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The So-Called "Food of Impressions"
Q: What’s your history with Higher Perception Food?
Wow. That’s both a huge and very personal question. I’ll answer it because it’s important to me but it certainly puts me at risk of biographical self-indulgence! The only way I know how to answer this is by presenting a particular slice of my whole life. Readers are fairly warned. Come back next time if you’re looking for political analysis.
Now the question above clearly comes from someone versed in the Gurdjieff Work/s — wherein there are several overlapping discourses around the so-called “food of impressions.” The generalized notion is that perception is analogous to food, water & air. Perceptions are necessary for health and growth. And we must think in terms of (a) how to select better perceptual food and (b) how to digest it more effectively.
In order to be authentic in front of this question, I’ll have to revisit my own personal history of involvement in attempts to gain more from my perceptions.
The Genius of Space
I was about six years old when I saw a very engaging VHS film entitled STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.
The whole plot revolved around an interstellar conflict between Khan (a genetically engineered superhuman played by Ricardo Montalban) and James Tiberius Kirk (an intuitive, humanist starship captain played by the buoyantly hyperbolic William Shatner). How can our normal human heroes defeat an adversary who has been built and trained to be smarter than us? Tough question. Here’s what the screenwriters came up with:
Kirk lures Khan into a nebulous cosmic dust cloud. Low visibility. He realizes that although the superhuman is outplaying him, this struggle is occurining entirely on a two-dimensional plane. So the USS Enterprise drops down, concealed in the dust, and then rises up behind the enemy — and blasts ‘em!
This impacted me profoundly.
I imagined that what I had seen was that “genius” is a special ability to think in an extra dimension of activity. Kirk was aware of vertical space. He was authentically 3D! And walking around in the world I noticed that people almost never looked at the ceilings of buildings, or thought about climbing trees. Very few people are up on roofs or building down under the Earth. We default to flatness.
Thusly inspired by heroic space operas, I began a very simplistic set of perceptual experiments. In any free moment, I would try to visualize the “volume” of objects. Feel their 3Dness. Remember that you could be above or below anything you observe. Try to sense the spaciousness of everything and anything.
But, after a while, it becomes apparent that the issue is not really about space — it’s about doing something to perceptions in order to get more from them.
Beaten up, old hardcover books by Carlos Castaneda helped me think in terms of “stalking” the vividness and unique magic of particular features of the environment. I don’t care about all the blades of grass! I am hunting for the one blade that is uniquely pregnant with peculiar potency just for me…
So I had this idea that a very small subset of my perceptual objects was buzzing with a special energy or opportunity. And I wished to pay special attention. Hoping — as children often do — to gain mysterious power, I scrutinized objects. Clearly, most of the grass, feathers, rocks, clouds, etc. were pretty similar. So I wasn’t just noting their existence. Instead, I was drawn to their style and function.
I was not interested in what they were but in the WAY that they were.
This, of course, converged with my youthful reading of the Tao Te Ching and my burgeoning interest in the paradoxes of math & physics. Perhaps, I reasoned, the 3D universe is embedded in a higher dimension that is expressed as the “WAY” that anything and everything occurs. Maybe a good Taoist is the person who tunes their attention to this dynamic morphology?
Dada, Surrealism & Chogyam Trungpa
It’s high school now.
Because of David Lynch and Salvador Dali paintings, I’m reading a lot of 20th century French art manifestoes about “Dadaism” and “Surrealism.” It turns out these aren’t just art movements — they want to change consciousness and transform the world. And their strategy is to lean toward randomness, uncanny juxtapositions, the border between sense & nonsense, and the attempt to merge consciousness with the unconscious to evoke a beautiful hyperreality (sur-realisme).
Well, heck, I sure do want to have my perceptions of the world transfigured! So now I’m trying all kinds of experimentation (trance drumming, random collage, bibliomancy, dietary experiments, sleep deprivation, automatic writings) and cross-checking these against how the world appears. I’ve essentially adapted to the idea that the minimum acceptable standard of experience is a shamanic degree of novelty in my perceptions.
