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.

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Two Ways of Seeing: The Seeing and the Seen

My Zen teacher used to remind us that language is a wonderful creation and at the same time a trap. Why ? It enables us to separate ourselves from experience, creating two ways of seeing.

For György Kepes, a photographer, painter, designer and teacher, language was also a tool and a trap.  It selects and deselects certain aspects of what we experience, he explains in Language of Vision. What is true for verbal language  is true for visual language as well, he goes on to say. We match what we see, the seen, with images, clichés and stereotypes according to the way we have been conditioned to see.  Mistakenly we take these labels or concepts for the real thing and think they are identical. The map is not the territory! The world is not an abstraction.

When we live in a world of mental concepts only, we separate our self from life, from experience. In such a world we are distant observers and ‘what’ we see is located ‘over there’ or ‘out there’. We then see the world objetcively, filled with analyzable objects whose appearance can be endlessly transformed and embellished with our rich imagination.

In contrast, contemplative photography changes this conventional perspective. It emphasizes a way of seeing in which the ‘seen’ and the ‘seeing’ are experienced as ‘one’. We see it in the ‘flash of perception’ when this dichotomy has dropped away and all the conceptual filters have vanished. At last, for a moment we can feel complete and see without intellectual interference. There is no longer a separation.

 Nisargadatta Maharaj in one of his dialogues says that the painter is in the painting. Freeman Patterson, a Canadian photographer, says “the camera looks both ways, meaning a photograph is as good a description of who is behind the lens as who or what is in front of it”. Whatever we do we are in it and affect the outcome. Our objectivity is always tainted! We can not eliminate the observer, the one who sees.

An example, that highlights very well how we separate ourselves from experience, not just in photography, but in other areas of life, is given by David Suzuki. He categorically states that there is no environment “out there”, separate from us. “We are the environment”, he reminds us forcefully. Unfortunately, ‘environment’ for many is just another lofty concept. In contrast, aboriginal people speak of earth as their “mother”. What a difference ! The difference between the two perspectives feels real and enormous as is the difference between conventional and contemplative photography.

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Helmut 170106-12
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Photos of the Week

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