Contemplative Photography As Improvisation Meditation in Action

Not long ago I listened to an interview on radio with Alan Alda. You may know him from the M*A*S*H television series of the 1970s. He caught my attention when he talked about a training program for actors that emphasized the importance of ‘relating’. Alan referred to Viola Spolin’s groundbreaking work “Improvisation for the Theatre” ( ). Her goal was to help students learn how to improvise – to be spontaneously creative on stage. She referred to her training approach as ‘meditation in action’ which opened the door to the intuitive.

Accessing creativity by learning to be less self-conscious is what we do when practicing Contemplative Photography.

Viola Spolin and Improvisational Theater

Viola is a towering figure in modern theatre. She created games on stage that helped children and adults to forget themselves and feel free to experiment. The outcome of these moments was improvisation. Learning and experimenting through play changed the nature and practice of theatre. Her approach emphasized the importance of knowing intuitively. Intuition is knowing or seeing directly without the conscious use of reasoning. A knowing that is not intellectual, not based on logic.

Crucial for any improvisation is the question: how can one forget oneself in order to activate or release creativity? The answer is to ask another question: What stops us form being creative? In Buddhism, the short answer is the self, our idol, the ego that divides and separates.

What kind of work is required to get oneself out of the way?

Many meditation practices help us to disappear by being present. Some are centred on sitting still, others on moving or doing.

Training for improvisational theatre uses meditation in action as a way of getting oneself out of the way. It does it through the practice of deepening one’s sensory awareness which demands a highly attentive and alert mind.

Students have to demonstrate with their body and mind what they relate to, what they see, hear, smell, taste, think, feel or do. To discover how to do that, students have to be very observant and receptive. It is not a simple matter of switching from intellectual, conceptual, logical knowing to this other way of knowing. For many it is a radical change that is threatening. It is a struggle that needs a coach/teacher – at least initially.

Let us look now in more detail what meditation in action is.

Meditation in Action

Improvisational theatre works only with a few props. To create reality on the stage requires presence, total involvement by the players. Actors have to “show” and not “tell”. “Showing” means direct contact. It does not mean pointing at something passively. You have to express it with body and mind. It becomes an all-consuming, self-unfolding response that is full of energy. In contrast, “telling” is conceptual and limited. It is flat, without life, an abstraction of an organic response.

Responding organically strengthens the capacity to perceive and transcends one’s preconceived ideas. It turns the body into a sensitive instrument that can respond as a whole in ways one never imagined. Striking examples are blind people who see with their ears and deaf people who hear with their eyes.

Side Coaching

An interesting aspect of sharpening intuitive awareness is to coach from the sidelines of the theatre. The coach does not tell how to do it. The students learn through playing games on stage. It gives the freedom to experiment and find a unique way. Visualization, imagination, judging, interpreting, verbalizing, suggesting, obsessing or muscling through the exercise with will power are not acceptable. They all come from the head.

The coach’s role is to help the student overcome resistance or distractions. If, for example, a student has difficulties demonstrating “listening” or “seeing”, the side coach may intervene and say “listen with your feet” or “elbow” or “show us, don’t tell us” or “see with your ears”. If the student solves the problem of showing “no motion”, for example, he/she would experience directly what it means and feels to move effortlessly. He/she would realize that for natural grace to emerge body release is needed and not body control.

The same is true for emotions. On stage, one does not exploit emotions that are borrowed from personal issues. What is essential is to be present to the moment you are present to ( What does it mean to be present ?). Then, the appropriate emotions expressed are generated effortlessly by one’s total response to the situation at hand. The same is true for technique. If you are really present your technical know-how is integrated by itself in the total response – seamlessly, without focusing on technique.


As you can see, meditation in action is not a style but a method that can be applied to any medium. For instance, it can be in the performing arts, photography, writing, painting, poetry or cooking.   ( )

Most importantly, ongoing creativity demands a great deal of work on oneself. It requires the grind that turns the sparks of spontaneous creativity into a burning flame    ( ). Sparks alone are rarely enough. They have to penetrate our whole being in order to resonate with our audience or our viewers. Sparks without the grind are exciting initially but fade quickly and are forgotten quickly.


