Monday, 11 January 2010

The Natural Rhythm in Life— Using the Figure of Eight Model

In The Redemption of the Robot, written two years before his death in 1968, Herbert Read points out that there are two ways in which it can be said that there is a natural rhythm to our human being, awareness of which can, given a proper attitude, emerge gradually from the substance of our pre-conscious proto-self—represented by the bottom half of the Figure of Eight model. Neither way is the result of left brain activity—a characteristic of the top half of the Figure of Eight model. Both ways rely on a kind of felt relationship between body, the microcosm, and outside ‘events’ in the macrocosmos.

The first way can be conveniently called The Storm in a Teacup Way. Metaphors of this kind come into being in human language (which is in fact all metaphor) by way of a sense of fit between one field of experience and another. Shakespeare had this when he deftly represented King Lear’s self-inflicted anguish by dumping him naked on the blasted heath—an objective correlative (TSEliot) for his internal storm. Subscribing to my friend Hilary’s Blog ( I was talking about the difficulty of making sense of linguistic abstractions (‘beauty’, ‘justice’, ‘career’ etc) as being pretty much the same as wrestling with a large frog at the bottom of a mucky pond. This image just happened; it came out of nowhere seemingly, although, on the same day that I was confronting the problem of dealing with abstract ideas, I had also been clearing out an old pond in the garden. I didn’t think the metaphor—it kind of thought me, it just occurred to me at some level of my psyche over which I do not exercise control. Imagery of this kind comes to us in spite of conscious thought; in a way such imagery is more effective in conveying ‘meaning’ than trying to put things together in a linear sequence as I am doing now; it makes its point in a nutshell.

The second way in which natural rhythm may be identified is in the flow of experience itself which may be apprehended as a sequence of patterns. Its ‘facts’, if we are to make a resourceful response to them, ‘are not grasped by enumeration but must be felt as a coherent pattern’, not piecemeal, bit by bit, but as a whole, a good gestalt. Whether we like it or not we choose our patterns of behaviour because they feel right to us; behavioural outcomes that feel right tend to get repeated to form a pattern.

It has come to feel right to me to be writing with this fountain pen at this desk—it is part of the pattern of my life. It has to be with this fountain pen at this desk; it can’t be anywhere else, at dawn anyway. It’s part of a pattern I run on some occasions: call it a has-to-be-thus pattern rather than an it-could-be-any-old-how pattern. This pattern here and now feels right to some level of my psyche over which I do not exercise control—in fact it is a living schema, a life-metaphor for my writing urge.

Herbert Read points out that Plato said that true education is about observing the natural rhythms of a well-regulated life; once the pattern has been observed the task is ‘to compel the foot and the music to suit themselves to the sense of such a life and not the sense itself to the foot and the music...’ Square up to natural internal rhythms rather than allow what’s out there to dictate its rhythm to us.

Tuning in to our natural bodily sense of balance & symmetry, proportion & rhythm we become able to notice the way in which all experience falls into naturally persisting patterns. This happens when we use our biological sense of ‘fit’ to assess what’s going on outside us. Any attempt to force things without feeling a sense of fit results in discordances—ill-temper, procrustean methods, colonialism, profit and war. Gauging what’s ‘natural’ within us results in the possibility at least of learning to go with a sense of ecological flow.

Balance & symmetry, proportion & rhythm—these are aesthetic laws inherent in the biological processes of life itself. Working with life is an aesthetic process.

Balance & symmetry, proportion & rhythm—these are life-metaphors as opposed to the invented metaphors of poetry, the task of which is to look for natty ways of expressing ideas. Incidentally, a haiku writer will recognise that a haiku in itself is a life-metaphor which is why haiku eschews invented metaphor—but that’s another story...

A life-metaphor is one that just feels naturally right. For instance, those hundreds of seagulls that fly up and down the river, morning and evening, outside where I’m writing—I can’t help what they do; I don’t control it; I haven’t invented it; they just do what they do as they have been doing for at least 150 years since the river was straightened out by human labour. In doing what they do, in the way that they do it, they have come to represent the to and fro of me; they are an objective correlative for my pendulum existence. There is something or other in me at a deeper level than I am consciously aware of that fastened on this daily activity of seagulls as representing a part of me. As I write about this now, whatever the impulse in me, it makes its way up the Figure of Eight and the life-metaphor becomes loaded with words as I try to explain what’s happening—it’s probably just best left to itself!