I buy a second-hand copy of Shamballa by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He describes “magic” as the art of making context with some existential vividness implicit in natural objects. Drala. This isn’t the same as the “subtle energy” in the air, the acupuncture needles, the healer’s hands. It is more slippery, more abstract.
Star Wars Redux & Lizard Men
University. Belize. Marriage.
It really irritates me that I cannot see things with unforced fresh eyes. Or, at least, that I cannot do so more regularly and on purpose. So I become fixated on experiencing the Star Wars with the same evocative intensity that I imagine it had when I originally saw it as a child. The romantic nonsense of original purity still dominates my thinking at this point.
Concentrate on the film super hard? Let the mind go and flow naturally? Sit in meditation for hours first? Take psilocybin and watch it in the dark at 3 am? No matter what I try it seems like that I cannot quite recapture the lost (and possibly unreal) unforced perceptual vividness for which my soul is crying out.
Around this time I come across Gurdjieff for the first time — although it’s not clear to me that he is discussing perception. I find him mentioned by a British philosopher-novelist Colin Wilson is obsessed with proving that a “new existentialism” can be built up from Husserl’s contention the encounter with meaningfulness is an intentional act of consciousness. Oddly, I also find Gurdjieff mentioned by an American philosopher-novelist named Robert Anton Wilson who is obsessed with the brain’s ability to reprogram itself into alternate “reality-tunnels.” Two philosopher-novelists named Wilson? I check out a few books on Gurdjieff but mostly I find stuff about his famous student Peter Ouspensky — the brilliant Russian occultist, journalist, Nietzschean and renowned philosopher of “the psychology of man’s possible evolution.”
It will not surprise you to learn that I’m also obsessed by stereograms (“magic eye puzzles”). Around this time (my early 20s) I practice getting good at seeing the hidden images pop out from the static background. Then I try to do this on my regular perceptions. What is the hidden image in my bedroom wall? Within my carpet? In the ripples of the Pacific Ocean?
One time I see a menacing army of lizard men enfolded in my wall — but it’s more hilarious than terrifying…
The Bracketed World
Divorce. Buddhism. Christianity. Scientology. Move to Japan.
My friends and I are obsessed with the idea that everything is self-processing information pattern that can be transformed through different grades of attention. We disagree about how to do that. I start living in Osaka with the only female in the group.
The new international context provides many opportunities to closely study how my consciousness relates to ‘foreign’ structures like crumbling Zen temples, creepy bamboo groves & the neon carnival of Tokyo. I become utterly obsessed with the transition from unfamiliarity to familiarity. How do I go from (a) not seeing something to (b) seeing it to (c) being used to it? Isn’t that weird?
Perhaps the word consciousness itself is merely a synonym for the process of familiarization?
At any rate, I am super focused on the entry & digestion of perceptions. This intensified attention allows me to notice something interesting when I return to British Columbia. My new international context allows me to re-contextualize local phenomena. This street corner? Why — it could be in Japan! For the first couple of months, it is absurdly easy to re-situate any perception by imagining it is actually in Asia. This geographic transposition becomes a skill that I practice. Soon I can see anything with “new eyes” by bracketing out my awareness of its actual geographical location.
It strikes me that I am doing a kind of postmodern meditation — deconstructing context and placing perception in quotation marks. It’s neat. But it’s not really… fun.
Tiny Details & Oddities
My maternal grandmother died when I was quite young and left me some very old-timey books on hermeticism, alchemy & the occult. I remember using a yellow pencil sharpener to test out a concentration-building exercise. You are supposed to see everything there is to see about an object and then, an hour later, look again only for the things you have not yet seen. And then again an hour after that. I still have a pretty vivid memory of that yellow plastic pencil sharpener with two holes.
