Shamanism, the Dao, new spirituality, new technology and cultural revolution
Lived  reality
- felt  reality
Artefacts and feelings An intricate web of feeling The personal life of feeling Gendlin's felt-sense








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Who am I?
I am Michael Roth, the author of all the material on this site. While training as a medical doctor, I was also an alumnus at the famed AntiUniversity of London (1968-1969), and became involved with the alternative psychiatry movement in that era and later.

I worked and studied with the existential psycho-analyst R.D.Laing, and was a founder-member of the Arbours Association (London), which provides alternative care for persons diagnosed with severe mental illness.

My research path has taken me into spheres of philosophy, social politics, linguistics and anthropology - whilst I have continued to seek out a genuine way of relating to other human beings in the troubled milieux of psychiatry, communal living, and twentieth and twenty-first century social and cultural instability.

I have been consistently inter-disciplinary in all of my reading and exploration, and the personal and philosophical insights to which this has given rise are almost always outside the prevailing classifications - or accepted lists of subjects.

The following authors are they whose work I have been most deeply occupied with, at different times in my life. This has often entailed exploring what the actual world feels like, within the patterns and definitions of life offered by these people. I have also written extensively, and often critically, about many of them.

Philosophy

  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Martin Buber
  • Lao Ze
  • St Matthew
  • St Mark
  • St Luke
  • St John
  • Rudolf Bultmann
  • Paul Ricoeur
  • Richard Rorty
  • Robert Pirsig
  • Donald Davidson
  • Jacques Derrida
  • Benedetto Croce
  • Charles Peirce
  • John Dewey
  • A.N.Whitehead
  • J.H.Randall
  • Justus Buchler
  • Martha Nussbaum

Biology, Physiology, Ethology and Cybernetics

Anthropology

  • Mary Douglas
  • Gregory Bateson
  • Milton Ericson
  • R.D.Laing
  • David Cooper
  • Clifford Geertz
  • Victor Turner

Virtual Reality

  • Jane Austen
  • George Eliot
  • Dorothy Richardson
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Joanne Greenberg

Psychology

  • Eugene Gendlin
  • Arnold Mindell
  • M. Scott Peck

I am the foremost exponent of Charlotte M. Bach's ground-breaking theories of emergent evolution, described in my A Bolt From the Bleeding Sky (Dielectric Publications, London, 1984). I continue to work as a psychiatrist and as a researcher into holistic methods of facilitating social change. This encludes facilitation and training sponsored by the organization, Community Building in Britain which continues to develop and disseminate the work of the holistic psychiatrist M. Scott Peck.

I am also involved in an exploratory research group seeking to fuse poetic, practical and fantastical modes of action to create significant cultural/political interventions in the here and now.

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   Lived reality - felt reality


   our secret journeys beyond our boundaries
In this era of quantum physics and relativity theory, we are already familiar with the idea of the thought experiment. Einstein imagined himself astride a beam of light, and wondered how the universe might offer itself up to his perception whilst he was travelling at this almost unthinkable speed. Schrodinger bequeathed us his extraordinary imaginary cat in a sealed box, in a situation where we cannot ascertain whether it is alive or dead. These mental constructions enabled us to think about things we otherwise could not have conceived of.

Less well recognized - but true nonetheless - is the fact that fiction, drama and poetry are forms of thought experiment which have been shaping and enriching our lives for milennia. that is why we shall often be drawn to the work of the modern novelist - since he and she construct for us a virtual reality which illuminates aspects of life not otherwise visible to us in the everyday hurly burly.

Here, for instance, is a deceptively simple narrative
(1) which depicts Tom and Maggie, brother and sister aged nine and six, who are wiling away a carefree afternoon. They are sitting in the elder tree, and they have to divide their third and last jam puff between them. Tom's knife is hovering, he is unsure how to make a successful cut, Maggie's eyes are fixed on the knife. He cuts, but the result is not satisfactory - the halves look unequal to him. At last he says:

'Shut your eyes, Maggie.'

'What for?'

