Discernment and Contemplative Photography – Part 1

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.

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