The Infinitude Within Our Skins

I live in my house as I live inside my skin: I know more beautiful, more ample, more sturdy and more picturesque skins: but it would seem to me unnatural to exchange them for mine.

Primo Levi

On most Sunday mornings, after a late and leisurely breakfast, I settle down for a couple of hours on a comfortable sofa in our living room and listen to music. The type of music varies widely, some days my listening is focused, and some days I read while I listen. These sessions constitute a weekly rhythm of the aura of music capturing the entire home, a spread aided by the living room opening directly into a spacious double-height stairwell in the centre of the house. Time slows down during these hours, offering a restorative counterpoint to the hustle of the week. If, for some reason, I miss this ritual for a Sunday or two, my wife is certain to remark on the fact, and while she intends no such insinuation, I feel guilty I have let down my end of a bargain to regularly sanctify our home with an offering of timeless time.

My wife enjoys the music but devotes that time to her own clock-slowing Sunday morning ritual. You will find her on the terrace, where the sound of music is but faint, within a greenhouse where she nurtures her collection of orchids. If I peer at her in her greenhouse, without catching or diverting her attention, I see her face hypnotised by a universe of a dimension far apart from the routine world of daily transactions. I suspect that if she were to similarly watch me on the living room sofa, she would see a kindred expression on my face.

Time moves in a different flow on our Sunday mornings, bypassing the metronomic ticking of the clock that marks tasks completed or undone, organises meetings current or anticipated, evaluates deadlines looming or past, or weighs the demands resting on our shoulders.

In the greenhouse, time is not comprehended in hours or minutes for its flow is modulated by the cycles in which an orchid blooms; that too, not a singular flow, a symphonic multitude springing from myriad species. You do not measure time in the greenhouse; you discard defences and preconceptions to shift your body into a flow of time and space over which you have no control. And if your empathy allows you to cross a threshold of harmony with this flow, you find a joy that springs from surrender to a mystical process of life, one far greater than you, one you cannot even define, leave alone control, one which somehow unfailingly composes the vibrant, colourful, exquisitely delineated, symmetrical, and perfect beauty of orchids. You may have caused the greenhouse to be built and stocked, but after that you must surrender to its flows, and the extent of your surrender determines the extent to which this process draws you into its embrace, accepts you as one of its own. I may admire the beauty of orchids, but I do so as a mere spectator. I sense that my wife’s regular surrender to the greenhouse has constituted a special communion in which the orchids share the presence of their beauty with her; she has earned their blessings.

Similarly, Sundays on the living room sofa also yield a capture of chronological time by a multitude of flows, scaled here by melody and rhythm. I listen to Shahid Parvez playing Bhairav on the sitar, set to the rhythm of teental, enamoured by the joyful play between sitar and tabla, each responding to the other, departing from the other, converging at the end of a cycle of sixteen beats, captivated by how this syncopated weave reveals subtle and transcendental depths of melody. Or I dwell in the choral movement in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the shifts from solo to full chorus, the majestic interlace of voice and orchestra, affirming in my bones, without understanding any German, that the music personifies an “Ode to Joy” — the title of the poem by Friedrich Schiller that forms the lyrics of the chorus. Depending on what I choose to listen to, without moving from my sofa, I move across many spaces: the concert halls and villages of India, the symphonies and operas of Europe, jazz bars in New Orleans, trumpet bands of Serbia, rock concerts in New York, the haunting strains of the kora from West Africa, and so many more. In each space, by some sleight of hand by which time is both suspended and flowing, the accent of a specific performance simultaneously and gratefully acknowledges its belonging to a tradition that has shaped it, one whose lineage stretches across generations past, present, and future.

These mornings of ours are subsumed under a sense of time the Ancient Greeks called kairos — one characterised by qualitative aura rather than by tangible measure. The Greeks differentiated this from chronos, our conventional notion of time assessed by the quantitative measure of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, or years. A similar differentiation was argued by the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, who was bothered by modern life’s perception of time, dominated by the mechanistic measure of the clock, a measure extremely useful to science but destructive when extended to lived experience. Bergson proposed the notion of duration to posit a kind of time characterised by a unity of flow that refuses disaggregation into discrete intervals with a measurable spacing, arguing that duration, rather than mechanistic time, reflects the authenticity of lived experience.