'You never mind what for. Shut 'em when I tell you.'

Maggie obeyed.

'Now, which'll you have, Maggie - right hand or left?'

'I'll have that with the jam run out,' said Maggie, keeping her eyes shut to please Tom.

'Why, you don't like that, you silly. You may have it if it comes to you fair, but I shan't give it to you without. Right or left - you choose, now. Ha-a-a!' said Tom in a tone of exasperation as Maggie peeped. 'You keep your eyes shut now, else you shan't have any.'

Maggie's power of sacrifice did not extend so far; indeed, I fear she cared less that Tom should enjoy the utmost possible amount of puff than that he should be pleased with her for giving him the best bit. So she shut her eyes quite close, till Tom told her to 'Say which,' and then she said, 'Left hand.'

'You've got it,' said Tom in rather a bitter tone.

'What! The bit with the jam run out?'

'No; here, take it,' said Tom firmly, handing decidedly the best piece to Maggie.

'Oh, please Tom, have it; I don't mind - I like the other; please take this.'

'No, I shan't,' said Tom almost crossly, beginning on his own inferior piece.

Maggie, thinking it was no use to contend further, began too, and ate up her half puff with considerable relish as well as rapidity. But Tom had finished first and had to look on while Maggie ate her last morsel or two, feeling in himself a capacity for more. Maggie didn't know Tom was looking at her; she was seesawing on the elder bough, lost to almost everything but a vague sense of jam and idleness.

'Oh, you greedy thing!' said Tom when she had swallowed the last morsel. He was conscious of having acted very fairly and thought she ought to have considered this and made up to him for it. He would have refused a bit of hers beforehand, but one is naturally at a different point of view before and after one's own share of puff is swallowed.

Maggie turned quite pale. 'Oh, Tom, why didn't you ask me?'

'I wasn't going to ask you for a bit, you greedy. You might have thought of it without, when you knew I gave you the best bit.'

'But I wanted you to have it - you know I did,' said Maggie in an injured tone.

'Yes, but I wasn't going to do what wasn't fair... if I go halves, I'll go 'em fair - only I wouldn't be a greedy.'

'With this cutting innuendo, Tom jumped down from his bough

Thus Tom stalks off and leaves Maggie weeping bitter tears alone in the tree.

That this is indeed a thought experiment, is attested by the fact that neither Tom nor Maggie could possibly have had access to the information that is presented to us, including as it does the feelings and perceptions of both parties. The novelist has allowed herself access, in effect, to both the characters? minds. Through this construction of something never simply given to us in experience, she nevertheless displays the interplay of fact and feeling in a form which commands our assent.
   Artefacts and feelings
The narrative illustrates some central principles which will help to orient us throughout the present study. Firstly, the facts or things that are displayed - the jam puff in this instance - are not merely incidental to what goes on between us. There is always something like a jam puff - some discriminable thing that we are concerned about in the here and now. But we miss the point of this, in the case of the jam puff, if we insist on merely seeing it as a sugary, flaky, jammy thing. It is a confection, an artefact socially conceived and inscribed within our common world of human desire and good or bad behaviour. Naturally, it can bear very directly upon the meaning of who we are for one another.

In a similar way the movements of our face, hands or arms - observable facts that can be recorded by a camera or a reliable witness - are simultaneously the contraction of muscles and also gestures which transmit our intimate meanings. Thus I may react in a concerned way, to the look you just gave me. Why did you look at me like that? You might say you meant nothing in particular - but I felt it as a hard, challenging look and I want to know what's going on.

Feelings are so basic to us, they are such a primitive layer of our experience, that it is really hard to pin down what they actually are, in contrast to what a feeling is about - which is usually easier. Feelings are about what is going on - and expressed in terms of my felt relationship with what is going on. I feel hungry, I feel delighted to have a jam puff to share, and delighted to be sharing it with you. At the same time, being the person that I am, I want this to be fair shares, and I want you to recognize me as being fair. All of this is feeling.

