Kishimi and the gift of knowing
A gentle slope drops from the back of our house to an old stone wall, and beyond, a pond surrounded by high trees. The pond was a limestone pit once; the still surface mirrors the darkness below. An oak tree fell into the shallow south end and in the warm months a slender grey heron spends his days on the branches that stick up from the water.
I look for the heron when I walk down to the pond. This is not as frequently as I would like. I’ll stand at the north edge and wait for my eyes to adjust to the shadows. The heron’s shape is like an inadvertent ink stroke on a busy page.
When I look at the heron I want to feel its stillness, but even as I wait for my eyes to focus, I fight the impulse to move on, to walk up the hill, into the woods, to keep the images dancing, to make my heart pump. I disappoint myself.
One day I discovered the photos of a man called Ichiro Kishimi.
When he walks the world stills.
I can not know the noise that his mind makes, but imagine it is steady and muted. My mind is like the roaring rapids.
He studied Greek philosophy and taught in a language that I can not understand. He is a student of the school of Alfred Adler, who believed that we reward our nature by growth and inflict pain by seeking perfection. He has written books on the principal of happiness and has focused energy on the education of children.
This may be a wise man that divined from his own desires the dark tentacle of disappointment that drowns a man in feelings of discontent.
But I can not know anything of that man, who has lived beyond my reach in place, thought, sentiment and time.
I know the man who walks along the river and through fields in a perpetual spring.
I met him first when he was walking to the hospital where his father lay in decay, his mind untethered and eroded. I wondered at the love this son felt for his father, the sorrow that lay in the uncoupling of their intellects, the worrisome reminder that mortality is a word that signals the final succumbing to the constant hazard of life, not an emphatic end point like the iron trestle marking the terminus of rail line.
He took photographs when he walked of simple and delicate things. A thrush; a heron; a petal; a flower; a cluster of grass.
This is what each photograph did:
Because I think I know him, I discover something of myself.
Take the heron. It is still, captured in profile, the white of its coat outlined with the precise bands of ink-black that only nature can achieve.
I don’t look at the heron with a critical eye, however. I am arrested by it. I experience it with the intense energy of my shadow neurons.
I can not see a heron this way.
Kishimi helps me see something that I don’t see.
What I see invades me and in an instant I am given a fleeting glimpse of another me, and I know what it is to still myself, to be present and bear witness to a thing with insistent focus, calm and uncritical, free from interpretation. I know what it is to suspend the narrative, to arrest the impulse to fill in the missing pieces, to relinquish the what-was and what-will-be.
I can feel what I felt when I saw the heron. I can embrace its essence unironically. As the heron balanced its weight effortlessly, the wind fell away, the heat, worry, the city, the refuse tangled in the water weeds at the muddy shore.
How can I accept that I did not see the heron? What do I make of the truth that even though I see this way, I can not see this way? So I ruminate about Kishimi, this philosopher-saint from Kyoto; I reflect on his serenity. I admire his hopefulness, his completeness, his ability to connect with all of the beauty that is around him.
But I am avoiding my Self by making believe.
I don’t know this man. I can’t know this man.
Whatever I know of this man is a gift he has given me of discovering something new in myself.
If I am able to see the heron in the photo, I must be able to see the heron in life. The clues are in those qualities that I attribute to Kishimi, those attributes that I experience in me through his photo.
I can see because I believe I know a man I don’t know, so I must be knowing a man I can be.
I can only hope that the man who took this photo, and all the hundreds others I have looked at, feels contentment and happiness. That is why I go to read Adler, to look at pictures of Kyoto…to discover what he might have learned.
The photos are a signal that Kishimi might understand what makes our experience in the world complete.
A man who wrote a book on happiness must either feel peace or despair. I hope that life has given him the gift of peace.
I suspect that he would want me to feel the same thing, and to return to my pond to see my heron with the gift of my own eyes.