Archive for April, 2011
“Reality exists only through experience, and it must be personal experience. However, once related, even personal experience becomes a narrative. Reality can’t be verified and doesn’t need to be, that can be left for the “reality-of-life” experts to debate. What is important is life. Reality is simply that I am sitting by the fire in this room which is black with grime and smoke and that I see the light of the fire dancing in his eyes. Reality is myself, reality is only ther perception of this instant and it can’t be related to another person. All that needs to be said is that outside, a mist is enclosing the green-blue mountain in a haze and your heart is reverberating with the rushing water of a swift-flowing stream.” (Gao XingJian, Soul Mountain, p. 15)
As you can tell, I am reading a Chinese novel written by Gao XingJian, the first Chinese writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. I have a print copy of the book, one of the rare print books on my book shelf here in China. Most of my “lighter” reading is done using ebooks or online articles. Yet when I read these lines yesterday evening, I knew that they belonged here as I talk about relationship with self.
I am, because I experience. Others are experienced by myself and become part of my myth, a narrative of my own creation. Not one of the others in my narrative are defined by my experience nor can they be defined by myself. We are each locked in our singular worlds of experience. And that experience is foggy at best as we don’t operate with full decks of cards in terms or our full functions. We process, categorize and create based on our limits of functions, based on our flawed perceptions of nature, matter, the universe and others.
And somehow, I get to have a narrative and invite others into relationship with me. And, all the while, it remains a story of one, a personal narrative, a personal myth.
When I came home yesterday afternoon from teaching at the university, I noticed a lot of activity at the entrance to my housing compound. I immediately rushed up to the apartment in order to get my camera as I knew it was an event that was about religious rites following death. I was woken about 4:00 am with the sounds of evenly paced fireworks explosions, sounds that I have come to associate with a death in the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is a place for the wealthy and many of these wealthy people are old. Death and funerals are frequent occurrences. The difference this time was striking as I kept busy with the camera – the white arm and headbands were missing. The event was quieter and when there was sound, it was more musical than noise.
Death, the ending of all earthly relationships, the final separation of self from other as we know it. As James Hollis puts it:
“All relationships begin, and end, in separation.”
But, I wonder. Does death which ends our connections with other humans mean the end of separation? Fire is symbolic of renaissance for rebirth. The transformation for isolated individual into a state of union with the source from which human life emerged, a pre-conception starting point is an idea that haunts me, that makes me wonder. Something to think about.
As I began yesterday, so I continue today – with relationship. And as with yesterday, I want to continue with a focus on one’s relationship with one’s self. As a parent, I watched my children grow from newborns. I saw them as fully unconscious and saw them begin to meet the world, and themselves. Perhaps the biggest discovery made is that the self is separate from the rest of the world – separate from the mother and father that on the other side of sight. I’ve watched as toes and fingers were discovered and then used as tools to discover more of the world. The learning curve is steep and takes quite a few years before there is some comfort with the fact that self is separate and safe in that separation.
The approach of self awareness and self consciousness precipitates another journey where there is a search for meaning, trying to make some sense of one’s existence, a search for being happy to be oneself. I may have been one of the slower ones in this regard as this part of my journey didn’t start until I was seventeen years old. I admit that flashes of this upcoming journey were felt like speed bumps during my youth, but immersion into this stage of the journey waited until I was in my senior high school years. Hungry for some answers, I found that teachers and extended family members had no suggestions other than to pay attention in class or to engage in distracting activities. So I looked elsewhere for some answers – looked to dead philosophers, theologians and psychologists. I knew that someone else had to have the answers that I needed. Of course, no one did have the answers about who I was or why I was.
I was in community, in a family, in school with classmates and teachers, in a music group playing with a fierceness that was determined to define myself as an artist, as one of the group. Yet even in the little band of five, each of us were separated regardless of how many hours we practiced noisily or how many hours we drove around the streets of Ottawa as a way to pass some of the hours, or the hours hanging out in each other’s company between classes at school.
The band broke up, high school classes ended, I got a job and the world that I had come to know disappeared. Though we promised to keep in touch, the relationships with others came to an end and again I was alone with my self, still a stranger to my self. I don’t know if any of us ever get over finding that regardless of how many friends or family members, one ends up alone in the crowd, somehow unable to bridge the distance between self and other. As I looked at these seniors sitting outside a senior residence in XiTang, not too far from the entrance into the restored ancient part of the city, I can’t help but wonder if they are sitting alone with themselves in spite of the others sitting near them.
This photo taken in XiTang was meant to capture a sense of magic, a sense of the Garden of Eden, of romance and the mystery of an ancient culture. I didn’t know at the time that it would find its way here, but most of my posted photos are taken for other reasons even if most of those reasons are unconscious.
