Learning to See without Imagination: a Zen Perspective

Learning to see without imagination from a zen perspective is about letting go the world of concepts that is a product of our unlimited capacity for conceptual thinking. It is the world we live in most of the time.

When we work with our conceptually imaginative mind we are not intimately involved or connected with what we actually see and miss what is going on in the present. It is like clouding the sky, preventing the sun from shining through. What is covered up is our natural ability to be creative. Each moment is a new creation, giving rise to new perceptions. They are very short, lasting a fraction of a second and we can stay inside of them only as long as they last.

By capturing these moments of clarity with our camera we are already looking at them from the outside. This process of going in and out of creative bursts is very different from using imagination that is the product of conceptual thinking. In the former we are not in charge but allow creativity to shine through. In the latter it is the ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘self’ or what is commonly referred to as ‘ego’ that is in control and directs the process and decides the content.

A prerequisite for living these precious moments of no-self is to have a quiet mind. However, it would be misleading to imply that a quiet mind is easy to attain, a mind that is not buzzing with thoughts, ideas, concepts and opinions. The process of letting them go is slow and requires a great deal of work on oneself.

Practicing photography in this way brings clarity to our pictures. When open to these moments we are vulnerable to creativity and bring art into every day life. It is not fine arts but it is based on authentic seeing that reaches beyond our eyeballs, beyond what everybody else sees.

Satisfaction and Contemplative Photography

Satisfaction in contemplative photography is very different from satisfaction derived from taking pictures in a conventional way.

Usually, satisfaction comes from emphasizing the product, the content of our seeing. The image that we have produced is what counts most. We have spent a great deal of effort, time and money to develop and hone our technical skills. The pleasure and rewards we get from our achievements are important to us. It is a satisfaction that pleases our ego and makes us proud.

But the situation is quite different when it comes to contemplative photography. Here, the primary commitment is with freeing ourselves from our ego. We are not focused on the outcome or on the capture of a particular image. We are interested and involved in the process of image making. When we land in the present moment, the flash of perception cuts like a laser beam through everything and lights up, for a fraction of a second, what is in front of us. The content is incidental but appears fresh and new. It is a moment of utmost clarity, a moment of unity and wholeness that is highly energizing and satisfying. It is a moment of creativity we would like to have again and again.

If we convey these qualities in our photos, the ordinary around us appears in a different light and becomes extraordinary. This kind of satisfaction is profound and very different from the satisfaction derived from an award winning image. In order to know the difference it is necessary to live these special moments, to experience them from the inside.

The Flash of Perception-A Moment of Creativity

The flash of perception is a sudden moment of creativity. We also call it a direct perception. Direct perceptions are not uncommon and are made use of in the arts,sciences, photography and in daily life. They play, for example, a central role in congemplative photography because they can be turned into photographic equivalents. By doing so, they give images a fresh and new look.

These special moments of creativity come unexpectedly and surprise us because of their shocking simplicity and familiarity. We all have encountered these spontaneous moments of clarity in one form or another. For example, they can break through in the suddenness of getting a joke, accompanied by a burst of laughter. Or we all had the experience of struggling to remember a name and suddenly the missing name appears from nowhere when we least expect it.

There are many famous and dramatic examples in the arts and in the scientific world that seem to illustrate a similar process. Take for example Isaak Newton and the falling apple, James Watt and the steaming kettle, the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA by Francis Crick and there are many others. When you read their first person accounts you realize how deeply they were involved and committed to their vital question they were working on. They were captivated by it and had this unwavering intention and single mindedness to get to the bottom of what appeared to be an intractable problem.

Often the struggle is a long one but suddenly, when least expected this spark cuts through all the fog that obscures our vision and the right perception clicks into place. The sudden flash of recognition is shockingly simple. What it reveals has always been present but never been recognized or seen as being significant.

