Faded salmon pink. No longer much give in the wool. Twenty and more years lining these corridors of quietude. Silent, ownerless footsteps. Not even that. Just a delicious, slow, rolling sensation of movement and pressure. Release; airborne. Now reappearing on the other side. Side of what? Subtle intimations of cedar incense mixed with the ubiquitous scent of layers of aging beeswax, each applied watchfully to the old pinewood architraves every winter. Upon the tray I hold, more scents rise from the day’s one full meal. The pealing bells of the church far below the monastery grounds just carry on the stilled autumnal air as I pass the last window before entering my cell. The silence is working now; a few days into the retreat and I can hear it; see the tranquil hush. I set down carefully; cutlery; attention. A last look out onto the closing day of the garden. Bliss in mind.
Many thousands of meals before, each inattentively consumed over chatter or thinking or impatience or just about anything other than the meal itself. The autopilot takes control; I’ve done this so many times I’m bored with the process; the robot is dreaming. This time it’s different. Everything matters. Everything is exquisitely alive and silent. A taster: something – I have no concern for whatever it is – rotates slowly within space. All this thingless something is comprises only colour and form – orange tones and a cylindrical shape with one beveled edge; the whole gaining in size over a slow pirouette. Absolutely captivating. A revolving revolution in perception. What just died within me in these moments, I wonder? It feels as though my past way of apprehending the world is mummified, still within, yet without use. A cognitive skeleton denuded of past meanings.
In Joachim Gasquet’s ‘Cézanne, – a Memoir with Conversations’ (1897 – 1906), Paul Cézanne, during the final years of his life said that “The day is coming when a single original carrot will give birth to a revolution”. He was talking about observing something directly, and then painting it in the very personal way it is seen, rather than by the book, so to speak. You have to be a true artist to do that, and I am not one of any kind. And yet each of us, even those with wits as dull as my own, may observe the world directly at times. What does that mean? It is the act of pure perception, and the purity is the absence of contaminating thought. Most of the time, when we see, the mind brings along a retained perceptual knowledge that loosely fits what is seen. This is the thought that knows the carrot is a carrot. That is mostly useful, as when needing to distinguish perceptual activity conceptually.
This process of verifying what we apprehend with our store of perceptual knowledge becomes ingrained, and we ourselves are imperceptibly released into a world of concepts, seldom to escape. It isn’t that we use probative words, such as ‘this is a carrot’; yet the knowledge that is synonymous with that idea is brought along with the pure perception, most of the time entirely unnecessarily yet without in the least discommoding us. Everything works, even though we remain one step removed from our actuality. And again, much of the time we need to know that the shape and form approaching us across the savannah is a lion; or that the appearances of vaporous clouds above liquid indicate extremes of temperature. By far the greater part of our lives is lived in a stream of mentation, of conceptual referencing. So this is a world of otherness, of ‘carrots’, ‘lions’ and ‘kettles’.
The Pyrrhonists of ancient Greece used the term ‘epoché’ to denote the suspension of this conceptual stream, and in modern times Edmund Husserl popularised the term in his phenomenology. Whenever this suspension occurs, not only do we become freed from the world of concepts, but the running assumptions of subject and object also dissipate. There is only what T.S. Eliot called ‘the still point of the turning world’. In mundane terms, we no longer possess any knowledge that we have a carrot on our fork and are about to eat it; all that comprises the entire world is shape and form, colour and movement, scent and feeling. The very greater part of our cognitive apparatus becomes temporarily mummified, preserved for another world, the world of concepts and ideas, thoughts and memories. The skeletal frame of our cognitive apparatus sits perfectly still.
I return the tray to the trestle table that two tonsured recluses have just erected downstairs beside the kitchen entrance, and walk slowly out into the monastery gardens with a mug of tea. Now resting on a varnished wooden bench beside a large algae-covered bubbling stone, the senses settle into their own slow rhythm, each a delicious presentation of a world that I am neither part of nor separate from. The freedom of not being anywhere. The view from nowhere. A bee, out to collect the last of the summer’s pollen, and perhaps sensing harmlessness, loudly passes inches from my nose and I feel the breeze its wings create upon my face. There is no desire, no aversion, none of the subtle awkwardness of my own self-aware existence. There is just a bee bee-ing. A marble Buddha stands watch in an arched hollow of the honeyed-limestone wall, and we all share smile.