When Cicero hit upon the lucky phrase excitare fluctus in simpulo, I like to think that it did just flow out of his proto-self through his pen, as he went with the rhythm of his experience, perhaps while he was watching a cook stirring the soup in a cauldron or even doing it himself. ‘To stir up a flood in a soup ladle’ is a lively image which has come down to us through several variations to be transformed into the stone-dead metaphor, ‘a storm in a teacup’ which is how, incidentally, the Oxford Classics translates Cicero’s lovely phrase, elegantly illustrating how novel expressions, in the hands of mechanical educators, become debased in the course of time. Nowadays politicians would be thought rather old-fashioned if they used the expression ‘a storm in a teacup’. Being in the catch-phrase business, they go on to others: Harold MacMillan’s dismissal of some political storm (the nature of which I have forgotten) consisted of saying, uncolourfully, that it was ‘all got up by the press’; now the dead metaphor is ‘spin’ which can be hurled unthinkingly at anything one disagrees with.

For Herbert Read and according to the Figure of Eight model, life is organic growth; it ‘cannot be lived according to an abstract formula of words, but only to a pattern, and not to a pattern in the abstract sense of a defined form, but only to a living, evolving form, which obeys rules... Life is movement; we cannot halt it for a moment without killing it. The pattern is visible only in time. We can give pattern to our span of years, but we cannot without death or distortion, give life to... any purely verbal, symbolic system of behaviour. The basis of a living community, the basis of individual happiness, is physiological: it is only in so far as this physiological basis has unity with nature (physis = nature) that society can have harmony and health...’

In a little child, what starts off as organic growth in Essence becomes pretty quickly subject to the distorting influence of everything that passes for progress in our left-brain civilisation—‘the root cause of social disintegration’ as Herbert Read puts it. ‘We sow the seeds of disunity in the nursery and the classroom with our superior adult conceit...’

Organic growth is the natural process depicted in the bottom circle of the Figure of Eight—infinity turned on its side.

The challenge for all who consider themselves to be ‘educators’ is how to ensure a smooth constant flow from the proto-self to the worldly self and back again, preserving balance & symmetry, proportion & rhythm. It’s what happens at the point of intersection that is crucial; what we keep with us as we work our way upwards.

An even greater challenge for us jaundiced, mortgaged adults cursed with vanity and ambition is how to recognise and then work with natural metaphors deriving from the proto-self.

Now you come to think of it, what kinds of events in the outside world sometimes seem somehow to minister to your sense of being-in-the-world? Whatever you discover will be different from what I think of as my own natural connections (life-metaphors) but examples I might suggest would include:-

● standing paddling in the ebb and flow of the tide
● coming to the top of a hill and getting a fresh perspective
● rooms or sheds etc as containers for my psyche
● awareness of sunrise
● awareness of sunset
● coming to a clearing in the middle of a forest
● arrival at a house in a clearing in the middle of a forest
● islands
● flying in dreams
● snow—the way it levels everything out

Like the habits of seagulls these things say something about the way ‘I’ am. It’s as though they chose me.

Like John Parsons said in his ‘homework’ : I have a flock of rooks—their flight less determined—they chat and fool around—more like me I think. Dawn locks the gate.

Monday, 28 December 2009


I seem to have lost the book—at least it’s not filed on the shelf where I expected it to be—amongst the D’s, between Csikszentmihalyi and De Bono. Nor does it seem to be in any of the heaps of books around the place awaiting further scrutiny.

It was such a good book and I know it contains the answers to everything I’ve been thinking about during the past few weeks. But I seem to have lost it.

However, when I first read the book I lamented the fact that the author was heavily into linear presentation and I even thought of writing to him to show him the diagram I had made out of his book. In the end, not wishing to be presumptuous, I didn’t write to Antonio Damasio, author of the lost book, The Feeling of Now... But I still have the diagram I made; whilst the basic figure of eight construction remains, the diagram has undergone several changes since I first drafted it so that I now no longer know whether it’s an accurate depiction of the argument of the book or whether it’s just a model that works for me. Certainly Antonio Damasio does not mention Brian Lancaster. Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the least sub specie aeternitatis.

In any case it’s a model that I keep tinkering with; it seems to change as I think about it!

