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The Food of Perception
The nutritious quality of perceptions is as much metaphysical as sensual. It is a witches’ brew that mixes a childlike innocence with psychedelic encounters and the ancient habit of classical philosophers — trying to glimpse the “Platonic forms” hidden in the particularities of the world. The food of perceptions flows into us from the unseen architecture of the richness of visible things.
I am walking along snow-filled back-alleys, listening to my boots crunch, cutting through small parks overlooking frozen rivers. My belly is full but in some other way still am starving...
We are perceiving constantly. The boundary between perception and consciousness blurs and melts whenever we approach. Yet our perceptions seem to be on a scale that runs from flat, depressing trivia through ordinary functionality up to unknown intensities of significance that make us feel our lives were worth it just to have witnessed such a thing. Some food is junk, empty or poison. Some food creates minimal survival with long-term decay. Other food truly nourishes us.
What is a perceptual superfood?
I am walking in the snow. I want to consume the world — to relate to it rightly and blend. This is not as simple as just “getting out of my mind and returning to my senses.” Sensory perception and mental understanding appear to be intricately and luminously embedded within each other.
The uncanny whiteness of the snow is my mind.
I look at a flower, still poking through the snow and angling toward the sun, but I do not see the simple fact of a flower in the snow. I see — it seems to me that I literally see — the odd way of “reaching open like a futuristic satellite dish” that is characteristic of so many of what I call flowers. Whatever part of myself receives this impression is not activated. It exerts an organizing influence on my innards.
I behold a crow circling my head and screaming. How is this beholding different from merely registering it on my eyeballs and assigning the designation “crow” in connection with my memories and socialized associations? It also seems to be the very opposite of the normal process. I encounter the flavor of The Crow which transcends this crow — but by virtue of being mysteriously only this crow. This is what nourished me.
What is it?
It is the salient shock of vividness in a perception. It is the abstract history and relations of an entity that inform its shape without being apart from that shape. It is the unique vibratory fragrance of a vista, the morphological style of an image, the character of a voice and the tangible but unjustified resemblance of this very thing to some other phenomenon or association altogether. How-not-what. Or at least this begins to approximate and open the territory in question…
If I wish to feed something as nebulous and ill-defined as my "being" then I must add this additional special nutrient of perception into the mixture of solid (food and drink) and ephemeral (air, stimulation, adjustable blood levels, qi) forms of electrochemistry. Thus I must go for unplanned walks. I must attend to entertaining surprises. I need skill in bracketing my immediate categorical and associative knowledges and I must be able to hold my attention a little longer in certain places.
There is an imperative to honor my subtlest level of impressions and to dignify a species of liminal perceptions upon whose idiosyncrasy my eyes or fingertips linger just a split second longer than ‘ordinary’ impressions.
Deliberate practices of noticing, or intentionally attending to arbitrary aspects of the environment, are approximating this authentic encounter which is mediated by intuitive selection processes in the subconscious intelligence. Being able to inspect and sustain attention on a particular detail of the world is a precondition for being able to do this upon a special type of cognitive stimuli. Our relationship to the world, I am increasingly sure, must be hyperpersonal rather than impersonal. We are not called to generic appreciation of all possible perceptions but to a transcendentally particular form of perception that enacts our deep idiosyncratic self. It is this relational and peculiar dimension of being — rather than an empty, selfless and impersonal mode — that opens us to (something like) Divinity.
I am engaging an activity that is shared, ideally, by the poet, the tourist, the photographer, the explorer, the surrealist or any being paused in front of an ancient stone monolith or pregnant, indecipherable glyph. However these activities are too often engaged in an impersonal fashion (e.g. everyone on the tour photographing the famous object described in the tourist brochure) or superficial fashion (e.g. avoiding a moment of deeper perception by taking a picture, asking a question, reading an informative plaque). There are both “spiritual” and “secular” ways of avoiding a more nourishing personal perception in favor of an impersonal activity.
