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The Vanishing Point

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On road trips as a kid, I often ended up watching the mesmerizing rise and fall of power lines that lined the road. This was usually after I had exhausted the more accessible modes of entertainment I had with me — usually Mad Libs and 1001-facts-type books — and perhaps after a boredom-induced tantrum or two.

There was something pacifying about this silent rising and falling pattern. I would ignore the poles and just watch the endless black wire itself, staring right at the point where it met edge of the van’s window. The wire would dip down gracefully, like a figure skater about to swing her leg up into a double axel. Then it would accelerate up to its peak, and immediately swoop back down again.

That peak, that crest, would only last an instant, but there was a certain surreal thrill about it, like seeing a fish jump, or a shooting star. It was gone before you could really look at it, but you absolutely saw it, and in that silent instant of vanishing there seemed to be a wink of magic.  

Years later, as a mindfulness-curious adult, I learned that human beings have been observing these moments of vanishing, on purpose, for a very long time. By noticing the instant where a thing disappears – a drop of water into the bath, a firefly’s glow winking out – people in various cultural traditions have tried to catch glimpses of whatever that bit of magic was that I first noticed on those endless rural car rides.

I’ll avoid trying to unpack the esoteric spiritual significance of observing these vanishings, because then the discussion would get denominational and boring. Instead, I’ll just tell you how to experience this wink of magic for yourself, and maybe you’ll see what the sages were on about. You can, if it suits you, take a spiritual angle on this phenomenon — a mindfulness angle, or a God angle — but it can also be viewed simply as an interesting perceptual detail, the noticing of which can help to focus and calm you, wherever you are and whatever is happening.

The easiest way I know to notice a moment of vanishing is to observe objects passing out of your field of vision as you’re moving past them. When you’re walking down the sidewalk, for example, you can keep your eyes looking ahead, and watch as a fire hydrant, tree stump, or fencepost creeps towards the edge of your field of vision. At a certain point the object will hit that fuzzy edge, and disappear. It will silently go from being there to being gone. You’re trying to notice that palpable sensation of goneness that it leaves behind for a split-second — a sudden, tiny poof of absence, like what you feel the instant after a soap bubble pops.

Practicing this with objects exiting your field of vision works well, because, unlike with a bubble popping, you know when that instant is coming. I do this practice with overhead fluorescent lights as I’m walking down hallways, or with the odd passing car when I’m waiting to cross at a light. There’s always something to watch disappear. Everywhere you go, things are constantly vanishing.

So ready

This practice is one form of what Shinzen Young would call “Noting Gone.” (He uses gone as a noun here, a certain kind of sensation, rather than an adjective.) What you’re noting is the moment where a thing goes from being here in your awareness to being gone from it, and the feeling of that moment. It doesn’t matter what the thing is –- a fish, an LED light, a musical note, a shape formed by drooping power lines. It also doesn’t matter how it vanishes — by slipping beneath the surface, by turning off, by going silent, by exiting your field of vision. In all cases the this gone quality has the same feel. It is the unmistakable, mildly surreal sensation of a thing having vanished.

Doorframes vanish constantly

Shinzen suggests, as an option, saying the word “gone” mentally when you notice a thing disappear. The tree passes out of your peripheral vision. Gone. The chickadee’s trill ceases. Gone. The doorframe expands around you till it vanishes. Gone. Mental labels like this are a classic meditation tool; they help keep you in observing mode. You might note a “gone” like this every few seconds for a minute or two, or longer, as you walk past trees on the boulevard, or listen to cars rumble by and out of earshot.

“Why do this?” is a good question, because at first this sensation of vanishing seems like it’s just a curiosity, an aesthetic detail barely worth naming, like the pale crescent at the base of some of your fingernails. (Which is called a lunula, by the way.)

Some people will notice something significant about this gone quality right away, and others will wonder what’s the big deal. Whether or not those instants of vanishing have any numinous-seeming qualities for you, this practice is a quick and easy way to bring yourself right back to the sharp edge of the present moment, to return to real life from a state of rumination or some other unfocused place. Noting vanishings for even a minute or two –- a block’s-worth of trees and fence corners –- can have a noticeable calming effect (even on cranky children in the car, apparently). Keeping at it, intermittently throughout a long walk, for example, can help sustain that calming effect.

