“There is a difference between one and another hour of life, in their authority and subsequent effect. Our faith comes in moments, our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today was a good day. I felt that it would be good from the outset. I sat in the sun reading for a while, as is my habit of late, but for the first time in a while I felt something, sitting there in the warmth of the winter sun, something vital and freeing. I felt located in myself. I felt I was being led into reality, out of a cloud of thoughts, by the soft breeze, by the smells of grass and damp bark, by the cluster of glowing midges flitting about. The light- the true colour and texture of the world was seeping in. I felt that sense of presence that I am now so skilled at avoiding. And so I decided that I would try to prolong this feeling.
I decided to go cycling. So I rode around the river, and tried to see things as they are. This kind of seeing is not about some deep intellectual thought, in fact it is the opposite. It is the kind of seeing that can only be done in cognitive silence. This kind of seeing is hard to do, and even harder to maintain for any stretch of time. When the veil drops away there is no space between you and the world. Everything you see is simply itself, in its own place, and you find yourself, by relation, in your own place also. There is a sense of “presence” that I feel in these moments that is totally absent from most of my life.
“I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”
– Henry David Thoreau
All this might sound poetical, but I tell you there is no magic in it, only the forgotten breadth of experience that is there to be found, if only we could see as children. What I describe is transcendent only in the sense that it transcends our normal, everyday experience of reality.
As I rode, I felt all the while thoughts arising, trying to pull me out of the present. It is necessary to fight off the thoughts, and it is necessary to fight all perception of time. The true perception of space, true vision, requires an ignorance of time. Any thought of time precipitates the well-worn mental habits of homo economicus. Always thinking of the future, of what needs to be done, in fact getting lost in the future, living with a sizeable portion of one’s mind there, and thereby precluding the possibility of total presence.
A child does not concern himself with plans, with time. A child engaged in some activity will stop when he is bored, or hungry, or it has grown dark. Perhaps he will stop because he has other things to do, but not because he has other things that need to be done. The finitude of time is less apparent to him. The child is always present, his body and mind always occupy the same space. Only from this vantage point can the world also be itself. This is what I had hoped to feel, some fraction of the freedom and clarity of mind of a child, who sees the world as it is, not yet wall-papered over with words, concepts, narratives, memories. Strangely, for an adult such a state requires great effort to attain. It is very hard to think less. It is, however, very easy to think less coherently, which is easy to mistake for not thinking at all, as disordered thinking can leave little lasting trace, but this is not at all the same.
It is perhaps a great evolutionary progress trap- we have been granted the gift of forethought, to the great material benefit of our species, but with this gift comes a constant low-level anxiety. The consciousness of time is ever-present, the present self is crushed and subjugated by the narrative self. Our concern for the narrative self, our desire to be pleased by the outline our lives carve through time, leads us to see ourselves from the outside. This external view of oneself precludes the deep subjectivity and thoughtlessness that the present self needs to breathe. In modern life, the present self is perpetually short of breath.
Homo sapiens has the presence of a child, it is only us, some kind of miserable in-between species- a transitional form, that live in this muddled temporal state. As we have gained an acute perception of a new dimension- time, so we have gained a new axis on which to suffer. We are talented enough to be cognizant not only of our present suffering, but of imagined future suffering as well.
I cycled on, crossing a bridge, towards the house I lived in some six or seven years ago. Fuelled now by nostalgia, I followed the route I used to run late at night. The bulk of the memories I have of that area are purely sensory, experiential, as nothing I had ever seen there was of much practical importance to me. Here was a rich vein of heightened experience for me to mine. A kind of multi-layered experience, both the present, focused experience that I was now attuned to, and those fragmentary pieces of remembered experience that had filtered through the cracks of my conscious mind way back when and remained, lodged deep in there somewhere, through all the intervening years.
I begin to think that nostalgia consists, in large part, of sensory memories. Sensory experience most strongly invokes nostalgia. My childhood memories are made of those things that I now struggle to notice, the result of clear, unhindered and unhurried perception of the moment. This led me to a thought. Was I even then, only six or seven years ago, more capable than now of this kind of unhindered perception? Do we continue building our cages of thought even later into adulthood? Were the bars sparser at twenty-five than at thirty-two?
On the side of a passing bus, I saw an ad for a super-fast broadband internet service. And I thought, what is the bandwidth of human sensory perception? What resolution does netflix have to deliver in order to match reality? But of course, most television, most entertainment, is not designed to generate this feeling of presence in any case. By its nature it takes you somewhere else, out of yourself. It demolishes space as deftly as it demolishes time. It is a means of dissociation, and it is oddly pleasing in a numbing kind of way. It frees you, momentarily, from the anxieties of life, but you return entirely unchanged. The subtle joy that comes from true presence and sight cannot be had second hand. The transformative pleasures of our senses are there to be enjoyed, but not without a modicum of focus. Entertainment is not simply irrelevant to this kind of presence, it is in some small way its enemy, as all noise is the enemy of clear thought and clear perception. Entertainment is another source of distraction from the true depth of sensory experience.