It is not the philosophy of time that is my primary concern here; my interest lies in two other facets. Firstly, we could easily choose to spend our Sunday mornings under chronos, but we opt to live those hours in kairos, and we must understand the implications of this choice. No doubt, the choice is aided by the fact that it is made on a holiday where the pressures of work are absent, but it is still a deliberate choice, which raises the question of whether it can be extended into other days of the week, into other aspects of our lives. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, those periods of kairos leave a transformative mark on the spaces we inhabit. The rhythms of our house are recast by the presence of music. And orchids from the greenhouse visit with us during their days of bloom, living within our dining room and stairwell, a changing exhibition through which the transcendent cadences of the greenhouse permeate our home.

It is the dialogue between our moments of kairos and the spaces we inhabit that is my focus here. These spaces are not static in their configuration and meaning; we overlay memories of our inhabitation such that they become a repository for our stories. My wife and I can look at a specific artefact in our home that has been there for a long time and spontaneously turn to each other saying, “Do you remember when……….?” Long spells of inhabitation overlay a space with memory such that, if you want to recall the story of your life, the best mnemonic you can use is a home you have occupied for years. Every Sunday morning that I spend on the living room sofa is not an isolated act, it layers on to previous times, subtly and powerfully reshaping the weave of accrued memories, such that when I get up from the sofa it is a different sofa, my home is a different home, and I am a different person. Pondering this, I begin to wonder what the consequences are to my sense of being in choosing to spend time in kairos rather than chronos, whether I can live in kairos on workdays or other periods when external distractions have a powerful influence on my choices, and what differences ensue in a space that is imbued more with kairos than chronos.

Kairos, is a qualitative phenomenon, resisting concrete intellectual definition, yet indisputably known as tangible reality when consciously experienced. It is an inescapably embodied experience whose persona is shaped by one’s own distinctive skin. Kairos faces both inward and outward simultaneously. Being embodied, it awakens inner consciousness, while synchronically evoking an expanded space, brimming with life and meaning, that embraces the self. Its aura results from the resonance and harmony one’s inner being strikes with a wider realm.

Chronos, in contrast, being quantitative, rests on abstract external measure anchored outside our consciousness, provoking a measure of the self against this quantification. If I look at a glass under kairos, my consciousness immerses itself in the experience of the object, the heft of its weight, its aesthetics (whether in admiration or distaste), or the sensuousness of imbibing the beverage it contains, and my subsequent memory is of a flow of experience that unifies the glass and me. If I look at it under chronos, my consciousness steps away from the glass to assess it, measuring its size, seeing whether it is full or empty, and my subsequent memory is of the conclusion I arrive at. Kairos binds inward awareness and external phenomenon into unity and infinitude, chronos is predicated on an external assessment that evokes separation and judgment.

The way kairos captures my embodied experience arouses an awareness of the infinitude within the skin of my body. I come to know it, with increasing exactitude, as a space teeming with a unique blend of ideas, dreams, music, beauty, emotions, love, compassion, joy, conviviality, creativity, and so much more. How this bundle of skin holding together blood, bone, muscle, gut, nerves, arteries, veins, cells, also manages to contain this amazingly creative and poetic spirit is beyond my capacity to understand. As the physicist, Brian Greene, said, “………..my view from the perspective of what we are as physical beings is, we are nothing but collections of particles that are fully governed by the laws of physics. Colloquially, we are bags of particles that have a particular organization that allows for certain biological functions to take place, and that’s all that we are. Now, some would say……, ‘Well, if that’s your view of who we are, then you’ve already eliminated any possibility for meaning or value and purpose. You’ve denigrated the very nature of what it means to be human.’ And my view is exactly the opposite. My view is, the very fact that collections of particles can do the kinds of things that we can do, the fact that you and I can have this conversation, the fact that an Einstein can work out the laws of general relativity, the fact that a Shakespeare can write King Lear, the fact that a Beethoven can compose the ‘Ode to Joy’ finale to the Ninth Symphony, the fact that particles governed by physical law can do all that — that, to me, is the wonder of it all. That, to me, is where it’s thrilling. The concept of purpose doesn’t come from the universe, it comes from us human beings. The concept of value — it’s invented by us human beings. And so the fact that we’re bags of particles only accentuates how spectacular it is that we can have even this conversation about value and meaning, and it focuses our attention, in my view, in the right direction, which is inward as opposed to outward.”

I cannot explain this infinitude; I only know that somehow the grace of the universe has blessed me with this mysterious gift. I gratefully revel in it, finding this infinitude is not restricted to my skin, for the outward gaze of kairos delineates the joy I find in an echoing infinitude in skins surrounding me, revealing what the poet Mary Oliver meant when she spoke about the world “over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

I find myself in a quest to explore, through the routines of my day, what kairos reveals in other spaces of my home. At a table on a terrace next to the entrance to my home, surrounded by trees and foliage, at an early hour every morning when the dominant sound is that of birdsong, I sit for a while in stillness. In this quietude, the terrace becomes a space that can shift time, I begin to sense a resonance between the universe and me. The skin of my home offers me a scale immediately beyond my body’s skin, a scale at which I can begin to comprehend this resonance, and day by day I discover, for the first time, new subtle threads of transcendence in this home where I have lived all my life.

