Category Archives: Meditation

Kandinsky Again

I don’t have a formula for composition, obviously. I like simplicity, I like abstraction. I like foggy mystery, but also piercing clarity. I’m happy enough sometimes to simply represent something interesting, but mostly I’m looking to move the eye around a space, and to move the mind with it. More and more (though I always have), I think of art as being a reflection of, or projection of, mind. Mind doesn’t really have a form or shape or color, as any meditator or neuroscientist knows. But somehow I feel like a state of mind (always transitory and fleeting) can have a graphical representation. A lot of modern art is interesting to me not purely because of color and form, but because of Mind. Kandinsky is a different state of mind — when viewing the painting you are in a different state of mind — than say in front of a Rothko.

Photographing ice on a winter stream is always an opportunity to explore a lot of mental states, a lot of chances for simplicity, tranquility, and also more kinetic and energetic situations.

I like this one, for now, because it has about as much energy, form, texture, detail, as I dare squeeze into a photo. The eye moves around the image; it’s not a simple, settled thing. Like Kandinsky paintings, the mind can be this way too. It’s worth spending time with it, whether it is a Rothko or a Kandinsky.

This is a stream in New Hampshire that I particularly like to walk along, because there is a nice trail along it, and the stream is interesting — sometimes slow, sometimes fast, sometimes even a waterfall. The stream is a mind of its own, moving through all the states and shapes and form that a real mind will, and always changing. In winter here, pretty much any day will be different from the next in terms of how a stream like this will look, and of course the light changes through the day too. It is as fleeting as a one day flower, a dandelion head in a breeze, a human mood or set of thoughts.

Eight Wordly Winds

Icicles on Cliff, Mt Ascutney Vermont

The last week has been an interesting one photographically, and of course it always is. To start, I had a very fruitful day early last week, where I exposed the image above. The light, ice, and snow were nice all day, and it wasn’t too cold to spend a 7 hour day out with the camera. I enjoyed it, and I think I made some other good exposures.

Before I move on, what about the same exposure rendered in black and white? Thirty five years ago, when I used 4 x 5 sheet film, it would be a no-brainer: of course it has to be black and white. But I find I love the subtle colors in the image above. A photographic friend once said of me that I make color photographs like I’m working in black and white (I’m not sure it was a compliment from him). But personally I’ll take it as a compliment. For me, form, texture, tone very often take precedence in deciding a composition, but lately color is a bigger influence as well. As an option, here it is below in black and white. I think I’ll put them both on the site for sale until it is clear which is better.

Icicles on Cliff, Mt Ascutney Vermont

Anyway, it was an interesting week, as I said. After this great camera day, I had a let down from a potential vendor of my work. We’ll still see about that. But it felt like a blow. And then I think the next day, or day after that, I got an out-of-the-blue email from the office of one of my Vermont Senators, Bernie Sanders. Yes, Bernie. They asked if I would be so kind as to let them hang some of my Vermont images in their DC office. Umm, yes, I would be flattered.

Then another camera day, yesterday. It was a promising camera day, beautiful new snow lacy on all the trees, some rime ice in some places, and nice ice over rivers and streams. The only problem was that about 2/3 of the way through my stamina and camera battery supply, I fell through some ice into a stream, about belly-button height or higher. I was too busy to take careful notes at that moment. The water was ice cold and running fast. It was all I could do to pull myself up on the ledge of ice. (I noticed later I scratched my hands and wrist in that endeavor.) I had a camera backpack and a side-bag full of gear. The side-bag was floating. All the gear stayed dry enough, except the micro four thirds Olympus, not my main camera, but I love it, and on it was a lens I love. They fell in the water as I tried to scramble out. I fished them out and am drying them, though I think the lens is a loss. Besides being quite miserable for some time until I got home and dry, I was pretty bummed out about that lens. The camera, we’ll see. It didn’t seem to take on much water, and it’s quite a weatherproof wonder.

Also this last week, my ancient car, which has had charging system trouble since November, has made it clear that it is still not working. I was nervous climbing up the riverbank to it, soaked through, in about 15 degree F temperatures, not 100% sure it would start. It did. Being that wet and not sure the car would start was damn scary. It’s an 18 year old Volkswagen, which I’ve really loved for all these years, my favorite car ever. But now I think it’s time to get rid of the damn thing.

So, ups, downs, and my mind continues along, stumbling and soaring, as it does.

One Buddhist teaching on this as aspect of life is formulated as “The Eight Worldly Winds,” or often, “The Eight Worldly Dharmas.” In life we sometimes get praise and sometimes blame. Sometimes fame, and sometimes its disrepute. We get things that we want, but then we lose them — we can’t keep anything permanently. So there is always gain and loss. Likewise with pleasure and pain.

Though obviously derived from the Buddha’s teachings, I’m not sure it was formulated and presented as this list of 8 pairs of opposites in his time. I’m guessing as a list it comes from the Nalanda period in India, around the ninth century, but I’m not a real scholar of this, and there is a lot of pseudo scholarship online.

Between the idea of the title of “The Eight Worldy Dharmas” vs “The Eight Worldly Winds,” I like the Winds better. Right at the start, you get the idea. There are these winds always blowing us around. We are pulled and pushed by our attraction, aversion, and ignorance. We can tend to go off to the races every time the winds blow, or we can train to understand that this is just what happens as humans in this world and take our seat to watch the display without getting quite so caught. I like this teaching, this view, because it is basically neutral. Of course, as humans, things happen and then we respond emotionally. No blame. It’s just that we’re better served if we place our allegiance with awareness rather than with the emotional tides.