Since “recontextualizing” my perceptions seems sterile and exhausting, I turn to subtle details. Maybe the depth-of-the-whole is hidden in the novelty of the particular? I take up mushroom hunting in the forest as an excuse to took for tiny hidden things in my perceptual field. I agree to write “culture articles” for a local newspaper as an excuse to explore small oddities of my local social environment. Who cares about the famous old tourist attractions! The real thing you should check out is the half-faded graffiti stencil of Jack Kerouac’s head on that sidewalk corner by the daffodil park — its ambiguity will wordlessly tell you everything you need to know about the living cultural field…
(This is actually how I thought at the time.)
I started re-watching movies a lot, re-reading books. Even in casual coffee-shop conversations, I would be surreptitiously looking around the scene for whichever details I had not previously noted. It felt a little silly sometimes but also seemed to be very enriching. But was it “enriching” enough?
Fidelity to Emerging Impressions
Now it’s my late-30s.
This is significant because, when I was a child, I would try to feel forward into my life but — the narrative always seemed to fuzz out around the mid-thirties. So I had assumed I would be dead or abducted by aliens at that point. Now that I’d crossed this threshold, it was true that I didn’t exactly seem to be myself anymore.
Fine. I’d already had most of the things a person could want. Wild adventures, anomalous phenomena, extreme sensual pleasures, intense intellectual insights, passionate emotional connections, transcendent spiritual epiphanies, etc. So maybe I was done with life.
Or maybe I had built up something that exceeded me.
It could be wishful thinking but I noticed that I was feeling a lot more “successful” in my approach to the assimilation of impressions. And I seem to be getting periodic surges of a new quality of existentially satisfying all-over somatic buzzing. What did it mean and why was it occurring? Since I had tried so many strategies it could be any or none of all them that were responsible for my new feeling. And how important was that feeling? It didn’t keep me from getting tired, upset or behaving like an asshole sometimes. And yet it seemed self-evidently supra-significant to my insides.
Thus, I decided I should probably sit down and try to clarify what might be working.
I concluded that I had “learned” 3 things about the assimilation of impressions:
FIRSTLY, that impressions were very different from mere perceptions. I found that I had to be very discriminatory. A good reporter does not just describe the crime scene, he also develops his own “take” on the situation. Out of all the possible (even highly novel) perceptions, only a very few were real impressions — i.e. things that uniquely impressed me. So I had developed a capacity or attitude which galvanized me toward the most elusive, subtle and emerging elements of sensory or psychological impressions rather than merely trying to assimilate arbitrary perceptions or noticings.
SECONDLY, it was definitely important to have an inner plurality involved. I had to be able to locate, differentiate and intentionally coordinate different subjective subsystems (e.g. heart, mind, body) — in order to viscerally balance their engagement with any particular impression.
THIRDLY, I needed to be able to make subconscious connections with the new impressions. This meant putting aside any association that “made sense” and working internally until I found an unforced resonance of a nonlinear or unconscious nature. It was very helpful for me to recall Eugene Gendlin’s focusing practice (I had discovered his book at the Camosun library while visiting my college girlfriend in the late 90s). He suggests that we guess-and-test potential ideas until we experience a “felt shift” which temporarily locks in with a nebulous experiential quality.
So, to answer the original question, my overall process is (a) note the emergence of an internal or external “new impression” arising at my own leading edge (b) contemplatively stabilize my attention upon it — allowing it to perturb my somatic self-sensing & find a resonant emotional correlate (c) probe it with random ideas until there is a “felt shift” of unexpected and not-previously-understood connection (d) sit, pregnant, with the sense of energy or generalized beingness that is produced.
I do this at least several times a day — treating it as a fully-fledged form of essential nutrition — in addition to my regular meditation, exercise, relational and health practices. I get a little edgy if I don’t do it. And, overall, the effect seems to be a steady, unforced “thumbs up” from a part of myself that I cannot exactly inspect.
It has been interesting to write this and see how this stands in a long line of experimentation. Apparently, this has been a life-long obsession for me but I had not quite realized that until trying to answer this question. And, in a perversely charming way, it all goes back to Star Trek II.