The Marginalian
The Marginalian

A Glow in the Consciousness: The Continuous Creative Act of Seeing Clearly

A Glow in the Consciousness: The Continuous Creative Act of Seeing Clearly

There is no pure perception — of a flower, of a mountain, of a person. In everything we look at, we see partly a reflection of ourselves — a projection of an internal model seeking to approximate the actuality. If we are conscious enough and unafraid enough of being surprised, we will keep testing the model against reality, incrementally ceding the imagined to the actual. One measure of love — perhaps the deepest measure — is the willingness to remove the projection in order to perceive what is truly there. There is both sorrow and consolation in knowing that although we can only ever glimpse parts of the totality beyond us, we can keep trying to see more clearly in order to love more deeply.

I am reminded of a passage from The Living Mountain (public library) — that uncommon masterpiece of attention and affection by the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) — illustrating this paradox of perception.

Up in the Scottish Highlands, Shepherd discovers how the illusions of perception depend on one’s position, physical as much as psychic. She writes:

A scatter of white flowers in grass, looked at through half-closed eyes, blaze out with a sharp clarity as though they had actually risen up out of their background. Such illusions, depending on how the eye is placed and used, drive home the truth that our habitual vision of things is not necessarily right: it is only one of an infinite number, and to glimpse an unfamiliar one, even for a moment, unmakes us, but steadies us again.

This overwhelming infinity of possible perceptions is what attention evolved to protect us from — that “intentional, unapologetic discriminator,” selecting a handful of parts out of the totality in order to construct the projected image.

Without a conscious clearing of the lens, the eye sees what the mind has already imagined.

René Magritte. The False Mirror. 1929. (Museum of Modern Art.)

As her vision encounters the myriad tessellated realities of the mountain, Shepherd considers what it takes to “look creatively” in order to see more clearly:

How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry? — the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces. Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shapes, should so profoundly tranquillise the mind I do not know. Perhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle — as beauty… A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.

Meanwhile on another landmass, Frida Kahlo was confronting the challenge of fully knowing another, writing to the complicated love of her life that “only one mountain can know the core of another mountain” — a poetic reminder that getting to know one another’s depths may be the supreme “continuous creative act,” the great triumph of perception over projection.

Complement with Oliver Sacks on the necessity of our illusions and Iain McGilchrist on how we render reality with attention as an instrument of love, then revisit the young Charles Darwin’s encounter with God in the mountains and the surrealist French poet and philosopher René Daumal on the mountain and the meaning of life.

Published June 11, 2024




Filed Under

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the and affiliate programs, designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to books. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book from a link here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)