A Life of One's Own
It was in the mid 1980's at a time of some personal turmoil and indecision that I walked into a book shop in Ottawa, Canada and pulled a paperback with a muted pink cover down from a shelf. But no, it was more that the volume seemed to drop into my hands. The book, first published in 1936, was called 'A Life of One's Own' by Joanna Field. Between its pages I discovered the unassuming and curious voice of a woman who at the time of writing was roughly my age and who had set herself the task of finding out what would make her happy. Her quest, again and again, led her inward and set her to discovering leadings and promptings at the edges of the conscious mind. Reading her book 50 years after she had written it, in a decade obsessed with self-help and self-improvement, I was struck by the originality of her insights, her interest in the elusive and the unseen, and the quietness of her approach.
Marion Milner, the actual author of 'A Life of Own's Own', was an educationalist and eventually psychoanalyst, an original contributor to the practises of art therapy and journalling, a courageous lone traveller and a celebrant of the unconscious and of what she called psychic creativity. Born in 1900 four years after the birth of the motor car, and dying in 1997 after eBay and Amazon had both launched their sites, her own contribution was timeless. She had initially been led to investigate the work of Maria Montessori after spending enjoyable hours teaching the 7 year old child of a family friend. Having briefly studied at a Montessori training college, she enrolled at UCL where in 1924 she obtained a degree in physiology and psychology. It was only two years later that she embarked upon the writing of 'A Life of One's Own'.
It was of course the title of the book as much as its simple Art Deco cover that drew me to it that day in the bookshop. I was about to embark on a new life across an ocean, one with very few parameters. I was about to leave my job in a Canadian orchestra, my friends, my routines, in fact my sense of identity, for the unknown, and I needed a guide. Similarly the young Marion Milner asked, 'How shall I live my life?' The question catapulted her into a strange and even esoteric examination of her own impulses, perceptions and inner experiences. This was an unusual approach at a time when the logical positivists were advocating the necessity for codifying all knowledge and rejecting everything that might fall into the category of metaphysics. 'I felt that... I must not be... blind to the possibility of there being a direct sense of what was real in my internal universe, a sense which reasoned analysis might only blur,' Milner wrote. 'As far as I knew science had not considered this other domain, had sometimes said it did not exist... But although science repudiated it, could I not borrow some useful hints from her in learning how to manage it. I knew well that... questions of desire and happiness were too fleeting, too personal to be caught in precise formulas which science demanded, but could I at least apply the methods of experiment... to … my private reality?'
So began Milner's attempt to understand herself from the inside out. Amongst the methods she used were diary-keeping and automatic writing (what we would now call journalling), a type of free drawing that would later influence the art therapy movement and various experiments in progressive relaxation and body awareness; the principles that she adhered to, both in this first book and, in fact, throughout her life, were a sort of allowing of all that manifested and a willingness to lose herself in order to find herself.
I think I must have carried the book as a secret talisman on the long plane journey to London and in the first weeks of my new life there. I read it as if it was a recipe book, full of lists of ingredients to be combined in certain ways so as to produce not a meal but a life. I thought of my teacher as Joanna Field because, after all, the cover of the book advised me to think so and I read how almost by accident this Joanna Field had discovered the ability to control the quality of her perception through what she called an internal gesture of 'putting myself out'.
'My ordinary way of looking at things seemed to be from my head, as if it were a tower in which I kept myself shut up,' she wrote. Instead, she happened on the trick of pushing her awareness outwards into the sound or object or even person she wished to experience more directly, with more exhilaration. 'In trying to observe what had happened I had the idea that my awareness had somehow widened, that I was feeling what I saw as well as thinking what I saw.' Similarly, while darning a pair of socks, she discovered that if she was able to silence her mind and put her awareness into her hands, to allow her hands to do the work without her mind interfering, she found a sense of ease and effortlessness in her work. Again and again she found that when she 'gave up thinking' and remembered to stop trying, she could find herself entranced in a new and soul-satisfying way by the vibrant colours of a Cézanne or the sun on the waves of the sea. She wrote: 'At that time I could not understand that my real purpose might be to learn to have no purpose... I must simply make an internal gesture of standing back and watching.'