Emotion, passion and affection, words closely synonymous with feeling, seem to carry the message that this is something that happens to us, rather than something we do. This implies that we cannot help what we feel - we can acknowledge it or we can deny it, we can choose what we do about the feeling, but we cannot choose what to feel.

At every moment in my life I have a welter of human concerns, multiple and intricately interweaving. These concerns are written in my being as feelings. I know what I am concerned about, because I feel it. And so our starting definition of feeling might be that it is our primary sense of relationship - the relationship we are making with whatever or whoever it is we are concerned with. We can also think of feeling as an entire system of language, a layer which runs beneath that of spoken language. It is, in effect the language of relationship and it is, as we know, modulated through time over its characteristic range of qualities: happy, sad, bitter, angry, tender and so on.

We say: I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my heart, I feel it in my guts. In other words, we often register this feeling-sense in our body. This is actually a kind of knowing and - like any other kind of knowing - it can be wrong, or it can be mistaken.

"I'm not going to stand for this! I really feel you're taking advantage of me!"
"No you don't! You don't really feel that at all!"

What is this second person saying? Perhaps they mean that I am lying about my feeling. Well, this is certainly within the realms of human possibility. People can and do lie, about exactly this sort of thing. Usually it is part of a larger plot, in other words the person is dissembling about a whole line of self-presentation. In this case, when I made a show of anger - and complained about being taken advantage of - I would be making just one move in the game.
   A world of dis-information
In the twentieth century this whole realm of dis-information was revolutionised by the work of Sigmund Freud. He depicted our conscious self as a puppet of powerful unconscious forces - and this amounts to a radical de-centring of our sense of ourself. It gives rise to a widespread sensibility in our own time that our best attempt at self-testimony may be seriously unreliable. Freud and his followers offer us a standing invitation to suspect that we may be lying to ourselves, or perhaps mistaken or ignorant about our own motives.

George Eliot was writing in a more innocent era, and was not about to be entangled in these particular toils. In her account of the brother and sister, the nature of Tom's underlying difficulty is unmistakable. It is that he has mixed motives. This means that he has at least two sets of motivating concerns; he is, in other words, experiencing a swirling cross-current of feelings.

Tom happens to be "tuned in" to the issue of fairness. But he is also motivated by envy that Maggie still has some jam puff left, that she is still enjoying it, perhaps even that he is getting no attention from her. Out of the cross-current, and his lack of self-awareness in the moment, comes his own extraordinary act of unfairness. Tom is going to repeat this in a variety of contexts throughout his lifetime, and he will not come anywhere near to an understanding of what, how or why Maggie suffers in consequence.
   The web of felt reality
Within the context of Eliot's novel, the passage - with all its pain and pathos - comes across as a gently humorous interlude. For us here, though, it is a valuable pointer to that intricate web of feeling that enfolds and connects us all. This web is constantly in motion, constantly folding upon itself; and it often generates just the kind of double-takes and strange hiatuses which Eliot has displayed for us so deftly in her work. It is a sobering thought too, to realize that a narrative like this was created fifty years before Sigmund Freud and one hundred and twenty years before the brain and psychology research which have recently given birth to the concept of "emotional intelligence". It seems to me that there is a whole set of sensibilities and intelligences which George Eliot takes for granted, and which our culture seems largely to have forgotten by the early twentieth century.

There is a tendency in a great deal of modern scientific writing - not just on this particular topic - to imply that nobody knew anything about "their field" until it was "discovered" by science. It is as if we did not really know we had feelings at all, until a neurologist was able to point to a location in the brain, and declare it to be the place which makes feelings happen. On the contrary it should be obvious enough, that people have been feeling ever since there were people to feel on this planet. It is clear from even a brief look at the Holy Bible, and from the outpourings of ancient science, philosophy, literature and psychology, that our long-distant forbears were as aware as we are of the life of feeling, and considered the subject in much depth and with great subtletyii.
   The Greeks had a word...
Interestingly, the ancient Greeks had a word which corresponds remarkably closely to our modern concept of "emotional intelligence". The Greek word is "sophrosyne", which never translated into English very well. From our point of view, the concept corresponds to a cocktail of ingredients such as respect, compassion, tact, even-handedness and self-possession. The fifth century Athenians were fascinated by this concept, and one of Plato's dialogues is devoted entirely to an exploration of its deeper implications. It is interesting how we, in standard versions of the English language, seem to have carefully carved up our virtues into separate fragments. This makes it hard for us even to think the concept of sophrosyne.