Fulfillment and Photography A Zen Perspective

Our desire for creativity is perhaps the strongest transcendent desire. When we feel fulfilled we feel free and no longer identify ourselves as ‘something’ or ‘somebody’.

For children, it is natural to be one with creativity because they have not yet been conditioned. They have the fresh eyes of beginners, love to play, explore, discover and learn. It is easy for them to suspend disbelief and improvise.

Along the way of growing up, we get separated from creativity. It dries up. Why? What is more important in traditional educational institutions and at work is not creativity but to have the right answer or do the right thing to achieve specific goals and be successful.

In later years, when we try to reconnect again with creativity and fail, we give up. We find it very frustrating and confusing because we no longer know where the true North is. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why creativity has become such a commodity. We know it is there for all but at the same time, it has become very elusive. In photography, there are countless books written about it. Countless workshops promise to unlock the creative self or genius in us.


For me, fulfillment is not the achievement of a particular goal or meeting a requirement. It is the culmination of a creative process that is always available but difficult to access. When it happens it is a moment of perfection that makes one feel real, alive and complete. We all have experienced moments like that – moments of oneness. They vary in intensity and duration. Falling in love, responding to a joke with a sudden burst of laughter or the sudden resolution to a difficult conflict are all examples we are familiar with. Whenever we are challenged our creative intelligence comes into play and surprises us with fresh solutions that come suddenly and unexpectedly. There are many famous and dramatic examples in the field of scientific discoveries that illustrate a similar process.

Contemplation and Creativity

The contemplative approach to photography facilitates access to the creative process by eroding our sense of self that dictates how or how not to take pictures. We intend to get away from seeing conceptually. The aim is to allow a seeing that is immediate,  unrestricted, free of experience, free of judgment, free of any conscious effort. Allowing to see what ‘is’ may sound easy and simple but it is difficult and takes a great deal of practice.

The practice I am talking about is zazen , the bedrock of zen meditation.

Some guidelines for practice

Simply put one has to get one’s self out of the way which requires a change in attitude and habit. To embark on this process of change there needs to be a deep sense of dissatisfaction with one’s present photography. This will drive the process.

It means letting go of the habits of the expert or amateur. One no longer follows a particular agenda. One no longer accepts to engage in visualizing anything. Expectations close the mind and leave no space for discovery. Technique is, of course, important but not the focus of our attention. One gives one’s undivided attention to ‘seeing’ and pays full attention to what is in front of oneself. It means not to see just with one’s eyes but with body and mind. Any thoughts, ideas, feelings that come up are acknowledged but not pursued, analyzed or judged.

If one persists with this attitude, sooner or later, one will land in the present moment. Then creativity can flow freely. At that moment the mind is clear like a mirror. It reflects only what is in front of it – with the self out of the way. Some call this the  ” flash of perception “. In The Zen of Creativity , Daido Loori refers to this sudden, intimate connection as “resonance”. My Zen teacher used the expression “to be one with”. He means being one with the whole situation. At that moment of openness there is no sense of “I am this” or “I am that”. One no longer is one thing among many things. When the perception is at its peak one releases the shutter and keeps taking pictures as long as the intimate connection lasts.

Of course this process comes with ups and downs. There are periods when nothing seems to happen and one may feel discouraged. Allow it to happen. By welcoming one’s failures and shortcomings, including boredom, it is possible to dismantle these barriers to ‘seeing’. They become grist to the mill. As long as one has faith in the process one always can start from the beginning and be again vulnerable to creativity.

