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.
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 ?
” 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 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.
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.
‘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.