By Philip Franses, Lecturer in Complexity and Holistic Science
Dedicated to the memory of Brian Goodwin.
If you look at anything carefully, deeply enough, you discover the mystery of interbeing, and once you have seen it you will no longer be subject to fear – fear of birth, or fear of death. Birth and death are only ideas we have in the mind, and these cannot be applied to reality. Thich Nhat Hanh
This piece is a journey written through inspiration: by finding Satish Kumar on the internet, arriving in Dartington Devon in 2005 to do the MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. Then in 2009 some questions raised in a participatory way of knowing were addressed in the Process and Pilgrimage forum event at Birkbeck College London, and then also in Pilgrimage along the river Dart. These events provided unexpected clarity to the learning in Holistic Science and crystallized many ideas in thought and deed for my new role of teaching on the MSc course.
When coming to England in 2005 to study at Schumacher College, one of the first things we did was visiting the moor, going up through Buckfast with its Abbey to leave behind the buildings, civilization of gentle Devon and enter into the wilderness of the moor, with its solitary and singular atmosphere of oneness. Buckfast always seemed like a magical gateway that somehow transformed the order of towns into the wilderness of Dartmoor. Once on the moor one would catch glimpses in the wildness, of the river Dart and know it as the same river that gave its name to Dartington where the college was, but these pieces of the puzzle would remain enigmatically separated.
The first teacher on the MSc was Henri Bortoft, who most carefully but also sternly, guided us through what was to us all a new terrain of using understanding and logic to establish a way of seeing the world. This differed from the schooling we each had to see the world without attention and then to use logic to elaborate what we saw. One could even pass a chemistry exam with a top mark, without ever knowing what the formulae of exotic substances signified in the world of test tubes and explosions. All the answers to the world’s combinations were already there in the book and experimentation was optional.
But Henri brought everything back to the experiencing, embedding logic into the act of seeing. One such theme was the word-meaning. A child experiencing the world gathers together impressions, until at a given moment it is able to put together a group of experiences, such as of a holding surface, under a single concept of table. The word table appears to articulate the category of experiences to which it can relate. To understand a table, one has to look table-y. Before having a concept for table, the child would simply see a scene, without distinction, to be explored, climbed on, licked, to try to form an impression of its surface constitution. Once the association has clicked, the child will proudly announce ‘table.’
Another of Henri’s themes was on ‘going upstream’. He describes being at a conference where he had to talk about phenomenology to a group of specialists on the subject. He describes himself as very nervous being a physicist by training and having strayed into this theme. To calm himself in the time before the talk, he sat by a river and found himself facing upstream, with an empty mind, ruminating on what he might say. Entering the talk, without being aware where the words came from, he opened with a sentence which I paraphrase: to experience we have to go upstream, to the world of the unformed, as we begin already downstream in the world of finished products; one has to perform a motion upstream to experience the world in the dynamic of the coming into being of wholeness.
Henri is a magician, who turns logic that we learned as something separate to the spirituality of experience, into a necessary guide for going upstream to the unity of the world, where it is carried down in the flow back to a story about ourselves.
There remains an enigma about the very study he is engaged with, for the experience he suggests amounts to practising a spiritual discipline without guides, in a world that prides itself upon the superior maturity of its conceptualised knowledge.
For many of us on the MSc years after one would still wonder if one had understood Henri, if one has entered into the practise of what he had spoken.
It seemed to me a necessary first step to separate a group of people who were open to this way of seeing the world.
A chance juxtaposition of ideas of Satish Kumar, talking about pilgrimage and Basil Hiley presenting the mathematics of process, suggested putting together people from different disciplines to actively explore this way of seeing.
For Basil Hiley, physicist, has approached the question of unity from another route, travelling with the great physicist David Bohm, the mystery of wholeness deep in the mathematics of quantum theory. Their way is through the dynamic notion of ‘process’ viewing the fixed world of physical law as accompanying landscape now enlivened by the more essential dynamic motion. But Basil, after forty years still grapples with the meaning of ‘process’, as an everyday principle by which to live. In seeking to explore further the logic of process, which realises the world, not as a simple substitute for the conceptual, but fulfilling the way of experience, I conceived one evening chatting with Satish Kumar of a dual-event called ‘Process and Pilgrimage’.
For Satish, the experience of travelling with an open mind as a pilgrim, when removed from the timetable of plans and objectives, underpins the essence of life as movement. ‘Understanding’ has been made a textbook static classroom activity, which has removed the principle of movement essential to feel life as a totality. Thus one has to study ‘on the move’ to return to a whole feeling of one’s place in the world.
The first part of Process and Pilgrimage was held on 31st May in Birkbeck College in a darkened lecture room shutting out any sign of the sunny day outside. Henri was or honoured guest, overseeing the whole.
Satish Kumar began the day talking about the pilgrim and his experience of the world in movement. Francoise Wemselsfelder talked about the whole world of animal welfare that is apparent in the qualities of statistical assessment by outside observer of animal behaviour. Then the mathematicians Basil Hiley and Chris Clarke took stage.
