When the wealthy trader Giovanni Arnolfini married Costanza Trenta, he hired the best painter to commemorate their nuptial. After all, this would be their happiest moment, and the value of a portrait conveying that memory throughout the rest of their lives was rightly deemed as priceless.

If the couple had married six centuries later, they would have hired a photographer to compile an album of the beautified bride, formal groom, lush bouquet, festive venue, happy friends, hopeful family, sanctified ceremony and drunken celebrations. But since the Arnolfinis' wedding occurred more than four hundred years before the invention of photography, wedding-commemoration fell on the lap of other mediums. Giovanni Arnolfini commissioned the most skilled artist in the most innovative art-form of his age, Jan van Eyck.

The Arnolfini Couple - Jan van EyckOil was fresh in van Eyck’s day. Its slow fixation allowed the painter time. He could massage his colors to blend and mix layers of different pigments and lend his work a depth coveted by more primitive art forms. So unlike the futuristic medium of photography, that would afford its artist the ability to capture many moments through time, the oil painter would be forced to choose a single moment, and use the strength of his art to mold that moment into unparalleled depths.

How deep is the moment? Does it have a rock-bottom? Jan van Eyck resolved to find out. Instead of the pomp of a wedding party in town, he chose the intimacy of a wedded couple at home. The setting is their bedroom. The action is their vow and imminent union. To this, Jan van Eyck applies his art unlike any painter before. He captures the silk-embroidered veil, fur-trimmed gown, fox-furred coat, wooden-beamed floor, brass-gothic lamp, mid-oriental rug, glass-bottle window — to list only a few physical attributes. Over these, he superimposes the emotion of the groom vowing to support his bride through sickness and health, the bride vowing to bear her husband children, and the puppy guaranteeing to infuse family life with lightness. And by setting the couple in their bedroom, with Giovanni’s removed sandals and Costanza’s arm resting on her belly, van Eyck even achieves a progression in time, hinting at imminent union, and in the farther distance, childbirth.

Is this the rock-bottom of the Arnolfini moment? How far should van Eyck push his experiment – to the dirt between the beams, rot beneath the apple, and dust above the sill?

To answer this question, I must attempt his experiment myself. Although I cannot replicate reality in oil, I can nevertheless observe its each and every detail as van Eyck did. Starting with the luminous screen atop my desk, I move to the book with scribbled notes, pen, mouse, mousepad, keyboard, coffee mug, table lamp, and tissue box – all covered with a thin layer of dust. Then I shift to the muffled sunlight coming through the blinds, how it illuminates the droopy leaves of the thirsty plant, the bookshelf with uneven books, and the cobwebs with spider waiting for opportunity.

As I scan the contents of my moment, I am slowly overcome by an eerie sensation. I, too, am part of this scape, with the semi-slouched posture on my chair, the many ideas racing through my mind, the furrowed brow trying to anchor them down, the smile when I succeed and frown when I fail. The eerie self-consciousness deepens as I witness myself observing these many things – screen, book, pen, mouse, pad, mug and lamp. Then it crescendos into an epiphany: I have been the single constant amidst these infinite details. The Arnolfini Couple - detail of mirror - Jan van EyckI observed the screen, pad, and pen; the light, leaves and books; the posture, brow and smile. The many have highlighted the one. I am the rock bottom of my moment – the observer, not the observed.

Van Eyck must have experienced a similar epiphany. The deeper he massaged his oil into the canvas, the more he saw himself, so much so that the Arnolfini moment – he must have realized – would be incomplete without him. Accordingly, in the farthest depths of his canvas, van Eyck portrayed himself as the omniscient witness of the Arnolfini moment. His experiment ended in transformation: the Arnolfini portrait became a self-portrait.

Responses

  1. Asaf Braverman Post author

    This post introduces a tool called the ‘looking exercise.’ In this exercise, you take in one impression after another in intervals of about three seconds for the duration of a few minutes. The aim is to stop mind activity and achieve the effect described in the post above. Try this out and share your observations and questions below.

