Monday, October 7, 2019


‘The true journey of discovery consists not in seeking
new landscapes but in having fresh eyes.’ Marcel Proust.

Ever since I studied French in high school I have loved the writings of Marcel Proust, pictured below. However, I have never found his books easy to understand, even in English. Be that as it may, there is so much to discover in his writings. After all, Proust was the first writer to explore in depth the nature of the human mind and the depths of consciousness. No high metaphysician, he reminds us that ordinarily it is in the little things of life that we find what is truly important. There is something extraordinary not just behind, but also in, the ordinary stuff of life—and for that we should be truly grateful.

When one think of Proust, what usually first comes to mind is his magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; earlier rendered as Remembrance of Things Past), which was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. This vast autobiographical and psychological novel, lacking in logical construction just like life which is certainly not a logical sequence of events, has been described as 'an extraordinarily penetrating study of human psychology. ... No other French novelist before Proust had explored the world of the mind with such subtlety, or analysed with greater insight the influence of our subconscious thoughts and feelings on our character and our behaviour' (J Robinson and A Martin, France Today: Background to a Modern Civilisation, Sydney: Novak, 1964, pp 140-1).

For Proust, and for us, time is perhaps our greatest enemy. We are all subject to time from the very beginning of our lives to their end and so much is lost through the changes wrought by the unstoppable march of time. Memories fail over time. We return to a place—a place which, say, we once loved as a child—only to find that it is no longer the same place. Most if not all of the pleasure associated with the place has gone, and much of that is due to the passage of time. Over time, we manufacture innumerable 'false selves''I's and 'me'sin the form of our likes, dislikes, attachments and aversions. All these selves have no permanent, fixed identity. They are all transient and ever-changing. Time, in conjunction with the notion of the illusory self, is a major theme of In Search of Time. Here is the final sentence of the novel:

If at least, time enough were allotted to me to accomplish my work, I would not fail to mark it with the seal of Time, the idea of which imposed itself upon me with so much force today, and I would therein describe men, if need be, as monsters occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the contrary, prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through—between which so many days have ranged themselves—they stand like giants immersed in Time.

Now, can the problem of time be overcome? Well, time can be transcended. How? Through mindfulness, that's one way. If we can see things-as-they-really are, we are no longer bound by time. We then experience the eternal now. Those familiar with Proust—and even some who aren’t—will know of the following oft-quoted experience from early in Part One (‘Combray’) of the first volume of In Search of Time, titled Swann’s Way. The subject-matter recounted is the first episode concerning the madeleine (a tea-cake or bun)—the first so-called 'madeleine moment'. There is a second 'madeleine moment' which is recounted in the final moment of the novel. Anyway, the first 'madeleine moment' is described thus:

I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

I cannot stress this enough. Mindfulness is not a ‘method’ or ‘technique’. If anyone says that you must use some so-called ‘method’ or ‘technique’ in order to practice mindfulness—that is, to live mindfully—tell that person to get lost (or words to that effect). There is no method or technique’ for seeing things as they really are. In order to see things as they really are all you need to do is remove the obstacles to seeing things-as-they-really-are. Then we can truly 'seize' and 'apprehend' the moment, something that Proust sought to do.

Seeing things-as they-really-are. That is what the Pāli word vipassanā ('insight meditation' or mindfulness) means. The word is composed of two parts—namely, vi, meaning ‘in various ways’, and passanā, meaning seeing. So, vipassanā means ‘seeing in various ways’ as well as seeing things-as-they really-are. Proust refers to this as ‘having fresh eyes’, which is the very same thing. For Proust, and for us, we tend to experience life episodically. A present experience often brings into play involuntary memory, when something encountered in everyday life evokes recollections of the past without there being any conscious effort on our part. As readers of Proust will know, the theme of involuntary memory is all throughout the French writer's text. For Proust, it is the preeminent way of 'defeating' time. In the section on Proust in Eight Centuries of French Literature: From the Chanson de Roland to Sartre, edited by R F Bradley and R B Michell (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951), we read: '...using spontaneous or involuntary memory as an instrument, Proust evokes the sensations, emotions, dreams, and experiences that lie dormant in the subconscious mind' (p 555). All these Proust seeks to understand.

Now, returning to the episode of the madeleine, and without wishing to be overly analytical, the writer (that is, the narrator of the novel) recounts the following:

First, he raises to his lips a spoonful of the tea in which he had soaked a morsel of the cake.

Secondly, no sooner does the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touch his palate than a shiver runs through him.

Thirdly, he stops, ‘intent upon the extraordinary thing that [is] happening to [him]’.

Fourthly, an exquisite pleasure invades his senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.

Fifthly, the vicissitudes of life thereupon become indifferent to him, for the new sensation has the effect of filling him with a ‘precious essence’. This essence is not in him. It is him. In other words, he is one with the content of the experience, both inner and outer.

