If I were only to say that I have been looking forward to reading First Steps to Seeing: A Path to Living Attentively you may not quite realise how much. So I thought I would first start this review by mentioning that I first had the pleasure to meet Emma at Schumacher College in 2009, just after I started my masters degree in Holistic Science and just after Emma had graduated, also in Holistic Science, the year before.
In fact, I think I may have first heard of Emma I believe before meeting her, since Henri Bortoft, who was giving the first week of lectures on wholeness, did in fact quote from Emma’s dissertation in one of our classes. This is the quote:
A phenomenological inquiry, as conducted with Goethean methodology, is a form of dynamic engagement with the world – dynamical doing by dynamical seeing; it allows you to see the whole within the parts and brings the world to expression.”
In bringing a phenomenon to expression, perceived qualities have to be expressed, but also simultaneously expressed to be perceived; as if the phenomenon is an active subject that reaches out to us. This calls for a hermeneutic understanding of expression as a reciprocal dynamic process, with perception and expression being intrinsically related.
I published Emma’s dissertation on Transition Consciousness in 2011, and you can read my introduction to it and download a copy here: Re-Cognition: The Re-Cognition of our Connection to Nature Through Goethe’s Way of Seeing
I realise that if you are not used to the way of seeing which forms the basis of phenomenology, then this quite philosophical quote may seem a bit of a handful. However, as soon as I read Emma’s dissertation, I was convinced that Emma had a deeply intuitive understanding of the dynamic way of seeing, and although I do not exactly remember when, I am sure I said to her the following year in 2010 that she should be writing a book.
So with this background you can now see that I have been waiting for the best part of five years to read First Steps to Seeing: A Path to Living Attentively, and it was certainly worth the wait. Since graduating, Emma has committed herself to fully developing her own lived experience of Henri’s philosophy of wholeness, which also includes running many extremely profound workshops taking people into this dynamic way of seeing.
It is very clear just how much of an impact these years of reflection have had on Emma, and in First Steps to Seeing we discover an extremely important book in which the focus is not on understanding the philosophy from an intellectual perspective, but where the focus is on leading us step by step into the experience of the dynamics of seeing.
The quote from Emma’s dissertation is pointing us towards the insight that there is something in our common day-to-day way of perceiving the world that leads us to a restricted view of this world. There is something missing which means that we need to learn how to see the world in a new way, not in terms of attitude or opinion, i.e. in a manner that simply uses our existing cognitive mechanisms, but which requires an expanded level of consciousness. By offering many practical exercises, tools and personal experiences, Emma helps us to discover this missed dimension of cognition in perception, allowing us to overcome deeply engrained habits which edit our experience of the world.
In her opening chapter Emma recounts her first contact with Henri, and how his teachings completely turned her life upside down. So instead of walking in the countryside and not noticing how our minds would often perceive just the idea of trees, for Emma these insights brought her back into contact with trees for example as a “dynamic expression of life”.
As Emma writes, “once our mind has defined what we are experiencing, we often stop paying attention to how our senses are experiencing it. This redirection of attention, from our experience of life to the idea in our mind, has the effect of of creating an invisible barrier between us and the world”. Hence the first part of the book is designed to help us understand that the majority of us fail to notice this switch from our attention to thought.
Having provided a number of exercises to help us explore seeing, Emma then takes us into an exploration to develop an ability to notice our experience of our thoughts. This is powerful and important since these reflections help us to bring us back into a fuller form of awareness, an awareness which helps us to live life more fully in the present moment, something which Emma notes can also have a positive impact on our well-being.
The implications for those who are willing to commit themselves to restructuring their consciousness into a higher level organ of perception:
By remembering and re-picturing our lived experience, in our imagination, as exactly as possible, we can begin to notice the dynamic processes, relationships and patterns we may not have been able to physically appreciate with our eyes.
In Part Two Emma invites us to take a fresh approach to life, for example by suggesting that we maintain a level of curiosity when interacting with people we know, in order to counteract our “perceptual blindness” or “blind spots” due to our expectations of people who are closest to us.
As Emma says, “everything around us is imbued with the deep mystery and beauty of the unknown whether we pay attention to it or not”. Interestingly, Emma describes her motives for writing this book in order to show to us a quite different way of being in the world which ordinarily we may not have noticed.
Emma is quite candid when she shares her own personal story and journey into this new way of being, relating to us the period where she was working in Hong Kong in the clothing design industry, often experiencing huge stresses and depression. Hence the dynamics of seeing applies not only to how we perceive the outside world, but also ourselves.
Like Emma I too was taught by Henri, and when I mentioned the need for commitment, this observation comes from experience. First Steps to Seeing really will be powerful for those willing to embark on a personal journey of transformation. Emma took time to write her book, and this shows in her thoughtful language. This is a book to keep, re-read, and return to frequently, with exercises which have more depth than at first may seem apparent.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, I had always thought that Emma was going to write this book, but in the meantime, I co-authored our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, also published by Floris Books and which also takes readers into the dynamic way of seeing of Henri. I am really pleased that Emma finally did manage to complete and publish her book, as the two together are highly complementary, and since Henri passed away in December 2012, we need as many people as possible to express and articulate this dynamic way of seeing in as many contexts as possible.
So whereas in Holonomics we move from the dynamics of seeing into dynamic models of chaos and complexity in nature, and then into the dynamics of business, ethics and values, while Emma too considers this way of being in business, such as her case study of the Hiut Denim company, she is focusing more on our inner journey, one which starts with the education of our children and educational systems.
Now more than ever before there is an urgent need for more authentic engagement with people, the environment and within our organisations. First Steps to Seeing challenges us to first let go of what we think we know, in order to open our receptiveness to a much deeper way of knowing the world, offering us an opportunity to encounter the livingness of life.