Category Archives: Meditation

Morning Glories Dawn, Edge of Fall, Impermanence

Morning Glories Late Summer Vermont

Late this summer I got obsessed with morning glories. Part of it had something to do with a new lens, a vintage macro lens that provided very smooth out of focus areas, bokeh, which worked beautifully with the blue and other colors. Also, the daily display was an ever changing kaleidoscope. Anicca, impermanence, is always somehow an engine in my photography, as I’ve explained in other posts. I had it in spades here. Each morning glory flower lasts for just a day in cool weather. It turns out that a single blossom will last into the next day if it is quite cool, and then the flowers are more purple on the second day. On the other hand if it is quite dry and warm, these soap-bubbles of blue don’t even make it through the day. And then of course the dew, and the changing light transforms everything, whether the light is coming through them or shining on them, it’s completely different.

This image though wasn’t with that vintage new-to-me lens though, but rather one of my other vintage manual prime lenses, this one wider. I did not do some of the things I normally would have, and there are some regrets about what might have been in this exposure, but really it has turned out.

So here we have it in a nutshell. Everything changes. Sometimes we have regrets. It is what it is. These blue saucers were gone by that evening, and now the vines are brown mush. But impermanence works both ways. Gone each day, but only appearing in the first place because of change. Reappearing and transforming each day because of change. The extraordinary beauty only possible and indeed more poignant because of the transience.

We fear impermanence sometimes; we want to hang onto the good and beautiful and pleasurable, and we resist the coming of the nasty. The impermanence itself though is not to be feared. It facilitates the demise of the nastiness just as surely as it enables the blossoming of the beautiful and good. Ah annica. Simply the way things are.

This photo is available as a print, printed like last week’s image on Canson Aquarelle Watercolor paper. Buy the print here.

Bee Balm Through Siberian Iris Leaves and Dew

Monarda siberian iris leaves

“People think it’s the object of attention that’s important, like an object reflected in a mirror. But it’s actually looking toward where objects are reflected that’s important, the capacity to reflect. Look at a flower. Then look at the mind that perceives the flower.”

— Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

I typed this quote in my notes in a dharma retreat the other day, a retreat with my Buddhist teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who is Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s son.

Besides having everything to do with meditation at a certain level, that quote also has everything to do with my approach to photography. It’s not that there is some thing out there, and I’m out to capture it. It’s about perception, resonance, our capacity to reflect and be aware — and aware of our awareness.

This image is available for sale and view at higher resolution on this page

Meditator on Break, Condensation on Dining Tent Flap, Autumn

I often talk about the relationship of meditation on my photography. On some of my deepest retreats, I’m not allowed a camera. But on this 6 day silent retreat, I did have my axe with me. There were long breaks in the afternoons, and I did get to walk in the woods in heading-toward-peak autumn foliage. Maybe some of those exposures might make good photographs — I don’t know yet — but it certainly was good to walk around after so much sitting. The tricky thing is, when I’m opened up so much, and everything is so vivid, and emotional material arises to meet capacity, and the separation of inside and outside is at its thinnest — at that time it’s actually pretty tricky to make good photographs. It may be rather beside the point of being in a meditation retreat, in some ways — but also it is a good practice to bring the openness into the world at large, and to let the world into that open state.

This retreat was at the very end of September in hilly New Hampshire. The mornings were cold, some of the days were cool. Because of the size of the retreat, the largest given up to that point at this center (Wonderwell), they put up a heated outdoor tent to serve as an auxiliary dining hall. The plastic walls of the tent gathered condensation. I only made a couple of discreet exposures on this chilly morning. If it were normal life I would have worked the situation quite a bit more, but I didn’t want to be a spectacle in that context. Of course, in normal life, I might not have seen this as a photograph to make. You never know.

This photo is available for purchase and can be viewed in higher resolution.

