You Could Drown

New York City offers rich opportunities for observing impermanence. It is still too chilly for sitting outside on a park bench to tune into the constantly changing blend of sounds and silence. But Gordon and Bertica’s generous windows are perfect for open-eyed meditation practice. Their apartment is on the twenty-first floor overlooking the Hudson River.

Wednesday morning, I hung out as a curious visitor observing the activity of my visual cortex, noticing activity and rest dancing in both the external visual field and the mental image screen. I let my gaze be broad and soft. This strategy focuses on the experience of seeing as opposed to the content. So there are four things to observe (1) seeing, (2) a restful, defocused gazing, (3) mental images appearing, and (4) periods when the mental screen is mostly blank. Faint internal visual impressions count equally with vivid mental images. I tried to stay with one of these aspects at a time, savoring each one for a few seconds before drifting on to the next.

When working this way, it is important to allow the habitual craving for meaning to operate in the background while exploring the play of light. Relaxing the need for content allows textures and movement to be revealed in both the objective and subjective visual spaces. Both the objective and subjective visually-oriented spaces were in constant motion: cars flowing, birds drifting through the air, boats cutting paths across the water. Letting internal conversations, external sounds, and physical sensations play out in the background allowed me to watch the light bleed glacially into the grayscale landscape, transforming its stony coldness with the vibrant palette of early spring.

I decided to make noticing internal and external visual activity my mindfulness strategy for the day. This intention soon evaporated when we encountered multiple obstacles to getting work done in Starbucks: the fight for a table, the scarcity of outlets, weighing the costs of various Internet connection options, and the noise which would prevent productive meetings over the phone. Meaning and feelings insisted on center stage and I forgot to even attempt to occasionally highlight the process of sight. Without noticing, I treaded the choppy waters of internal imagery and strong emotions.

In the afternoon, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gordon had read a promising blurb in The New Yorker about an exhibit of the later interior work of French painter, Pierre Bonnard. His still lifes became more interesting to me when I discovered that he painted them from memory rather than direct observation and that he spent years on each one, trying to get closer to the imagined images.

He said, “I’m trying to do what I have never done, give the impression one has on entering a room: one sees everything and at the same time nothing.”

The true subject of The White Interior (right) is white. What is white? He said he had been “investigating the secret of white his entire life.”

Here is an excerpt from a poem called Occupations by Richard Howard. It is written in the voice of Pierre Bonnard and is set in the time immediately following the death of Marthe, the painter’s wife of fifty years.

So much of life
is buried already!

               All the same I still believe
               in reality, the way
        Cezanne believed in it—I believe
        in repetition, that is, and I am
at work on some new views of the Bay…They must
be new, because every day I see different
        things, or I see things differently:
        the sky, the fields, the water beyond,
               it all keeps changing, you could
               drown in the differences.
                        Yet that is just what
                        keeps us alive, no?

Basket of Fruit: Oranges and Persimmons (ca. 1940), Oil on canvas; 21 3/4 x 29 1/4 in. (58 x 74.5 cm), Private collection.