With this photo and this post, I am returning to a theme I often visit, that of relationship. I am not an expert in relationships though I am engaged in being in relationship to my wife, a relationship that is approaching its fortieth year. I am approaching this theme through the work of James Hollis as explored in his book, The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other. I make no promises on how long I will stick with this theme. All I can tell you is that the “magical other” that I am in search of is one that is found within myself. I hope that in wandering again through this book I find a few more trails within that will allow me to build a stronger relationship with my “Self” in order to be a better participant in my outer world relationships with others.
But of course, in searching within, I find that I must look at my “self” as expressed in the outer world, in the relationships with others – parents, friends, siblings, children, enemies, colleagues, students, and with my life partner. It all starts with “me.”
When I am honest with myself, I am alone, separate, distanced from everyone and everything. I am even separate from most of what I could consider to be myself. Awareness came slowly, awareness that I actually existed as a separate being. And when the awareness of my own being arrived, I found myself immediately alone in my head. At that moment, I began working to somehow reconnect, to go back to where I had come from before finding myself alone. But of course, before this moment of realisation, “I” didn’t really consciously. In a manner, I was born “separated” from all others.
With time and effort I learned to connect tenuously with others, with a mother and father who were confused in their own roles as parents, as lovers. I knew early that these two individuals struggled with themselves and couldn’t be there for me – I was locked in my head and they were out of reach. The dawn of consciousness within me caused a separation between parent and child. And so a new relationship was born because of that separation. The awareness of “self” and the existence of “other” and the separateness of both was the source of my first experience of relationship.
I am bringing another photo taken at XiTang in ZheJiang province here in China. I like this photo simply because of the colours and the composition. It is enough that it pleases with no questions asked. Sometimes that is all we need to do, just accept without question. In trying to question acceptance, one risks loosing that which was found, a numinous aspect that seems to defy objective thinking processes.
Being in the presence of the numinous is its own gift. Being in the presence is also being in relationship with the numinous. One must accept the moment as it is as it will end, end in separation. The moment fades into someplace else, some other time, another relationship. For now, just be in the now.
This photo was taken in looking out from the ancient city of XiTang to a more modern XiTang. It’s surprising what one sees behind the scenes. The ancient city is a preserved tourism site that celebrates the approved myths of a culture’s past. Outside the boundaries of this mythic past, one comes into a modern world that lives its own myths of the present. And, the face of that modern world doesn’t always present a satisfying image. I am sure that the tourism authorities hope that the tourists don’t wander off the controlled beaten paths causing a loss of wonder in the myth they have worked so hard to construct.
I am certain that we are all guilty of the myths we create for ourselves, a myth that gets presented in our collection of masks, our personae. We craft identities for consumption by others in our lives. As an example, I have numerous identities that are published for consumption – some are authentic is as much as any identity can be authentic, and some are quite contrived. My identity as a husband is real and as a result, is messy. My identity as a father and grandfather are equally as real as I don’t worry about hiding my warts in my confidence that my children and grandchildren would love me in spite of these warts. But from there, it gets a bit complicated.
My identity as a neighbour is quite contrived. I hold to a definition of myself that they can resonate with, an identity that comes close to mimicking without being offensive. My talk is their talk which is enhanced by spending most of my communicative time with them, listening; my likes are their likes as I smile and murmur appreciative words. I don’t bring forward my interests or real passions as they only jolt them causing a distance that is often too difficult too bridge if I don’t quickly return to their comfort zones and levels of awareness.
Yet, somehow here, in cyberspace, perhaps I become the most authentic outside of my relationship with my wife. In some aspects more authentic and in other ways, more silent in order to protect the relationship.
My myth? I guess it would be safe to say that the collection of identities, those that I am conscious of as well as those that interact with the world without my conscious awareness all combine to bring my personal myth to life. Yet, the myth is more than this as it is tied to a larger myth that is our our time and the collective myth in which I find myself. So many miniature myths consciously crafted as well as one in which I am simply a smaller bit part. But it is the personal myth that I want to hold here, the one, like this image behind the scenes, the fullest personal myth that shows my self on a journey of redemption, a journey of meaning and salvation.
No post yesterday as I was on a full day trip with some colleagues to the ancient city of XiTang in ZheJiang province here in China. This is the third of the six ancient cities that exist in this region of China, that I have visited. As I prepare to write a photo book about ChangZhou, I am finding it instructive to pay attention to the celebrated history of China that is found in neighbouring areas in order to get a better sense of ChangZhou which has small fragments of that past embedded, little bits and pieces of ancient times that hint at the past of this city, critical elements that need to be understood. The present is built on the foundations of the past, foundations which don’t disappear from the collective unconscious of any culture or society.
I am looking forward to the task which is rather enormous as I must choose from an overwhelming collection of photos. The only way I can navigate through the photos is to find the key elements for the story I am to tell and block in the images which allow that story to emerge. The book will not be a history book, it is going to be about the city as it exists today as seen through my eyes and understood through my various filters. But, the image I have of the city is also coloured by my expectations and my interests in culture and history. I am aware that this story yet to be written will be a unique story, more about the photographer and writer than it will be about the city itself.