7 Sheep, Stone Wall Panorama, Hartland, 2014

7 sheep, stone wall, maples, vermont

Last week I mentioned that I had made several exposures on that stretch of road. Since I posted that, I went back there. With summer thunderheads moving in, sheep grazing, still maple leaves, I like the tension in this image of peace-with-intensity-and-change. It reminds me of meditating.

This image is available to view larger or purchase as a print here.

Desert Motel Shell, California

Desert Motel Shell Infrared

This is an older image I’ve always wanted to move from the archive into the public light, and the upcoming show — for now based around presenting the truth of impermanence — is a good excuse to bring it forward and print it.

It’s a funny thing: infrared images are so good in lush places full of foliage. But I found that I made a lot of exposures when we were traveling in the California desert a few years ago. Somehow the crispness of the hills and clarity of light works well with infrared, and the bits of foliage that exist serve to bring an even greater luminosity to the image.

I may have said this before, but I’ve always like infrared photography not because it transforms reality into something stranger than it is, but rather because it shows almost more accurately sometimes, or at least provides another reasonable take on how we actually perceive it. “Normal” black and white photography may seldom ever be “normal” in that a colored lens in front of the black and white film or an interpretation of the red/green/blue balance when rendering it as black and white in photoshop will provide very different interpretations of the image. In any case my point is that each is an interpretation of the way landscape is rendered as image; we’ve just gotten more used to some standard views, and we consider them to be normal. But in what world does drab gray evoke the experience that foliage — living plant material — evokes in us. To me it is luminious, glowing with the light, never dead and drab, or seldom anyway.

So anyway, this is going into the mock-up of the coming show and then heading for the printer to see how it goes.

I think what I really like about this is the kind of open-ness that reminds me of the way I have become opened-up in my life. Some of conventional shells I shut myself into have been blown away by circumstance, or painstakingly peeled away by my own efforts, or just worn out. There are still walls left, but they’re not quite shutting out the world like they did before. Well, it’s not just that I feel like a ruin — it’s the sense of inside and outside being one. No subject, no object. Some days, some moments anyway. Some days all the walls are up, and the cheap carpeting is musty. Try to open the windows every day, at least.

Wabi Sabi White Peony and Dew

Well, yesterday I wrote about how it’s not good to post something very fresh. Also, while it’s usually a week or more between these posts, it’s only been a day. Well, things change, and in this space I can do pretty much what I want.

Early this morning I tweeted to my sister with the wikipedia link to Wabi-Sabi, a Japanese aesthetic and world view based on imperfection within perfection, as well as some Buddhist concepts such as impermanence. My paraphrase of the gist, or at least the observable outcome, of wabi-sabi is that it’s actually good to have a bit of imperfection within something otherwise rather perfect.

A little while after that tweet I was out in the garden photographing peonies in morning dew. This is something I’ve done quite a lot of over the years, but my equipment and technique are better than ever, now. I liked a lot of what I did today, but this one rather knocked my socks off. So, two photo-of-the-weeks in a week. So far!

Single Lady’s Slipper, and Presence

Showy Lady's slipper Vermont after rain

Unfortunately this photo only illustrates a small part of my discussion, but that’s the way photos are. They’re a very small slice of reality.

I’ve wanted to write this for a few weeks, from the time I was on my recent meditation retreat, I wanted to write about Presence, as in being present. It’s a universal capacity, and we all think we want more of it. We at least want more of the good part. It seems to be limited, and we regret that. Or we might think it’s a simple choice, that we can simply decide to be present. Not so easy.

First, our ability to be present is quite large, we could say nearly infinite. We have good senses, and the world is right here for us. The problem, I think, is in our capacity to be present, not our ability. This capacity decreases though childhood; the decrease accelerates in adolescence; by adulthood most of us are quite dull. Our senses our good, but we can’t stand to really be present. Why?

