Part 3 says discernment is about ‘the effort of no effort’. Another way of saying the same is ‘nothing needs to be done’ or Wu Wei, the Chinese concept of ‘non-doing’. These cryptic expressions are often used in Zen. Let me try to unpack them by applying them to photography.
Obviously, it does not mean we don’t have to do anything, nor is it possible to attain calmness of mind without any effort.
What kind of effort is required?
Habitually, we live our life in a world of concepts and are not present to the present moment. We operate on the assumption that there is always something that needs to be done, something we have not done yet. It seems impossible for us to do just nothing. When we take pictures, we struggle to concentrate on being present or we struggle letting go of expectations, outcomes and techniques. Whatever we are struggling with, we affirm there is always something to struggle for, that there is always something that requires a response – either in thought or in action. They all reaffirm our sense of self.
The effort that is required in contemplative photography is not the struggle to grasp, gain or achieve something. That is not at issue. The struggle is in seeing that no struggle is necessary because we are inherently creative. In order to activate one’s creative intelligence, one should go from achievement to non-achievement. But to go in this direction requires all of one’s energy. This is an entirely different kind of effort. It is not the effort of ambition, of getting results, of reaping rewards or of getting rid of something. The effort we have to make is to forget ourselves in all our struggles to get something done.
The effort of no effort
With the sense of self out of the way, one is able to function from within a place of stillness and all effort disappears. Daido Loori refers to it as ‘working samadhi’. For example, if you are going to write, you let come into the mind whatever enters. It may or may not be ordinary. This, however, is of no concern. What is important is ‘to be one with’, to be fully committed to what you are doing. Then the writing writes itself, the painting paints itself – effortlessly. If you focus on the results you become self conscious and freeze up. The same is true for photography or any other medium of expression.
Speaking about photography, it is always an extraordinary experience when contemplation, to see directly, steps in unexpectedly. It is special because it is always surprisingly new, fresh and free of tension and it feels the picture has not been taken by myself. Yes, my intention was to go out and photograph – but without a particular focus, without a subject in mind, without expecting anything in particular. The outcome depends on the connection that gets established while one is present to the present moment. When a contact clicks into place, the process of taking the image unrolls by itself. It’s a bit like going out on a blind date. So, perhaps it is not surprising that I feel the picture is not mine because it was not the ‘I’ or ‘me’ who created it.
The picture happens by itself while the selfless moment lasts. There is nothing esoteric about this process but it is a profound experience – surprising and always new.
In Part 2 of discernment and the creative process I emphasize the importance of staying connected with the creative process. To do so, we must not only embrace the spark of creativity but the grind as well.
It is the process of discernment that allows us to recognize and see through the conceptual overlay that is constantly generated by our habitual tendency to objectify everything we see. Depending on how deeply we get into this process it erodes our sense of self and stills our mind, establishing a free space from where we can see with more clarity.
But this way of seeing does not come easily. It opens up a confrontation with one’s self.
The Importance of Staying Connected with Creativity
We all have, from time to time, flashes of perceptions or sudden insights of some kind. But maintaining a connection with creativity is difficult. A single flash of perception is not enough. To be creative more often takes a great deal of work. One must learn to chase the spark and embrace the grind as Eric Wahl says.
To stay connected with creativity we have to embrace both – the spark and the grind. People who chase only the spark but don’t embrace the grind get stuck in their tracks. People who embrace only the grind and passively wait for sparks to happen are just spinning their wheels.
The Spark of Creativity and The Grind of Discernment
With discernment the grinding work that leads to more sparks is, as I mentioned in my previous article, one ‘s ability to quiet the mind. If we stay with this process long enough and observe closely, we’ll see that all thoughts and experiences come and go by themselves. We realize they are not who we are. Like soap bubbles, they rise, burst and disappear. When they rise they create tension, exposing us to a whole range of emotions. The secret is not to resist but to stay with the tension as much as we can. The tension may intensify initially but inevitably it will diminish and dissipate. In this way one can free the mind from any interference. With continued practice, this grinding process becomes easier and one goes deeper.
When the ability to be attentive grows, we begin to connect more frequently with what we see. Most importantly, trust and faith in the process deepens. The more we grind, the more we learn about ourselves and about the details of the process and the quality of our perceptions changes. The certainty that comes with it is no longer based on personal believes but rooted in direct, authentic experience.
In contemplative photography discernment is the ability to differentiate between two ways of seeing. One way is conceptual. The other is non-conceptual, a seeing that is alive and immediate – before the processing, reflecting mind takes over. This kind of seeing originates from a mind that is open, still and alert.
Solitude and Creativity
Creative people are very aware of the importance of needing a quiet place they can go to when they do their work. It’s a place to unwind and disconnect, a place where one can begin to listen and attend to oneself.
Retreating to a quiet space physically and mentally seems to be an essential step in the creative process. For Daido Loori a still mind is at the heart of creativity . T.S. Eliot calls it the “still point”, the eye of the hurricane. A still mind is also at the heart of Buddhist meditation.
Discernment and Zen Buddhism
From a Buddhist perspective the self does not exist, except as a concept or tool. For an outsider, this may sound bizarre because we identify so strongly with this ego-centered sense of self. We take it for granted that this ‘ego’, ‘I’ or ‘me’ are the solid ground that underlie all our experience.
A discerning meditation practice erodes this sense of self. But it can not be done through a confrontation. We do it through the back door, so to speak: by sitting still, observing and facing whatever enters the mind. One does not chase after thoughts, ideas and phantasies and one refrains from analyzing, interpreting or judging. It also means allowing the whole range of emotions come to the surface and letting them be. When you are no longer feeding this machinery of the self, the mind has no choice but to settle down – and do ‘nothing’. Doing ‘nothing’ in Zen Buddhism means there is nothing that needs to be done. It refers to a mind that is open and calm, but aware and highly attentive. It is not a place the intellect can enter into. Concepts can only deal with concepts.
When the ability to be attentive grows, the capacity to experience expands simultaneously and new possibilities open up. Seeing through the conceptual filters, we begin to understand what it means to perceive directly. Now, we can see the redness in the color red or the blueness in the color blue.
Discernment and Contemplative photography
Zazen is a spiritual practice that activates simultaneously our inherent capacity for creativity. Spirituality and creativity cannot be separated. For that reason, it is not surprising that many Zen masters have been great artists as well.
A regular meditation practice deepens our ability to discern and permeates gradually our whole life. It allows us to be present when we go out and photograph. Now, we can be all eyes and ears and discover details and nuances we never have seen before. The reflecting, analytical and judging mind is temporarily suspended. When a subject catches our attention we connect directly and stay with it as long as possible. Waves of resonance between the subject and oneself flow back and forth. The magic dance of creativity begins … At the hight of this exchange, we release the shutter on our camera.
Let me emphasize, however, that discernment alone is not enough. It clears the way, so to speak. No longer distracted, we are present and can perceive directly what is in front of us.