It is worth noting that the street cultures which have informed our mass media through the last few decades all have terms corresponding closely to "emotional intelligence" - as if it is a concept badly needed in modern times. (Terms like "hip", "sus", "street-smarts" and "safe" come to mind.)
   "The intelligence of emotion" begins at home...
But we must return from our detours, from the nineteenth century novel, from fifth century Athens and twentieth century street culture, to consider what we know about feeling for ourselves. None of this talk about other people's feelings, and their understanding of what feeling is, could mean anything to us if we did not have direct experience of our own feeling states, to measure it by. Nor could we even comprehend what the scientific research into patterns and mechanisms of feeling was talking about. Our study of emotional intelligence has to begin at home, with our own feelings. We have to turn to our own unique experience, that inward immediacy, of what it is to feel.

Something begins for us at the moment of our birth. At first, perhaps, we are not able to feel "mother" and "the world" as separate beings. We quiver in awe at the enormity of it all. We open our hearts to its warmth and welcoming nurture. We shrink from its unimaginable danger. We rage at its seeming indifference to our needs. Later on, no doubt, things will become more complicated...

Speaking for myself, I lost that vivid sense of felt relationship rather early in my infancy. I recall a childhood strangely barren of emotion. I sensed that my mother, father, brother and sister were somehow embarrassed in the presence of strong feelings - I felt this as an unspoken demand to feel less, and I responded accordingly. All of us in the family lived as if ignorant of the real range and depth of human feeling. Of course I did not imagine that there was anything abnormal or unusual about this.

I used to have childhood nightmares about a world obscurely and terrifyingly crazy. As I grew up the evidence faded from view, yet I carried within me a nameless terror of being alive.

I do not believe that my mother and father were exactly lacking in feeling. They were both kindly people; in their own way they loved all of their children and were devoted to our welfare. But I cannot say that I really knew them, nor did I feel truly known by them. For a long time I imagined that both my parents must live in a similar "deadness" to the visceral sensations of emotion, which I remember within myself throughout the years from my mid-twenties backward to my infancy.

Obscure hungers, excitements and angers started to loom in my world as I entered into an adolescence laden with rock 'n' roll, emotional fog and awkwardness. The emerging feelings did not speed my heart or take my breath away, but they were enough to mark a change from that strange earlier blankness. And I can see now that they were forewarnings of the major changes which turned my life upside down at the age of twenty-five. This began quite suddenly one night when for the first time a fully felt sexuality flooded into my body. It could have been completely shocking, but my body insisted that it was honest and right. Also it spoke very clearly indeed to the confused yearnings of my prolonged adolescence.

There followed within the space of a few weeks an emergence of the live physical sensations of fear, and of emotional hunger, tenderness, anger and embarrassment - all palpable in a way that I have no recollection of ever feeling before that time. Here is where my problems really began, just because the new feelings carried highly disruptive implications for the regular pattern my life had established by that time. I was catapulted into a series of changes which demanded a complete re-evaluation of everything I had taken for granted in life.

This autobiographical reminiscence is not irrelevant but relates directly to the writing of this book. I believe I have an uncommonly rich experience of the gulf, the shocking discontinuity, that can open up between feeling and common sense. My process of re-evaluation - which continues to this day - seems to be forced upon me by the fact that my feelings repeatedly come into conflict with the demands of the common social reality. Both the feelings and the common sense are thrown into sharp relief, by the very fact that they seem to contradict each other.

