Photo Story: Post Oak Sunrise

This weekend my wife and I were able to get away from an overnight together and a trail run. We are both distance runners for a variety of reasons. One of them being that it gives us a reason to travel and check out races in parts of the country that we would not normally have occasion to to go to. This began for us as road marathons, and taking part in the 50 state challenge, but in the last few years we have both been enjoying adding trail runs here are there. Not only are they more interesting, they are nearly always more scenic and smaller.

This time around we drove south for a race just outside of Tulsa, OK. The Post Oak challenge is a series of races over three days held at a resort in the mountains overlooking the city.

Due to the timing we arrived in the evening with just enough time to check-in, grab some food and get ourselves to bed, all while it was dark out. The next morning we would be starting out early, hitting at the trail at 7am, just as the sun had come up. I had done the math, and realized that I wasn’t going to have any time to actually take pictures on this trip, but some part of me said: “just bring the camera anyway, who knows”…

As a good omen for our day, and a reward for my decision to bring the camera, we were greeted at the starting line with a gorgeous sunrise coming up over the ridge. It gave us about 8 minutes of good light, just enough time to grab a few shots and appreciate the view before we had to pack our stuff and hit the trail.

As it turns out, I did have the opportunity to take some pictures later. One of the reasons trail running is fun has to do with the challenge of the unexpected. In my time on the trail and the time I had to reflect on not completing my second circuit, I put together several thoughts about what running means to me and how it connects to the bigger picture which I plan to lay out in another “Tao of Glass” post coming up. Until then, here is our good morning good omen sunrise. Hard to beat a day that starts like that.

The Tao of Glass: Critique and Portfolio

The most useful thing I learned during my time at RISD pursuing a continuing education degree in print design, was the art of the critique. In photography the critique comes into play once you have returned home after a nice day hiking around snapping photos. There are some pictures you are pretty sure turned out just the way you want them, and there are often many, many, more that you took because something in them looked interesting at the time, but you’re not sure whether the shot was going to be worth keeping.

The art of critique is the art of knowing what your goal is, reviewing the work in context to the goal, and deciding clearly and definitively whether or not the piece has successfully achieved what you were intending.

Most people do not like this phase because it often seems like a process of focusing in areas where things were not successful, and thus the idea of “being a critic” or “being critical” have come to take on less than positive connotations.

Every time I come back from a shoot there is a wonderful mix of excitement, tinged with just a bit of dread. I can’t wait to see what I got, but secretly I am worried that I didn’t get anything, that all of my shots will turn out to have been unsuccessful.

When looking through images with fresh eyes it is easy to see the winners. When a shot works it usually grabs me, thrills me, and stands out clearly from the rest. These are the shots where I can’t always explain what is going on, but I know it when I see it. Likewise, there are shots that clearly don’t work. These might be out of focus, poorly framed or underexposed. I don’t need to spend much energy looking at these either. Disappointing to be sure, but clearly not worth hanging on to. The art of the critique isn’t to identify the shots I know are winners. The art of the critique is there most often there for me to help weed out the shots that are worth my time and effort, or can teach me something.

I find it is also helpful to think about putting together a portfolio of work. Everything worth keeping should be something that you would be proud to put in your portfolio. Is the image something you feel represents the best of what you have to offer? Would you be proud showing it to strangers? Would you want to hang it on your own wall and look at it daily? Does it represent what you find interesting? If, after asking myself these questions, I say “no”, then what is it that I am doing hanging on to the piece? If I am not happy with it enough to share it with others, or to stand beside it on the wall, then why keep it?

There are many images we take which spark something, but are not that thing in and of themselves. I have taken, and will continue to take, photos of interesting trees, but more often than not they fail to capture what I find interesting in the tree as I see it in person. I can learn from these images, learn from what was not successful, learn from the pieces that were. I can continue to try new ways to frame the shot the next time.

What I cannot do, is hang on to images that I am not planning to use later on. I don’t to post-processing or photo-collage. I can’t see any use for maintaining a generic library of images for reference, and I wouldn’t have the time to maintain it either. For me, either an image is worth keeping, or not, and that is a matter of staying true to what I value and not letting myself feel sentimental about hanging on “just in case”.

It isn’t much of a stretch to see this playing out in other areas of my life as well. One of the most important things we do is make choices about where we spend our time and what we end up doing with that time. Obviously we have work and family commitments to take care of, but within that we have so many choices about how to go about them.

