living in suspension

Look closely. Take your time and let your eyes explore the image. Try observing as follows: part to part; part to whole; whole to parts.

Suspend the need for any answers about what you're doing here until you've fully recognized what you're looking at. If it helps, imagine you are kneeling in a north-Pacific coastal rainforest on an April afternoon, as I was when I took the photo. You're awash in oxygen-rich, salty air from the ocean just a couple miles away. Wind surges through the virgin forest of Douglass Fir, Sitka Spruce, and Western Cedar, some of them 200' tall giants in motion over your shoulder. The soggy hummus wets your knees, its earthen scent so strong as to be nearly a flavor. All this sensory imagery adds a complexity of phenomena to the purely visual, even though it's only present in this moment in the form of language—an incredibly complex symbol set that we use to represent phenomena, even if it isn't entirely adequate for the task.


The challenge here is to absorb all that complexity until your mind grows quieter, ideas turning from competitive to cooperative. This is counter-intuitive; shouldn't my mind positively buzz if I'm considering complexity? Well, maybe not if you're doing it right—synthesizing understanding out of complexity, distilling observation down to insight. This is difficult work but necessary if you are deeply curious about your experience in the world. Stay curious and this process goes on all the time in your mind. Sometimes it will culminate in a powerful insight, rare but worth all the work, a moment of striking clarity. Call it an epiphany— from the Greek "to manifest," to literally to have in hand.

The value of any epiphany, the real joy and payoff of it, is the release to act, resolve an issue, or otherwise apply knowledge that has previously been accreting. Epiphanies precede many of the best actions, and sadly some of the terrible ones, that people take. 

Back to the photo, where there's a lot going on. Observing closely takes practice and I don't think we can ever be perfect at it, only proficient. In my own case, it requires me to slow down my mind enough for it to open and receive deep information. I know how to do this but I don't necessarily find it easy. Fortunately, I have a metaphor for that right at hand. This flower contains all the necessary components to open. There are long skeins of time and evolution woven into the shape, color, function, inter-functionality, and efficiency of this living thing. It has full readiness. The kinetic tension is palpable. Yet a lot of things have had to go right for this potential to be so clearly realized. A vastly complex system is at work here, similar to the way it takes a lot of things going right at the same time for clarity to happen and bloom into an epiphany. Your mind is, finally, an ecosystem, embedded in the matrix of a larger one. 

Epiphanies are by their nature ephemeral. The state of mind we occupy during an epiphany is as temporary as a flower. Once it occurs, the elevated moment subsides. You're left with the germ of an idea, a creative inspiration, an action plan, a way to grow. You can't stay thrilled but you can hope to experience it again if you keep cycling, observing, opening, transforming.

I'm straining the chlorophyll right out of this metaphor in an effort to show how I find value in close observation and why I pursue the practice—a way of living in suspension. I try to carry myself into each day by paying attention to things but not expecting answers, which I've learned may be the best way to get them. I proceed ready to open up, receptive to what a moment of clarity offers, should it happen. I don't always succeed; Tuesday afternoons seem to be a low point for epiphanies. I don't tend to have epiphanies—not good ones, anyway—when I'm in traffic. I sometimes have to interact with people who choke off the clarity of an experience. I've also learned that striving for answers is less effective than, say, raking leaves or just walking on a winter beach; the body in motion tends to open and amplify the mind. 

Intrusions, confusions, and interruptions happen. All you can do is try to pay attention—it's the starting point for clarity and it gives you a fighting chance to understand the parts-to-whole-to-parts of any experience. Pay more attention more often. Get better at paying attention to what matters and particularly not to what doesn't.

Let's return once more, and finally, to the photo. It gets more beautiful to me, and by that I mean more meaningful, when I note the rain on the coiled petals, proof of the flower itself as intersubjective with a larger whole. Notice the elegant insect that appears—at least in the photo—to be reaching out to touch the swirled purple and white bloom. Does its touch register and cause the bloom to sway imperceptibly? This is not a first date—these living things are not merely acquainted, they are adapted to each other, possibly to the degree of being symbiotic or at least inter-dependent. A biologist could confirm or discount this but my point is that they utterly belong together, intersubjective yet distinct from each other. This connection extends outward to the whole they inhabit and inward to microscopic realms invisible to the eye.

And it serves to also note that as I knelt to take this photo and observed all that was around me, I was myself observed. I'll think I'll live in the suspension of that for a while and hope for clarity, as always.