For various reasons I have decided not to regard myself as a damaged specimen of humanity. I do differ from many, though, in this recurring need to become conscious of my feelings - and to reflect upon what they actually mean - just because they still keep on getting me into trouble. The positive side of this, I believe, is that it has opened the door for an unusual personal insight into the relationship between fact and feeling.
   Subtle feelings and "the felt sense"
When I began to explore the incident of Maggie and Tom and the division of the jam-puff, earlier in this chapter, I made a broad distinction between the "thing" we are concerned about, and the feelings we have - through which our concern is actually registered. I tentatively defined "feeling" as our primary sense of relationship. Later I referred to "an intricate web of feeling that enfolds and connects us all." This, for me, is a good approximation of the situation we are in, when we try to describe it within the limitations of the everyday language we have in common.

There is, however, a whole layer of subtlety which the feeling-words - such as anger, love, grief, desire - have a tendency to cover over. The web of feeling which I have referred to is something far more intricate and delicate than the language we use to pick outiii individual feelings and their particular aims. This web corresponds to a deeper level of experience - something like a foundational layer of perception running beneath the more definitely apprised facts and feelings. It is, essentially, a more primitive and more vague sense of the actual situation. I believe that this felt sense precedes and underlies all of our more vividly experienced perceptions and emotions.


The concept - and the term "felt sense" - has been extensively developed by the philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin in a series of key works(4). I am following Eugene Gendlin's account here, and will quote his definition in full:

"...A felt sense is the holistic bodily sense of a complex situation. It includes many factors, some of which have never been separated before. Some of those factors are different emotions.(5)"

I have found Gendlin's discovery to be both liberating and powerful in my own life. I am all the more impressed with the concept because it was formulated independently by the philosopher A. N. Whitehead in the 1920s, who named it "perception in the mode of causal efficacy". (He distinguished this from the vivid, sensory "perception in the mode of presentational immediacy".) Whitehead describes the former mode in similar terms to Gendlin: as a bodily knowing which, though often vague and shadowy from the standpoint of conscious awareness, is rich with unconscious reverberations from the material and animal world within and around us, and from the accumulated presence of the past within our own physiology.

The felt sense is the pivotal third term, which renders less mysterious(6) the mutual relationship between facts and feelings. It enables us to recognize "facts" and "feelings" as products of the differentiation and elaboration of a more primitive way of knowing. Its importance will emerge more fully as we proceed with this study, for it is an essential aspect of the landscape of fact, feeling and action: the underpinning without which there could be no such landscape. In the meantime, I shall continue to use our everyday terms: "feeling" and "feelings" - with the proviso that there is an underlying felt sense which continuously embodies the intricacy and subtlety of lived experience, which the everyday words can rarely do justice to.

This also invites a somewhat different account of my own impoverished awareness from my early years. If we accept the felt sense as a factor constantly in operation behind the scenes (a factor which enters into different people's conscious awareness in markedly varying degrees) - then my personal experience amounts to a radical loss of contact with this level of awareness. My ignorance about the range of feelings normally available to a human being was a natural consequence of being estranged from that deeper layer of my own being.
The malaise of the bloodless intellectual.
This separation, this disjunctive relationship between the felt sense and the discursive mind, is by no means rare, and reflects a common modern European malaise. It may have reached a high point in 1940s and 50s England - where it was rationalised in the prevailing culture to the point where feelings and facts were treated as belonging to entirely separate realities. In fact the leading philosophy of that time seemed hell-bent on excluding feeling from our description of the world altogether. Feelings - the experts seemed to say - were completely irrelevant to what is. We were supposed to confine ourselves to arguing about "the facts". This had to be done "logically", and we were not to distort our thinking with any admixture of value-judgment.