To a mainly lay audience Basil took us on a journey through a stream of mathematical formula, pointing out on either side the landmark theories re-charted as we sped past. By travelling through the fluidity of process, the landscape displays a continuity lacking when viewed as islands of separate order. So that even those inarticulate in mathematics could make out the salient theme communicated. Being-in-process, for example the deep cycle of consciousness, which can only be experienced by participation, is the mystery from which all (space-time) order arises.
Brian Goodwin and myself completed the day surveying the creativity of the world when one allows ambiguity into its precepts. The basis of our research is a model of language exploring the mathematical signature of the balance between exact objectivity and loose fluidity. Biology fills creatively this dual space between objective definition and integrative logic that transcends any attempt at static explanation and allows for its plastic process to be informed by wholeness.
The Birkbeck day was founded upon the tenet of Satish that we should explore without destination and then experience the journey, in which we are ourselves implicated. The next stage was to experience process through a pilgrimage. For a long time we deliberated on the venue for such a venture – would it be Iona or Wales or Canterbury? before we decided on following the river Dart from its source to the sea.
Our first thought that we needed the poet and playwrights Alice and Peter Oswald as part of the walk was put in place, when Minni, the main organiser, hitched into town and was given a lift by Alice, their first acquaintance. Satish and June also found space to set part of the walk into a full diary. Robert our neighbour, was immediately enthusiastic, John from the conference joined and then Adrian another neighbour completed our core contingent.
Joe, a guide friend of Robert was to help us over the first part around the source, which was in the high part of the moor reserved for military training, and appearing as a marshy whiteness far from anywhere on the map. Further Robert’s mother Judy living in a beautiful farmhouse on the moor, at (W)Holne(ss), was our luxurious base-camp. Lydia and Sophie the wives of Robert and Adrian accompanied by their children Scarlet and Janu gave lifts from there to Okement Hill on the first morning.
Dropped off, the barren solitary landscape of the high moor was representative of the disorientation in our attempt to embody a more authentic way of being. We stumbled forward, wondered on the way, looked for signs. The group split continually as each direction suggested itself as good as any other. Wary of the marsh, and the deep waterholes that waited to mire us, we proceeded cautiously, nervous of the removal of distinction that had taken with it any outer definition.
A thin crust of solidity supported us shakily above the watery fundament. Coming from the north, we surprised upon a crest leading down to a feature breaking the equanimity of the landscape, where in the hollow the slightest trickle tumbled southward.
The source of water was unsure as we were, whether this direction could sustain itself. Visibly the landscape changed, as the water drained down into the flow. A fine greener grass replaced the marshy coarser counterpart. The landscape held its contours, cradling the embryonic stream within a protective hand. The going was rough, jumping between tussocks of land uneven in this novel venture into coherence.
The river, small and thread like, straddle-able by a step, as yet unidentifiable, a thin band of brown, needing our observation to clarify its future name. Unprepared for our visit, unadorned by finery, the insignificant foreground crept before the backdrop of the moor through which it must navigate. We follow its hopeful momentum in silent sympathy.
Descent gives it character, until a tree marks the establishment of its river feature as integral to the hills through which it runs. Rocks, dotting the water’s flow, allow us to cross to the other bank where on a more level surface, walking follows naturally. The sound of the bubbling progress enters into our rhythm.
Dramatically the river falls, then curves off around, its forces mustered and dispersal defied in the course of a new confidence. Our journey too breaks out into solidity holding through the fall. We are talking about Africa and exploration and walks, under our feet there is a wisdom communicated of where we have travelled before.
Order escapes in the folly of the fall re-imagining the landscape by so haphazard a course as a river plummeting. Yet ours is the journey that holds through the irrational beautiful chance of it all. The fall from Africa survives in the science of balanced unity.
We circle around with the river, now stately amidst the steep sides, sharing our lot with its progress, proud to be associates to its path. Sheep soiled fields show us through walls the fist signs of human habitation. The river brings us a village, Postbridge, the first designation of its identity as something crossable.
In Postbridge, we stay overnight, but am awake with the sound of the silence and the unity of the moor, and the mystery of our journey. This wholeness is escaped from the philosophy book and is asking its own questions of me. All night I seek a word with which to address the face of wholeness that I could answer to its Name.
Satish and June, as well as Inga, dignify the group with their presence. Joe has left us.
The river plays with us, hiding its path behind inaccessible farms, then returning the route to us surprisingly from out of an indistinct track.
We talk about the science of ambiguity and the spirit of uncertainty, as we converge with the river’s course upon the delight of its transience. Knowing the river as nothing, it has become all: compass, course and companion.
We walk along the river, through the woods, over the moor; others cycle along the banks or canoe downstream. In movement, there is no separation; all is relationship, connection and translation. The sound of a name: Dartmeet; the smell of cow dung; the taste of cheese. There is just encounter: the smile of a shopkeeper, the warmth of B. and B., the thankfulness for directions. Only an excellence of fair exchange keeps pace with movement, where static designations blur into insignificance.
