Consciousness is not ever-lasting, but ever-present
Paul Cézanne said, ‘Everything vanishes, falls apart, doesn’t it? Nature is always the same but nothing in her that appears to us lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence, along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us a taste of her eternity.’
That statement must be one of the clearest and most profound expressions of the nature and purpose of art in our era.
What did Cézanne mean when, standing in front of a mountain, Mont St. Victoire, one of the most solid and enduring structures in nature, he said, ‘Everything vanishes, falls apart’?
He was referring to the act of seeing. We do not perceive a world outside consciousness. The world is our perception of the world. There is no evidence that there is a world outside the perception of it, outside consciousness.
The seen cannot be separated from seeing, and seeing cannot be separated from consciousness.
A solid object cannot appear in consciousness any more than a solid object can appear in thought. Only an object that is made out of matter could appear in space. Only an object that is made out of mind could appear in mind. And only an object that is made out of consciousness can appear in consciousness.
And as everything ultimately appears in consciousness, everything is, in the ultimate analysis, made out of consciousness. When we say that we perceive an object, we mean that that object appears in consciousness. It is a perception appearing in consciousness.
If we close our eyes for a moment, the previous perception vanishes completely. If we reopen our eyes a new perception appears. Although it may seem to be the same object that reappears, it is in fact a new perception.
If we repeat this process, apparently looking at the same object over a period of time, the mind will collate the various images or perceptions and conceive a solid object that has apparently endured throughout the appearance and disappearance of the perceptions, and that exists in time and space, independently of the consciousness that perceives it.
This concept will itself appear and disappear like any other perception. And with the next thought, a subject, a viewer, will be conceived, which allegedly had several different views of the apparent object, and which was allegedly present before, during and after its appearance.
In this case the object and the viewer, which are both conceived as existing in their own right, independent of the thought that thinks them, are both concepts.
Such an object and its subject, the viewer, are in fact simply and only that very thought with which they are conceived. And in order to conceive of such an object that exists and endures in time and space, time and space themselves have first to be conceived, in order to house these objects.
Likewise, time and space themselves turn out to be nothing other than the very thought with which they are conceived.
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Although this capacity of mind to conceive an object and a corresponding subject is useful, it does not reflect an accurate model of experience. Our actual experience is that one perception disappears absolutely before the next perception appears. It is in this sense that, as Cézanne said, everything ‘vanishes’ from moment to moment.
The apparent experience of a solid object is dissolved in this understanding, and is replaced by the understanding that we in fact experience a series of fleeting, insubstantial perceptions. It is in this sense that ‘everything falls apart’.
Having said that, we also have the deep intuition that something, which Cézanne calls ‘nature’, endures. Where does this sense of endurance or permanence come from? From where does Cézanne derive the knowledge that ‘Nature is always the same’, given that he has already acknowledged, that ‘Everything we see vanishes, falls apart’?
As human beings we are just as much a part of nature as the mountain that Cézanne was looking at. The body-mind-world is one integrated system. Therefore, the exploration of the so-called internal, subjective realm of ourself and of the so-called external, objective realm of nature must, in the end, lead to the same reality.
Nature and man are part of one integrated system and must therefore share their existence. Their being must be shared.
Looking at the objective aspect first, Cézanne acknowledges that the sense of endurance or permanence in nature cannot come from ‘the appearance of all her changes’, because ‘nothing in her that appears to us lasts’.
He implicitly acknowledges that an ‘object’ is a concept derived from a series of fleeting, insubstantial perceptions, but that each of those perceptions has a shared reality. This reality is expressed by but is independent of each of those appearances.
In his statement that ‘Nature is always the same but nothing in her that appears to us lasts’, there are three elements. There is the reality or existence of nature, which is ‘always the same’. There is the appearance of nature, in which ‘nothing lasts’. And there is the ‘us’, that is, consciousness, which is aware of the appearances.