  2. Hicham B.

    Van Eyck painting curiously reminds me of the following plate from the “Splendor Solis”. Is that another “looking glass”? Why does the winged character have two heads (one of a man and another of a woman)? One white and another red (dark) side? Is that an egg in his left hand? Please share your thoughts.

    1. Lazaros Lazarakis

      The man’s (SUN) and the woman’s (MOON) union gives birth to the four elements.The mirror presents the Prima Materia,the starting point of the process of transformation.The Egg represents the Four Elements (earth,water,air,fire) (shell,white,membrane,yolk) united in the fifth element:the young chick.The chick represents the philosopher’s stone:the union of all opposites.The imagre can also be intepreted psychologically,as the quest for the development of a whole and integrated SOUL.

      1. Charles Rodkoff

        Hello Hicham and Lazaros, I can tell that Asaf’s post and the previous Workshop had the same effect on you both as it had on me. It produced a higher state of consciousness that was not available to me before attending the Workshop or reading his subsequent post.

        We have been charged (like charging an electronic device or filling a cartridge with gunpowder) with a finer emotional and intellectual energy. The challenge is to observe and then direct this highly charged energy into efforts to Be and have the driver – divided attention – steer the horse and carriage – emotions and intellect – towards subjects related to Asaf’s posts.

        The emotional parts of the lower functions have taken you away from the subject at hand; experiment with the looking exercise to stop thoughts and allowing consciousness to expand. What you’re experiencing is random associative thinking. Here’s a video clip that might help you….

        https://youtu.be/Xxgh96U02gg

  3. Dean Whittingham

    As soon as I read this I applied it by looking around and found that I would immediately identify in some way the object I was looking at, so in one sense I was observing the object and then I was able to observe myself identify or at least retrieve some personal memory attached to the object. However I also found myself sooner or later becoming distracted each time by how I was going to desribe what I was observing to the group – and even more so about how clever I was going to try to describe it….I oberved a stark contrast to observing for the purposes of other people and observing for observations sake itself!

    1. William Scholte

      Interesting and sincere observations Dean. Imaginary conversations and explanations are quite familiar to me as well. The ‘taste’ of these wanderings is so similar to dreams in bed that it is verification for me of Ouspensky’s statement that states of consciousness are added to lower states rather than replacing them. In other words, the dreams of the first state do not disappear when we are in the second state, they continue. Once observed, we can refine our approach. Sometimes I will lift one foot from the floor while using the looking exercise. It seems to help keep space between ‘me’ as the observer and the associations and ‘commentary’ that arise mechanically when we take in impressions.

      1. Orazio Sorgonà

        In these days at times I have to lay in bed while recovering organically.
        Exactly to avoid getting into a dream-some state while still sleeping not, I found it works holding a certain attention to my hands, fingers. Tighting them also /the same as/ I would do if I had some object , actually a rosary, in them. I indeed use fingers themself for a ‘counting’. The whole point is not to let attention wander and it works.
        Assuredly rosaries can be used exactly this way, it is to divide attention:
        whatever is going, you hold part of your attention toward your hands. And counting, and repeating prayers, and so on…

      2. Dean Whittingham

        Thankyou Asaf and William…I must confess I am finding this exercise quite difficult and yet if I do the same exercise with sounds instead I find the results to be the exact opposite, ie I am able to still my mind for many many seconds and even observe myself at the same time…is there any particular reason why this would be the case and is there something to learn from the fact that looking with awareness is harder than listening, at least in my case?

        1. Asaf Braverman Post author

          No doubt, an effort as you describe Dean (and also Orazio’s effort above) will have an effect. However, the ‘looking exercise’ not only strives to still the many ‘I’s, but also to take in impressions. How often do I look at the plant in my office, flower on the ground, tree in the distance, or cloud in the sky? Deliberately taking in these impressions is like deliberately eating a kind of food (called ‘hydrogen’ in this system). It charges the emotional center. Then we have more creative energy with which to Be.

