

We met Mark Godden, Mine Manager, in Albion Stone’s HQ on Portland Head, and after a quick cup of tea and introductions to our project and to the work of the company, we set off the mile or two to the mine. I knew we were in interesting company when Mark straightaway referred to the Blakean “grains of sand”, and shared that he’s loved Blake’s work for many a year.

Jordans Mine is under-whelming from the outside: a curving white track, a couple of shipping containers at the top, and just two large holes framed by steel — and that’s it. Not sure what I expected, but this was it, and in we went.

It’s bizarre walking into a mine — I thought we were driving in, or even going in by some lift contraption, but no, Mark parked up and in we went. There was an instant differentness to the air and the atmosphere: a chalky clarity and a subterranean ambience, maybe. During some of the time there, around the mining, there was a sulphurous smell, like a bilious release, but it didn’t linger. I smelt it again at Lida’s workshop, as she cut the thicker letters of the name — and we both recoiled at the sudden stink: all those tiny critters released, after so much time encased and crushed down as sedimentary rock.

Mark led us deep in: it’s a very spacious place, as still as you would expect, interrupted every 10-15 minutes or so by the lights and then the sound of a hulking great vehicle taking stone out, or coming back in to collect more. I hope in the footage I’ve captured the slightly sinister sense of these coming towards you and roaring past, like beasts in a dark night. They illuminate and charge past, then the dark enfolds around again, and we walk on.

The cutting blade
Photograph; James Murray-White © 2018

My preoccupation was (and always is!) getting decent footage and sound, and this space threw up lots of challenges, and alongside that, I was watching my reaction to the space, feeling for creeping claustrophobia or indeed panic! Thankfully this didn’t rise up and force me to flee. Mark steered us gently between seams, between active work going on, measuring and assessing, and a close-up look of the huge saws and bits of kit used to cut and extract the stone. This mine quarries stone, not mines it or explodes it out: it’s a complicated process of cutting, then a metal bag is forced inside the cut; this contains water, which slowly expands and then the stone cracks off, and is hoiked out by machinery. The pressure is intense as this metal bag expands, and the sense that a huge boulder would be freed — I looked up at the structural roof supports, and wondered…

The way out
Photograph: James Murray-White © 2018

And so, here is our film of that strange and intriguing day spent underground, in search of Blake’s stone.

Mine Visit V2 from James Murray-White on Vimeo.

 

Notes

You can find out more about Albion Stone at their website and you can download an article by Mark Godden on the history, quarrying and geology of Portland stone:

Tyger School

To accompany last week's reading of The Tyger by Matt Ray Brown, artist Linda Richardson shares her experience working with Year 4 pupils to bring to life their responses to the poem. This classic poem from William Blake the storyteller never fails to engage the imagination!

One Friday a couple of weeks ago, I was artist in residence at Linton Heights School in Cambridgeshire, and had the wonderful opportunity of introducing William Blake to about 180 children. They loved him! I began each session by reading The Tyger, and encouraged them to listen, not just with their brains, but with their whole being. 

Painting and poetry is a full body experience, I told them, and they were a joy as they had genuine responses of wonder, excitement, curiosity, bewilderment and surprise. They brought their sketchbooks with them and I am sure William Blake would have loved the weird and wonderful images they drew. I encouraged them to react from their deep imagination, not their mind, and that there was no right or wrong way to respond. What a joy children are.


Notes

Linda Richardson is an artist. Based in Cambridge, England, she makes work that engages the imagination and intuition and tries to make a creative space for the viewer to connect their inner nature with their outer nature to form ideas that are not rooted in convention, reason or rationality. However neither are they pure fantasy that provides an escape from humdrum life. Linda wants instead to awaken the senses to the beauty and wonder of the world in which we live, to activate the attention to the mystery of the human experience.

Tyger, Tyger Image: Linda Richardson © 2018 lindarichardson.net

Here is the painting that Linda shared with the class at Linton Heights School, inspired by Blake’s poem, as seen in the photograph above.

You can find more of Linda’s work at lindarichardson.net

We shared actor’s Matt Ray Brown’s reading of The Tyger here, as part of Matt’s exclusive series for Finding Blake — filmed at William Blake’s home on South Molton Street, London.