(For those interested in a slightly more formal introduction to this practice, using the mindfulness angle, see Shinzen Young’s Tricycle article.)

Noticed, and named

Finally, there’s also something satisfying about the moment of vanishing itself. It seems to taste good to the human mind, so to speak, the way complementary colors or clean windowpanes do. At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie, a moment of vanishing feels like a smooth, round peg dropping into a hole made just for it.

When I do this practice for a block or two on the way somewhere, it seems easier to settle comfortably into the reality of the moment — the walk itself, the weather, the day however it is, the natural mess of ordinary life. It makes me feel a little more like a round peg myself.

The potential for metaphors for this sort of thing is endless, which I suspect is why religion is so common and the insights those religions were founded on are comparatively rare. All I can really say is that there’s something interesting happening at the vanishing point, if you look, and people have been discovering it for a long, long time.

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Photos by Thomas Despeyroux, Raspopova Marina, Michael Barón, Aditya Romansa

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{ 24 Comments }

Ron June 24, 2022 at 3:09 am

Always helps to be reminded of tricks and techniques to get our of our heads and wake up to the moment. Thanks, David. Good essay as always.

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Daniel Nogueira June 24, 2022 at 3:22 am

The way I experienced this “gone” feeling in the strongest way is watching a sunset, either in the mountains or in the sea. If you are wearing a good sunglasses, at first as the sun starts to hide it still very bright and you cant really look straight into it, so you have to keep your eyes on the borders around it. thats how you notice the sun disappearing, because those borders start to close get bigger and then they turn to get smaller. From halfway-through, you the sun gets less bright and depending on how strong your sunglasses are, you can start looking direct at it. You can see its perfect rounded ball of fire not halfway. And then you keep following until that last bit its there and time almost feels like it stops and then tha-ram – the sun is gone.

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David Cain June 24, 2022 at 9:42 am

Sunsets are a great example, because everybody knows that last moment of the orb peeking out, and the goneness that follows. The only problem is the opportunity to see it only comes once a day. That same feeling is constantly available all day every day — every time an object disappears behind another. In fact, once you get attuned to it it’s available in every instant; our lives are composed of nothing but sense experiences that are constantly beginning and ending.

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Mel June 24, 2022 at 7:23 am

The trailer for Girl With the Dragon Tattoo jumped into mind as I read your description of the vanishing.

The moments as he’s coming down that Very Important Driveway towards the house, through a line of trees that keep vanishing into peripheral vision were the most memorable to me.

As I watched it again, I saw that they did the same vanishing thing when she goes up in a glass elevator through floors flickering by, and through doorways. And then there’s a slow blink to black between a lot of cuts. It’s suspense building…
https://youtu.be/DqQe3OrsMKI

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David Cain June 24, 2022 at 9:45 am

Filmmakers are definitely on to this effect, of both appearance and disappearance, whether or not they think of it this explicitly. These same effects are constantly happening in real life — every time you walk by trees, or anything really, they are vanishing like that, and you can observe it in a way that imparts the same profundity of a well-shot film. The frame of the movie screen, with its hard edges, just makes it more obvious.

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Trish June 24, 2022 at 9:28 am

Thank you for naming this. I’ve always enjoyed these moments, i thought i was just odd. I am excited and comforted to know there are others!

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David Cain June 24, 2022 at 9:47 am

I’m glad you know what I mean. Thankfully it has already been noticed and named by others. On one hand it seems very obscure, but it’s also something we experience constantly (as in the sunset and filmmaking examples above), if not consciously. I’m just trying to bring it into the light.

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Hazel June 24, 2022 at 10:12 am

And then there’s the vanishing of life when a person dies. They are sentient one moment and just a body the next. That is the one moment that is fascinating and unknowable.

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The BuLL June 24, 2022 at 10:18 am

I haven’t heard or thought of the vanishing point. It’s a fascinating concept and something I’ll have to dabble with. Thanks for the insight and suggestion!

