The Decisive Moment and Contemplative Photography

Henri Cartier-Bresson introduced the concept of the Decisive Moment (DM). It has served as a milestone in the history of photography and is the centerpiece of Contemplative Photography. Why? Because Cartier-Bresson was free to look through his own eyes, independent of conventional photographic practice.

His book, The Mind’s Eye ( resonates with anyone who practices Buddhist meditation because it hits on many keynotes that are essential for that approach to ‘seeing’. For this article I’ll use the above-mentioned book by Cartier-Bresson as a source of reference, revisit the DM and make some comments.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, a master of expressing the DM photographically, starts his shoots with the predatory attitude of a hunter whose goal is to get his prey. He writes “…I prowled the streets all day, feeling strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life…”. However, in the process of this hunt, his attitude shifts dramatically. Seized by the DM, he forgets himself and his preconceived ideas – he is no longer the determined hunter. He responds with his whole being “…when all faculties converge…”, he comments. Composition, for example, is taken care of by itself – at the moment of shooting.

Let me elaborate on this dynamic process that starts with ‘what one wants to see’ and ends up with a much deeper seeing of ‘what is’. Both are equally acceptable but they are based on two ways of seeing.

The Decisive Moment or The Flash of Perception

Cartier-Bresson gives us hints of what had gone on during the process of tracking down the DM. For example, he emphasizes the importance of the “…ever attentive eye…” or “…to be attentive to life…”. On another occasion, he says he spent his whole life “…trying to be inconspicuous in order to observe better…”. In his writing he points to a selfless meditative, unobtrusive mind that takes over and allows him to catch that elusive, creative moment, which lasts a fraction of a second. It is a moment of no duality and no rules, he says. It is a moment of unity, when he forgets himself and the camera.

At that critical moment, one perceives directly. In Contemplative Photography, we call this ‘the flash of perception’.

How can we account for this shift in attitude?

A Moment of Truth

At some point, Cartier-Bresson must have paused in his mental effort to hunt for certain kinds of pictures. A ‘still mind’ took over. A mind free of expectations, allowed him to get intimately involved with what was in front of him. For a moment, he could forget about himself as a person. Having landed in the present moment, his awareness was no longer the awareness of a hunter which is focused and directed. J.Daido Loori (in The Zen of Creativity:…)uses the metaphor of the startled deer to illustrate this unrestricted, unfocused awareness. “A deer … when startled…”, he says “…will freeze in its tracks, filling his whole body with awareness…”. If you ever have observed a deer you know how fitting this comparison is.

To be present means looking through one’s very own eyes – uncluttered by expectations and ideas. With the sense of self out of the way, one is free and sees clearly. One is at the ‘still point’ (Ibid.), at the heart of creativity and sees with a compassionate eye.

What is expressed photographically during that moment is a creative and authentic response of the self that has come free. It is indeed a decisive and vivid moment of ‘what is’ and not of what we would like it to be.

Discernment, the Effort of No Effort – Part 3.

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.

Discernment and the Creative Process – Part 2

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.

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.

Contemplative Photography As Improvisation

Usually we don’t consider contemplative photography as a form of improvisation. However, listening to an interview with Alan Alda changed my mind. It may change yours too.

You may know Alan 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

Fulfillment and photography are the culmination of a creative process. 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

The formless in photography 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

Perceiving directly happens prior to any conceptualization by oneself, prior to any deliberate photographic action. One could say the picture is taken before you take it.

We take for granted that it is the or you who takes the picture. By identifying with the attitude of a hunter in pursuit of images we build a fence around the subject or genre of photography. Then, one ends 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.

In photography, the flash of perception is a direct experience – without interference by a reflecting self. It catches the eye suddenly before one starts thinking and  reflecting on what one sees. It is free of personal thoughts, feelings, and concepts and is not something one can fabricate. 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 own 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 observe carefully. 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 Henri 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.

To be Original: A Barrier to Seeing

Originality that becomes a goal or an ambition is no longer original. It is a barrier to seeing. 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 oneself  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 loose 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. So. don’t identify with the barrier and don’t ignore it, deny it or fight it. Instead, 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 actually there. Recognizing how attached we are to perceiving conceptually provides space for direct ways of seeing and perceiving.

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”, Goldsmith 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.

Seeing Art When You Meet It

” I shut my eyes in order to see ”

                     Paul Gauguin

Seeing art when you meet it, creates an instant connection between the work of the artist and yourself, the viewer.