Provoked by kairos into a generosity of spirit that projects beyond my own skin, I reflect on my connection to the other skins around me, of those whom I love, only to see in clearer light the weave of our infinitudes. I realise that love is, at its core, a recognising celebration of the wonder of the other’s presence.

After my period of stillness on the terrace, I move upstairs to my study for a session of meditation. I become more disciplined about not missing this daily meditation, and in that discipline discover, oh so slowly, a more nuanced understanding of the infinitude within me. The study is the space where I write, and I find the quest to immerse myself in kairos is beginning to change what I seek to write. From an earlier compulsion to use writing as a means of representing myself to the world as an erudite sophisticate with a capacity to sagaciously intellectualise everything, I now increasingly feel driven to write with a personal touch, a blend of heart and head anchored in the infinitude within. A critical dialogue between what is within and without becomes my primary mode of discovery: I validate external ideas by what is within me and use external critique to challenge any tendency toward self-absorption. I am grateful that my study commands views of landscape, has an adjacent patio where I can sit outdoors in good weather, and the resulting movement of my gaze and body reinforces the dialogic relationship I seek between my skin and the animated skins beside and around me. The skin of my home becomes a friend with whom I must hold crucial daily conversations.

It is not easy to constantly be in kairos and there are periods in which I am seduced by chronos, when I have a radically different perception of this same bundle of skin that constitutes me, for now my consciousness is captured by the external measure of the clock. I worry unduly over deadlines and problems at work. I record the fact that I am sixty-five years old and fret over whether I have done enough with my life to justify my existence. In a lament over what I am yet to accomplish, I fear my death. As measurement becomes my validation, death looms as a fearful spectre, a threshold beyond which I shall be cast adrift forever into an absolute darkness where even the slightest anchor of measurement is irrevocably absent. Measurement forces a constant outward gaze, and I lose connection with the innate energy of infinitude within me, causing me to flounder in the quest to comprehend the purpose of my life. The disconnect with my inner creativity when I am reliant on external measure, leads me to, as John O’Donohue points out, fear the wonder of my own presence, believing I should place my faith in external anchors that other people have predetermined for me.

I see the workplace with new eyes, recognising that with its external commitments in multiple projects, it is a space with an innate entropic pull toward chronos that can gradually make its inhabitants blind to their raison d’être. I see that, to sustains one’s bearings, one needs a deliberate and disciplined effort to construct countervailing anchors of kairos.

Before the pandemic, I organise a one-day workshop in the architectural practice I run, where we examine how we are all naturally in kairos as young children, steeped in the joys of wonder and play. But as we move toward adulthood, most of us succumb to being schooled out of that state by an education system rooted in chronos. Only a few souls, gifted by birth with an innate irrepressible energy, manage to sustain their balance. Within the experimental freedom of the workshop, we subject some of our projects to playful storytelling and are overwhelmed by how this unleashes a powerful and radical reinterpretation of the projects through a poetic energy that spontaneously bursts forth across the entire team. But in the final session, an attempt to draw conclusions from the rest of the workshop is coloured by the looming end to the day. A serious time-bound attempt at objective analysis leads to chronos taking over again, prior conditioning prevails, and this energy dissipates.

At other times, I watch how a discussion table in the middle of our studio is converted after hours into a makeshift table tennis table, how the conviviality generated by activities like this is perhaps more crucial to sustaining collaboration on projects than any formal manual we may generate on project process. But when the pandemic, and its constraints, forces a sudden loss of daily serendipity, such anchors prove to be fragile, and we must search for more solid foundations.

We have now begun a conversation on how each of us can seek to be more self-aware of the infinitude within each of us, sharing it such that the collective bedrock of our firm is a culture of weaving multiple infinitudes into larger nets of meaning that transcend any individual. We try to come to terms with the fact that doing anything less is equivalent to lobotomising ourselves.

We are early in the process and what this will lead to is yet to crystallise. I realise the need to be patient, for kairos is not a state of being that can be turned on like a switch; it is only accessed consistently through a rigorous practice that must be sustained and nurtured to breed a personal mastery of embodied discernment without which we will never recognise the powerful subtleties of beauty and joy. I read the noted cellist, Pablo Casals, writing, at the age of ninety-three, in his autobiography, “For the past eighty years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning for me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being. The music is never the same for me, never. Each day it is something new, fantastic and unbelievable. That is Bach, like nature, a miracle.”