Having this in mind, I am reminded that in trying to understand and develop a fuller awareness of who I am, I am also required to sift through the remembered images, the history of my family through at least a few generations and trying to separate the wealth of images that flood in daily to find those that resonate, those that are charged with affect. Of course, this is the work of this blog site.
And now, I turn to the photo. The old timbers and stones, many of which are centuries old, serve as a base from which new life finds a perch. The red lanterns symbolize the vitality of man, the libido of life. The lavender flowers represent the fragile aspect of life as well as the promise of new life which will emerge from fertilization, the union of the masculine and feminine. Yet, the artifacts of the past remind that the new will also become old, that the new will become part of a bigger history, adding to the expanse of what we can only call “archetype.”
This is another one of my flower photos taken just a few days ago, from a collection that grows larger almost every time I step outside with my camera. I am sure that if I look back through the collection I will find that I have taken a similar photo on quite a number of different occasions. It is about an appreciation of beauty, of the fragile and of the temporary. Regardless, of the fact that this is likely a repeat experience, I still take the photos.
I wonder why I take so many photos such as this? I am not really that passionate about flowers or gardening. I do see the value of gardening in terms of growing food for a family, or as a way of finding internal peace in a stressful world. I recognize the value and the passion that exists in others and I am very thankful for that passion as it allows me to wander with my camera and catch these images.
But, that doesn’t explain why I am taking these photos or why I present them here. In my opinion, I think it has to do with projection, projecting my needs, safely. So what is needed? In order to approach an answer, if there is an answer, I must look at the holder of the projection. What do I see and how do I resonate with what is seen?
Obviously, the flower is the holder of my projection as it is the focus of the photo. But what is it that serves as a hook for the projection that I cast? Is it the flower itself or is it the contrast between darkness and light? I know that I often mention this, but this time, I don’t think so. Somehow, that doesn’t “fit” at this point in time. Rather, it is about fragility and knowing that in spite of everything, the blossoms will fall off and be blown away, shredded.
Vulnerability. Impermanence. Fragility. Am I like this flower, just a short burst of light and beauty that must return to darkness? Fear. Yes, fear. As I sit here comfortably in China , I realise that this is just a temporary situation. I will have to return to my home in Canada and make some decisions about how to make the final leg of my life journey meaningful. I have delayed the real return for yet another year after signing another contract for teaching at the university. Like a flower, I want to cling on for as long as I can before some wind forces me to move on to the next transformation.
I was finding it hard to capture the real mauves and violet colours of this climbing bush, so I was pleasantly surprised at how this image turned out. Many of my photos are taken simply for pleasure, not with any particular psychological purpose for this blog. Flowers, scenes, places and people form the bulk of such “personal pleasure” photographs. It is my way of being “in the moment.”
That is something that many of us, myself of course included, find difficult to accomplish. I know that I want to be “over there” where the action is, doing something “vital and meaningful” for my family, country, community and mostly, for my ego. Yes, I admit it, I am often “full” of myself. The problem with wanting to be over there is that I miss what is here in front of my eyes. I lose the real opportunity for being vital and being authentic which in turn makes life meaningful.
My wanderings around this city with a camera provides me with an excuse to be present in my own quiet way. As I wander with the camera, I get surprised by others who then see me being curious and take that as an invitation to communicate, to connect. And so, I get drawn into a more vital presence.
Back in the apartment, with the doors closed, I often fall back into a less vital existence, at least until I visit my photos which kindle anew, the sparks of connection I experienced earlier. Slowly, I learn what it means to find meaning through the act of being present in life.
This is a scene from HongMei Park on the Tomb Sweeping Festival Day (QingMing Festival). The white flowers painted a beautiful canvas against the blue sky with a distinctly bit of Chinese architecture peeking out from the tops of the trees. With the addition of a red balloon caught in the branches, there is a sense of unity between nature, tradition and the modern world.
Tomb-sweeping, remembering and honouring the past, those who came before, those from whom we emerged into this present time. There is a lot to be said about being alive in the present, a time that is definitely proving to be interesting. But to understand our present, we must acknowledge the past, our personal past and our collective past. We are never divorced from the past though we are most often fully blind to the power and influence of the past on our present situation, our present way of being and knowing the world around us. If not for our parents, grandparents, and the preceding generations, there is no present. This is easy to understand from a genealogical perspective when tracing family roots, but not so easy to understand when tracing one’s peculiar way of understanding and interacting with the present world.
We don’t exist in isolation. We share space in our personal culture with others who have different roots. We share space in a larger collective with other cultures. We bump into each other and become enlarged as a result and that enlargement becomes part of the heritage we pass on to our children. When we look further back into time, outside of the realm of families, back into the mythologies of who we are as humans, stories of our arisings from the darkness of unconsciousness, we begin to see that we are connected to archetype, that we in turn enlarge the archetypes for those who are yet to come.
Tomb sweeping is an apt turn, the cleaning away of that which hides so that one can see one’s fullness as founded in the past, allowing us to be present in the modern world, holistically and authentically present.