The fundamental part of Allport’s concept of the Proprium—the ground of our being, that which precedes all the other parts of it in developmental terms—is Bodily Sense; there begin here all the other parts of the Proprium—Self-identity, Ego-enhancement, Rational Agent and so on: the little baby kicking & rolling over & lolling its head on one side, somehow expecting you to do the same, is exploring its deep sense of what it is to be a physiological being, delighting in its physical existence in the world; it has no words to explain the behaviour that can be such a delight to the doting parents; unlike them, it cannot use linguistic tags to explain its behaviour or predict what it will do next. Yet...

But it does have a vestibular system—a growing sense of balance and spatial orientation—the sensory system in the labyrinth of the inner ear, situated in the vestibulum in the inner ear. The vestibular system sends signals primarily to the neural structures that control our eye movements, and to the muscles that keep us upright.

It has viscera—internal organs, specifically those within the chest (heart & lungs, for example) or abdomen (liver, pancreas, intestines...)

And it has musculo-skeletal props that enable it to clench or unclench itself depending on its current felt-sense of the world and what it feels (without ‘knowing’) that it needs to do to achieve homeostasis—get fed or be made comfortable and so on—in order to maintain the constancy of its ‘internal milieu’.

In our unsophisticated adult way, we project the words for the simplified patterns of behaviour we have come to call ‘emotions’ on to the behaviour of the growing baby— ‘anger’, ‘upset’, ‘being in a paddy’, expressing ‘pleasure’, being ‘happy’ and so on. A less immediately comfortable but ultimately more accurate view of things is to grasp the idea that what we file away as ‘emotions’ are in fact simply ‘...cognitive representations of body states that are part of a homeostatic mechanism by which the internal milieu is monitored and controlled, and by which this internal milieu influences behaviour of the whole organism...’ (Bruce G Charlton)

When we adults become less smug about the truth of the way in which we see the world, when we slow ourselves down in order to make fine discriminations in what’s going on for us we will be able to comprehend that this is still and always going on for us: we have feelings deriving from the combined activity of our vestibular system, our viscera and our musculo-skeletal props, feelings and we need never impose a limit on them by our habitual recourse to the simplicity of words.

It is dawn. I look out of my study window to watch the hundreds of seagulls who fly inland every morning along the course of the river. Somewhere deep inside me is a feeling-response that I would be hard put to express in words though I have often tried. What is it I feel? Happiness? Nostalgia? Pain at the endless rigmarole of things? A whoosh of energy at feeling myself to be an integral part of Nature?

There are no precise words. But I know that always at dawn, if I am at my window, I will have this undefinable feeling; and at sunset I will have ‘the same’ feeling because I will see all those hundreds of gulls flying back out to sea. In Antonio Damasio’s terms, I have a ‘somatic marker’, a something or other inside me that pre-verbally, bodily, in my gut, knows that river + dawn + seagulls will evoke ‘the same’ cognitive response today as it did yesterday and will tomorrow. ‘The somatic marker mechanism is the way in which cognitive representations of the external world interact with cognitive representations of the internal world—where perceptions interact with emotions...’ (Bruce G Charlton)

Many animals display awareness of external sensory stimuli (eg. monkeys may be aware of specific aspects of the visual environment they see, as demonstrated in innumerable experiments). But what is unusual about humans is that we are also aware of our bodies, our ‘selves’, and this inner-directed attention forms the root of consciousness. Damasio argues that consciousness is based upon an awareness of the ‘somatic’ milieu, and that awareness of inner states evolved because this enables us to use somatic states (ie. emotions) to ‘mark’, and thereby ‘evaluate’, external perceptual information.

I Googled ‘Damasio’ and was excited to find the writings of Bruce G Charlton. They reminded of the contents of the lost book.

My consciousness of river + dawn + seagulls derives from some patterning in the neurons that has become relatively fixed. I know right now that if I look away from the computer and out of the window I will see a determination of seagulls still making their way inland between the river banks that are becoming lighter as the sun rises; the feeling is there, inexpressibly there. In cognitive awareness, I have used the event in poems as a conscious metaphor to build on the ‘somatic marker’. It all goes into my working memory as a thought-cluster.

