Tag Archive: contemplative photography


Little things

Starfish

I spent a week playing on an Koh YaoYai in Thailand.  This is a beautiful little island, not as well known as some of the others and so not crowded and not quite so touristy.  I was able to wander about, take trips on the long-tail boats to other islands and generally explore.  The scenery was magnificent, and I did take a couple of hundred photos of amazing islands leaping from the water, but in the end it is always the little things that fascinate me.

Half the joy of life is in little things taken on the run… but let us keep our hearts young and our eyes open that nothing worth our while shall escape us.

Victor Cherbuliez

I spent ages wandering along the beach looking at the tiny shells, the small crabs and enjoying how they fit so well into the environment.

Snorkelling gave me the chance to look beneath the surface – and now an underwater housing for the camera on is my wish list. Beneath the surface so much life occurs, and we are so unaware of it.  However, I also explored the mangrove forest from the sea and found this energetic mangrove snail, hiding from predators and looking for food. These are perennial pursuits for all of us – safety and nourishment.

Mangrove snail

A walk around one of the islands hit by the tsunami revealed this beautiful little fossil shell, uncovered by the waves after millenia of hiding.

Fossil shell

And what is an island without a beach?  Again though, the small waves caught my attention, the force land and sea exert on each other to create a changed state.  Small, but persistent and finally creating a new beach, new sand, new motion.

 

Looking for the little things that make up our world keeps me balanced.  Not everything has to be bigger than Ben Hur to be wonderful.

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Lotus Light

Temples bring out the contemplative, even if we have no clear or strong beliefs.  The years of meditation, saturation with prayers, blessings, pleas all linger and create a place where we can slow down and look inwards.

Symbolic

Again it seems no matter what our beliefs, we relate to symbols very strongly.  In the business world, we look at logos; in the physical realm we see symbolism in mountains or oceans or rivers; in our homes, the symbols of peace or love can be many – from Nanna’s favourite piece of crystal sitting on a shelf to a special mug we use for a warm drink.  Religious symbols connect us to a spiritual world and create meanings within ourselves, not always dependent on how the priests or religious leaders interpret them.

Prayer wheels and flags

We have many ways of sending our thoughts into the universe.  Through formal church or temple rituals, through personal meditations, through feeling the beauty of what is around us in our hearts and minds.  No matter the form, for me it is the connection to something deep within myself that relates to the universe that is important.  This connection should create peace, within ourselves and maybe across our relationships with all others.

Fire prayers

What I have found fascinating though, is that all spiritual experiences seem to deepen when there is fire present.  Candles, campfires, incense, fireplaces… wherever there is flame it seems as if a part of us meditates.

The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.

Ferdinand Foch

The gentle prison

                                               I existed in a world that never is – the prison of the mind.   Gene Tierney

It seems to me that no matter how much we long for freedom we continue to create our own prisons.  They are such enticing and seductive prisons as well. Prisons such as the bonds of love and friendship, gaols of goals, cells of comforts.

I’m watching a friend struggle with the end of a relationship, clearly one in which she wasn’t valued and respected as an individual.  Her desire to make this relationship work, to finally gain love and warmth reflects my own struggles. A desperate need for belonging and love fetters our emotions and deprives us of autonomy.  Even within a good relationship, we lose some levels of freedom.  We choose to limit ourselves to the codes of conduct of those relationships.

I have been extraordinarily lucky to have been enriched by many friends.  But these people, people I love and care about, also confine me.  Their love and companionship warm and delight my soul at the same time as they prevent me from furthering my internal self-exploratory adventures. Our joint activities, our long afternoons and evenings of talking and laughing, limit my ability to meditate, create, write and dream.

My desires to expand and develop also create boundaries. If I am to reach goals I have set for myself, then I have to ignore competing pathways, reject competing interests.  How much do these self-imposed bars prevent me from growing?  These decisions are usually sensible, logical, well-reasoned – but they mean choosing and rejecting.  What if the path fails to take me to the planned destination?  What have I lost by creating these limits?

Work, even work we love, creates more cells for incarceration. I enjoy eating, travelling, drinking fine wine, reading and taking photographs.  All of these pursuits require money.  Work enables me to enjoy them, but confines my days, pushes my thinking in certain directions.  I have broken some work chains, but the necessity for at least some money equals the necessity for some level of imprisonment.