In contemplative photography we make use of this process, not to find truth, but to facilitate the occurrence of creative moments. Our intention and commitment is to see clearly. We do it by turning away from object minded seeing. Then we have  an opportunity to see more deeply, beyond labels and concepts. Initially this is a perplexing experience but with practice clear moments of seeing will happen more frequently and we will see the difference they make to our images.

Broken Mirror Images: a collection of five

Photos of the Week

Photos of the Week

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The Journey to Contemplative Photography

This is a brief account of my journey to contemplative photography.

Habits, once firmly established, are difficult to change. This is true for the way we have learned to see as well. The lifelong conditioning we have undergone goes very deep and remains unchallenged because we take it for granted. We believe our way of seeing is the right way to see the world around us and if challenged we defend our position as if it were the absolute truth. As a consequence much of our photography has become standardized, lacking freshness and vitality.

Myself, I have struggled with this journey to contemplative photography for a couple of years and I find it is a process that has no ending and feels always new. The best I can do is to recognize the barriers to seeing and allow them to go away. It can not be done in one clean sweep.

One of my first flashes of perception is still vivid. The moment of the flash was shattering and energizing at the same time.


What it revealed I found to be horrible and ugly – not at all what I expected and not at all what I would have chosen to photograph. Initially I reacted by not wanting to have anything to do with this kind of photography. My aesthetic sensibilities were severely offended and tested. It felt like I had tapped into something that had been imposed on me, that was not me nor mine.

This moment of being present or what is often referred to as a flash of perception, is a momentary loss of the self or a momentary loss of the conditioned way of seeing. What it reveals may not be always pleasing to the eye and I rejected it initially because it undid what I felt I had accomplished in the past. It is painful to let old habits die and start afresh.

A left-over of this initial experience of seeing directly is the following: Frequently I trip over something that my mind quickly tries to dismiss as being unimportant or not worthwhile to bother with. More and more I have payed attention to these hints and when they do occur I stop myself and go back to what I was about to reject and stay with it quietly as long as it takes until there is a resolution. The resolution is either connecting intimately with my perception or  to just go on and let it be.

Photos of the Week

Photos of the Week

Photos of the Week

Mindfulness and Liberation.

Mindfulness in contemplative photography is a very popular concept and technique. However, its meaning has significantly departed from the original Buddhist roots. What we see is a new brand of mindfulness that has resulted in the commercialization of meditation through self-help techniques, guided meditation classes, and mindfulness retreats. The rise of the mindfulness culture here in the West has created programs and practices that are used now in all walks of life. They have become very popular because they reinforce the sense of ‘self’ or ‘I’ –  they bolster and support it. Their aim is not the liberation of the self.

The Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa would call this new commodity of mindfulness an expression of spiritual materialism.

From a spiritual point of view mindfulness is seen very differently. In the Buddhist tradition it means just the opposite and is not a technique. It aims at weakening the importance of the self rather than trying to assert or improve it. The letting go of the self is seen as liberation, a liberation from the tyranny of the ego. How does this liberation manifest itself ? It happens when we are one with whatever is in front of us, when past and future are absent from our mind. This liberation is also the mark of creativity.

What does it mean to be present ?

Often we are being told to ‘be present’ or to ‘let go’ of our thoughts or ‘be yourself’ or ‘be in the moment’ because to be free of  distractions is a prerequisite for a contemplative approach to photography.

The assumption seems to be that by following these instructions or by following certain steps it will actually happen. This, however is very deceptive.

For most of us it is difficult to be present because there is so much external and internal interference that can not be let go of by our good intentions or will of the self alone . We are constantly bombarded by thoughts,  by images of the past and concerns for the future, by feelings and ideas. Common distractions in photography are ideas of being original, of making great pictures, of wanting to be known and famous, of pleasing and impressing our friends, of beating the competition, of creating something unique, of making financial gains etc. The list is endless.

In short we are often too busy with thinking. Our thoughts are like filters that don’t let us connect directly with what we see. The manager who is in charge of all that ‘noise’ in our head is our ‘self’ or ‘I’. However, contemplation means forgetting this self. But how can we tell the self to forget or erode itself ? The more we tell our self to be present or the more we belief we are present the more we strengthen inadvertently the self, making it impossible to forget itself.