Whereabouts, inside this physical frame where I have been all my life, is it located?—the pre-conscious, preverbal gut-feeling, that ‘if I look away from the computer and out of the window I will see a determination of seagulls...’ It’s there before the words come up for me... It’s somewhere in my ‘core consciousness’—the omnipresent sense of being alive, being able to form images of ‘reality’. I stop typing for a moment to put attention on the throb of heart, the coursing of blood through veins & arteries, my breathing, the movement of my chest, swallowing saliva, a ‘click’ in the bone as I move my foot, the cold on my fingers; after much practice, I can move awareness from one part of my body to another; when I STOP myself from simply identifying with the OBJECT of existence—the endless daily interaction with what’s ‘out there’, outside the boundary or envelope of my being—I become aware of being locked inside this great glob of being. So just where is it located?—the pre-conscious, preverbal gut-feeling, that ‘if I look away from the computer and out of the window I will see a determination of seagulls...’ Literally in the gut, maybe, or in the head, or in the mole on my foot, or, now I warm up to the search, spread throughout my whole being... Again, now, I am aware of the gestalt river + dawn + seagulls, the representation of which is contained in my body; it has a lot to do with my sense of self—a somatic marker that will determine one way in which my organism will interact with the object of the ‘out-there’.

It takes some time to write all this up. In reality it’s a split second event. Whatever it is inside me that comes up with a somatic marker runs round the lower half of the figure of eight in no time at all. It’s been like this for 72 years. Millions of somatic markers no doubt.

The top half of the figure of eight takes us into a somewhat more articulate consciousness. Exactly where this starts on the figure of eight is anybody’s guess. But as soon as we start using words on it, paradoxically, we impose structures that are not necessarily true to ‘life’.

One way to STOP our habitual lurch into the word-distortions is to get ourselves into what Gurdjieff/Ouspensky called ‘self-remembering’. The ‘this-is-me-here-now-being-me-here-now’ wordless experience. To be of any use in the whole figure of eight process it must happen very soon after we pass through the crossover point of NOW.

river + dawn + seagulls + this is me here & now experiencing the boundary between somatic marker and what’s out there, white flapping purposefully up-river in the half-light.

Focus attention on ‘the moment just before’ and then ‘the moment when’—in between is self-remembering... Get the feeling of NOW... Afterwards all the other things, including the news-world and breakfast and switching the central heating on and getting dressed, flood in.

Choose an event for yourself and use this template to explore what goes on for you. Your event probably won’t be river + dawn + seagulls—it will be whatever it is.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

A Certain Something that Keeps one on Track

How do we stay at the fertile point of stasis? What is there in us that is determined to keep us on track? With a resolution, say...

Some might reify the certain something or other that keeps us on track by giving it a label: 'will-power', for instance. All labels are inventions without patent.

In her brilliant novel A Far Cry from Kensington Muriel Spark makes a very sound comment on will-power: it does not exist in the present but only, perhaps, and rather grudgingly, as a description of an application of something or other in 'past' or 'future'; if it does not exist in the present then it does not exist as a thing at all... And if the present is all the time there is...

On the question of will-power, if that is a factor, you should think of will-power as something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future and the past. At one moment you have decided to do or refrain from an action and the next moment you have already done or refrained; it is the only way to deal with will-power. (Only under sub-human stress does will- power live in time present but that is a different discourse.) I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book...

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Another Way of Saying the Same Thing

as when you might read

some adventure story for the sake of the plot
or watch telly because there’s nothing else to do
and you know that consciousness becomes flat
like a bottle of lemonade left open for a day

but oh the hissing champagne-quality
of consciousness when you are excited
by ideas or moved by Beethoven—then—just
then—there is the fizzing and over-bubbling

of pure potentiality: consciousness is
awakened potentiality which it would be nice
to be able to inaugurate for ourselves
with some electronic slide control attached to

the brain so that we could turn consciousness up
and down at will... feel it moving within our bones
in just the same way as we see everything changing
when we make things dance on the computer screen


rises to the surface;
we go in search of it long before
it has reached the surface—

too early an interception
harnesses the eliminative
function of the mind;

the potential we possess
from being a fragment of Mind at Large
is funnelled through the reducing valve

of brain & nervous system
and what comes out the other end
is just a measly trickle

of consciousness—the sort
that focusses on football matches
and the current value of our shares...

let awareness rise right up to the surface
without the desperate lunge of interception
without writing a script for it yet

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The St Neot Margin

I first read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider in 1957. It made an impact on me that lasted far longer than the brief chorus of popular acclaim which it aroused as part of what those desperate to find pigeon-holes called The Angry Young Man phenomenon. With youthful enthusiasm I saw myself as an outsider and used the book half-consciously as a guide to my reading life for the next twenty years: Hesse, Wells, Dostoevsky, Camus and particularly Sartre—his Nausea became a kind of bible for me.

