Working in the Face of Change and Death

Birches and Fall Foliage, wide aperture

These times — facing the pandemic — are shaking everything up. As with all suffering, the sharp point of this current period in the world brings us to change, uncertainty, a lot of emotional material, and literally existential questions — and the chance for a kind of waking up. Any of us might die from this COVID-19 virus unless we are children. We might lose parents or other loved ones. We face economic catastrophe. Everything we have known is subject to change, and that change is upon us.

To this Buddhist, that paragraph above is not so far out of the ordinary view of things: everything is impermanent, subject to change. Our solid sense of the world is a delusion; it is all more like sand than rock. We could die at any time. Still, facing change of this magnitude is in fact different for most of us. To paraphrase Pema Chodron — I don’t remember which talk or book this comes from — “We all know we are going to die. But it’s different when you are really facing it.”

So what do we do, what do I do, facing this degree of change and uncertainty, fear, anger, and other strong emotions? In part, we keep on through the day, doing what we need to do. We practice kindness as much as possible. But it’s also important to feel what we feel to the extent of our capacity. The emotional states triggered by our current situation of an unstoppable pandemic are not going to be pleasant, but it’s also important to appreciate moments that are OK. The waking up opportunity of a time like this, as all times, is in the balance between experiencing fully to the extent of our capacity while not going numb in overwhelm or denial.

In my life there have been some extended breaks in which I have thrown myself into the pursuit of samsara, lost my pursuit of awakening. But really, waking up has been my life’s work, and I’ve tried to impart this transmission to everyone. As a parent, I almost always tried to keep a view that I was passing along a flame of awareness. In all my relationships I try to keep a sense of awakeness. I am beyond grateful for everyone in my life who has been willing to share this awake presence with me. Anyway, this moment brings me to a point. I’m trying to be fully aware before I die.

This is a photography blog, and I am a photographer. So what am I doing in this realm? Outlet for my work is very minimal, with a contracting economy, gallery visits down to near zero. Throughout last year I worked with great purpose toward putting prints into the physical world. This time is different. I don’t work on a piece with the sense that it will be hanging on a wall soon. I just do it.

I have more time to devote to the “darkroom” side of my work, time I didn’t have while printing, framing, and matting. I am working like mad. And for what purpose? Because it is what I do, what I do best. And I think the new work is getting better very quickly in this time of the sharp-point.

Doing the photography is a bit funny. According to my beliefs, my practice, we should fully feel, experience life fully. But this is sometimes too much for me. The news is dark, I am angry at our leaders for not taking timely action and for lying to us, which has led to this being a catastrophe from which many Americans will die. I am furious that Trump did not take action when he first knew, adopting an approach of wishful thinking instead of decisive and informed action. I am afraid I will lose people I love, that I will not get to see my friends for an extended period — and maybe never again. I am frustrated that there is so little I can do to help the world. So yes, it is important to feel these things, but also it is good to take a break from them. I lose myself in my work, long periods refining my Lightroom catalog and working on images in photoshop. It’s part of the balance, being awake — but not being overwhelmed.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long. I’m excited about my new work. I’m working on a lot more of it. I’m grateful to all who have shared my spark of awareness and put theirs next to mine. Two matches together make a bigger flame. May you all be well.

Cattails in Rain, Panorama crop

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.