The locks we surround ourselves with can be beautiful. Family,friends and dreams are  vital, important and so wonderful.  But they are still limits that require us to waive some of our freedom.

Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.   John F Kennedy
Conformity is what society requires of us – to conform allows us to fit in, to be accepted, to uphold the norms and mores.  We are aprt of it all, and not alone. Work requires conformity, to enhance and make production efficient. Love requires us to conform to make everything peaceful. Our goals require us to conform to the steps to reach them.  We want to conform to be accepted seen as valuable and worthwhile.

These bars and cells are our own choices.  The biggest difficulty we face in wanting to choose freedom is the idea of hurting others. The idea of being seen as selfish, egotistical, uncaring.

The question then becomes, how many bars are essential? Which bars on this warm and wonderful prison can I remove? How much freedom do I want?

I’ve just finished a really busy semester, with work, coaching, judging, social activities, writing, editing, studying, visitors, friends, family and many other commitments.  I love the feeling of being important in people’s lives, just as I want them to know how important they are in my life. I enjoy being involved in making even a small differnce around me.

But this level of commitment also creates a serious lack of alone time, a curtailing of freedom, and a realisation I lose myself in the process.

Creating the freedom I look for means saying no.  It means limiting the connections and commitments.  Saying no to friends and colleagues is not easy.  It makes me feel ungrateful for teh richness of my life.

And the gain in freedom means the loss in relationships. Real freedom, total freedom, no ties, no commitments also means no love, no belonging.  This is a fearful prospect. One few humans are destined to survive.

How much freedom is important?  This is a question that can only be answered individually, and must be answered almost every day. Each choice we make limits our freedom in one way or another.  Each relationship, each commitment creates another link in our chains.  I love those links.


Looking for difference

You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one, each day brings a miracle of its own. Paulo Coelho

Blue leaves?  What why, who, how?  I have no answers to these questions, but being different, they definitely pulled my eye.

Individually and as a society we grow when we embrace the differences.  No progress is made unless we think differently, act differently.  No inventions, no new ideas, no philosophies are created without difference.  And yet we are so afraid of it.

Our social structure requires conformity, our families ask us to fit in, our workplaces promote conformist slogans that tell us to focus our attention in one direction.  There is no reward for difference, but it is the foundation of our civilisation.

How do we manage this tension? How do we live different lives without being seen as rebels, pariahs, weird, eccentric, odd, selfish, egotistical, unrealistic, dreamers, and all of the other epithets that are flung at those who do not walk the same path? To walk this path requires strength and determination. It requires an ability to believe that even if we do not conform to the expected, to the norms society and our family and friends place around us, we are still of value.

Believing we are valuable seems to me to be the hardest challenge for those who step away from the common path.  We can convince ourselves of our internal value “I am a good person” etc.  But when we are faced with the strange looks, the pain of family and friends who do not understand our choices, the laughter of workmates when we propose new ideas, the subtle distancing of others – how do we convince ourselves that we are still of value and offering value?

Walking the expected path feels safe, conforming to norms makes it easy for us to live within our group. There is danger and doubt in difference.

The only validation I can give myself is that if I conform, if I step away from my own choices and live the life others believe is good and proper, then I lose myself.  I am no longer me, and therefore no longer valuable to myself or society.  I become fodder for whatever ideology is around me, a cog in an economic machine, and an acquiesent supporter of conformity and fear.

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.   Friedrich Nietzsche

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m experimenting with my camera to encourage me to look at things differently.  Each week I am setting myself a ‘task’ – use only the 28mm lens, take movement photos, only take images of 2- and 3-wheel transport etc.  These experiements teach me more about my camera and lens, teach me about techniques and thinking about what I want each image to be, rather than taking photos of everything that takes my eye.

Have I missed having my ‘walkabout’ 18-270mm with me at times?  Too right.  Do I want to take a different view sometimes?  Yes I do.  But for now the learning is outweighing the missed opportunities.

I’m not only experimenting with my camera and my vision here, I am also experimenting with life.  So many opportunities are outside my windows.  So many paths available for walking.  Right now, I have chosen a path, and set a particular aim.  Once that aim is completed, then the path can veer in any direction and I will experiment with a new world, new ideas, new beginnings.  My current path was a huge veer from the ‘safe’ path of gov’t official, safe job, busy social life, close to family and friends. I learned many many things on that path,  had wonderful experiences but also found areas within myself that were not fulfilled.  The need to experiment grew stronger and stronger until it was an imperative.  So I took the plunge – safely at first, leaving the way open to return to my previous life.  But the more I travelled down the experimental path, the less the previous life fit me.  I finally left it behind althogether, and closed one of the ‘safety’ doors.  Other ‘safety’ doors remain open – family and friends will always be my lifelines, my beacons if and when the new paths become too dark.