Cézanne acknowledges these three elements in any experience: existence, appearance, consciousness. From which of these three elements does he derive the knowledge that in our experience of nature there is something that is ‘always the same’, that there is something that endures?
In the statement ‘Nothing in her [nature] that appears to us lasts’, Cézanne discounts whatever appears in nature as a possible source of that which is ‘always the same’. This leaves only existence and consciousness.
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What is the relation between these two, existence and consciousness, and in what way can one or both of them account for what Cézanne describes as ‘that which is always the same’?
Nature appears to us as form and concepts. Form is the raw data of the sense perceptions and concepts are the labels or interpretations, pieced together by the conceptualising power of mind. There is also an element in our experience of an object or of nature, that is. Nature has existence, reality or being. It is.
Although the appearances are changing all the time, their existence or reality doesn’t change from one appearance to another. This existence is not an intellectual theory. Although it cannot be perceived as an object, nevertheless it is expressed and experienced in every experience that occurs.
Cézanne calls this existence or beingness, which is always present and yet does not appear, ‘eternity’. Having discounted ‘that which appears’ as the source of nature’s eternity, its only other possible source is either existence, being, the is-ness of things, or consciousness.
Existence or being is present in every experience of an object and does not change or disappear when forms and concepts change and disappear, any more than water ceases to be water when a wave disappears.
There is a reality to every perception, although the perception itself is fleeting and insubstantial, vanishing at every moment, and this reality endures from one appearance to another.
This reality is the support or ground of the appearance. The appearance may be an illusion, but the illusion itself is real. There is an illusion. It has reality. The reality of any experience is not hidden in the appearance; it is expressed by the appearance.
If we deeply explore the nature of any experience, we find that this reality is its substance. It is the content of the appearance. In fact, it is only reality that is ever actually experienced.
Before this is evident, we see only appearances. After it is evident we see the appearance and the reality simultaneously. We do not see anything new. We see in a new way.
For instance, we may mistake a rope for a snake. The appearance, the form and concept of the apparent snake, does not describe the reality of the rope. However, the reality of the rope is the substance of and is expressed by the snake. There is something that is real in our experience of the snake. It is the rope.
The rope is not hidden by the snake. In fact we only ever see the rope. That which appears as snake is rope. The experience of the appearance of the snake is the experience of the rope, only it is not known as such. Fear of the snake is the natural outcome of this lack of clarity, and it vanishes instantaneously when the reality of the rope is seen.
The snake cannot appear without the rope. The rope is the real substance, the reality, of the appearance of the snake. Without the rope there would be no snake but without the snake, which never existed in the first place, there is still a rope.
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So we know that nature is real, that there is something present, that there is a reality to it, even if everything that appears to us is insubstantial and fleeting. Whatever is real, by definition, endures. Something that is not present cannot be said to be real. Only that which is truly present can be said to be real, to have reality.
We experience this vividly every time we wake from a dream. The appearance of the dream seemed to be real, but on waking we discover that it was only a fleeting appearance within consciousness.
The tiger in our dream seems to be real, but on waking we discover that it was made of mind, and mind simply comprises appearances in consciousness. Consciousness is the reality of mind. The tiger in the dream is unreal as ‘tiger’ but real as consciousness.
When the tiger is present there is a reality to it. The reality of the tiger is consciousness, which is its support, its substance and its witness. Consciousness is not obscured by the tiger. It is self-evident in the tiger. It knows itself in and as the appearance of the tiger.
Our objective experience in the waking state also comprises fleeting appearances in consciousness. Therefore, in the ultimate analysis, there is no difference between the two states of dreaming and waking.
The substratum and the substance of the appearances in the dream and the waking states, their reality, is identical and it remains after appearances have vanished.
The appearance is made only of its underlying reality. The image in the mirror is made only of mirror. This reality is always present. We have never experienced its absence. And we have never experienced anything other than this reality.
Change is in appearance only. There is only reality taking the shape of this, and this and this.