But, for some strange reason, it was not till relatively recently—beginning in the 1990s—that I have started to catch up with the books Colin Wilson wrote in the long years between.

What renewed my enthusiasm was the discovery that he’d written about two of my heroes: The Strange Life of PDOuspensky (1993) and The War Against Sleep (The Philosophy of Gurdjieff) (1980). So I acquired several of his other books and have to some extent made up for ‘lost time’.

In Beyond the Outsider (1965), which I read recently, Colin Wilson continues to argue for a new existentialism which I nutshell as the drive to realise one’s capacity for conscious action through intentionality and complexification (making the richest picture possible of the universe).

Although in the Preface of Beyond the Outsider he says he’s not too happy about using the term, Colin Wilson frequently mentions the ‘St Neot Margin’ without explaining its origin at all. It seemed to make sense to replace it in my interpretative apparatus with ‘Margin of Indifference’. But the very words ‘St Neot Margin’ continued to intrigue me.

I began also to get a bit excited about the possible practical application of the process Colin Wilson was describing. Words being inadequate to depict ‘process’—they lead too often to reification—I tinkered with a diagrammatic representations:-

Here was something that I felt could be made into a teaching exercise: what kinds of things contribute to the mood of indifference that overtakes us sometimes and eliminates, let’s say, ‘enthusiasm’ from our being? How might we develop ‘enthusiasm’ in order to redress the balance? What is indifference? Can it be defined as a Life Debilitating Trance? How can we change gear in order to get into a Life Enhancing Trance?

But why the ‘St Neot Margin’?

Mirabile dictu, I got to page 7 in Voyage to a Beginning this morning and experienced a grand explosion in the neurons. On that page, Colin Wilson describes how he was hitch-hiking up the A1 in the mid-1950s reflecting on the fact that he was also experiencing a mood of extreme indifference to life—how does one grasp such awareness, track its onset and make sense of it?

And then arrived my extreme delight at a moment of ‘Recognition’:-

We happened to be passing through the town of St Neots at the time, and to keep the conception in my head until I could write about it I scrawled on a piece of paper ‘St Neot Margin’. It would probably have been as effective if I had simply called my conception the indifference margin (except that, since the concept needs defining anyway, it might be preferable to have a term that does not look deceptively self-explanatory).

It’s the bracketed comment that now seems so important to me: the mysterious tag ‘St Neot Margin’ captures the imagination and engages thought in a way that ‘indifference margin’ does not; it’s just as Gurdjieff says—‘nothing should be given in a ready-made form...’ because something apparently done and dusted does not inspire effort after meaning.

Having had the mystery of the origin of ‘St Neot Margin’ solved for me, I can now begin to fill it with meaning and significance for myself. To do this I simply figured out how I would respond to my own evolving teaching exercise; during the course of my thinking three diagrams emerged—two were a refinement of the original diagrams and a third presented itself out of nowhere.

The first part of my teaching exercise might pose the question—What are the things that cause one to be swamped by ‘indifference’ from time to time?

I tend to be swamped by indifference when I

● find that whatever I’m doing is contaminated by alien thoughts or worries
● think of something that crops up as a ‘problem’ rather than look for solutions—being in a ‘problem-frame’
● have no clearly defined aim or purpose
● lack intention
● find that there are too many variables to juggle them successfully
● feel dogged by mortality
● am enveloped by purposelessness
● identify with negativity—in others or in myself
● when my inner voice goes steely and dismal or races hares

When any of these things happen I tend to throw up my hands and say, “What the hell...!”

The second question I might ask is—When does ‘indifference’ disappear under the pressure of ‘enthusiasm’?

