An Intuitive Sense of How to Live

by Mary Hrovat

I’m tempted to describe Marion Milner’s book A Life of One’s Own as the missing manual for owners of a human mind. However, it’s not didactic or prescriptive. In fact, it’s useful mainly because it’s nothing like a manual or a self-help book. The book is more like an insightful travelogue by an articulate and honest observer with a gift for using vivid physical imagery and metaphors to describe her inner world.

Milner held a degree in psychology from University College London and worked as a psychologist and psychoanalyst. In 1926, when she was 26, she began keeping a diary in an attempt to understand herself better. She recorded and interpreted her experiences for seven years; the result is A Life of One’s Own, which was published in 1934 (and reissued by Routledge in 2011). The diary covers a period in which Milner married, conducted research in her field, visited the United States on a Rockefeller scholarship, and had a child. These events, and all the happenings of everyday life, are background material rather than the focus of the book.

Milner wanted to discover what made her truly happy. In a changing world full of conflicting advice on how to live, it would be easy to unthinkingly follow a path laid down by someone else. She also found within herself a confusing variety of wishes and goals; it was hard to know what her true purposes or needs were, and it was no better to be pulled along by fleeting impulses of her own than to automatically follow another’s lead. In addition, she sometimes felt cut off from other people, anxious to please or worried about their opinions rather than truly connecting with them. She felt that life was slipping by unexperienced, going on somewhere other than where she was. Does any of this sound familiar? It certainly did to me.

Milner began by recording moments of happiness and trying to trace them to their source. She eventually found that happiness was linked to awareness itself: experiencing to the full and appreciating whatever she saw and felt and did. When she was able to widen her focus and take in more of what was before her, she experienced luminous depths in everyday moments; an ordinary or banal landscape could then shine “with a gleam from the first day of creation.”

However, she couldn’t reliably access this wider perception. In fact, sometimes the harder she tried, the more difficult it became. As she attempted to figure out why, she found, surprisingly, that some of her thoughts and feelings were quite unfamiliar. She used several techniques to familiarize herself with the contents of her mind, including free writing (uncensored continuous writing starting with a particular word or topic) and noting each day’s best moments. Her father had taught her as a child to carefully observe nature, making drawings to record what she saw; in her inner field work, she also worked with drawings she had made, trying to determine what feelings and mental processes might underlie the imagery.

Overall, the book reads like an account of a research project that unfolds as Milner observes, analyzes, asks further questions based on her findings, and then observes again. Many of the epigraphs for the chapters in the book are passages from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and they highlight the parallels between Crusoe’s adventures in an unknown land and Milner’s study of an intimate but sometimes strange landscape.

The story of what Milner learned is often engrossing. A crucial discovery was something she called blind thinking, a childish, self-centered type of thought inadequately connected to the real world. She tried to learn more about it by tracing trains of thought backward to their sources, paying particular attention to brief and elusive “butterfly thoughts” at the back of her mind. She thought that blind thinking might be a relic of childhood thinking that we didn’t entirely outgrow. She became aware of “outcast thoughts,” frequently frightening or troublesome, and also quite confused and fragmentary, that were usually outside of conscious awareness but influenced her experiences and actions. Although these thoughts were off-putting, she described them as “seeking expression for themselves” but having “only an indirect and symbolic language in which to clothe themselves.” Her drawings, some of which are reproduced in the book, were especially useful here.

Milner developed ways to work with these thoughts and eventually concluded that “For each thought which I kept rational and domesticated in my garden there might be a wild mate lurking outside the walls and howling at nights.” She began keeping an “opposites” notebook in which she would deliberately consider the opposite of some attitude or belief that was important to her. She noted poignantly that “these wild things actually wanted to come in; they often made dumb overtures of friendliness which I, in my terror, failed to recognize.”