How could something that is real become unreal? Where would its reality go? How could something whose nature, whose substance, is reality become something else, become non-reality?
Whatever is real in our experience of nature, or indeed of any object, whatever endures, whatever is truly experienced, is undeniably present in every experience. Reality is the substance of every experience. It is the existence, the beingness, the is-ness, the suchness, the knowingness, the experiencingness, in every experience.
And even when there is no objectivity present, such as in deep sleep or in the interval between appearances, this reality remains as it always is. This formless reality is concealed or revealed by appearances, depending on how we see.
Being without form, it cannot be said to have any limitations, because any limitation would have to have a form, would have to be experienced through the mind or the senses, in order to be an objective experience.
At the same time, what is being described here is an intimate fact of experience. There is something real in this experience now. What is it in our experience that is undeniably and continuously present and yet has no external qualities?
The only answer to that question from our direct experience is consciousness. Consciousness is undeniably experienced during any appearance and yet it has no objective qualities. Therefore, consciousness and reality or existence are both present in every experience.
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What is the relationship between consciousness and existence? If they were different there would have to be a border, a boundary between them. Do we experience such a boundary?
No! We have already acknowledged consciousness and existence, from our own intimate experience of both, as being undeniably present and also as having no objective defining qualities. If they have no objective qualities how can they said to be separate or different? They cannot!
Therefore, whether we realise it or not, in our actual experience they are one, consciousness orexistence, not consciousness andexistence. It is therefore our intimate, direct experience that consciousness and existence are one.
It is our direct experience that we, consciousness, areexistence, that we arewhat the universe is.
In the Christian tradition, this understanding is expressed as, ‘I and my Father are one’. ‘I’ is consciousness, that which I truly am. The Father is the reality of the universe, God. This expression, ‘I and my Father are one’, is an expression of the fundamental unity of consciousness and reality, of the self with all things.
The fact that in this tradition ‘I’ has, in most cases, been consistently interpreted as referring to a single body-mind, and that the Father, as a result, has for so many centuries been consistently projected outside, at an infinite distance, should not obscure the meaning of the original statement.
Consciousness is present during the appearance of any perception, and when the objective part of the perception disappears, it remains as it always is. Nothing happens to consciousness when a perception appears or disappears. It takes the shape of the perception but remains itself, just as a mirror takes on the appearance of an object and yet always remains exactly as it is.
We have no experience of the appearance or disappearance of consciousness, in spite of the appearance and disappearance of perceptions. Our experience is that consciousness endures, that it is permanent. Likewise reality, existence, endures. Of course this statement does not make sense, because it implies that consciousness and existence endure in time.
When perception vanishes, time vanishes, because time is the duration between two perceptions. In fact, even during the presence of a perception time is not present, only the illusion of time is present. During the so-called interval between two perceptions, not even the illusion of time is present.
So consciousness and reality do not endure forever in time. They are ever-present, always now. They are eternal. Time, however, appears to exist, from time to time, within consciousness.
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‘Eternity’ is the term Cézanne uses to refer to this ever-present reality, and he understood the purpose of art as ‘giving us a taste’ of this eternity.
He felt that art should lead us to reality, indicate that which is real, evoke that which is substantial. It should lead us from appearance to reality. It should point towards the essence of things. And it does so by using the insubstantial, fleeting appearances of sense perceptions, the ‘elements of all her (nature’s) changes’.
He did not say that art depicts reality any more than literature describes it, but rather that it gives us a taste of reality. It takes us to the direct experience, the intimate knowing that consciousness, what we truly are, is the substance of reality, that there is only one thing, that there is only being.
William Blake expresses the same understanding when he says, ‘Every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight enclosed by the five senses’.
He uses the bird as a symbol of nature. He is saying that the reality of the bird is ‘an immense world of delight’, but that its reality is veiled by the senses. By using the word ‘enclosed’, he suggests that the senses somehow limit reality. They condition its appearance.