There is more to the episode of the madeleine but let's leave it there. Now, for Proust and for us, something tends to get in the way of seeing and experiencing things-as-they-really-are. What is that? Well, it is pretty obvious. We stop. Yes, we stop—and we start analysing, judging, comparing, and so forth. Then the newness and freshness of the experience dies on us. In order to penetrate the core of reality, the illusory ‘I’ of us, the so-called ‘perceiving self’ needs to disappear. Krishnamurti wrote:

When you look at a flower, when you just see it, at that moment is there an entity who sees? Or is there only seeing? Seeing the flower makes you say [i.e. think], ‘How nice it is! I want it.’ So the ‘I’ comes into being through desire, fear, ambition [all thought], which follow in the wake of seeing. It is these that create the ‘I’ and the ‘I’ is non-existent without them.

In truth, there are only the following three ‘relational’ elements in order for a stimulus to be perceived: first, the sense-object (or simply the object in question); secondly, a sense organ; and thirdly, attention or consciousness. It is more-or-less the same with our thoughts and thinking, except we have no sense-object and sense-organ involved as such. 

Now, in order for there to be an immediacy and directness about our moment-to-moment experience of life, those three occurrences need to occur more-or-less simultaneously---that is, no separation. If those three events are not simultaneously experienced---and that will happen if we engage in thinking, analysis, comparison, interpretation, or judgment in connection with the object in question (be it external or internal)---then the chances are that what will be experienced will be nothing but ... the past! Yes, the reality of the immediate experience will subside. Indeed, it will die! Any consciousness of it will be in the form of an after-thought or memory, as we glance back to re-experience, and (sadly, yes) evaluate, a past experience.

Back to Proust. Another memorable encounter in the first volume of In Search of Time is that concerning the hawthorn hedge and flowers. The incident is also recounted in Part One of the first volume:

… I found the whole path throbbing with the fragrance of hawthorn-blossom. … But it was in vain that I lingered beside the hawthorns—breathing in their invisible and unchanging odour, trying to fix it in my mind (which did not know what to do with it), losing it, recapturing it, absorbing myself in the rhythm which disposed the flowers here and there with a youthful light-heartedness and at intervals as unexpected as certain intervals in music …

And then I returned to the hawthorns, and stood before them as one stands before those masterpieces which, one imagines, one will be better able to ‘take in’ when one has looked away for a moment at something else; but in vain did I make a screen with my hands, the better to concentrate upon the flowers, the feeling they aroused in me remained obscure and vague, struggling and failing to free itself, to float across and become one with them. They themselves offered me no enlightenment, and I could not call upon any other flowers to satisfy this mysterious longing. And then, inspiring me with that rapture which we feel on seeing a work by our favourite painter quite different from those we already know, or, better still, when we are shown a painting of which we have hitherto seen no more than a pencilled sketch, or when a piece of music which we have heard only on the piano appears to us later clothed in all the colours of the orchestra, my grandfather called me to him, and, pointing to the Tansonville hedge, said to me: ‘You’re fond of hawthorns; just look at this pink one—isn’t it lovely?’

And it was indeed a hawthorn, but one whose blossom was pink, and lovelier even than the white. ...

Proust/the narrator recounts that as a young boy he found the whole path throbbing with the fragrance of hawthorn-blossom. What a wonderful experience! But look what happens. He breathes in the invisible and unchanging odour of the hawthorn flowers and tries to ‘fix it in [his] mind (which did not know what to do with it)’. Ugh. He then loses the directness and immediacy of the experience, then briefly recaptures it, and so on. The young boy receives some unexpected help from his grandfather, who says, ‘You are fond of hawthorns; just look at this pink one; isn’t it pretty?’ That, my friends, is the essence of mindfulness. If we can just look and see, that is, observe without judgment, analysis or interpretation, we come to see the ‘formlessness of things’.

Ordinarily, the conditioned, undisciplined mind wants to attach itself to something, that is, some object or thought. It is wants to grab hold of something. Actually, our mind is pure consciousness in its pure, unconditioned state, so that when we truly observe there is no observing self, there is simply awareness—pure unadulterated awareness. Is this direct and immediate experience possible? Yes, indeed, but it takes practice. That’s where the practice of mindfulness comes in handy. We need to learn to give our full attention to the ever-fleeting present moment by removing the hindrances or obstructions to our so doing.

Begin now. There is no time like the present. When you look, just look. When you hear, just hear. When you smell, just smell. When you taste, just taste. When you touch, just touch. Avoid the temptation to grab hold of something, that is, attach your mind to something. In truth, your mind can never attach itself to the present. If you try, you will always end up losing direct and immediate contact with the present moment as it unfolds ceaselessly into the next present moment and the next and the one after that.

I will finish with these words of Proust. ‘My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.’ A new way of seeing. That is what mindfulness is all about.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.