I have been editing the portfolio of my life as consciously as I can during the last few years. Choosing to spend my time outside as much as possible, reading more, eating clean, travelling when I can, spending time with my children and wife, and pursuing a hobby are all core values that drive me and need to be prioritized in my time. I have had to decide to get rid of some things, though I haven’t missed any of them. When taking a moment of reflection I take stock of my time just like I am reviewing new pictures on the computer. How have I been spending my time? Have those choices proved to be positive and beneficial, or have I been frustrated? Are there activities I need to spend more time doing, or activities that I need no longer partake in?

Setting my life up more like a portfolio has had many benefits. I am proud to stand by my activities as my works of art and the time I spend doing them allows me to be more of myself, which allows me to be there for others as well.

Photo Story: Fire in the Cold

I was very disappointed to see temperatures well below freezing in the forecast for my work trip this week. It is when I am on the road and away from home that I have time to spend running outdoors and looking for photographs to capture. While I understand that February in Minnesota is often the coldest month of the year, I still had some hopes built up that this week would give me something a little more hospitable.

Not wanting to spend a long time out in a forest freezing my toes off, I decided to take a few layers and do a quick lap up and down the river.

The two interesting images I came back certainly couldn’t be more different. Above, a detail shot of drifted snow, collected at the side of the path over multiple snow falls and shaped by the winds. Looking at this definitely gives me a strong reminder of the fractal nature of detail in our world. Whether looking through a microscope or looking at the Milky Way, there is so much complexity to be seen at every level. Is this an image of a far away mountain range, or simply a snow bank. Does it really matter?

In comparison to this I noticed a few bushes still clinging to their dried golden leaves. Setting up where I could frame the branches the leaves were able to collect the strong winter light and burst into vibrant orange flames. These struck me with the intensity once I was able to look at them on the screen. Squinting into my viewfinder I was having a hard time not going a bit snow-blind.

Cognitive Dissonance as Foundation for Taoist and Stoic Practices

Before digging into this piece I wanted to call attention to the person who helped spark the discussion. Alex MacLellan is the creator and host of the Stoic Psychologist podcast. He is a student of psychology himself and uses his show to highlight the intersections between psychology, especially cognitive behavioral psychology, and Stoicism. He has presented at Stoic Week and has recorded some wonderful interviews with leaders in the modern Stoic movement. I highly encourage anyone interested in this suite of ideas to give his shows a listen.

After hearing an episode he did digging into some questions about Cognitive Dissonance Theory, I was inspired to dig deeper into how this concept might relate to something that I see going on as a foundation within both Taoism and Stoicism. One final note is that my personal focus is on these two philosophical traditions, I think that much of what I discuss here applies to any tradition that shares the same focus, such as Buddhism, contemplative Christianity, etc, but I will only be referring to my chosen philosophies here for simplicity.

Cognitive Dissonance

Before I get any further I would like to lay out a basic idea of what I am talking about when I am talking about cognitive dissonance. There is a quite good Wikipedia article that lays out the history and scope of this psychological theory, along with several refutations that have been proposed over the years. It also includes links to several of the key scientific findings that have helped to develop and challenge aspects of this theory. I am not a psychologist or a scientist, and I will be approaching this from a broader perspective of key mechanics at play that I think most people will be able to recognize from moments of their own experience as humans.

Cognitive dissonance is essentially the situation of believing something, while acting in a way that seemingly goes against that belief. Common and striking examples might be: the person on a diet who ends up eating a donut for breakfast, the person who champions sustainability causes while not taking their reusable shopping bags to the market with them and bringing home a plastic one, or the person who complains of feeling stuck in a situation but then refuses to take advice in order to remove themselves from that situation.

Of course not every example of cognitive dissonance is negative is the same way as the above situations might convey. There are countless micro decisions that we make each day about our lives, and inevitably we find ourselves making choices which might seem at odds with the larger set of values that we say we ascribe to.

Cognitive dissonance isn’t passive however. It occurs reflexively within our brains as we are making the decisions and immediately afterward. Our minds seem to automatically correct for this dissonance as it occurs. Some of the scientists theorize that this is necessary for us to do in order to preserve the ongoing narrative we tell ourselves about who we are. If we were to absorb every inconsistency it would destroy the narrative, and would harm our ability to hold driving beliefs about ourselves. This narrative shapes the trajectory of our lives and allow us to maintain relationships with others.

This is because our internal values are based upon the limited scope of experience we have in the world. Each of us builds our own scaffolding within which we are able to have a personality and identity based on the life we have lived. Exposure to new people and new situations will always have the potential to challenge our currently held beliefs, which will automatically trigger dissonance.

There are several ways in which a person will account for and adjust to the dissonance as it occurs. They may accept the new information by adjusting their internal values and expectations. They may reject the new information outright and essentially pretend that they never heard it. They may also justify the new information in a way that allows them to hold the two opposing sets of information at the same time, or create a temporary set of beliefs so that current information can be treated as an anomaly.