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bestclare June 24, 2022 at 10:51 am

Watching birds through the window. Jumping up and down; looking around; pecking something; jumping again… then gone. Magic.

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Gabriela June 24, 2022 at 11:05 am

The vanishing of visual moments. If humans are engrossed in thinking, thinking, thinking and other distractions -which they often are these days – the actual noticing and then vanishing isn’t even realized. Is this another example of having Presence in each moment so the noticing, which needs to come first I believe, is there and then the ensuing gone-ness is there. Thanks for sharing!

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David Cain June 25, 2022 at 10:21 am

To notice the gone-ness you have to drop out of discursive thinking. Not because it’s terribly tricky to see, but just because it’s subtle. When you notice “gones” every few seconds, as when passing trees for example, it keeps you from slipping back into discursive thought.

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Alice June 24, 2022 at 11:37 am

This brought to mind something a friend and I realized we both were doing on our own many years ago. We called it listening to the distance. For us it was in the dusk of a summer evening, with a window open, in a city, with the immediate area relatively quiet. The distance might sound like a combination of faraway highways, city wildlife sounds, cars on nearby streets…I would note each closer, identifiable sound, and continue outward as far as possible to a sort of hum behind it all that encompasses all the other sounds.

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David Cain June 25, 2022 at 10:26 am

Ah that sounds like a great exercise. I’m doing it now and it really illuminates a subtle kind of spaciousness that can be detected if you’re really aware. Doing this makes it feel like we’re at the center of something huge, and I guess we are.

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Lauren June 24, 2022 at 4:30 pm

You have a brilliant mind. I’m always impressed with how you continue to find unique and fresh perspectives. Thank you!

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David Cain June 25, 2022 at 10:29 am

Thanks Lauren. I think you would enjoy Shinzen’s article on this. He puts something esoteric in plain language.

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Salisbury June 25, 2022 at 4:59 am

I’ve always felt this strongly whenever i watch something burn – on a bonfire or in a woodstove – things are there, and then, absolutely not there. If it’s a cereal packet or a page of newspaper, you can literally watch the words disappear from the world.

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David Cain June 25, 2022 at 10:28 am

Burning is a good one. You can watch the whiteness of a piece of paper shrink as the flame creeps over it, and finally that last bit disappears. A flame going out has a similar effect.

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Sharon Hanna June 26, 2022 at 6:53 pm

TOTALLY remembered the wires….while travelling with my parents anywhere, lying or sitting in the back seat. Do not think I have ever ever thought about it?? So, wow. Sometimes with one leg or foot out the window which made my mother nervous. Was mesmerized by them. Loved reading about it – thank you so much David.

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Sharon Hanna June 26, 2022 at 6:56 pm

Oh yes – also remember putting my hand out the window and changing the hand position to feel the wind change. Should have added that to the first comment. Feeling the change in temperature as we changed altitudes….thinking about it now – we never spoke about such things at the time. Also had the ‘wires’ experience travelling in France on the fast train….the wires go by fast, haha.

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David Cain June 27, 2022 at 10:25 am

I was talking with my friend the other day about those sorts of childhood “experiments” — where you do a thing just to see how it feels to do it. It was remarkable how we had done all the same ones — split blades of grass down the middle with the corner of a thumbnail, tried to stick dice in our nostrils, etc. This is how kids figure out the physics of the world, by doing weird things an adult might not see as purposeful.

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ede June 27, 2022 at 11:30 am

love your thoughts
so original and so very inspiring. thank you

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Ravikumar June 28, 2022 at 4:23 am

Excellent Articulation of ”gone” ness. I loved watching fast moving road while I am sitting in a bus or sometimes vanishing trees of clearly lined on sidelines of my indian village roads.

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Penny June 30, 2022 at 9:21 am

I’ve been sitting with this for a couple of days. When trying to notice the “goneness” of something (feeling, thought, experience…) it often brings it back front and centre. It’s no longer gone and I find myself in a feedback loop of sorts. Is this a common experience? Is there a solution or does it settle at some point with practice?

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