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Lacan, the Mirror-Phase, and Eastern Philosophy

Lacan’s “The Mirror-Phase as Formative of the Function of the I” outlines the ironic foundation of perception: people attempt to organize reality by creating perceptual and cognitive systems and structures that break down and compartmentalize information, but this system is inherently unstable because “the center is not the center”. Placing the “I” in opposition to the “other” leads people to feel apprehension, uncertainty and confusion about what it means to be alive. The duality of reality is a perceptual illusion (imago) that is superimposed over the continuity of primordial matter. The mirror-phase establishes the ego and a person’s dialectical identification with the “other”, laying the foundation for paranoiac knowledge. As the child develops and adopts a language, communication shapes her paranoiac knowledge into an autonomous belief system. The cyclical relationship between her internal experience and her external experience imposes the appearance of double, but there is only and will ever be… one.

Imago, the Latin word for “image”, coexists with the ego, working to create the distinction between subject and object. Imago is the “threshold of the visible world” (73), preexisting and outlasting its apparent manifestation. As Joseph Conrad says in Heart of Darkness: “The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.”

It was easier for me to understand Lacan’s article when I compared it to a sand mandala (left). Traditionally, a sand mandala is made over the course of a few days to a few weeks by a group of Buddhist yogis. They place millions of grains of dyed sand onto a flat surface until they have created an intricate design considered to be a depiction of the universe. Yogis who are attempting to attain enlightenment use the completed mandala as a visual instrument for deep meditation. After meditation, the sacred work of art is ceremoniously destroyed and then the sand is poured into a flowing river. The creation of sand mandalas are followed by their destruction because they symbolize the transience of life, but, more importantly, they demonstrate the circle of life.
The complicated design for a mandala is a combination of circles, squares, and triangles because these forms convey the idea that nothing exists except an encounter between various fields of energy, just as our identities are created by our relationship to external factors. We slowly dress ourselves in the clothes of culture, but our bodies – our essential structure – continues to exist despite the number of layers we put on. Mandala meditation is intended to deconstruct the sets of relationships that create the illusion of identity. During meditation, the yogis visualize their physical bodies as the mandala, which transforms their concentration from the one to the many. The many then comes back to the one when the yogi sees a microcosm of the universe contained within himself.  The ‘destruction’ of the mandala isn’t considered to be a destruction at all, but a release of energy.
Bosch, Hieronymus. Triptych. Circa 1450-1560. Oil on oak panels. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

To understand Lacan, I found a short article that summarizes Lacan in accessible and straightforward language. Finally, I found a wonderful website that is devoted to Lacan.

The last paragraph of Lacan’s article reinforced my belief that he was drawing from Eastern philosophy. The expression “thou art that” is a literal translation of Tat Tvam Asi, a concrete representation of a movement of thought from one ontological level (of particularity) through another (of universality) to yet another (of unity), wherein the attainment of the latter negates the distinctions between the former. Tat Tvam Asi is the fundamental building block of Eastern philosophy (esp. Advaita Vedanta and Samkhya).

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