It is obvious to me now that, without value-judgments, there is no way to decide which facts are worthy of our attention in the first place. What is more, every feeling, consciously entertained, is also a fact in its own right. The intellectual trend-setters of the nineteen-fifties were actually foisting huge value-judgments of their own upon all the rest of us, and doing it furtively, so that it was hard to recognize at the time what they were about.
The mindless oscillations of cultural fad and fancy
Why did we, in the nineteen-fifties, have to suffocate under this peculiar dried-up philosophy, from which all feelings had been wrung out, or else disguised as something else? I suspect now that it was simply one of those mindless "swings of the pendulum" - just a reaction against the excesses of nineteenth-century romanticism and subjectivism. Of course these excesses in turn were themselves a reaction against the excesses of seventeenth and eighteenth century rationalism. And the latter were a reaction against the excesses of religious fanaticism and counter-fanaticism of previous centuries.

People often talk about "the swing of the pendulum" as if it is a law of nature, unaffected by our conscious decisions. I suspect that it is a phenomenon that can teach us a great deal, and that if we understand it better we may then be able to work with it in constructive ways. Not all pendulums create problems for us, of course.

In the case of the grandfather clock, we do not have any quarrel with the various positions of its pendulum. It is in fact the period of its movement that is important to us. The pendulum gives us one simple way of generating a regular sequence of time segments. In other words, it gives us a measure of the passage of time. It is a very different matter with the swing of cultural fashion however. These swings between rationalism and emotionalism feel distinctly uncomfortable to most of us, at both their extreme points. This leads me to wonder if there might be a way to keep the whole set-up closer to something that would feel more balanced and also less arbitrary.

In human physiology we see a crude form of oscillation about a desired mean, in the nervous disease called Cerebellar Ataxia. In this condition the smooth performance of voluntary action is impaired in such a way that, trying to reach comfortably for my tea-cup, my hand "overshoots", then "overcorrects", and then "overshoots" again. In our normal healthy state mother nature has graced us with some complex neurological equipment which - in effect - foresees these unsatisfactory pendulum swings and enables our reaching to converge at the right place.

This and other examples of the phenomenon that is called "hunting", within the science of systems engineering, lead us to the question: what might "the right place" be like - that place which these crazy swings in cultural fashion seem to be failing to find?

I would like to suggest the following: it is a mistake to perpetuate a continuous running battle between feelings and facts, as if one or the other might deserve to be obliterated. Three centuries of such nonsense is more than enough. We might be better to hold up as our desired norm, that our feelings shall be properly informed by relevant facts, and that the facts which we entertain are properly informed by relevant feelings. In other words we are looking for a dialogue between fact and feeling, a dialogue which might help us in the direction of convergence upon our individual and collective good.

Our next step, in working towards such a dialogue, must be to clarify our notion of what is a fact. For this, we shall shift to a new web page.

NOTE TO CHAPTER TWO

1.The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

2.For an intricate and valuable study in relation to Greek and the later Hellenistic philosophy, see NUSSBAUM, M. (@@@)The Fragility of Goodness and The Therapy of Desire)

3.This is not to decry the use of language. The act of "picking out" aspects of our felt sense by means of a verbal account, is integral to how we develop and articulate our awareness, and extend it into new areas of intercourse. The mistake we are constantly in danger of making, however, is to lose the connection between the articulated language and the felt sense that is being expressed and elaborated by this means. The felt sense is able to signal its dissatisfaction with language which fails to do justice to it - but only on condition that we pay attention to it. See Eugene Gendlin references, in the following notes.

4.See GENDLIN, E.T. (1962,1981,1996)

5.GENDLIN,E.T. (1996) p58

6.To my mind, this also removes any requirement upon us to try and track down "thinking" as a separate mental activity. What is called "thinking" is merely an amalgam of the complex interplay between felt sense, emotion, and the various ways in which we entertain sensory and imaginary objects - the objects we perceive, conjecture, believe in, presuppose, or fantasise about. That which we term "a thought" is actually a product of this compex mental activity, and not a process in its own right. "Thought" itself - in my view - is an abstract noun which refers to nothing that can usefully be picked out from the landscape. This is why I find myself incapable of reading Buddhist tracts, Krishnamurti, Eckhardt Tolle or the writings of Gurdjieff and his followers - who discourse endlessly on "thought" as if it really deserved all that attention! When I try to read them, I feel I am being led up a not very desirable garden path.


© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004