What did this experiment teach me? Adaptability, confidence, self-reliance, independence and more about myself.  What will the next path teach me?  I have no idea – but whatever it is, it will be valuable and I will be glad that I experimented with life once more.

Beauty 3

Inside the bell - the beauty of age.

Still looking at beauty and where we find it.  I love the colours of rust, the textures and stories that I can conjure from them.  This is an image from inside the bell at Qinglong Temple in Xi’an.

Each temple and city in China traditionally had a bell and drum tower.  The bell was rung in the morning, the drum at dusk.  A lovely way to mark the beginning and end of the day.  Most of these are now just ornamental, their purpose being taken over by watches and clocks.

Can we find beauty in the disused, outdated and time-worn?  I think so. The beauty is in the colours of the past, the textures of the disuse and the stories they could tell if we listen carefully enough.

Out to pasture

Most photographers love photographing the faces and hands of the elderly – and I guess for pretty much the same reasons.  Those faces and hands can tell so many stories and those stories can enrich our lives so much.  History is written for us to see in the eyes, wrinkles, knotted fingers.   Babies and littlies are sweet, but their faces, as yet, tell us little.

I can find beauty, even in death, if it is surrounded by life.  A well-lived life, with work  done, goals achieved and loves fulfilled, is not sad in death, but beautiful.  The death of an old tree in a  forest surrounded by young trees, speaks of the wheel of time, the ever-renewing face of life.

QingLong Temple bell

Beauty can be found in the old and forgotten.  It can be found in rust and cracked paint. It can be found in death.

Beauty 2

They’re pylons, generally seen as excrescences on our landscape, marching across hills, through farmlands, carving their way into wilderness.  Not seen as beautiful – necessary, ugly, perhaps dangerous with their radiation.  Visual pollution.

These pylons in Guangdong have been beautified – given multi-coloured coats of paint.  Why?  Does it change their essential starkness?  Someone, somewhere, thought that even this sign of modernity could be made more beautiful.  And in doing so, gave a little light relief to travellers on a long road trip, maybe changed the perspective of some.  Someone cared enough to spend money on painting pylons.

This caring, this expenditure, says something important.  Even the ugly, the plain, the utilitarian, can be given a coat of beauty.  And in doing so, greater beauty is created.  The spirit that created this idea is seen.  The essence of the object is changed. Possibilities have been seen.

What else can make these objects beautiful?

Their role in our lives.  Our perceptions. Carrying power to remote areas, giving light and heat to houses, generating power for industries that help feed workers and their families.  The promise of  future work or comfort for rural dwellers.

Even if these robotic soldiers of progress can despoil our landscapes, their lines of connection have to be eradicated from so many images, they pose danger if misused; they still have a beauty in strength, promise and use.  Someone somewhere saw this, wanted to change our perspective, wanted to create beauty from utility.

Looking at ugly, plain, utilitarian, practical with other eyes can show us a different beauty.

Shadows of life

The last few weeks have been difficult creatively. I came back from Australia ‘photo’d out’, with close to 4000 images to work through, and no energy to make  a  big effort.   I also came back very confused about my direction.  So much desire to go back to Australia to be close to my family and friends, but at the same time, still really enjoying my life and my work here.  And of course my family and friends are suggesting that I return. Internal conflict, the tension of competing desires left me with no focus, no vision.  So I felt pretty blocked emotionally and work-wise.  Photoshop also threw a tantrum and decided to lose a couple of fairly vital bits after I had a friend go through my computer to free up space.  Not being able to work is as bad as not wanting to work!

But a friend visiting from overseas pulled me out of my ‘no more photos’ funk, taking me to local places I hadn’t been to for a while, and giving me a chance to see things with new eyes again.  And then spring came, albeit with a pretty chilly wind as well.  The sheer gorgeous-ness of flowers in spring forces its way into the consciousness, and demands to be seen, appreciated and for me, recorded.

Working came before the inspiration, and resulted in a renewal of a desire to experiment with my camera.  Even without of the full sun of inspiration, I could still see and feel the importance of getting out there with my camera and working from the ‘dark side’. Once we begin work in the ‘dark side’, it allows us to see the shadows and express them.

