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In conversation with Iain McGilchrist

connexion, attention, learning

Today I was able to download and edit this recording made by

of Iain McGilchrist and me talking at his home last week. I first wrote to Iain in December 2010 to thank him for his book ‘The Master and His Emissary’ and to relay its profound effect upon my life, understanding of T’ai Chi and the Tao, and its beneficial outward rippling effect in my and my teacher’s T’ai Chi schools.

Audio version of this introduction

This led to a wonderful dialogue, some great meals, a visit by Iain to my teacher’s summer T’ai Chi workshop one year, and most precious of all, an ongoing friendship. I am indebted to Iain for his generosity with his time and energy. Finally, on my third visit to see Iain in Skye, and with Dougald twisting my arm, we recorded this conversation. I have added links in a footnote to 3 people we mention1.

Over two days, Iain, Dougald and I talked about so much, including the many messages of thanks Iain has received over the years since The Master’s publishing. A common thread is that people write to say how his book has shed light on their faith or atheism, practice or philosophy, craft or meditation, relationship or solitude… I told Iain that in the decades he gathered together what would become his book, he’d somehow carved the skeleton key for almost any lock. The process of 1 - looking deeply into something, 2 - take that something apart to show how it works, and lastly, 3 - putting it back together again so that it becomes whole once more, is the means by which we humans learn or practice anything deeply, and which is one of the main subjects of his book. Our sadness is for when the topic at hand is not returned to the realm of the Right Hemisphere, uncontrived action, a holistic view, or ‘unconscious movement’ (in T’ai Chi). A thing remains ‘overt’, like a flow chart, a list of procedures… dead. To partake in the aliveness of creation, we cannot allow ourselves to be as machines, coldly manipulating all things for strategic ends. Our knowledge needs to return to the realm of the implicit again, for it to become true knowing and to have the possibility of being applied without a forceful mind.

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The endemic alienation and dread felt by people at this time is not an unintended ‘side-effect’ of glistening Modernity, I feel it is the main effect. Once we feel dread-full, we will grasp at whatever straws we are handed, so as not to feel lost. All straws will be handed out, at a cost, by the totalising entity. You may no longer cleave to family, friendship, beneficial traditions, nature, prayer, meditation, tried and tested methods, nor rest; as these are not chargeable, and must be undermined. Traditional wisdom including from Taoists, Stoics, Buddhists and the Desert Fathers has been quietly telling us this for millennia. There is no charge for this knowledge, apart from, as Rumi said, ‘the cost is your life’.

There is also a great cost to spending many years laying out with love and care, all the proof the Left Hemisphere requires to show how it has staged a coup. The writer of such a proof also needs to return to ‘central earth’ and not be left on the table amongst the tools and cuttings. I suggested that the incomparable reception of, and response to, Iain’s book, over the decade since publication, was the tide of his energy returning to him, correctly completing the cycle. It is much the same with music. We spend years writing, honing, recording, releasing a record, going through exhaustion, or difficult times with our bandmates… And then, finally we play live, the audience completes the cycle of creation and suddenly a year’s worth of energy returns to us with the first gig’s applause. I think it is much harder for the solo musician, writer or artist to weather the inevitable ‘low-tide’ of the outflow part of this cycle. So, sincere messages from readers are of utmost importance. Indeed, the correct reception of any art form or practice is, in traditional societies, almost as important as the work itself. This is being the host to the artist’s guest. A great joy in my life is playing host to art, music and books, to landscapes, conversations and movement. This is the yin aspect of the cycle of life, ‘the receptive’, and without it, action (yang) is meaningless.

Only machines continually act without rest or replenishment.

Restlessness is the disposition of the soul of the machine.

At one point, when I am talking about wu wei, I use several renditions of the phrase in English, but the one that was on the tip of my tongue ‘without a forceful mind’ (my teacher’s current preferred rendering) remained unspoken. The next day in Glasgow at Galgael with Dougald, Dougie Strang and Alastair MacIntosh, this phrase was at the centre of my response to ‘At Work In The Ruins’, and felt like a continuation of what Iain and I discuss in this film. I will link to it here when Dougald posts it. 2

Many good wishes to you from my writing desk at home.


This week’s good thing: My teacher Master Mark Raudva is finally taking new beginners for T’ai Chi in south London, England, after about a decade with no new beginners’ classes. You can go along any Tuesday night in February 7-8.15pm, near Tooting Bec underground, and all the details are here. He will also be starting an open online beginners’ class by Zoom this spring, for people everywhere. If you are interested, drop me a line via Substack or by email here and I will help him to get it set up! I have studied with him since 2000 and have met at least 30 masters of the art over the last 23 years, but none quite match his subtlety of insight or skill in teaching. I’ll be back at these classes occasionally over the coming months when I am in London, so perhaps I will see you there.

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The translations of Taoist writing I refer to in the conversation are at

Uncivil Savant
Uncivil Savant
Caroline Ross