A Process Philosophy

Philosophy. Many people disparage philosophers and philosophy, characterizing it as a limited occupation. In my favourite local cafe, their wont is to play a certain series of songs regularly. I’ve noticed one of these songs, in particular, because the singer (Emma Bunton, backed by Tin Tin Out), in an affected teenage angst-ing tone, presents these propositions:

“Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box.” and “Philosophy is a walk on the slippery rocks.” (The writers are Edie Brickell and Kenny Withrow.)

Perhaps a more helpful way to think about philosophy, though not the whole matter, is given by Dave word, in his chapter in the book, Philosophy for Everyone: Philosophy “…is the activity of working out the right way to think about things.” I remember in my early days of studying English Literature at university, my tutor Fred Langman said that his job was to help us learn how to think. Thinking is a line of development? You can learn how to do it? It was one of those defining moments, like when I first discovered Socrates.

Aristophanes in fifth-century Athens saw philosophers as immoral, it would seem, and Socrates was one of his targets. (See Clouds) Yet, it struck me like a bolt of lightning, when studying Ancient History in school, that Socrates was engaged in conversations aimed at understanding how to approach life. It had hardly occurred to me, before reading about Socrates, that life was something to be approached with anything but a hunger for… (you name it). It was about getting something into me, from outside. Knowledge, food, friends, sex, a steady date. It hadn’t occurred to me at all to step outside of the tug-o’-war between conventional morality and the stance of rebellion (with which I was strongly identified), and to actually ask, “What is the way to think about life, such that the happiness of all is upheld?” Yet, Socrates was condemned to death for questioning conventional thinking, and this still happens in the twenty-first century. But his concern was for the whole of living, not just the little bit allowed into the conventional perception of life.

The Greeks had a word, which their philosophers used: eudaimonia. Superficially speaking, it means a state of being contented, of being healthy, happy and flourishing. However, the ‘daimon’ part of the word is important. My OED says that this is a direct transliteration of the Gr. δαίµων, divinity, one’s genius. And so the OED defines it as “belonging or pertaining to the spirit world.”A bit of searching gives us more clues. It comes from an Indo-European root which means to ‘divide, or cut.’ (Wiktionary) I find this very fruitful, because much of our suffering comes from not being able to integrate our natural functions of discernment into a workable relation with the whole. Indeed, so enamoured are we of the dividing that we lose our sense of the whole. Focusing returns us to the wholeness. (It’s interesting to note, for the Buddhists, that Vipassanā, i.e. Insight, is similar in that it has the prefix ‘Vi-‘ which means to divide).

The best way for me to think of this, then, is that the kind of happiness that Socrates was concerned with, is that which is in accord with, and ‘sniffed out’ by, one’s inner genius. By ‘genius’ I mean something that inheres in all life. It’s a capacity which is functioning at birth, and capable of development. It’s not the same as thinking, but if you think without it, woe to you. The next development of humankind is in how to get the right relationship of thought to experience. Hence, as I see it, the task of process philosophy is to articulate the ‘how’ of thinking. The ‘how we are’ has been taken over, in the West, with preoccupations – not only in science, but in science’s mother, philosophy; and in society’s general thought – with ‘what we are.’

Philosophy is actively loving knowledge or knowing.  The Greek word for philsophy (φιλοσοφία) brings us the phrase “loving knowledge”, from phílos, “love” + sophía, “wisdom”. It also has a connection to “wise/intelligent.” I take this way: Philosophy is the living, breathing activity of feeling into life, so that we can be informed by the much bigger going-on that this is, and finding the words to say it.

Hence my interest in process philosophy, and the particular process philosophy which which I study is that of Eugene T. Gendlin, as presented in his numerous papers, but also in three books: Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning: A Philosophical and Psychological Approach to the Subjective, A Process Model; and, Language Beyond Postmodernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin’s Philosophy.


The Perspective of ‘Interaction First’

Sometime I wonder at humans: We say we love nature, and yet we destroy our living, breathing, miraculous planet. What’s the basis of our estrangement from nature?

It wasn’t that it was a miracle turnaround for me, discovering that I could trust my body had some sense of how I, the whole individual, was situated. The gap between words and reality was so great for me, then, that it took several years of patient work – meditation, yoga, gardening, and artistic  activities (mainly, in those days, haiku and photography) – to ground myself, and to retrieve my social body. This body is organic, it is nature. Nature has its timely processes of unfolding, processes which this body knows because it is such processes. From that time, it took me twenty years, at least, to truly grasp how to be in the world – and they were all years of unlearning the false views, of learning that combodiment is our natural condition (Ikemi, 2014).

It does seem to me that, from the perspective of living as an individual, the body is primary. There’s been a great deal of confusion in English-speaking culture about this. The individual mind is regularly separated from a so-called physical body. The usual medical model body is definitely  not what gave me the support to emerge from my distress in that period. It was this sentient body – a sensitive, knowing body, living forward from its inherence (indwelling) in nature. And, by ‘nature’ I mean Being, not just – though I bow to them – not just rocks and trees. Even to say ‘rock’ is to take on the scientist’s ‘over there’ third-person kind of orientation to knowing. That we do this in respect of our bodies is quite useful in certain contexts, such as when in medical situations. However, that it is our dominant mode of thinking about our bodies is tragic. We lose so much genius, which is right here; and, we separate from nature.

Indeed, Gendlin places this interaction with the universe, the big whatever-this-is,  first. He speaks of ‘interaction first’ as an important principle of his philosophy.

A Natural Process

Focusing, in a formal sense, has been in my life for nearly twenty years. On the other hand, informally, trusting my felt sense has been with me since a crisis in 1975. Recently, I heard a Buddhist teacher describing a kind of human process, one that you could trust in meditation and mindfulness. It sounded so like Focusing that I asked him: “What do you call that, in Buddhist terms?” His answer was: “Wisdom.”

What I experienced in 1975 was a hiatus in my usual language-use. Until then, I had somehow had the conviction that there was some kind of dependable correspondence between words and experience. It was an unexamined assumption. Now, I could use words in the ordinary way, the way in which normally people used them (that is, with unexamined philosophical beliefs); but, internally I was in a state of utter perplexity (to put it mildly) about this – to what exactly did words refer? This was just at the beginning of the post-modern boom; and, partly, at least, my crisis was a symptom of my era. It seemed to me that words only got their meaning from other words, but that didn’t make any sense. It still doesn’t, but now I have a good grasp on how meaning happens.

What I did, at that time, was to say, “Well, this body is an integral part of the universe – of the “here, there, and everywhere,” as the Beatles said it. So, I thought, “If I have to make any life-decision of any import, I will check in with the universe, sensing into my bodily feel of how to proceed.” (Apart from having been meditating for eight years, and training myself in mindfulness, so too my intuition had probably had some training by intuitively reading the I Ching, using the sticks method. I had a kind of faith in nature. Indeed I grew up in the bush, and this might have helped, too.)

Twenty years later, I discovered Gendlin’s great method. It was a mind-blower, because here someone had actually articulated how the process (which I had stumbled upon, in ’75) works, and he had worked out six clear steps for people to become familiar with their “felt sense.” He called it Focusing. I began a new phase, by getting more precise about the felt-sensing process through Gene’s book Focusing.  Later, I read his Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, and the amazing A Process Model.  – two books that provide a language for intricately understanding this natural process. Thank you, Gene Gendlin, and all the Focusing community.