I think it’s in large part because being present is rather a double edged sword, and we learn to back away from it. Being present means being there with pain as well as beauty and joy. In fact, without a great deal of emotional maturity and equanimity, to be present would mean being overwhelmed by a lot of anxiety, fear, grief, and general suffering. I think The Buddha pretty well nailed this a long time ago. It is of course important to immediately mention the counterpoint, what we long for: being present is the only way we can experience joy, happiness, and all of this human life. It is our life, the goodness of our life.

The good news is that we can re-develop this capacity to be present. I think the main way to do it is to meditate, but also any form of emotional courage will start on this path — really facing the facts of life. (Meditation is about being present with whatever arises with equanimity. To practice it means we see our limitations in this regard very quickly, and it means we practice, like learning scales on an instrument — we practice and develop this capacity) If we develop this capacity because we are strong enough to be present, we can experience the joy and beauty of the present, while our strength and equanimity mean that we are not overwhelmed by the more challenging aspects of it.

To take the step of emotional courage, we have to turn away from numbness and the things that we do to make us numb. Then we can start to see and feel again. For some this will be very tricky. Our defenses are strong, established, automatic, and wrapped in denial.

The other thing about presence that this photo brings to mind, is that we often project a lot into the experience of presence, the experience we all have from time to time. We are present in the moment; it is just our ordinary mind encountering itself and the world. But we think that there is something special about the world at that moment, or we might even project some sense of a deity into it, as if we are feeling some divine being in that special moment we inhabit. I don’t know about that, but I do know my own mind and senses some. We might think it’s because a special person we are with has done this — but it’s just us stepping out of our cocoon to meet the world. We might feel another person has taken this away from us and blame them for our loss — but it is just us withdrawing from what we fear. We might think the presence in the moment is a quality of the wild flower in the woods in the morning sun with raindrops on it, but that flower has just invited us to step out from behind our shields.

Go ahead. Be brave.

Meditator in Temple Garden, Lumbini Nepal 2013

meditator in garden lumbini nepal

I’m freshly back from a “ten day” meditation retreat, “Vipassana,” as taught by S.N. Goenka. Though I’ve meditated promiscuously in various traditions, and studied most Buddhist meditation traditions, this is currently the technique I’m practicing in.

If you’re a meditator I’d strongly suggest doing one of these retreats to have an opportunity for some really deep practice in silence with good technique to develop concentration, awareness, and equanimity. This center is in Massachussets, but they have them all over the world. The center I went to is here. Or check out the global Vipassana website.

The retreat was long and hard, as these things are, meditating for about 17 hours a day. I applied myself to it, working really hard, and it bore fruit. By the end of 3 days I had a level of samadhi I’d never experienced before. Into that came a torrent of thoughts and memories, also pretty much unlike anything I’d felt before. I decided to place my allegience and confidence in my equanimity. That attitude was a good shift of mind. And my equanimity held up until it didn’t. By day 8 I was pretty much exhausted.

This retreat had a no-distractions rule — no pens and paper, no books, no devices — and of course no cameras. Which is lucky; I would have distracted myself with photography for sure. As it was I thought about photography a lot, definitely one of the main currents of excitements in my life.

Of course the photo above is not from this retreat. This meditator in the photo is not of that tradition, but from all appearance he was a serious practitioner. We got back from Nepal just a little over a year ago. I still have a trove of great images unpublished from that trip. This meditator sat like a rock in the bustling garden by the Maya Devi Temple (very very close to the birthplace of Buddha) the whole time we were there. We meditated on a similar tree near him for a while, but I found myself distracted — so much going on all around me, a world of energy and color. A good meditator can practice even when distracted. I did not. But I did photograph.

Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose; Barack Obama and Kandinsky; Two New Iceland Photos

This print is for sale and in more detail here.

A short, very helpful story goes like this:

A musician asked the Buddha, “How should I meditate?”

The Buddha asked, “How do you tune your instrument?”

The musican replied, “Not too tight, not too loose.”

“Just so, you should work with your mind.”