This Joanna Field, who I eventually came to realise was, in fact, Marion Milner, happens upon the notion of thinking backwards rather than forwards, following the train of her thoughts in reverse to understand her often flagrant mind. She becomes aware of what she calls 'butterfly thoughts', the tiny, fleeting, often uncomfortable thoughts at the edge of consciousness which we are reluctant to acknowledge. It's as if she has discovered that the subconscious is not lower but just paler in shade, less direct. And led by her work with Montessori and her reading of Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget's ideas on the development of cognition in children, she is struck by the childlikeness of her own thinking which she calls 'blind thinking'. This blind thinking frequently leads her up the wrong track when she is angry, or overwhelmed by wanting to accomplish more than she can reasonably deal with. It is acquisitive, unkind, power-hungry, unrealistic in every way. It 'bolt(s) to extremes'. It has no sense of values and equally no sense of past and present. She finds that a fleeting memory can enrage her just as much as a present difficulty. And yet, she discovers that she can step back from these thoughts if she can only become aware of them.
Inspired by the 16th century philosopher, Michel de Montaigne,' who wrote: 'A man must see and study his vice to correct it', she reasoned that her blind thinking was fuelled by fatigue and emotion and began to consider what could raise it. 'I began to reconsider my moments of delight in terms of this statement of the problem, moments whose essential quality had been a fusing of experience, a flash of significance uniting the meaningless and separate. If one assumed that thinking was a process involving some form of energy, it seemed quite appropriate to image my gesture of holding back from mental action as causing an accumulation of energy which automatically raised the potency. By preventing energy from continually flowing away in a noisy stream of efforts and purposes I could make it fill up into a silent pool of clearness.'
And inquiring into her perception of and experience in dealing with others, she initially notes that she all too often found herself 'trying to please people, to keep up with what was expected of me, and to avoid offending.' But again, she finds that if she can take herself out if it, 'lose herself in the thing (or person) perceived', 'recognise another mind and yet want nothing from it' she is able to find a joy and authenticity in encounters with others. In the end she concludes that, 'only by being prepared to accept annihilation can one escape from the spiritual 'abiding alone' which is in fact the truly death-like state.'
Milner went on to publish a series of other books, some dealing in a similar way with her own very original ideas about perception and consciousness, others more directly dealing with therapy and psychoanalysis, all of which are now out of print in this age of box-ticking and mental health assessment. Her 'Hands of the Living God', an account of her 20 year analysis of a psychotic patient, 'Susan', is described by the philosopher, Adam Phillips as being 'a book about art (and writing about art), about emptiness, breathing, ordinary language, mysticism, the body, the sexes, childhood, parenting, impersonality, God, theory, exchange, change, tact, forms of inattention, belief, scepticism …'
Her obituarist, Michael Brearley, wrote that 'Milner underlined the need to imbue the common-sense world with one's personal sense of meaning. She described this process as the alchemy which transmutes base metal into gold. This requires a sacrifice of the old self and a plunge into emptiness, from which one develops a trust that, out of the unconscious, something new and valuable can grow.'
How strange to think that all those years ago, a new arrival to London and still intrigued by my moment in the Ottawa bookshop, I had found myself searching for Marion Milner's name in the telephone directory and ringing her number. She was kind enough to listen to my garbled tale of how I came to know of her and, to my great surprise, invited me to come visit her. Then in her mid-80's she lived alone, and had done so for many years, in a gracious home in Chalk Farm, where she met me at the door, a sort of elderly Lauren Bacall in high-waisted trousers and a silk shirt. That vision of her has stuck with me as has, in the middle of our conversation, her query as to whether I would like her to psychoanalyse me. My deep regret is that I have forgotten the substance of that conversation and, more so, that I said no to her query.
Still, her book sat on the shelves of my successive London homes for many years. I had married, raised two children, divorced and returned to a demanding musical career. Drawing it down recently and flipping its pages, reading the words and paragraphs I had underlined and sometimes flagged with an exclamation mark, I realised that Milner had been, both influence and companion to my own interior life for all these years. As a musician I had learnt, over and over again, to get out of my own way and allow something beyond my own constricting critical judgements to guide my arms and hands. I had learnt that no good could come from living in reference to others, abdicating my decisions and then resenting that someone else had made the decision for me. And I had learnt to become aware of my own butterfly thoughts, many of which had surprised me. I had even happened on the notion of thinking backwards. I had come to seek that sense of knowing the Other in a place beyond thought. And I had learnt that it was in losing myself that I might find myself.