There was something distinctly reminiscent of Zen or perhaps Taoism in her discovery that what was needed was to “leave [my thought] free to follow its own laws of growth, my function being to observe its activities, provide suitable material to enchannel them, but never to coerce it into docility.” (In fact, she did study Taoism, and some of her epigraphs come from Lao-Tze.) She began to see that her mind and body frequently knew what to do even if she couldn’t articulate the knowledge, and that the way forward was often not through strenuous effort but through a sort of active watching and waiting. Her sense of purpose evolved; she wrote that “I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know” (emphasis in the original).

In addition, some of her experiences of enlarged attention, even in everyday settings—the transformations of ordinary moments from dull sepia to glowing color—were so profound that they seemed transcendent or mystical. The way her expanded attention caught and savored the particularity of what was before her called to mind the opening of the doors of perception, although no drugs were involved. Milner herself didn’t use the phrase “doors of perception” (which comes from a poem by William Blake), and Aldous Huxley’s book by that name lay twenty years in the future. However, in 1961 another psychologist, T.H. Pears,  compared her book favorably with Huxley’s.

When Milner started her diary, she wanted observation to come before theory. Therefore, she by and large avoided reading anything related to what she was working on in herself so that she could approach her experiments without preconceptions. She also noted that being told about something rather than discovering it through your own experience can be misleading or simply useless. In connection with her explorations of relaxation, she discovered what people meant when they said that you need to play ping-pong with a loose arm: “to admit its truth because everyone says so, and to prove it in one’s own muscles are two very different matters.” She knew that in other cases she had also rediscovered ideas that she had been told about at some point in the past but hadn’t entirely understood because she hadn’t yet experienced their meaning for herself.

So why did she publish her book, presumably for others to read? She thought that while her conclusions might be specific to her circumstances or personality, her method might help people to learn about themselves without having to invest in extensive training or costly therapy. The book is much more field report than how-to; in fact, I found that Milner exemplifies what she describes as the best type of teacher, one who “shows the way to finding things out for oneself.”

The very idea that you can observe for yourself how you work, rather than trying to fit yourself into someone else’s categories or prescribed processes, was helpful. (Perhaps I’m not alone in needing periodic reminders to look inward rather than outward more often.) Milner wrote, “The attempt to understand the art of relaxing taught me many things about the effects of mind on body and body on mind.” This sentence illuminated some of my difficulties with anxiety and tension. I’ve tried various approaches to physical and mental relaxation, but it rarely occurs to me to observe myself and learn from my attempts. I tend to follow instructions for various techniques and feel like a failure when they don’t work as expected. I assume that my mind should simply command my body, and when it can’t, I feel stymied and give up. I now think that sometimes the problem is that part of me is asking, “Am I doing this right?” rather than wondering, “What’s going on here?”

The method of observation, analysis, and further observation is, of course, the method of science. The public science of psychology relies overall on aggregation and abstraction from the behavior of many people, but I think the psychology of the individual can also be approached scientifically, although not in the sense of reaching broadly applicable conclusions.

Early in the book, Milner noted her commitment to the facts of the real world; she didn’t want to fool herself by trusting irrational ideas based on wishful thinking. However, our shared, agreed-upon reality often can’t tell you much about, as she put it, how to live in accordance with your own being. “I knew well that these questions of desire and happiness were too fleeting, too personal to be caught in the precise formulae which science demanded, but could I not at least apply the methods of experiment, learn to observe, make my own hypotheses and check them up against further observations of my private reality?” This captured neatly my sense that mental and bodily knowledge of one’s emotional states, although subjective, can become an object of study, and that these states are facts about nature—a very limited but highly relevant part of nature, that contained within one human body.

I’m surprised that A Life of One’s Own is not better known; it seems to me that it ought to be a classic work. Paradoxically, despite its limited focus on a single person’s experience, the project it describes led Milner outward and helped her to learn “the way of escape from the imprisoning island of [her] own self-consciousness.” Despite her scientific approach and her academic research, she wasn’t always sure that intellectual study was the best way to understand humans. “Maybe to be a complete human being oneself is the only way. And how does one do that?” This book is a useful document that might, if you feel the need, suggest ways to nurture your own “intuitive sense of how to live” and move toward becoming a more complete human being.