Casals lives a practice where he begins each day in kairos, captivated by the wonder of Bach. The practice yields a mastery of increasing discernment where he plays Bach every single day for eighty years, but unfailingly, on each occasion, discovers ‘something new, fantastic and unbelievable.’ The exact way that Casals plays is unique to his own skin, but the discoveries in his mastery are transcendental, and the daily rebirth of this transcendence in the uniqueness of his own skin imbues him with rapture, with the ‘feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being’, and this becomes the timbre of his skin. And from the foundations laid by a rigour of daily routines, the skin of Casal’s body resonates with the skin of his cello, with the skin of the spaces in which he performs, with the skins of the audiences in these spaces, and a public commons of kairos is formed where we may collectively live this joy of being human.

The dominating outward turn of chronos breaks the sacred chain of being between inner and outer infinitude, and the complexities of the world consequently trap us between a rock and hard place.

On the one hand, those of us who retain some awareness of our inner infinitude feel overwhelmed by evil and injustice in the world, but the outward gaze we are schooled to rely on pushes us to forget this infinitude and use the external measure of rational argument to affect change. Rationality can never mobilise the qualitative and emotional fervour needed to change mindsets, and we become increasingly overwhelmed by what we perceive to be a limited capacity within our individual lives to mobilise positive external change. We feel there is no choice but to don blinkers, turn away from the world, and content ourselves with whatever meaning we can find within limited circles that grow smaller and smaller, trying not to confront how we are moving further and further from our potential.

On the other hand, those of us, whose outward gaze has exorcised our creative autonomy and agency to the point of being blind to inner infinitude, cannot rid ourselves of an innate compulsion to build resonances with wider realms than the individual. The only choice to transcend a habitual existence deprived of larger meaning is to subsume ourselves into a predetermined tribal identity. We seek to, as Milan Kundera puts it, board “the train called History”, a train that “is easy to board, hard to leave.” We pledge allegiance to populist leaders, convinced their presence is the force crucial to keeping the train moving; we build resentment toward those we assume to be selfishly impeding the train’s progress; we believe tales of persons who are jumping on to the train without paying for tickets and we learn to hate them, often resorting to vigilante violence to claim reservations we feel we are destined to hold; and we cling to the faith that this train “promises adventure to every passenger, and with it fame and fortune.” This train is incapable of carrying “the dream of the soul’s infinity” and “loses its magic when History (or what remains of it: the suprahuman force of an omnipotent society) takes hold of man. History no longer promises fame and fortune; it barely promises him a land-surveyor’s job.” But the agency we have exorcised out of ourselves, which we are incapable of seeing because we have lost the ability to see the infinitude within, leaves us incapable of recognising this loss of magic, and we whip ourselves into more and more extreme versions of the myth of “the train called History.”

To have hope as a species, we must remember that people’s movements for social change are most effective when they are energised by a form of kairos where inner infinitude becomes viral. Gandhi vitalised India’s freedom movement against British imperialism, not by calling on a spirit of nationalism, but by evoking the spirit of swaraj; a word meaning ‘self-rule’, validating freedom through collectively embodied actions that acknowledge, express, and reify the indomitable creative autonomy of the self. The marchers from Selma to Montgomery did not scream in hate against the racist forces that sought to obstruct them; they held their bodies and linked their hands to articulate their inherent identity as a ‘beloved community’, singing gospel songs like “This little light o’mine, I’m goin’ to make it shine.”

We must redesign the education we receive, reform the public commons we participate in, rethink how we conduct ourselves as families and raise children, so that kairos is an inextricable weave in our lives, driving us to form an inclusive culture founded on knowing “the soul’s infinity.” This revolutionary call may seem a far stretch for a chain of thought that began with personal remembrances of relaxed Sunday mornings. But that is not so, for our loss, as a collective, will be primordial and traumatic if our polity fails to be a skin that resonates with the infinitude inherent within the skins of each and every one of us; an infinitude initially discoverable only within simple and personal moments of stillness.

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Practicing architect in Bangalore, India. This blog contains general writing. For writing on architecture and urbanism, see https://premckar.wordpress.com

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Prem Chandavarkar

Prem Chandavarkar

Practicing architect in Bangalore, India. This blog contains general writing. For writing on architecture and urbanism, see https://premckar.wordpress.com

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