The Formless in Photography A Zen Perspective

The title of this blog is a contradiction in terms. This is not unusual since we take it for granted that photography is about things or forms and shapes. There is, however, a kind of photography that goes beyond of what can be seen with one’s eyeballs. Freeman Patterson, for example, suggests that composition can not be taught directly. It grows in you with practice. He also says the camera does not only take a picture of what is in front. It takes a picture of who is behind as well. Who is behind the camera? Of course, the simple answer is “I” or “me” but when we dig deeper we see there is more to it. The seeing of what is beyond the obvious is often ignored or discarded. However, the subjective is as real as what we can see objectively.

Before getting into the ‘formless’ let me explain in more detail what is meant by ‘seeing with form’.

What is ‘seeing with form’?

In Zen ‘form’ comes to have a different meaning and includes everything one can speak of. For example, it considers words, thoughts, concepts, feelings, ideas, imagination, beliefs, memories etc. as having form because they can be separated, identified and analyzed. Habitually we identify strongly with these forms and invest them with absolute quality. They tell us who and what we are. We say “I” or “I see…” or “I feel.. .”or”  my imagination tells me…” or ” my sense of self tells me…”. We take it for granted that there is a sense of ‘self’ or an ‘I’ that has this absolute authority.

‘Seeing with form’ emphasizes this capacity of the mind to work with thoughts, concepts, and ideas. They produce content and generate knowledge. This way of seeing affirms the sense of self,  provides an identity and gives certainty and security.

What is ‘formless seeing’?

One might ask if there is any activity of the mind that can not be differentiated, identified or analyzed? If you have done some spiritual work on your self you know there is. Ordinarily, we do not consider such a possibility. To recognize it, one’s mind needs to be quiet and open, an openness that can’t be grasped because it is free of identifiable ‘forms’. We may call it the ‘not-self’ which is not another concept. It is not a negation of the self, neither is it nothing.

The ‘formless seeing’ or ‘perceiving directly’ takes place when we are present with our whole being. It is often expressed as being ‘all eyes and ears’ and means undivided attention, total involvement of body and mind. Here, for a moment, the sense of ‘self’ or ‘I’ does not play a role and the seeing is not constrained by it.

Formlessness in Photography

Art in the West is dominated by form and technique says Hisamatsu in Zen and the Fine Arts. The East has a long tradition of working with the ‘formless’ that permeates daily life, poetry, architecture and the fine and performing arts. Hisamatsu considers the West as living in a “culture of form”. It means we see the world only objectively – through form.

Contemplative photography is an approach that explores and promotes the seeing of ‘self without form’. An example of the formless mind in action is the ‘flash of perception’, the moment of being one with or the moment of being present. These moments of openness happen spontaneously, independent of any spiritual orientation or training. With the practice of contemplation, we have the opportunity to open up and be more receptive to these occurrences. It deepens and heightens our awareness and transforms our seeing by relaxing our rigidly held believes and ideas. We become more flexible and sensitive. Our perspective on how we see the world and how we take pictures changes and gives rise to a new ‘form of seeing’. The tree is still a tree, so to speak, but has become a wonderful tree – full of wonder as Hisamatsu would say. Photography is then alive and vibrant, manifesting a quality that is ordinarily not seen.

The Picture Is Taken Before You Take It

We take  for granted that it is the or you who takes the picture. When we identify with the attitude of a hunter in pursuit of images we build a fence around the subject or genre of photography. As result we end up with a particular kind of image for a particular purpose. In doing so one’s ego-centric self directs the process by planning, conceptualizing, deciding, imagining and so forth. With this approach uniqueness and creativity are seen as residing in one’s personal, reflecting self.

The Flash of Perception.

One of the central aspects of Contemplative Photography is to experience directly – without interference by a reflecting self. Seeing from within cuts the identification with the conceptual and suspends the sense of self for a moment. As a result perceiving is not experienced as ‘mine’ nor is it felt to be ‘me’ or ‘I’.