Indifference tends to disappear when I

● get hooked by the excitement of learning (as when I discovered the origin of the ‘St Neot Margin’!)
● get an ‘aha!’ experience
● get into an Outcome Frame rather than wallow in a Problem Frame
● know where I’m going to
● get a sense of ‘fit’ or (at least temporary) congruence
● move towards a feeling of completion (as now when I know I’ve nearly finished this piece of writing...)
● can keep all my plates spinning
● have a feeling of achievement
● have what Sartre calls a ‘project’
● have annihilated ‘Time’
● feel I’m on to an idea
● put a plan into operation
● am externally focussed
● am generally on ‘Top Form’

While was jotting down possible answers to these two questions a third bit of the diagram seemed to suggest itself: the third box came to represent a fertile point of stasis, nowness, neither up nor down, divorced from past and future (see previous Blog). The question which emerges—What is the benefit of being just here?

● It feels like a margin of balance
● It is where one can get to when one practises Gurdjieff’s STOP! exercise
● When one is truly still, Pure Potential exists there
● It is an opportunity to make existential choice

How does simply knowing about the ‘St Neot Margin’ make it possible to hitchhike oneself there?

Thanks to Colin Wilson for the concept!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Ego-extension - Past & Future

In Allport’s Proprium concept, once we are familiar with it, there is an all too familiar state of being called ‘Ego-extension’. This is a term intended to describe the inadvertent slipping into, or choosing to run, the considerable risk of losing our selves in possessions, loved objects, people, causes, obsessions, loyalties, groups, clothes, nation, abstractions of all kinds, including Past and Future.

In ‘Ego-extension’ we extend this simple envelope of being, boundaried by skin & senses, so that somehow or other it enters into something else, something other than what it is to be us—to be just us, just here, in the utter stillness of the productive present.

STOP now, just for a moment, in the luxury of Here & Now before you allow yourself again to be contaminated by your stories and regrets about the past and your fearful visions of the future. In the interface between past and future there’s a great opportunity for dalliance in ‘the moment when...’, for grasping the immense potential of freezing your self in ‘the moment just before...’—a great place to gather all your resources together for the task ahead now.

To extend oneself into the past causes unnecessary tensions for ourselves and for other people. The tensions get in the way of functioning fully in the present moment. We tell ourselves so many stories about the past—they act like a drug; they drag us back into something other than the Here & Now.

“I’ve always done it like this; I can’t help the way I am...”
“I label myself as a failure [or a success...] and that’s how it will always be...”
“My belief is this and you won’t budge me from it...”
“But you said...”
“This is how we’ve always done it so don’t try to rock the boat now...”
“I remember solving this problem before—now how did I do it...?”
“I’ll always regret doing [not doing] that...”
“I wish I could go back to the Good Old Days...”
“This perfume always reminds me of...”

To extend oneself into the future causes unnecessary tensions for ourselves and for other people. The tensions get in the way of functioning fully in the present moment. We invent so many fantasies about the future—we leak energy as we drift wraith-like into the future and away from the present moment.

“My expectation is...”
“I intend to change my way of doing this...”
“I am fearful of what is going to happen when...”
“I have a vision...”
“My ambition, which I’ve had for a long time, is to [become a millionaire... etc]...
“I am overwhelmed by the amount of work I have on hand. I’ll never be able to do it all...”
“I’ll get even with him...”
“This is what we have to do...”
“I want the answer and I’ll have it on my desk by 12 o’clock tomorrow...”

But just here, in the Here & Now, we can be completely separate from the tensions brought on by identifying ourselves with the siren-stare of past and future.

“I shout STOP! at myself...”
“I turn to a new and blank page on which anything can happen...”
“I float up above myself and notice the pattern of my being...”
“I make the space between ‘past’ and ‘future’ much bigger than it used to be...”
“I revel in the freedom of absolute emptiness...”
“Just here and now I can choose my direction without encumbrances...”
“I cease labelling things with the old tickets deriving from the past or directed towards the future...”
“I can separate this from that...”
“This now is pure possibility...”

Perhaps to get into these distinctions fully one needs to associate into each statement, imagine oneself saying something similar (as we do...) and notice the internal tensions that come up in connection with past and future as contrasted with the stillness evoked by Here & Now statements. Then feel the difference.

At the very next event in your life, no matter what it might be, try on for size one or more of the Here & Now statements.

How does that feel? I'd like to know.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


My 'self'... Your 'self'... Anybody's 'self'... We shall see...

In his brilliant, but apparently neglected, monograph Becoming (Yale 1955), Gordon Allport wonders about the concept of ‘self’—whether it has any substantial meaning.

