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: 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.