The flash of perception is a manifestation of such a way of perceiving. It catches the eye suddenly before one starts thinking, reflecting on what one sees. It is free of personal thoughts, feelings, and concepts and is not something that can be fabricated. Being one with it for a moment, it resonates with oneself and one responds without any hesitation by reaching for the camera. Perceiving directly and responding is a seamless movement. Most surprisingly each flash has its focus and is framed naturally.

What comes first?

In terms of order, it is the flash that comes first. You can see that if you are attentive. Immediately after the flash a concept and label appears and superimposes itself like a filter. In terms of time, the reverse is possible: You may initially focus on something in particular because you find it interesting or beautiful. And then, suddenly you connect directly with a perception and land in the present moment.

In any case, the flash of perception is a ready made offer you can ignore or receive with appreciation. It comes before your self starts reflecting or conceptualizing. As Henry-Cartier Bresson says: ” a photograph is neither taken or seized by force. It offers itself up. It is the photo that takes you. One must not take a photo”.

Neither is it just a matter of being there at the right time at the right place.



Perceiving directly happens before your self starts thinking and reflecting on what you want to focus on or what kind of picture you want to take. It happens prior to any conceptualization, prior to any deliberate action.

To be Original: A Barrier to Seeing

Originality that becomes a goal or an ambition is no longer original. You find yourself within a conceptual prison from which it is hard to break out. Relying on clichéd notions of what it means to be original or creative ties you up. It’s not enough to reshuffle ideas, to be different, to find ways of how to stand out and attract attention. To be original means to find what is true for oneself, to find one’s way, one’s authentic voice amid a lot of noise. It comes with a price and takes courage. Instead of striving to meet the current standard of excellence you have to find your own – a new standard of quality that is yours. There are no ideas or concepts that can teach or show you how to be original. The best a teacher can do is to give  a direction.

When the intention of wanting to be original  becomes deliberate it blocks the path to the source of one’s creativity. In Zen, this source is the ‘still point’ or a mind that is ’empty’ of thoughts, ideas, and concepts. When our work is grounded in a still mind, the self is out of the way and we no longer feel self conscious. One’s mind ceases to be distracted and reflects directly what one sees. ‘Empty’ does not mean our mind is vacant. It means the mind has stopped being a processing machine. It is alert, open and receptive.

How can you free yourself from all the notions of how to be creative or original?

To tell yourself to let go of what blocks you is counterproductive. It just reaffirms your sense of self. The self has no interest in eliminating itself. To free ourself  from its tyranny a more subtle approach is required. Zen provides us with a method of how we can get close to the ‘still point’ and land in the present moment. The method used is paradoxical: by exposing the barriers for what they are, they lose their importance and our mind becomes quiet. One allows them to be – without judging them. This is the opposite of what we tend to do. Instead of identifying with the barrier or ignoring, denying or fighting we should welcome it, get to know it and find out how it operates.

Initially this will create resistance, uncertainty, and anxiety because one’s sense of self is challenged. It will feel threatened and tested. However, with continued practice and patience, the anxiety will diminish and lose its significance and influence. One no longer feels that there is anything to hold on to because one no longer identifies with it. As my Zen teacher would say: awareness is a powerful solvent. One can learn to differentiate between what we think we see from what is there. Recognizing how attached we are to perceiving conceptually provides space for direct ways of seeing and perceiving.

To expose and embrace our barriers is much emphasized in the Zen tradition. What is critical is to acknowledge the barrier and a willingness to work with whatever the barrier is.

A breath of fresh air.

The teaching method of Kenneth Goldsmith is interesting because it illustrates how a paradoxical approach to creativity can work not only for creative writing but for any creative endeavor, including photography. He has been teaching Uncreative Writing to university students for several years. In his class students were penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead, he says, they were rewarded for plagiarism, patch writing, appropriation, identity theft, plundering, and stealing. The students thrived. “Suddenly what they’ve surreptitiously become experts at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment …and then reframed”, he comments. What was accomplished was not uncreative at all. By forcing students not to be “creative” they felt rejuvenated, on fire and produced the most creative work of their lives.