When I visited a glass studio a few months ago, I was moved by a particular work of art. Moved, because it was not just another ‘wheel of Samsara’ – the prison of endless cycles of birth and death. This sculpture celebrated the challenges of life – with all its ups and downs. It was alive, dynamic, giving new meaning – a sculpture made out of coloured glass by the artist Diane Ferland.

by Diane Ferland

My visceral response had clicked into place spontaneously and unexpectedly. For a moment I was at one with what I had seen. It had become alive and ceased to be just an object – a direct experience, unfiltered by thoughts, ideas, imagination or concepts. I realized I had entered into a relation that spoke to me. This encounter allowed me to be present for a short period. In these instances the artist and we, the viewer, share and live a moment of creativity.

Shortly after such an encounter one bounces back to the habitual way of seeing. Locked again into a static, conceptual viewpoint, one sees the sculpture as an object, a thing that is frozen in time. One is no longer in a relation. No longer being in a relation means one is no longer present. One’s viewpoint has shifted from the inside to the outside or from a life view to a fixed view. We tend to ignore this possibility to switch back and forth and pay attention only to outside experiences by maintaining our attachment to a conceptual way of seeing. We believe this is the only available reality, the only reality that counts.

Photography and the two ways of seeing.

The twofold attitude of seeing is always present in various degrees but not easily accessible. As mentioned above, the conceptual way of seeing is the conventional one. By identifying with that approach one’s ego-self is in charge. Seeing from this platform provides certain stability, security, and objectivity that can be defined, analyzed and manipulated in endless ways. One may call it ‘seeing with form’.

The other is a direct encounter, entering into a relation that is open and inclusive. As much as possible one is involved in it. There is a loosening, a melting away of conceptual structures that habitually interfere with our seeing. These hardened structures begin to crack and become more flexible so creativity can shine through. We may call this kind of seeing ‘formless‘ because it is not deliberate and therefore can not be defined.

Boredom and Photography: A Barrier to Seeing

In photography, boredom is a barrier to seeing. It strikes when we identify with the opposite, the unwanted side of our self. It is the self that no longer feels challenged or satisfied by workshops, competition, new techniques, new software, new cameras, and new accessories. They have, of course, their place but when they lose their magic we feel deflated and unsupported.

When our expectations are violated, we are hit hard and are at a loss of what to do. We are searching for something but  don’t know where or what to look for. We become “bored to death”, so to speak, and feel trapped. However, this kind of disillusionment is a blessing in disguise. Why?  Because it is possible to live with boredom and see it as a challenge to be worked with.

How should we handle the distaste for boredom ?

Our society avoids boredom because it has no use for it. We treat it like dirt – matter out of place. Little is written about it.

Boredom is the truth knocking at one’s door. We have the choice of either opening that door or trying to keep it shut.

Joseph Brodsky, a Nobel laureate of literature, makes a strong case for throwing this door wide open. The title of his essay is In Praise of Boredom (in On Grief and Reason). It is good advice but difficult to follow. He tells us to go for it, to let yourself be crushed by boredom, to let it squeeze you and to endure it as long as you can. And “belief your pain”, he reminds us because “it is no mistake”. Brodsky sees the potential in boredom, the possibility for a positive turnaround. Realizing one’s insignificance changes the perspective on one’s existence. How true that is! He knows learning about one’s size brings insight and humility.

The practice of contemplation is no less radical than Brodsky’s approach but it is more in tune with the intermittent flow of boredom. We go with this flow. The emphasis is on ‘allowing’ boredom to be, on letting it happen. We do not force or will anything. ‘Allowing’ is not a passive but an active process, requiring an alert and attentive mind. It means not rejecting boredom, but becoming one with it – with its absence of stimulation, with no affirmation of the self. If we persist in staying with this process of allowing, we set the stage for ‘seeing’ without interference by one’s ego-self – without identifying with it. We see through boredom and begin to experience and perceive the world directly – from a different viewpoint.

Boredom has no cure but we can deal with it creatively and no longer need to avoid it. There always will be periods that are dry and boring. They will serve us as constant reminders that ‘seeing clearly’ is work in progress.

Photography from a Zen Perspective.

From a Zen perspective, photography is ‘seeing what is’. This is very different from a seeing that is based on what we think or feel it is. They present two incompatible frames of reference. The former uses a contemplative approach, while the latter is based on a traditional, conceptual way of seeing.

