No carrots mummy

Chinese Buddhist monk. 1,050-1,150 CE. Drents Museum, Nederlands

Chinese Buddhist monk. 1,050-1,150 CE. Drents Museum, Nederlands

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.

CT-Scan reveals mummified monk (possible self-mummification)

CT-Scan reveals mummified monk (possible self-mummification)

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.

Romantic spirituality

License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Religion and supernatural ideas in general have proved remarkably durable across the totality of global society. The elevation of scientism and human reasoning which began over 300 years ago has far from disinclined us to the unreasonable. The particle physicist may still attend evensong, the neurophysicist continue to ponder an afterlife, and the philosopher forever cogitate on transcendent abodes of mind. So reason appears to have its limits in the face of our more intuitive inclinations.

Human reason does of course have limits in any case; it’s always constrained by the cranial organ we possess as a species of Great Ape. There’s a tendency to regard reason as limitless, at least in theory, and we readily grant faith in those few intellectual giants who occasionally appear in the world. We may come to regard them almost as demigods, taking their every utterance as somehow sacrosanct and inarguable – until the next appears, and perhaps reveals the firsts’ feet of clay.

And yet religious and supernatural beliefs have this durability that, as history has shown, eludes the products of reasoning itself. There’s something immutable in our species’ desire to hold to ideas of the transcendent, as if we sense the limits of reason. Our notions of spiritual dimensions barely lend themselves to any detailed examination; they’re largely allusions to a metaphysical beyond that remain susceptible only to retention as opaque, frequently vacillating and wish-laden beliefs.

So what is it that inclines us to these unprovable notions, these rather clouded and at times hesitant bundles of unreason? Perhaps we can say that we fall in love with them as projective ideas – the heaven that awaits us, or the nirvana we seek one day to possess. Adopting beliefs such as these is highly seductive to us as spiritual materialists; they’re quite easy to relate lovingly to as we form relationships with our imagined futures, romanticising our becoming selves in the process.

Now of course, huge emotional solace can be granted as a result of our adherence to these beliefs. This is not insignificant, despite the objections of anti-theists who, sardonically dismissing those unable to substantiate their beliefs evidentially, miss the point. To them, it’s as if subjectivity is utterly illusory and has no pragmatic value; whereas to the believer, their subjective world is largely paramount. William James writes eloquently on this in his great work The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Continuing with this theme, we might say the ardent materialist can be romantically diminished – at least as regards much of their inner world. Such an allegation may not disturb them in the least; they may even take pride in agreeing. Yet simultaneously they fail to acknowledge within a romantic attachment to their own self-entity, their own love of themselves beyond the measurable flesh and bone. Ask them to describe the self they believe in, and a hesitancy appears – so is that too ineffable?

It seems then, that we all have romantic attachments to things that, whilst they remain indescribable, we find difficulty in relinquishing. Whether it be an unwavering cleaving to our present self-construct, or more projective ideas about the future of our immortal self, these are all notions we cling to and lovingly identify with. There’s a need to believe in something beyond the mind and matter – a super-construct of a heaven, a transcendent psychical realm, or an enduring, changeless self.

Whilst much of this readiness to believe is harmful, elements of it can serve an important purpose. Not only does it provide some with the emotional solace already spoken of, it may also create a conduit for higher understandings. The problem is in distinguishing what may prove a healthy faith, from pernicious and misplaced beliefs. In the end, it comes down to instinct and intuition; we feel a gut reaction that grants sufficient faith so as to allow the leap towards ground as yet unseen.

We can always play safe of course, demanding verifications as to what lies ahead before proceeding. And sometimes this is wise, particularly so in matters of the material world where empirical proofs may exist. But in the world of subjectivity, there simply are no such proofs. In the subjective world, the unknown is just that, and there can be no evidence beyond hearsay. So faith is the only option if we want to explore this speculative unknown, and we come back to our intuitive inclinations.

This means being more liberal with our romantic indulgencies. I don’t argue for a love of the spiritual, because for me the word is meaningless. The spiritual is generally considered as an immaterial counterpart to, or issuance of, a substantive self. And yet the self is not substantive; it’s no more than a narrative construct; it is already immaterial and issued beyond the body, existing only and ever as a recurrent idea. So the romantic indulgence I advocate is to befriend this same understanding.

It’s to have faith that we ourselves must go beyond idea and narration to understand the true ground of our being. Contemplatively exploring the mind and senses, we fall out of love with selfhood, and into loving only the presence of being. We embrace this possibility not as any romantic spirituality, but instead as a lover of knowledge. We come to know that the dualistic play of self and otherness are but entrancements, the romance of self-love but fakery, and in such knowledge find well-being.