At Dartmeet: the East and the West (Dart) meet. Minni recalls how in India all there is, is movement; there is no knowledge that is static; all is applied to experience and can be appreciated only by participation. There is the belief that the cycle of life will take movement to its ultimate conclusion: enlightenment, where every action is encapsulated and transcended in a Buddha smile.
The West focuses upon the point of meeting as if it is stillness that will provide resolution.
‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been:’ (T.S. Eliot; Burnt Norton)
The West, aware of its journey, imagines the point in maps of knowledge that fixes experience.
Stillness is essential to hold in motion, silence is primary in the notes of music, yet the still point of science or spirit is nothing removed from its motion or song.
Science holds us vacant withdrawn from breath, endlessly awaiting the step or the note, that will crash in with the volume of life, to awaken us to our course.
Tagore in East and West from Creative Unity; 1922;
‘The East did once meet the West profoundly. The mystic consciousness of the Infinite, which the East brought with her, was greatly needed by the man of the West. On the other hand, the East must find her own balance in Science – the magnificent gift that the West can bring to her.
Truth has its nest as well as its sky. That nest is definite in structure, accurate in law of construction; and though it has to be changed and rebuilt over and over again, the need of it is never-ending and its laws are eternal. For some centuries the East has neglected the nest building of truth. She has not been attentive to learn its secret. Trying to cross the trackless infinite, the East has relied solely upon her wings.’
The East sees everything in terms of motion and enlightenment as its natural end, the West concentrates on the point of stillness where the world is illuminated to thought. The meeting between the East and the West occurs when the journey of motion fulfils itself to the stillness of science.
At Dartmeet, Peter Oswald appears with Alice communicating from the window of his arriving car ‘Hello pilgrims!’ We have lunch at the BandB, looking over the Dart from the warmth of a dining room, as the rain falls.
We move on knowing there is a long afternoon walk ahead of us. The Dart, in the momentum of its journey, meets with the challenge of the rocky gorge path through which it cascades in rapids, rushes and occasional still pools. The way is scrambling over rocks, clambering up to forest security, holding tight to banks. Stopping talking, a single file joins human wisdom in a line, parallel to the river’s course. Vitalised by the flow, the wit, charm, excellence of humanity collected in our group cuts through the rocky walls that would prevent our progress. Coming to the clear cut natural stage of Lucky Tor, the stage is utilized by Alice to recite ‘Water’ spoken to the drip of raindrops and the river’s roar, the poem fashions the ferny branches and the granite cliffs and the green light, as if they were here first spoken. Then Peter circles the space of Lucky Tor, with the fortune of the King who trusted in life. They depart as wild creatures of the forest.
Breathless, we continue onward, as the river breaking through the narrow pass, then rising onto forest slopes, passing precipitously over water drops, with names as Lover’s Leap. A possible passing place across the river is assessed by Robert and rejected as too slippery. We scramble the longer route further, fortified by mints and stops to reinstate balance.
Gradually the raging rain-swept turmoil of the river relents and a clear surface is supported alongside for us to walk. Inga recognises her running route and we begin to smell supper and the warmth of Judy’s welcome. Buildings, farms and human habitation again take advantage of easy access to the river and lead to Newbridge, where a road bridge takes us over on the way to Holne, back Home.
The next day, the river is calm and transcendent, majestic amidst a slowly developing progress through the woods, with plenty of room to take our core five group alongside. It tells us slowly the secrets of its passage, teaches us the way of motion, holds our attention that it might see beyond its own limited horizon.
Gradually a story begins to emerge alongside the river, where the far point of arrival instead of being something static holds the edge of wholeness, in another guise, substantial, formed, tangible. To journey one needs a question, but the wholeness that fills one’s journey presents at a higher collective level as a new question. No sooner have I thought this, than the forest thins and Buckfast Abbey breaks between the trees
The trance of the river, our compact group of pilgrims, the weather waiting with rain, the promise of potential wrapped so conclusively about this journey, spills over into tarmac, a ‘monastic shop’, coaches of people moving from cafes to toilets in ordered processions of timetabled trips.
We walk through the rain on our way to Buckfastleigh, where we are to take the train. John says he has never been to Buckfastleigh, and this remark brings to mind an allegory shared amongst our students for how to perceive Henri’s unity. It came when conversations were trying to unravel what Henri was exactly saying. It confused the geography a bit because Buckfastleigh is below Buckfast, but they do both lie on the river Dart. The example of his ideas in the place names of the Dart might be said thus.
To see Buckfast, one has to go upstream through (W)Holne(ss) and experience Buckfast-leigh!
For photos and background information see the website http://www.earthlinksall.com/processandpilgrimage
David Bohm (1980) Wholeness and the Implicate Order; Hidden Variables in the Quantum Theory; Routledge and Keegan Paul
Henri Bortoft (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature; Lindisfarne Books
T.S. Eliot (1935): Burnt Norton from The Four Quartets; Faber and Faber
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peter Levitt (1988) The heart of understanding: commentaries on the Prajñaparamita Heart Sutra, Parallax
Satish Kumar (to be published autumn 2009) Earth Pilgrim; Green Books
Rabindranath Tagore (1922) Creative Unity; East and West; McMillan Books