Equidistant (Lose Your Illusion)
Reflections on Covid, perception, and losing the world
Hello and welcome to this seventh reflection on In Fragments — this week exploring Equidistant (Lose Your Illusion), a ritual to collapse related phenomena into a single plane of perception, which can then be worked with as one: swept up, studied, smashed:
Last September, I finally picked up Covid. My experience of the virus began with a couple days of extreme fatigue, followed by the total loss of taste and smell, which didn’t begin to return for about three weeks. I came to realize that taste and smell (perhaps our least appreciated senses) actually add so much to the experience of life. Without taste and smell (combined with the sparse touch of social isolation), life essentially becomes an audiovisual experience. As I wandered alone through the rooms of my house, I felt that I was moving through a virtual reality simulation or watching a movie. There was something about the experience that I can only describe as “synthetic” — non-organic, non-natural, unlike any other sickness I’d had before, as though some kind of internal transformation or “upgrade” was occurring within me.
Now that I’ve recovered from Covid, my senses are a little more subdued than they were before — tastes and smells are not as intense, and even sights and sounds seem to affect me a little less deeply. This diminished sense of reality feels like a loss. At the same time, my slightly reduced sensual capacities have made me a little more neutral and accepting of life, a little less ensnared by the trappings of embodied experience.
I’ve been wondering if perhaps this perceptual tradeoff is the “medicine” of Covid — that by partly taking away the world, Covid helps us to be less attached to the world, and therefore maybe more able to move through these turbulent times with grace, flexibility, and ease. The virus not only takes away our senses of taste and smell, but also our connection to others (through enforced isolation), while bringing collective society more or less to a standstill. By taking away the world, perhaps this strange virus helps us learn to appreciate the world even more, or to realize how malleable and flexible the world really is: an emergent creation of everyone’s dreams, something that can change on a dime given new information.
This was not my first time “losing the world” — as an infant, I suffered from seizures and so-called “near-miss SIDS,” which caused me to stop breathing a couple of times in my first year of life, needing to be resuscitated by a live-in nurse named Catherine who was charged with my care. Throughout childhood, I experienced around a dozen fainting spells, each time losing consciousness for a minute or so. As an adult, this vasovagal syncope has continued sporadically, usually lasting just a few seconds.
In 2015, after a multi-year process of “spiritual seeking,” I experienced yet another form of “losing the world” — through a harrowing plant medicine journey from which I felt I would never return. In the journey, I lost any reference point to space, time, or identity, and felt as though I had crossed a one-way threshold into death, where the “Jonathan” that used to exist could no longer be reconstructed again. It was a feeling of profound existential aloneness — not the conventional “loneliness” of ordinary life, but a deep certainty that there was in fact no possibility of “other,” revealing the very notion of connection itself as a fiction. This was a dark and difficult realization, but also felt like the deepest truth I had ever encountered. I looked around at the other people in the room, and saw them as flickering clusters of light, acting out certain symbolic qualities. A few of them were laughing: There is what we call humor. A few of them were embracing one another: There is what we call intimacy. But these activities were only empty symbols to me: dancing energies with no true reality.
When I gradually emerged from this space, and "the world” as such coalesced around me once again, all I could see was the dreamlike nature of everything — the world as an exquisite illusion, and the people around me as masterfully convincing apparitions. Agreeing to participate in “the world” somehow seemed dishonest, like agreeing to engage in a dream. I considered taking a vow of silence and retreating to live in a tent by a nearby river, so that I could seek shelter in silent integrity.
A couple days later, I was fortunate to meet a mentor named Ernesto Pujol, a Cuban-American performance artist and former Christian monk, who was leading a workshop called “The Art of Consciousness” at a meditation center in New Hampshire. In his opening remarks, he said to us:
The Buddhists say all of this is an illusion. If that’s true, then why not create beautiful illusions?
His question spoke to something deep within me — and helped to build back my wish to engage with reality: a wish that later gave birth to In Fragments and helped to inspire the practice of Life Art. If we have no choice but to be here in the world, then why not engage with it consciously as a malleable co-creative medium?
This seventh ritual works with this notion of “losing the world” — by gathering up the historical stories of High Acres Farm into a single perceptual surface that can later be worked with as one. The ritual also seeks to give the viewer his or her own experience of “losing the world” by temporarily taking away the “world” of the film.
The ritual’s title, Equidistant, refers to that quality of perception where all external phenomena can be seen as “equidistant” from the perceiver — much like the experience of being fully engrossed in the drama of a movie, and then suddenly realizing the entire world of the film is taking place on a screen, where particles of light create the illusion of relative distance.
A montage of scenes from High Acres Farm are examined, mixing the pastoral with the foreboding — silver-framed photos of an idealized childhood, taxidermied mammals encased in a glass trophy cabinet, a red boathouse next to the lake, a foam hunting target of a deer. These bucolic scenes are interrupted by splashes of water thrown against a sheet of glass in front of the camera, calling attention to the invisible plane of perception, as the gestures are mimicked by the music.
Eventually, a time-lapse sequence begins: showing an outdoor view of the lawn, lake, and mountains, as the daylight moves across the landscape. At dusk, we see that the camera was looking through a sheet of glass all along, as the reflected inner world of the living room appears, mingling with the external landscape.
At dark, the outer landscape is no longer visible — all we see is the reflected inner room: an oil painting of cheetahs in Africa, hung above a floral couch.
As the time-lapse images transition to video, I enter the room with my grandfather’s hammer and smash the sheet of glass in front of the camera, destroying the reflection of the space that he built — so the empty void of the night is all that remains. The void, of course, is not only emptiness, but also the field that is pregnant with all possibilities: the place from which everything new is now free to emerge.
In the 2017 renovation of the High Acres Farm main house, the wall whose reflection was smashed in this 2015 ritual was subsequently demolished — another example of the strange entanglement between art, ritual, and life.
Hope all is well in your world,
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