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Thursday, January 7, 2021

Happy New Year!

We're having a spot of revolution here in the States, nothing to worry about. We'll get it cleaned up well before you're allowed to come visit again.

I was reading some random bit of Thich Nhat Hanh and he was going about about Zen. The idea he was expounding is that continuous, long term, uncritical, examination of a thing leads to a kind of understanding if you're patient enough. A non-logical, almost non-cognitive, understanding. I get that, something clicked for me when I read that bit.

If I spend time with a photo, being non-critical, just looking at it, this, exactly, is one of the things that happens. I suppose it would happen with a stone, or a star, or a painting as well. I don't examine those things in the same way, so I cannot testify that it does.

I think that two things are happening here.

The first is that I am indeed absorbing all the details. I notice all the things, and make what tenuous connections can be made, and what sketchy inferences can be inferred. My actual knowledge does expand to pretty much the maximum possible. So, in a way, I actually do develop a deep understanding of the thing, and a deep(-er) understanding of what the meaning(s) of the thing might really be.

The second is that I am hypnotizing myself a little. I am persuading myself that I really do grok something indescribable but deep about the picture.

Put these two together and the result is sometimes startling leaps of what might or might not be insight. Sometimes I get the unshakeable sensation that the photographer meant a very specific thing, or that the subject is thinking a very specific thought. Something that is ultimately unknowable but of which I am quite certain. Sometimes, perhaps, I am truly reading some subtle but unambiguous sign in someone's face, or in the shadows, or whatever. Sometimes I am probably just making up nonsense.

This probably isn't relevant to anything I am actually much interested in, because normal people don't spend that kind of time with a single picture. The results I am actually interested in are the more ordinary ones. I collect all the details that are actually in the frame, and speculate using my skills of imagination and empathy to map out something of the world of meaning normal people might make of the picture.

What some old Buddhist might "discover" in it after meditating for 10 hours on it is a bit of an edge case. Still it's a neat effect to experience! And maybe it means something I haven't worked out yet!


  1. Could be a visual version of semantic satiation where what we are experiencing slips out of the meaning-processing part of our brains.
    In music this can stimulate an immensely rich experience.
    Many years ago I listened to a many hours long version of Gavin Bryars' “Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet”.
    The effect was transcendental. Never tried doing this with an image, and in truth probably haven't got the stamina now.

  2. I was about to send out the dobermans, I mean Saint Bernards.