On Discoveries and Inventions

A great deal of anecdotal evidence in the arts and sciences highlights the struggle and perseverance that is so prominent in the history of discoveries. The same is true for ‘seeing’ with one’s own eyes. It suggests a common pattern in the mysterious workings of creativity. The driving force is one’s total involvement and determination not to give up.

Conflict and Creativity.

My understanding of creativity is much influenced by A. Koestler  and supported by my practice of zazen. Koestler sees conflict as the fundamental ingredient in creativity.  In short, he says, conflict is made up of the perception of two incompatible ideas or frames of reference. They are both correct but only one will do. The resulting impasse cannot be resolved by logic or reason. Caught in such an ambiguity we get stressed and the level of tension rises. This is the time when we are at our most creative because our rational, conceptual mind is temporarily suspended. The moment of the creative flash is when we have exhausted all possibilities, when all attempts at finding a solution have failed.

In photography, we are faced with a similarly impossible situation. I am referring to the conceptual and the contemplative approach. Both are equally acceptable. At the same time, they are incompatible ways of seeing but only one can prevail at a time. The conceptual approach is dominated by our habitual way of thinking. It emphasizes logic, analysis, and its focus is on outcome, purpose, technique, subject matter, competition and so forth. In contrast, the contemplative approach is all inclusive but does not focus on anything in particular. It is everything the former is not. This is the dilemma and challenge one has to face.

If we are able to maintain the tension in this conflict we mobilize all our resources and go beyond conceptual thinking. Then a creative solution is a likely outcome.

For example, a conflict may arise when one gets discouraged about not having a flash of perception. To fall short of one’s goals and expectations, to be stymied and fail is difficult to accept. All kinds of issues, feelings and thoughts will rise up, interfere and add to the confusion. The challenge is to let them be and not to chase after them or try to repress them or give up. To be just the conflict is difficult but this is where the struggle takes place and where the tension arises. To refrain from clinging to our personal agendas, desires and wishes can be intensely frustrating and even painful. Only when you realize there is nothing to hold on to, the mind becomes quiet and clear. Then it is possible to transcend the impasse. This is the kind off sacrifice one has to make in order to set the mind free and to allow creativity to shine through.

In Defense of No Titles

In defense of no titles, the author explains his strategy of not providing titles to his images. Usually, they are given when one identifies with a particular subject. They are the result of a mind that reflects, associates and interprets what it sees.

In contemplative photography we are engaged in a very different process. It is not based on identification with a particular subject, idea or emotion. We don’t prepare for the content of a flash of perception, nor do we think about it, nor do we base it on an idea, nor do we pre-visualize or imagine it. While the clarity of the flash lasts our mind is not reflecting. It is unobstructed.

The practice of contemplation facilitates the occurrence of these moments. It is a process that holds no promises for a particular outcome. What it adds to an image is a ‘seeing’ on a different level.

What makes the flash a magical moment is the fact that one’s sense of self has no part in it. It seems to happen by itself without interference by a reflecting mind. No identification takes place. The deep satisfaction comes from the switch to a new perspective, from seeing clearly. The image, the content of the flash is secondary. It reflects one’s involvement as a whole but includes one’s undivided seeing as well.

More on Seeing Creatively

More on Seeing Creatively is a roadmap that gives directions as to how one can access creativity, using photography as a medium of self expression. A roadmap is not a guarantee for success but it provides guidance along the way.

Many photographers try to cash in by claiming they can unlock your creativity. They promote meditation techniques in conjunction with photography – often in the name of Zen Buddhism. These techniques come from an intellectual, calculating, analytical mind – a mind with a purpose. Their goal is to satisfy ambitions and fulfill a particular expectations. It is an approach that emphasizes outcome and technique, relying heavily on our conceptual capacities. We may call it shooting from the head.

The Contemplative Approach

When we contemplate, we shoot, so to speak, from the heart by shifting our viewpoint inwards. We forget about titles, techniques, outcomes and purpose.  In doing so we sacrifice our personal agenda. Instead, we get involved in the process of seeing. How can we, however, prepare ourselves to discover this different way of seeing? How is it possible to switch to a different perspective?

