Lucas Culler

Lemon Break


Francisco de Zurbarán, Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose, 1633

It is difficult to say exactly where the so-called “lemon break” originated. It was passed down to us by an old friend, or rather an acquaintance, whose name we have long since forgotten. Even then it was something of a mystery.

The origin of the name is likewise unknown, but whoever introduced the terminology did so aptly. It is a break in many senses—a break from work, a break in reality, a braking of motion, a breaking of light through a window.

It is difficult to explain the ritual to someone who has not experienced it directly. However, carrying it out requires little time or preparation, so there is no real obstacle for anyone who seeks firsthand knowledge of the phenomenon.

A typical break proceeds as follows. First a lemon must be procured. Once at hand it is cut in half and each half squeezed into a glass of water. The ritual involves two people; there is one glass for each.1

The lemon having been squeezed, the participants retire to a sunny room and seat themselves comfortably. Each person will seek out the place in the room that best suits their mood or inclinations and will typically remain there for the duration of the break.

It is essential that the break be carried out at an appropriate time of day. Three or four in the afternoon is usually best. However, the deciding factor is the quality of the light entering the room, and this will vary depending not only on the weather but also the season and latitude.

Once seated, the participants sip their lemon water and disengage themselves. They may do this by fixing their gaze on a shadow as it moves across the wall, or a cloud in the sky, or even the lemon particles floating in their glass. It is best to focus on an object that is slowly or imperceptibly changing and allow oneself to be drawn into its motion.

It is hard to describe exactly what happens during the next hour or so, and we can only speak for ourselves on this matter. The objects in the room appear to take on a certain softness and blur into one another. One becomes aware of even slight changes in the atmosphere, for example a darkening of the room as a cloud passes by, or leaves fluttering in the breeze. One becomes absorbed in these changes and loses oneself in them. The presence of another being is crucial at this stage, for a sort of reassurance or grounding as one passes through layers of ecstatic unification with one’s surroundings. There is typically no conversation during the break, as this would be extremely difficult, but there is a sort of mutual understanding and accepting of the circumstances.

In a sense, little outside of the ordinary occurs during a break. It is more like an accumulation and perfection of the mundane, an amplification of the usual.

Many have speculated about a physiological mechanism that regulates one’s mental state during a break. It seems unlikely to be a purely chemical effect, for the simple reason that eating a lemon typically has little effect on one’s consciousness.

On the other hand, the lemon does seem to be an essential part of the process, since omitting it quite lessens the intensity of the experience. This has prompted some to reject comparisons with other reflective activities such as meditation or deep breathing, which do not typically have such a physical/chemical component.

Others have speculated that there is a divine or heavenly cause. Perhaps the lemon water acts as a spiritual cleansing agent, clearing a channel for communication with a deity.

But the wisest have concluded that we will never know exactly what happens during a break. They say: those who do not wish to go blind do not stare at the sun. Our role is to take part, and never to know.

1 Some have claimed to succeed with other citrus fruits, but for us the effect seems to be far more pronounced with a lemon. On the other hand, the experience of breaking does seem to vary dramatically from person to person, place to place, and time to time, so such reports are not entirely surprising.

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