Added to these influences, I read Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art’. This book names and shames the resistances within us that prevent us from working, from creating.  It is pretty direct, which is sometimes what is needed.  The basic message of ‘get off the backside, quit the excuses, NOW’ is definitely necessary some days.

Waiting for the sun of inspiration will not open the doors of creativity.

Beauty

 

I’ve been wandering around museums and mausoleums lately and have been struck by the drive for beauty that seems to be innate.  Even back in Neolithic times, when, we imagine, life was more difficult, more primitive, more survival oriented than today, women still carved bone into hair decorations.

Our need for beauty that we create extends to everyday implements. If we need to identify our belongings, to me a simple mark would have been enough and efficient.  But instead from the beginning of thought we have created beauty with our markings.

 

Houses have been decorated as well – it seems that to create beauty for ourselves is an incredibly strong motivation.  This goes beyond identity, beyond practicality and into the realms of the spirit.  But most decorations aren’t based on a religion or pleasing the gods, but deeper into our own spirituality.  We create beauty to make our lives more meaingful, to add something beyond what is necessary to survive.

From adorning ourselves to adorning the world around us, from art to music, photography to sculpture, painting to collage, needlework to architecture, from gardens to natural scenery – we have a drive for finding and holding beauty.

Beauty is within us and is reflected by our external creation, by our search for it.

The ideal space

I think that the ideal space must contain elements of magic, serenity, sorcery and mystery.
Luis Barragan

Queensland is pretty well inundated. Huge areas of land are underwater and it is still raining.  It’s raining so heavily that the mountains surrounding my sister’s place have disappeared and even the neighbours only a couple of hundred metres away are misty. The roads are cut and I am stranded here for another couple of days at least, until the rain stops and the floods recede.

However, it is a very comfortable stranding for me.  I have no real responsibilities – no crops to be destroyed, no work I can’t reach.  We’ve stocked up with food from the local supermarket, and have books, movies, cards and each other to keep ourselves occupied.  I have no young children here to keep entertained and from climbing the walls.  My sister and brother-in-law work from their computers, so I have long periods of uninterrupted ‘alone’ time.  So, for a flood experience, it is the ideal space.

This enforced period of stability is lovely. I can work on some projects, read, drift off to sleep, chat and relax after a long semester and a, so far, very busy holiday.  Virginia Woolf called for a room of one’s own, but for me, with plenty of rooms of my own, it is time for myself.  Time to contemplate, time to read, time to be alone. Uninterrupted time to be at peace.

The nuns at Chenrezig have their time for meditation and the meditation room is filled with the sense of peace.  I am not a strong religious observer of any particular brand of religion, but I have found that when I am in a religious space, no matter mosque, temple, monastery, church, synagogue etc, there is a pervading sense of peace.  The peace creates the ideal space to be serene and relaxed, allowing a sense of well-being to reach inside.

This ideal space has given me the chance to let everything else go, to just be.  And after a period of time, the serenity and the emptiness of letting go gradually becomes a space to find the magic – new ideas and new creativity.  I start to feel a new energy and clearer, stronger resolutions for my goals. Without this peace, I feel as if I bounce from activity to activity, idea to idea, person to person.  I achieve all of the things I am supposed to – work, deadlines for articles, social activities etc.  But nothing new and creative can fight through the busyness, can be heard above the daily hubbub.

The beauty surrounding me create a balm for city-tired eyes and ears.  The low hills, extensive gardens, trees close by, birds and native frogs calling and even the constant rain change my world view. Pollution and poverty are far away, politics and power struggles recede into the distance.  The sorcery of nature takes over and clears my eyes and I can look for the small beauties. The natural sorcerer transmutes my daily concerns into internal and external discoveries in this ideal space.

And the mystery of the ideal space – where and how to find it on demand!  The choices necessary to go to the space are difficult.  They mean saying ‘no’ to people I hope I can help create a new life; saying ‘I need to be alone, I don’t want to come” to my family and friends and most of all they mean saying ‘Relaxation is not watching a TV series or reading a crime novel while eating nibblies and having  a glass of good red. Real relaxation is meditation and allowing nothingness to occur’ to myself.

This ideal space – time to be quiet – is so rare, and finding a way to increase it is one of my biggest challenges. I can’t rely on being stranded in lovely surroundings all the time!