It is the Easter vacation for our undergraduate students and I am taking a week’s leave to wander the hills, digitally detox and return with my consciousness revived by sensory experiences. So just two sentences and a picture this week though if you want to read more then follow these links: ‘Walking the hills‘ on April 13th, 2022; ‘Digital detox with a deep vacation‘ on August 10th, 2016; and ‘Feed your consciousness with sensory experiences‘ on May 22nd, 2019.
Tag Archives: mind-wandering
Mind-wandering guided by three good books
We took a long weekend break last week. We did some walking, read some books and not much else. I read ‘A line in the world: a year on the North Sea Coast‘ by the Danish writer Dorthe Nors (translated by Caroline Waight). The author, Jessica J. Lee, described this book as ‘starkly, achingly beautiful’ which aptly describes an exploration of history and memories associated with the wild and desolate west coast of Denmark. Then, I read ‘The Easy Life‘ by Marguerite Duras (translated by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan), written in 1943 when the author’s husband was a prisoner at Buchenwald for having been part of the French Resistance, as she was, and a year after the death of her younger brother which occurred just months after her child was stillborn. The novel is about a murder, one of three deaths, which lead the narrator, 25-year-old Francine Veyrenattes, to flee the family farm for the seaside to contemplate her borderless grief and the endless sea. The third book I read during our weekend break was ‘German Fantasia‘ by Philippe Claudel (translated by Julian Evans), which Le Monde described as ‘Dark, sober and strong’. It is a series of interconnected short stories in which the characters’ reflections play as large a part in the story as the action as they navigate a post-war landscape. These three books probably suited my mood on a cold, dark February weekend; however, they are beautifully written and in relatively few words create the mental constructs that allow you to live the experiences of the protagonists in the latter two books and the author in the first book. They are exemplars of the kind of writing Mary Midgley exhorts us to produce – just enough words to bring to mind the appropriate constructs [see ‘When less is more from describing digital twins to protoplasm‘ on February 22nd, 2023]. They took my mind to new places away from everyday concerns which was the purpose of the long weekend break.
Reflecting on self
In a recent interview, the artist William Kentridge described becoming another person when standing back from a work in progress and becoming a critical director of the other person’s work. He talked about ‘constructing myself from yesterday’s dream and tomorrow’s expectation’. I have had similar experiences when I am speaking to an audience, lecturing to students or making a presentation at a conference. I mentally stand back from the speaking self and the other self reviews what is happening and sometimes starts mind-wandering triggered by something said by the speaking self or a reaction from the audience. I talk about ‘self’ when I am lecturing on leadership as part of our Continuous Professional Development programme [see ‘On being a leader’ on October 13th, 2021]. I am often asked what is meant by ‘self’ and ‘identity’, particularly in the context of Kegan’s scheme of cognitive development [see ‘Illusion of self’ on February 2nd, 2017]. I sense that students are often dissatisfied with my answers. So, let me attempt a written answer here. A dictionary definition of ‘self’ is ‘the entire being of an individual that constitutes the individuality and identity of a person’. In psychology, it might be defined as ‘the totality of the individual, consisting of all characteristic attributes, conscious and unconscious, mental and physical.’ A dictionary definition of ‘identity’ is ‘the distinguishing character or personality of an individual’ and in sociology it is ‘the qualities, beliefs, personality traits, appearance and, or experiences that characterise a person’. Hence, combining these definitions, identity is the attributes that characterise your ‘self’ and distinguishes you from others. Kegan’s schema implies that our sense of self develops through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood to the extent that some people (about 35%) can separate their relationships and identity from their self and hence are capable of more nuanced decision-making – this is known as the Institutional stage. About one percent of the population develop to a further stage, known as the Interindividual stage, where they are capable holding many identities and handling the resultant paradoxes that arise, which can help them to exercise both emotion and rationality as leaders. I think that self is closely related to our consciousness and consequently is constructed from yesterday’s experiences and tomorrow’s dreams to misquote Kentridge. So, perhaps it is reasonable to think that we construct, or at least evolve, a self each day as we engage in different roles, for example in my case as a teacher, researcher, university leader or family member. I suspect that it is my researcher self that sits on the shoulder of my teacher self and mind-wanders while my teacher self talks about something else. My experiences and dreams in each role are different, divergent even, and means that I have at least two selves that exist towards opposite ends of the ‘Change Style Indicator and have different qualities as well as experiences.
Peter Aspden, ‘The self is a construction we make every day: Lunch with the FT – William Kentridge’, 22 October / 23 October 2022.
Kegan, R., The evolving self: problem and process in human development, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Longman Dictionary of the English Language, Harlow, UK: Longman Group Limited, 1984.
You can only go there in your head
“Inner space and outer space are similar, aren’t they really? You’re never going to get to the edge of the universe in a spaceship. You might as well try going on a bus. You can only go there in your head.” This is a quote from David Hockney in ‘Spring Cannot Be Cancelled‘ by David Hockney and Martin Gayford. It’s a beautiful book. Full of thought-provoking insights and recent artwork by Hockney painted in Normandy mainly during the pandemic. I read it last month while in the Yorkshire Dales [see ‘Walking the hills‘ on April 13th 2022]. Hockney writes about his need to paint. He finds it utterly absorbing and endlessly sustaining. Gayford compares this need and experience to the work of American psychologist, Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi [see ‘Slow-motion multi-tasking leads to productive research‘ on September 19, 2018] who wrote about concentration so intense that there is no spare capacity to think about anything else, your self-consciousness disappears and you lose your sense of time leading to a deep sense of happiness and well-being. I cannot paint but I can achieve something approaching a similiar state when I am writing.
Martin Gayford and David Hockney, Spring cannot be cancelled – David Hockney in Normandy, London: Thames & Hudson, 2021.