OK, so what does that mean, and why am I writing about it on a photography blog with Iceland photos featured this week?

My take on the very simple, but not so simple, instruction by the Buddha is that he was talking about how much effort to apply to mindfulness — which is the effort we exert to contact the already existing ground of awareness. The thing that makes this infinitely interesting is that the “sweet spot,” not too tight, not too loose, will always depend on what you are working with, on the nature of your own mind. Ken McLeod has compared this very aptly to riding a bicycle, which is never a static process. You lean a little bit one way, a little the other way, always getting back to balance.

So the way this relates to my photography is that in this mental balancing in meditation, it depends on a lot of things. For one thing, it depends on how much energy you are working with.

And in the composition of a photograph, hopefully there is energy. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. It can all work, whether a lot, a little, or in between, and it’s a balancing act. Just as in meditation, photographic composition can be quite paradoxical. When there is very little energy, connection with stillness — or in a photograph maybe a minimalist composition — there can actually then be a lot of energy as a result of that. In the meditation there might be some bliss in that stillness, or a lot of energy as one suddenly contacts fear of the vastness one might sense in that stillness. A quiet photograph can soar and sing. Conversely, a lot of energy in an agitated mind — or in a wild composition — can actually lose some kind of power, but not necessarily. It’s just a question of how to work with that extra energy. It takes skill and practice.

I’m pleased with the photo above, the black and white sheep separated by a ditch. It has balance; it’s quiet, but out of that some energy pushes out. In this case I had to make the quiet tones sing and become something more than a gray day. It wasn’t easy, but maybe it was easier than working with a lot of energy.

When I was young, I used to try to put a lot of energy into a composition, and it was hard. Of course I’ve always liked Van Gogh, who puts incredible energy into relatively simple compositions. But another interesting case, I’ve mentioned before, is Vasily Kandinsky. His compositions are full of incredible energy. I was drawn to them when I was young, and even more now. Now I look at them and say, “That is mind!” But it’s hard to do that, to work with a lot of energy. When I was young I tried and failed a lot. Now I inch my way toward full-blown expressions of energy, sometimes, while more often appreciating something quiet.

Barack Obama tours the Centre Pompidou modern art museum, Vassily Kandinsky on the walls

The different streams of meditation practice that have evolved since the time of the Buddha have evolved different approaches in how to deal with a lot of energy-in-mind. The subject goes far beyond the scope of this post, or my qualifications to write on such an exhaustive subject. But one approach favored by the Tibetans is very interesting: Space. Can you get in touch with space, with vastness bigger than the tangle of energy in your mind? Be bigger than the wild energy in your mind. It takes practice, but it can work. Interestingly, part of what makes the wild paintings work in the museum context is the space around them. The room is clean, open, white, relatively vast.

So, here’s another Iceland image with maybe more energy than the two sheep by the fjord. These vibrant beached fishing floats are within a vast space. Ahh, let them be there.

Beached Fishing Floats, Iceland

This print is in more detail and for sale here.

New Ice, Rain, Birch Reflections 2013

Just Freezing Pond in Rain Birch Tree Reflections

It’s funny how we resist change, and yet change makes everything possible. The very energy of life is based on change: chemical reactions and biochemical transformations are dynamic.

Just so in photography too. It’s in those in-between moments where the most happens.

And of course everything is an in-between moment. Still, some times are a bit more dynamic feeling than others, and that dynamic energy is good to ride even when it feels like something we would rather not, a change we’d rather not experience.

This was the part of the fall/winter that is a bit of “Oh noo!” here in the north country. The leaves are mostly down, the world is drab, it’s starting to freeze up. On this day it was raining. From my office window it looked horrible out. Still, a bit restless, I decided to grab the Nikon (pretty weatherproof) and head down to the pond to see what the ice looked like. Worth the trip. And so for all of riding our changing experience. From that “oh no!” bubble of resistance to actually checking it out. What is going on? Maybe something interesting.

This print is for sale here.