  4. Jack

    I started sitting at my desk looking at items and identifying them in my mind by name. After a few items, I found I lost some focus as my mind started to judge some of the items. That was a good picture, the phone is an old phone. I then remembered What Asaf said about taking shorter intervals in observing and that helped get back my focused attention. I also caught myself thinking about how I would report this. I see more and more how judging tries to come into everything. Even judging objects. What are sly man techniques to stay more focused for 2-3 minutes?

    1. Charles Rodkoff

      Hello Jack, your question has some of the answer. Rather than 2-3 minutes, try staying focused for the duration of a breath – about 3 seconds or so. When your gaze rests on the focus of your attention, inhale with divided attention, as if you were inhaling the impression. On the exhale, keeping your focus on the the impression before you, exhale as if you’re releasing the impression. All you have to do is *look* at the impression. Breath naturally, no need to force the breath or time it. Let the carriage do it’s work.

      You can experiment with picking an impression each time, or, as William suggests, simply move your gaze to the next impression and start again. Before you know it, you may spend the best part of an hour simply taking in impressions. You’ll be surprised how much detail there is in a light switch or the corner of the chest of drawers or a coffee cup on the desk.

    2. Nancy-Rebecca McCarty

      After practicing this exercise, my experience was that, one gets better at pushing past ‘distractions’ the many ‘i’s’ produce and if one is persistent, finally, one is able to really ‘behold’ something in the moment. One of those YES moments! And then we understand what really ‘seeing’ something, anything, in the moment means. My discovery was, after repeatedly getting to this point, that is, to the point where perceiving an impression, in the moment, ‘at will’, was relatively achievable…. that adding this ‘specific aim’, which is a ‘method’, within the frame of the ‘looking exercise’, was very helpful for maintaining my ‘observer’. The discovery of this method, enables me to shift my ‘attention-awareness’ more ‘solidly’ into the ‘Seat’ of my ‘Self’. This method commences after actually ‘beholding’ the first ‘impression’ ‘beheld’ in the moment, during the ‘looking exercise’. The ‘aim’ is to next, intentionally choose to direct & shift attention, specifically, (not randomly) to finding & ‘seeing’ the impression of my ‘nose as it juts out from my face’. Once that is found, from there to choose direct attention, again specifically, to find the impression of the inner outline of my eyes (as if they were ‘window’ frames). On finding the inner outline of my eyes, with my attention, it is only a short distance to shift attention-awareness into my sense of sitting in the ‘seat’ behind those eye-windows. Shifting ‘attention’ there allows me to experience my ‘Self’, ‘looking at the ‘screen’ of the ‘mind’s eye’, where all impressions actually appear. Conscious-attention sitting in that seat, finds it is relatively easy, to ‘watch’ impressions appear on the “screen”. Experiencing “Being” in this position is of great value to me. It is possible to direct ‘attention-awareness’ to various ‘selected’ impressions, from this spot, and to intentionally take in the ‘food’ of impressions, for transformation. ‘I’s, of course, come and go, during the space of the ‘exercise’. Each ‘i’ wants to have attention follow it in to a random train of associative thinking. Bringing attention back, into my sense of self looking out the ‘windows’ over and over, as long as one can, prolongs the state. When my energy for directing my attention intentionally, finally ‘runs out’, my attention gets mechanically ‘snagged’ by one of these ‘I’ distractions, and my experience of ‘Self in the driver’s seat’ is lost. However, my ‘work-‘i’s’, previously imbued with my valuation for sitting in the ‘driver’s seat’, help me return, by reminding me, to direct my attention into the ‘looking’ exercise again, & after actively ‘beholding’ some thing in the ‘present’, to employ the a fore, mentioned ‘method’, during the exercise, to find my way ‘home’ again. Maybe you might find this ‘method’ of use. XXOO ~Rebecca

  5. Nisha Ria

    Last night I tried this exercise sitting on my couch looking out of the window and to my surprise , though I am on the same spot everyday for long hours, I noticed the reflection of fan and white lights for the first time on the window glass and the picture matched the image of the house opposite to mine. Each time I shifted my attention, I focused on one object initially and in the next few seconds I could see more and more in the same spot as if im looking through a magnifying lens.

