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!