To purchase prints:
The color version
Black and White

Dewdrops and Blue Flag Iris, or, Figure with Ground

Dewdrop and Four Blue Flag Iris

These are two images made with some old Japanese (Olympus, OM) lenses that are known for the quality of their out of focus rendering. They are not “photoshopped” or manipulated. This is the way the lenses (a different lens for each image) and camera made them.

“Bokeh” is a term coined in Japan to talk about the out of focus or “blurry” area of an image. The reason the word is handy is that we can talk about the characteristics of that out-of-focus quality, and acknowledge that there are various aspects to it, and put what is normally background into something like the foreground, either when we talk about it or when we work on making an image through a lens. There is a lot of talk about “bokeh” on lens geek forums, but usually about the characteristics of particular lenses, how they manifest this quality at different apertures. But at least in the English language, in my reading, I’ve never come across much on the philosophical or even spiritual aspects of this aspect photographs created with certain wide aperture lenses in certain ways

Two Dew Drops, One Blue Flag Iris

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It’s interesting that the word “bokeh” came from Japan, a traditionally Buddhist country. While modern Japan is very westernized in many ways, there is a strong aesthetic tradition that permeates much of the culture, rooted in Zen. While many Japanese people are not practicing meditators, the philosophy based on meditation and Buddhist teachings still has a strong sway even in these modern times of technology and materialism — technology that can create consumer lenses with certain characteristics. Oddly enough, I wrote a paper on the influence of Zen on Japanese culture and aesthetics in high school, in about 1974. I had forgotten about that paper and studying this topic, until sitting at the keyboard right now. Back then I didn’t have a strong understanding of Buddhism — though I studied it for that paper — and really what it means at a deep level that can permeate everything. I was just interested in it and drawn to the aesthetic, even then as a mid-teenager. Weird.

The aesthetic I’m talking about, of course, is art that places the importance of negative space as an equal, or even more important component of the composition, as the “subject” of the artwork. One famous example of this is the Enso calligraphy of Zen though of course it shows up in countless examples of oriental art. I think it’s less obvious in the Ukiyo-e prints, but the use of negative space is often very important there as well.

I think it’s also interesting that some Japanese lenses seem to have good bokeh or amazingly excellent bokeh, as part of their design, while fewer German lenses (I’m looking at you, Zeiss) might in general be better at sharpness and contrast and in general not quite drawing the out of focus areas quite as beautifully. Though there are of course exceptions; for example this image was made with a vintage Zeiss lens that surprised me in rendering such beautiful out of focus areas. I don’t know Leica lenses, but I guess they are an exception to my cultural rule.

In high school when I studied and observed the influence of Zen on culture, I really had no idea, just a hunch. And for years and years I had no idea at a deep level. After many long meditation retreats and thousand of hours sitting in meditation, I have had some understanding of what is going on here. (I am still far short of the 10,000 hours of meditation practice that some neuroscientists, I think Richard Davidson is one, say is the threshold where the brain really changes pretty drastically, and even shows unique qualities in FMRI machines. The two “happiest men in the world,” Matthieu Ricard and Mingyur Rinpoche, have been studied extensively along with some monks associated the Dalai Lama, showing that over 10,000 hours is a real change point).

I had an experience in one long meditation retreat a decade ago, which lasted for the rest of that retreat, and then has become more reliable over the decade since then, with more retreats and more practice. That experience was in seeing “emptiness,” or Shunyata as it was called in early Buddhist languages. My Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher, a real meditation master also is prone to talk about “space” as well. He once joked, “I’m not talking about made-in-India space. I’m talking about made-in-space space!” So what I experience quite a bit of the time is a shifting allegiance, shifting between what is there, and what is not as apparently sold, between a thing, a thought, an experience — and the space around it. In the case of a mental or emotional experience, which of course is our whole life, the “space around it” is a cognizance bigger than a mere thought or emotion. In that first breakthrough retreat, I conceptualized it as being like one of those figure-ground shifting images, like this one. It is two faces. It is a vase. It all depends on whether you have perceptual allegiance to the foreground or the background, the white or the black.

Figure Ground Paradox Vase Two Faces

(I should be clear that in Buddhist teachings what I’m talking about here as “space” is not merely the negative aspect of matter or thought or whatever. It is all-encompassing, and includes all. So my two-vases/face example is to me more about a shift of allegiance rather than a literal positive/negative. “Space” in this context means an allegiance to everything, the solid, and the not solid, matter and space; all of it.)

This is most important when working with the mind, and I think meditation is the best way to develop this capacity. In the west, therapy can often also facilitate the cultivation of this kind of shift, because the therapist is hopefully helping provide a bigger view beyond what we normally think of as the “solid” aspects of our cognition, perception, and emotional experience. Experiencing nature, or perhaps religion, can also be some sort of access to a sense of space, but most of our experience in the west falls short of a Buddhist understanding of space or emptiness. This capacity is extremely important when working with emotions. When the emotional experience is all there is, then we often suffer from it, or cause others to suffer. The point is that the thought or emotion is just an isolated event, with little actual substance, like a drop of dew — an isolated not-even-really-a-thing that is surrounded by space. Like the dewdrop, it has very little actual substance, and certainly no permanence. While I think art that manifests this quality is often profound in itself, it may be more significant that it is pointing to something bigger, a truth, an experience that is more important and profound than art.

I think since I’ve been meditating more seriously, over the last 15 years, my photography has changed quite a bit, but gradually. And I think it’s only more recently that I have a lot more comfort shifting between the figure and the ground, between what is there and what is not there in a conventional sense. Though in another sense, the ground represents something that is more real than what we normally take as real. That is an exploration I will leave for the reader.

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.