  6. George Gurdjieff

    The flow of impressions coming to us from outside is like a driving belt communicating motion to us. The principal motor for us is nature, the surrounding world. Nature transmits to us through our impressions the energy by which we live and move and have our being. If the inflow of this energy is arrested, our machine will immediately stop working.

  7. anselmo

    During this week i tried sometimes to make the suggested exercise. In those ocasions i have observed that i started the exercise, and when i realized i was already thinking or doing something else. I got distracted. Today, however, i have been more successful. I think that is because i make more efforts to concentrate, and because i wasn´t involved in other daily activities (i am writing on sunday).

    I think that those impressions served as fuel to self-remembering. What hapens is that after the exercise, self-remembering become more constant, more frequent.
    I have also observed that after the exercise has finished, i am still more aware of my surronding, including my vessel.

    1. Asaf Braverman Post author

      It makes sense to practice in a controlled environment. If we succeed to make certain efforts in a controlled environment, then we might be able to repeat those same efforts in more chaotic environments. This way, we build on our success.

  8. Orazio Sorgonà

    I tried the exercise. I was in a wonderful environment, a valley opening from
    the place were I was, at the beginning of mountain height, down until the sea. I know the place sice childhood, I lived nearby, and now I’m living again there and use to go in the morning to the bakery. I always enjoy the landscape, yet this time I wanted to approach it with the ‘looking exercise’.
    As I began and tried to understand how I could work it in the right way, a work-i came to tell
    that consciousness would be aware aither of what I was looking at, and of the inside, how machine functioned, /through/ the way it looked at things. It is, be aware of the outside perceived /and/ the inside, ‘seeing’ the insideit through the way eyes were functioning.
    Something consciousness is (well, that’s the ‘literal formula’ of divided attenion: being aware of the ‘object’ a function responds to /and/ of the function responding).
    The idea that came was that something higher would have been conscious both of the inside and the outside through the eyes.
    (Well, i didn’t think it would have taken so long to formulate it! -it had been however a very brief work-i).
    Quite soon as I had that thought, exacly that state emerged. And there are no words for it. It had a varying intensity.
    To be correct, I could say that it lasted in a more intense form exactly for how much I really wanted it. When I had habitual thinking, it inclined to fade.
    Yet I was determined to go on and tried on and on to drop the i’s.

    Thus quite an intense emotional, attentive, state emerged. It had been so long that I had not been experiencing an emotion of that kind; it quite ached in the breast also-it stretched muscles and nerves which had no habitual functioning with it.
    This emotionality reached a kind of climax of its, and then I felt saturated.

    And then I walked away, to come back home here a couple of miles away.
    Something I realised also, again, is that we quite never see what’s in front of us; what’s around. The many events in nature…

    WHile walking, I was thinking of how I could endure in the state of consciousness; not I thought to ‘replicate’ the subjective experiences that accompanied it, this is exactly falling then into imagination.
    And I realised how a ‘listening exercise’ exactly fit in complementarity to that ‘looking exercise’. So I tried to ‘listen’, while walking.

    thought that there should be a triad : ‘looking’ and a loving tension; ‘listening to meaning’, and…. I had no ‘i’ then about a third kind of effort.
    But today I had! “looking, listening and… not listening to the many i’s!”.
    And listening not to the many i’d is the beginning of truth.

    1. Asaf Braverman Post author

      Your description is inspiring. I am glad you gave the ‘looking exercise’ another try since your comment above and verified its emotional potential. Once our emotional center is engaged (as you described, “…quite an intense emotional, attentive, state emerged. It had been so long that I had not been experiencing an emotion of that kind…”), it brings with it many more possibilities.

      When we find the right key to the lock of the moment, it opens up miraculously, the way you experienced. The challenge is to persist in finding the right tool, because each moment requires a different one. This returns to the post on Unfound Solutions.

      Thanks, Orazio, for sharing.

  9. Hicham B.

    Taking impressions one at a time: a tree, a bird chanting, an ant walking on my hand, bees buzzing in the field etc.
    You want to stay there, nothing is better than this moment, everything is fine, you are fine, just stand still and take impressions…