Perhaps I should not call these perceptions but impressions. They impress me in a certain way. Writers are often sent into situations and asked to give their “impression” or to develop a personal “take” on the events. A take is… different from what any other observer might have encountered under the conditions. Something new that is brought forth only from yourself. A part of your new being.
I wish to feed upon my own deep sense of the way in which a phenomenon emerges into being. The Way, I suppose, feeds upon the way.
The difficulty seems to be that an unusual effort is involved. Many quite ordinary and appropriate impulses must be temporarily suspended. The process does not (or only seldom) works by itself. We must risk being unnatural in a certain way.
In our memories of pre-socialized youth, in real surprises or deep meditation, in the overflow of new love or the flush of a brain integrating an entheogenic plant molecule, we may “gracefully” encounter a nourishingly vivid and deep perception. However, this is perhaps irresponsible — and certainly infrequent.
If we ate or breathed only as often as we take in a living perception, we would long ago have perished. I wish to do it regularly & at will.
What skills will assist me in this activity?
I shall have to practice a new valuing of certain kinds of perceptions and I will have to place myself in their way more often. Voluntary attention is also needed in order to select and hold my experience upon a potentially nutritious impression.
What else? I must be ready to fight. My haste to “move on” must be combated. My automatic emotional refusal of subtlety and ambiguity must be withstood, challenged. In confronting the odd perceptions I must not succumb to my usual habit. Certain immediate apparent ideas about what I am “obviously” looking at must be opposed.
It seems to me that I will lose the whole vitamin if I quickly agree about the category to which it trivially belongs — or if I simple-mindedly agree (within myself) about the correct standard name of the phenomenon. And what I might normally feel about this thing, or wish to use it for, must also be stared down.
A struggle is present.
A subtle part of myself is in favor of what it has chosen. The flesh, as they say, is weak. It wants to to turn away, wants to continue the robotic momentum of its current biochemistry. It will not permit a mode-shift. It believes it already knows and has adequately perceived whatever is presented. This part of myself does a good job but that job is incomplete until I disagree…
Beholding a new perception, I am stuck, for a moment, in this hidden battle. Who cares what I call it? It may not be a “battle” but even if I call it allowing or surrendering then I am opposing it to some normal regime of perception. I must intervene on the side of a wish to assimilate or blend with, via my effort, the special impression that is just for me — that is for all beings by virtue of being just for me.
In the midst of such moments, I appear to straddle (and validate) two largely independent worlds.
One world is brought before me from out of my entire history of conscious life, social education, habits & purposes. This realm might be called objective, interpersonal and empirical even though it is heavily conditioned by social assumptions. It is a set of waking-state, sensory observations that are framed by the habits of a lifetime and might be confirmed by others. If I had only this world I would be flat, empty — empty specifically of “me.”
The other world is closer to a dream.
No doubt I obtain many of its particularities from my genetics, and organic deposits of hereditary idiosyncrasy, it also seems to reach into a realm where bodies and mortality are fuzzy concepts — only as real as forms, qualities and moods. This unique flavor of “unjustified” ideas is haunting. The second realm is imbued with a certain strangeness common to my free artwork, hypnogogic states and surrealistic misperceptions. I fancy this type of cognition might characterize me even if I had been raised in another culture or epoch. It is very personal. Possibly ancestral. Yet if I had only this world, I would have… madness.
Oddly (and oddly perfectly) when I have both worlds intermingling, then it is as though I also inhabit a third realm. Is it luminous? I cannot quite tell. Perhaps it is closer to myth and wisdom, transrational rather than prerational, a world in which I am perpetually hatching.
From Aleister Crowley’s 39th chapter of The Book of Lies:
Yet by forcing the brain to accept propositions of which one set is absurdity, the other truism, a new function of brain is established.
Vague and mysterious and all indefinite are the contents of this new consciousness; yet they are somehow vital. By use they become luminous...