Saturday, April 25, 2015

Here I am

It took a while to find a spot on a nearby hill
for a photo showing where I live and what my
house looks like. Above the broad roof at the bottom,
you’ll see the backs of some houses
painted white, joined together in a row.
Mine is similar, a few doors down in the same row.
Click to view the entire photo.
On Sunday morning I walked to a local supermarket for fresh milk and bread. I felt a tangible perfection in the air. I want to analyse that phrase, extract meaning from it. There was something, it was tangible, I don’t suppose it was literally something in the air; but it made me feel I could ask for nothing more. It came and touched every sense, not just the five we routinely use to know our surroundings, but (I speculate) other senses too, not always present to awareness. One could talk of “the heart”, or “subtle vibrations”, but that doesn’t add any meaning. Each of us, I think, is prepared to take some things on faith, when they come from someone we already trust, or with whom we feel an empathetic connection. It’s the next best thing to feeling it yourself. But I want to look into this thing, see if there is anything universal in it.

How shall I describe the footpaths and streets of my route to the supermarket and the half-mile radius of my home neighbourhood? It has special significance, for until the last ten years, I never really lived somewhere before. I was a sojourner. Going through two of my mother’s address books, I count 14 addresses across a 20-year period. And then I end up here, a town once famous for its furniture factories, the nearest of which still stands across the road from my house. It’s a district with its own character, the cheapest part of town.

How did I, how do I, feel perfection’s touch upon my body and soul? It isn’t just in the blue sky dotted with fleecy clouds, nor in the delicate warmth imparted from the sun when it deigns to appear and dispel the chill, brightening the façades of dwellings & workshops, giving promise of cheer to all us locals scurrying hither and thither or stopping to chat. Is it something to do with awareness freely given to the scene, the sense that this, for all it lacks of beauty, is home, and good enough? I embrace it—this moment, this place—with no regret and no reservations. I am stripped of superfluous agenda. In the words of the hymnist,
“The daily round, the common task
Will furnish all we need to ask”
Once again, these are words that can only have meaning if they resonate in the soul. Everything I need is in the ordinary: to be here, now and my own true self. This neighbourhood, which in ways is so alien, could make me feel exiled, but from what? There is only one kind of perfection. It’s perceived through complete acceptance that I am exactly where I need to be, where nothing needs to be changed. In the other case, when I see that I am not where I need to be, I need to take action, to restore that perfect state. My action may be mistaken, and then I will have to try again. Much of my life has been an exploration of failure. Meanwhile the perspective changes all the time, as it does when you go out walking and gaze at the landscape. I’ve been doing this to try and find an illustration of this neighbourhood, to display beside the text.

What is this being called me? At the moment of my conception, my DNA took form, as a unique path through the history of the universe. So I was not born as a tabula rasa or blank. I was a potential person, to be further shaped and brought to maturity by circumstance, each moment succeeding the one before and influenced by everything encountered within and without. The process goes on its hazardous way till journey’s end, when the visible components disintegrate naturally. Nature reclaims them, for we were designed biodegradable. As to the invisible components—awareness, soul, memory, love, desire—I have no idea whether or not they are separable from body, in life or in death. I suppose them to be recycled in the same manner, fecundating the Earth through the generations.

This mysterious thing called “ego” is the anomaly. Its sole function is to keep the Self distinct from Other; to generate the illusion that I am separate from the sky, the landscape, my neighbours, other creatures. This illusion is mostly necessary, and is one of the important differences between us and the other creatures, animate or not. The newborn doesn’t have it, can’t tell its own toes from its mother’s fingers. Ego grows as a vital part of healthy child development; while as George Bataille points out, “every [other] animal is in the world like water in water.”

I still ask, what is this quality which for want of a better word I call “perfection”? What is its relation to beauty? To ego? Stendhal, in his book De L’Amour, says “La beauté n’est que la promesse du bonheur”—beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness. But it’s more than this too: a symbol of perfection.

Home is a word like beauty, a symbol or promise of good fortune, well-being and bonheur. Home exists in the heart more than the bricks and mortar. Stendhal has something to say about this too, not about home per se but about love. See this article for his concept of crystallization, “in which unattractive characteristics of a new love are transformed into perceptual diamonds of shimmering beauty”.

Why does beauty attract us? What does it mean to us? It acts as a symbol of perfection, where “perfection” doesn’t mean a sterile flawlessness but a feeling of the heart, that the present moment is just right. It doesn’t matter that when Stendhal writes about love in De L’Amour, he is thinking of his love for women, or one in particular. Wikipedia calls him “an inveterate womaniser who was obsessed with his sexual conquests” and questions whether he actually died of syphilis or the medications then available to treat it. That was part of his unique path, & doesn’t detract from his renown as a philosopher of love.

To ask myself these questions, and try and answer them, needs language. In fact, written language. The process of reflection requires writing, reading and re-reading, consistently over a period of time. To be consistent requires a discipline, which in turn requires an incentive. This may be the best reason I’ve yet offered for this blog, which has just entered its tenth year of exploring questions and answers together with readers, for fun and sometimes edification.

Ten years ago I moved here, to this valley. In June 2005 I was liberated in a single moment: not from ego, it doesn’t work like that. There was an instantaneous realization, in dialogue with a doctor called Alastair, that for most of my life, especially the previous thirty years, I had not been where I needed to be. It was a satori moment. The only thing I could grasp straight away was that my chronic illness had left me. I knew it directly, before the evidence of the next hours, days, weeks and years confirmed it. The illness was merely a symptom of something deeper, which I’ve been unravelling ever since, getting to understand the gift, which is, I’m certain, one available universally, here among these old factories too, in this place of few pretensions, where the very air teaches me to be real. I was liberated from fear. I found myself ready to relinquish all kinds of belief, whilst retaining a basic framework of common sense and rediscovering the best of my upbringing. Thus unfettered, I’ve been able to follow an inner guidance which Alastair called body-wisdom. I’m grateful to him, to this neighbourhood but mostly to the good fortune of finally meeting my life-companion, and sharing our lives together.

And now, when I walk out on a Sunday morning, or on any occasion where I feel this tangible perfection in the air, I know I’m closer to the original homo sapiens who lived as a hunter-gatherer in that first Eden, before Gilgamesh, before Genesis, before the Fall, which some think reflects the beginning of agriculture in Mesopotamia; before the Greeks, before philosophy.

Here, now, me, where “me” signifies knowing oneself, living inside oneself, in one’s body and one’s true nature; this is where I can dwell, embracing this world and embraced by it; being exactly where I belong.

And so, René Descartes, old buddy, you can keep your “Cogito ergo sum”. All I have to say is what a newborn would say, if it could speak: “Here I am!”