How I began as a contemplative photographer

Date : April 9, 2017


It began with the afternoon light on an orchid, this practice of looking. I felt as fragile as this flower just two weeks after my heart surgery. I was captivated by the iridescent glow through its petals, the vibrant erotic center and the sensuous curve of its stem. I picked up my camera and began to look more deeply, synchronizing my mind and body in the act of taking a photograph. Drawing in the potent energy of the moment, not caught in thoughts of creating anything particular, I was just making connection and recording what I saw, deep in contemplation.


This act came out of a quiet mind, a place my teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, referred to as “Square one,” the space of non-conceptual mind, before judgment begins to define and assess. Rather than approaching an empty page, canvas, film or stage with our agenda, if we connect with the primordial ground of open awareness, there can arise a fresh expression; something genuine and appropriate on the spot. This is the premise of an art practice mixed with meditative mind.


But why is this meditative mind so important? The photographer, George DeWolfe describes it this way on his website.


“We begin as children seeing the world as a mystery. The mind absorbs and reflects the experiences of youth as a stainless mirror, and continually adds them to the knowledge bank of neurons. These stored memories combine and create another world, the conceptual world, where ideas and unlikely combinations of invisible elements stir constantly in the alembic of the mind. Somewhere along the road to adulthood, the mind accepts this other conceptual world as the real one. It is the purpose of Contemplation to return us to the world of the real, and the role of Contemplative Photography is to express it. Contemplative Photography is where a calm and aware mind unites with the primary elements of human vision. It is the clear visual expression of reality.”


By age 50, I was all too familiar with the conceptual world of my own creation. I had created artwork in the past to work through my personal demons, to express my political views and to access my inner psyche/soul. But after the heart surgery, I felt a new urgency. I burned with the desire to connect with reality, to touch space and in doing so, find ways to communicate this reality to others.


I find it easiest to return to square one through connecting with my five senses. This brings me back into the body and out of my head; not only using sight (which is normally the dominant sense), but sound, smell, taste and touch to make contact with what is in the moment. It is not necessary to hunt for that connection, though in day-to-day life I often only notice my senses when they warn me of danger or fill me with pleasure. Simply resting the mind, open to the momentary sensations that are ever-present in the background of my existence will bring the experience of the body to the fore.


Slowing down the mind to relate to these moment-by-moment sensations opens a space for new information/insights about what is to arise. This is information that is often lost in the garble of mental chatter. This is the power of contemplation and hence its connection to the Latin root, com = together + templum = space for observing auguries[or omens]. With the quieting of the mind it is possible to receive the messages of the world, to gain a deeper insight into reality and our relationship to it.


Pink Jonquil

As I started on the slow path to recovery from the heart surgery, the camera was my tool, teaching me to look more closely at my world; to experience it anew and open to the fleeting moments even as they sped by. I found myself drawn to photographing the many flowers brought to me to enjoy as I recuperated. It seemed we shared the same fragile and ephemeral nature, at once beautiful yet transitory. I was captivated by the idea that all the many images I took would be the only remaining record of a life at its peak expression, now long gone.


Now more than 10 years later, I continue to teach others to connect to the contemplative mind through the creative process and in turn open space to see more of reality.  This leads to greater clarity and more skillful actions in day to day life.  I am currently offering two classes, Creating as Meditation in Action and Contemplative Photography: Seeing Fresh that cover Shambhala Art (art & meditation teachings) and photography.  There is still time to register for the Creating as Meditation class and the Sunday Contemplative Photography class.

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