Language is normally so much an unexamined part of us that we tend to take its tool-like reality for granted; the well-oiled words just spill out of our mouths in the same way as sweat comes out of pores: over time the words we use come to have a day to day functional meaning that obscures the fact that they may not have much in the way of an actual referent; so we have the word ‘self’—what exactly does it refer to? Say the word ‘self’ to your ‘self’ several times—my ‘self’, ‘self’-interest, ‘self’-image and so on—and notice how it comes to seem to be something separate from your sense of being, from the name you are known by; like all abstractions it seems to have a life of its own, it becomes a little independent part of your being that somehow acts as a focus for all that you concern your self with in life.

Allport comments that it’s ‘all too easy to assign functions that are not fully understood [nor can be] to a mysterious central agency and then to declare that ‘it’ [‘self’] performs in such a way as to unify the personality and maintain its integrity...’

Something more general, more neutral might be more existentially accurate: something like Adler’s ‘life-style’, a ‘style or pattern of being’; the advantage of the latter is that if there is a pattern then one can unpick it and investigate its intricacy, discard the parts of the pattern that are not intrinsic to one’s sense of who one is—ho-hum things like driving on the right or left hand side of the road, not eating peas with your knife, politely holding a door open for somebody following you—but then you could start looking for those things that are ‘propriate’—things ‘central to our sense of existence’. It makes perfect sense to say, “There is a pattern to my being on this earth; I can find it...”

Allport suggests using the concept of the Proprium which ‘includes all aspects of personality that make for inward unity’. He enumerates eight not necessarily discrete ways in which the Proprium functions; we appropriate these paradigms to ourselves and find that they help to define what has become peculiarly ours.

● We have Bodily Sense; we are bathed in a sensory stream of events from the outside world; internally there are rumblings and oozings: these together provide a lifelong anchor for us. We locate the ground of our being somewhere in all this: when I was a child I used to think that my root-being was located in a large mole on the side of my foot.
● We have what we like to call Self-identity, that which we associate with our name; all our thoughts and feelings all down the years belong to it; there’s an organic continuity between the ‘I’ that entertained the belief about the mole and me now—I take my sock off and, though the mole has faded a little, I can still easily locate the root of my being there!
Ego-enhancement—we have survival needs which often result in self-assertion; we derive self-satisfaction from what we do; take a pride in it, develop vanity and forthrightness...
● To assist this process, we identify with all kinds of things outside of us—Ego-extension; here we run the considerable risk of losing our selves in possessions, loved objects, people, causes, loyalties, groups, clothes, nation and abstractions of all kinds that some of us even choose to go to war over.
● We have a Rational Agent that, by appropriate adjustments and planning, helps to keep us reasonably in touch with ‘reality’; it constantly discriminates between this and that.
● Our Self-image—the phenomenal self—derives from the way we regard our abilities, status, roles, and aspirations; it may include a vision of self-perfection driving us forward. The self-image guides propriate striving.
Propriate Striving is that which involves the ego, making for unification of the whole of our being, maintaining the tension of endeavour, expectation, intention; it is outcome-focussed and future-referenced. It’s what is usually called ‘motivation’ but is more about keeping the tension going than any kind of ‘drive reduction’.
● Somewhere in all this there is a Knower, a Knowing-I; it ‘knows’ bodily sensations, it can discriminate identity, it knows how it extends itself into other things, identifies with them, it knows what it is to strive, to get pleasure from being in a state of tension, it can bundle all this together and call it Proprium, such broad intentional dispositions are relatively few and it’s possible to distinguish and understand their basic patterning.

So, in order to move towards a definition of myself, I ask myself what are the broad intentional dispositions that have determined, and no doubt will continue to determine, the way I do my life?

My provisional answers would go something like this:-

● I persist in figuring out the patterns of things. The very concept of Proprium appeals to me because it offers the opportunity to replace the soggy lump of ‘self’ with a complex pattern that I can set myself to unravel.
● I constantly look for connections. PDOuspensky said that everything is connected in spite of the fact that things appear to be separate. I teach the Enneagram which is a huge system of systems to do with understanding the way all human personality is connected up together.
● I aim to depict my Proprium—specifically the way in which it can be looked at from different perspectives—the way one can feel it working within, the way one can submit it to intellectual analysis and the way one can move between the different parts to make it work.
● I am above all a teacher of all this. Give me a new idea and, without thinking about it, I find myself setting about answering the question, “How will I teach that—how will I present it in a way that will appeal to different learning styles?”