This is a trap we easily fall into. How can we then empty our mind of concepts, thoughts and feelings ? For myself I find my meditation practice to be of help. It helps to set the stage for these precious moments when the mind has stopped processing. With practice the interference by our mind as a thinking machine diminishes and looses its importance.

How do you facilitate the occurrence of these moments of being present ?

More about Seeing and Photography

” Photography is not what’s important. It’s seeing. The camera,      films, even pictures, are not important. ”    Aligmantas Kezys

In More about Seeing and Photography I like to make some comments about Kezy’s quote above. I stumbled over his lines because they come from a person who is an accomplished photographer. It struck me as unusual and ambiguous.

Why does a photographer say the camera and pictures are not what’s important ?

From a conventional perspective we may find this quote contradictory because it seems to dismiss our cherished view of picture making and our attachment to pictures. From this point of view the quote is difficult to understand or just does not make much sense.

However, from a contemplative perspective it does make sense. We have said in a previous blog that contemplation is “being one with” our perceptions. When this happens we forget our selves. Who and what we are drops away and we are set free momentarily, allowing creativity to shine through. In such moments picture making is effortless and easy.

Wow vs Wow: Two Visual Experiences

Wow vs Wow is about two visual experiences that have profoundly different qualities.

The first is a response of surprise to an image that meets our expectation or  comes close to it. These expectations are shaped by what we consider beautiful and popular. While this Wow is exciting and enjoyable, its half-life is short and soon forgotten.

The second Wow is of a different kind. It reaches much deeper. We are surprised or even stunned because we are confronted with something we did not expect, something we were not prepared for. It may feel like seeing something the first time and may lead to a more profound way of seeing. In addition it stays with us for a long time.  For the second Wow to occur we have to be open and receptive. We call it a direct visual experience because it is unfiltered.

I am always curious when people respond to a picture with a Wow. What does it mean? What is the viewer responding to? Is it the first Wow or the second ? What is it that I respond to when I react that way? This is not always easy to figure out because our eyes are greedy and easily seduced by what we see.

At times I respond to an image by feeling perplexed, not knowing how to respond because the picture does not seem to ‘fit’ any where. It does not address anything familiar to me. However, when you start to wonder about what you see it means you are beginning to open up. It is an invitation for exploration that may lead to a new way of seeing.

About Seeing and Looking – A Zen Perspective

Seeing and looking are one but they are not the same. When I talk about ‘seeing’ I am not talking about a perception of an object that you and I perceive. I am talking about that that makes perception possible. This is difficult to talk about, because it refers to a reality that goes beyond appearance. Perhaps an analogy will help. When you go and see a movie you identify with the content, with ‘what’ you see and you are oblivious of the screen on which the movie is projected on. You take the screen for granted in the same way as you take ‘seeing’ for granted. Of course, in practice the two are one and can not be separated.


The ‘what’ is reflected in our images in two ways. One is the way of ‘looking’ and the other one of ‘seeing’. In looking our picture-making expresses our personal view which is conditioned by the environment we have grown up in. The picture on the left has this kind of conventional footprint. We look at it as an object and immediately label and judge it and move on. Labelling helps to recognize everything around us. We can then judge, choose and manipulate what we see to our purpose. I’ll call this ‘looking’ and not ‘seeing’.

Both, ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ have sense perception in common. But the similarity ends here.

Helmut_141010-18‘Seeing’ happens when we are stopped in our tracks or when we are captured by what we see. It establishes an intimate connection that we can sense in our guts. It is spontaneous and cuts through all the stuff we imagine, feel, worry and think about because it stops our processing machine – our mind. When we no longer ‘look’ at what we see but connect directly with what is in front of us we are contemplating. There is no longer any room for labelling or judging. The picture on the left is a reflection of such a direct experience. If this experience has been authentic one feels alive and creative.