Most important is to shift the emphasis from what we think we see to what actually is. This transition is crucial. It takes discipline, honesty, patience, and courage. Being told or telling ourselves to let go of thinking or to empty our mind or to force ourselves to be present is not going to work. Even if we could empty our mind it would be a useless mind. Neither would it work to tell oneself the opposite, like don’t think, don’t judge, don’t imagine etc. To change our thinking habits requires a more subtle strategy.

Daido Loori suggests  interesting and useful practice exercises. One of them is seeing without labeling. It helps to center, to calm the mind and free it from ingrained mental routines. With time we get better at it but it is a practice that has no end. In this way, we can gradually develop a different attitude towards photography and towards seeing. It is an attitude that is directed towards openness, spontaneity, and receptivity. If it succeeds it allows creativity to slip through our conceptual filters.

When I decide to go out with my camera I have to feel a genuine desire to do so. It is natural to have desires. They are a problem only when we insist of satisfying them in a special way. Then they run our life and imprison us. And here is the dilemma: On one hand desire is essential. Without it, there is no motivation to pursue anything. On the other hand, the more we desire a particular result the more it seems to escape us. The more we identify with an expected outcome the more we feel controlled by it. As a consequence we loose our spontaneity and get self-conscious. Athletes are very aware of this dynamic. To give their best they have to forget about the medal they are craving for in order to win that medal.

How can we let go of these attachments to our wishes and fantasies that prevent us from being present? It requires a mind that is attentive and alert. By spotting these distractions we can allow them to be. We don’t repress and don’t refuse them! We acknowledge but do not feed them. Like uninvited dinner guests we don’t provide them with food. Without food, they will fade away and disappear.

What is important in all this is one’s willingness and discipline to return simply to just seeing whenever we are aware of any distractions. Seeing without labeling, without judging or identifying, without expecting something in return. This is difficult! When we try it, we feel a great deal of resistance and want to abandon the process. The frustration to continue with our practice mounts because there are no longer any labels to hold on to. All certainty and predictability have gone. It means sacrificing the protective armor we have built around us and allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable and exposed.

Eventually, when we succeed in giving full attention to what we see, we have forgotten our ‘self’ and relate totally or directly – without interference by our reflecting mind. Then, allowance is made for something new to emerge. It facilitates the occurrence of flashes of perception, of selfless moments.

What remains when we forget our ‘self’ and get fully engaged in seeing ? Everything is included. Nothing is left out. For a moment we see directly and every moment is a new creation – a gift.

The Flash of Perception or the Workings of Creativity

The fleeting flash of perception or the workings of creativity is the centerpiece of The Practice of Contemplative Photography . If we are deeply involved, we encounter it more often and our awareness deepens. We also call it a creative accident or creative moment.

These moments are around us and cannot be stopped. Their context and content may vary greatly but they share basic elements. The perceiving occurs suddenly, is unexpected, brilliant and clear and lasts for the fraction of a second. When it happens, one knows immediately what needs to be done and one does it without hesitation, without any fumbling. It is a seamless action without reflecting upon it. We experience it as a flash or shaft of light that comes from no-where. It is not a light we can see with the physical eyes like we see the light of the sun. It is the light of discovery that opens up a new perspective, a new way of seeing.

A trick of the mind? A pure accident? Creativity at work? A design of heaven?

Tricksters in aboriginal societies were agents of change. They were a-moral, had no shame and therefore did not follow a prescribed moral code. Tricksters shocked or mocked the prevailing order in novel ways, providing openings for change in an otherwise closed system. In a way they provided a breath of fresh air. The trickster tore apart a densely knit social fabric and showed an escape route, a way out. Irrespective of outcome the trickster upsets any system and may get caught in his own traps. He may be wise or dumb but he is always ready to play with new possibilities, opening up new horizons.

Lewis Hyde suggests that the trickster-activities have equivalents in our society. For example a farmer may discover a pot of gold or some other treasure buried in his fields. His “lucky find” or its twin brother, the “unlucky loss” may be a discovery or a life changer. The same may be true for “bad luck”, “smart luck” or “dumb luck”, “happy, tragic or creative accident”, “accidental gift”, or “lucky break”.

Like the Flash of Perception these equivalents can deeply penetrate us, fill us with joy or lead to painful discoveries or make fools of ourselves. They have the power to transform us. I see them as unexpected gifts. We can either shrug them off or allow them to work on us and transform our way of seeing and living. Like the trickster, they poke a hole in a tightly controlled fabric of conventional thinking and seeing and let a natural and spontaneous intelligence shine through.