It is significant that Blake describes the reality of nature, of an object, as ‘delightful’. Cézanne also says that the reality of nature, which he calls her ‘eternity’, is experienced as a ‘thrill’. Both Blake and Cézanne are suggesting that inherent in the oneness of consciousness and reality is the experience of ‘delight’, that the experience is ‘thrilling’.
This is in line with Indian philosophy, which describes every experience as an expression of nama rupa sat chit ananda.
Namais ‘name’. It is that part of an experience that is supplied or conditioned by thinking. It could be called the concept, the label that the mind uses to frame the experience. It says, ‘That is a chair’. The concept ‘chair’ is nama.
Rupais ‘form’. It is that part of an experience that is supplied by the senses. Each of the senses has their corresponding object in the world. The sense of seeing has its counterpart in the objects of sight. The sense of hearing has its counterpart in the objects of sounds, etc. The senses condition the way reality appears to us depending on their own characteristics.
Namaand rupatogether constitute the appearance of nature or an object.
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If we are to apprehend the real nature of experience, independent of the particular characteristics that are conferred upon it by the mind and senses, we have to denude our experience of that part of it that is supplied by the experiencing apparatus, the instruments of perception, that is the mind and the senses.
As we saw earlier from Cézanne’s statement, if we take away that which appears, the objective aspect of any experience, we are left with the undeniable and yet invisible experience of both existence or beingness and consciousness.
So in exploring the true nature of experience, we first remove name and form, namaand rupa, the veil of mind and senses in which reality is ‘enclosed’. This leaves us with the presence of two undeniable facts of experience, existence and consciousness, which in Indian philosophy are referred to as satand chit.
In every experience there is something that is being experienced. That something, whatever it is, is real. It has being. That is sat. In every experience there is also something that experiences. There is ‘I’, consciousness. That something, whatever it is, is present. It is conscious. That is chit.
From the point of view of the apparent separate entity, we formulate our experience by saying, ‘I see that’. That is, ‘I’, consciousness, sees ‘that’, the object or the world. Chitexperiences sat. They are considered to be two things joined by an act of knowing.
However, if we explore our experience carefully, we come to the understanding that consciousness and reality are one, that there is no separation between ‘I’ and ‘other’, between ‘me’ and ‘you’, between ‘me’ and the ‘world’, between chitand sat.
The experience of this realisation is known in India as ananda, which has traditionally been translated as ‘bliss’. However, this translation can be misleading. It suggests that the realisation of oneness is considered to be accompanied by a rare and exotic state. And this in turn initiates the search for an extraordinary experience, for something that is not simply this.
Anandais perhaps better translated as peace or happiness, or simply fulfilment. In fact it is very ordinary. It could be described as the absence of agitation or the ease of being.
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Peace and happiness are normally considered to be a state of the body-mind that result from obtaining a desired object. However, in this formulation from the Indian tradition, peace and happiness are understood as being inherent in our true nature, and this accords with both Cézanne and Blake who describe the same experience as a ‘thrill’, and a ‘world of delight’.
When we separate that part of our experience that is imposed or enclosed, as Blake put it, by the mind and senses, by the instruments of perception, consciousness and reality are realised to be one.
Their inherent unity is revealed. It is not created. Peace or happiness is another name for that experience. It is very natural.
Although all objects ultimately come from this experience and are therefore an expression of it, there are a particular category of objects that could be called sacred works of art, that shine with the presence of this understanding and therefore have the power to convey or communicate it directly. They evoke it.
In classical Greece this experience was described as ‘beauty’. Beauty is not the attribute of an object. It is inherent in the fundamental nature of experience. It is the experience of recognising that consciousness and reality are one.
Such sacred works of art stir a deep memory in us. We recognise something in them. In this recognition consciousness is recognising itself. Consciousness is remembering its own reality, its own being.
It looks in the mirror of experience and sees itself. It experiences its own reality.
Such works of art give us the ‘taste of eternity’.