In the majority of cases the level of dissonance barely registers. It might be the decision about which type of cereal to buy (low sugar or low cost?) that will resolve itself without a significant awareness of discomfort. There has been some study to outline a basic framework for how strongly any given instance of cognitive dissonance will appear to the individual. Stronger instances of discomfort will arise when the beliefs being challenged are deep-seated and tightly held, or closely tied to a sense of identify. The stronger the dissonance spike the more drastic the likely adjustment. These strong reactions may drive real change in core beliefs or changes in habitual actions, but they can also trigger equally strong retreats into current beliefs and strong rejection of new information.

Another interesting finding is that cognitive dissonance cannot be thought of as a single instance at all, with each individual discrepancy registering separately. No, it seems that each instance builds upon the rest, creating what could be thought of a cognitive dissonance “load” on the person over time. The greater the number of beliefs being challenged throughout the day and the greater the number of adjustments that are being made even if they are micro adjustments, creates a baseline level of psychological stress within the individual.

Consequences of Cognitive Dissonance

Carrying around a heavy load day in and day out requires real energy and mental bandwidth. When challenged with new information and given the opportunity to experience new things, the person who is already burdened will likely opt for a familiar place where they are unlikely to be challenged. It becomes harder to take in new information, and while juggling the ongoing subconscious battle it becomes nearly impossible to appropriately weigh challenging arguments in a light of true impartiallity.

I think that this is easily seen in many corners of western society at present, perhaps most significantly within the political realm. We cannot be an expert on all areas of knowledge required to judge many of the situations happening in our world on a daily basis, but our unprecedented access to 24/7 news and research exposes us to an unending stream of information that must be processed subconsciously even if we don’t take the time to critically think about it consciously. The load builds up in each of us one drip at a time.

No wonder, then, that people must find safe spaces in which their own core values are reflected back at them. Perhaps this is part of the recent talk about tribes, and the importance of finding other like minded people. It can be seen as an escape, as burying one’s head in the sand, but I think it bears acknowledging that we are all guilty, and without the protected space in which we can relieve some of this load, we will not be able to put in the work on actually addressing moments of dissonance that will have more influential consequences for our future actions.

Like all things, the nature of the phenomenon itself can be neither good nor bad, only our reaction to it, the way in which we handle it, can be judged beneficial or harmful to ourselves. If we retreat into our tribes and help to build walls against those who think differently, then we are only making it more difficult to get ourselves out of that box once more. What I am interested in exploring from here on out is how cognitive dissonance can be the foundation for self-improvement.

Cognitive Dissonance as Conscience

What we are talking about here is really the natural self-correcting process by which we notice where our thoughts and actions might not be in alignment. By another name we might call this conscience in action, the green cricket that sits on our shoulder and points out that maybe we ought to rethink the way we are going about our lives. One of the first skills often talked about in relationship to mediation is the ability to be aware of one’s own thoughts. If we do not pay attention to our own thoughts how can we be expected to begin changing them? If we do not realize that our actions and values are not in alignment, how do we go about evaluating them?

In order for this system to work in our favor, it must be able to give us a clear signal that will spur us into positive change. From what we have talked about earlier, the clearest signals come when the values in play are strongly held and core to our sense of self. Both Taoism and Stoicism use techniques to help us get in touch with our own individual nature. The core goal for each of them is to help us live in alignment with our own selves and the nature of the world around us. By increasing awareness of ourselves through meditation, daily journalling practices and qigong we more consciously review and assess our values.

A common Taoist meditation focuses on the idea that we can “turn the light around” and try to look at the source of where our thoughts and beliefs are coming from. Meditation not only guides us to more thoughtfully consider our values in an active way, but it also seems to help in reducing our overall mental load, helping to open up more bandwidth that then allows us the space to hold these beliefs and examine them in a more comfortable way, rather than letting the automatic activities of cognitive dissonance file them away for us.

By examining our values in this way they become more crystallized and more clear, which strengthens the cognitive dissonance as it occurs. For me it is similar to what has occurred during my adoption of a basic stretching routine. As I slowly work my muscles and build up more familiarity with the way that my body feels, it has also become much more clear for me to notice when I am feeling stiff, or when something is out of alignment in my posture. This sets off the foundation of a virtuous cycle within my body. I am more sensitive to bad posture, which then triggers me to adjust my posture so that I no longer feel the discomfort, which aids long term in the maintenance of good posture overall.

By using the tools of Taoism and Stoicism to examine and strengthen our values, we also strengthen the internal mechanism which helps us to notice and self-correct these values as well as our actions.

This system isn’t just a system of guardrails, it is actually the system by which we integrate new information and adapt to it. We cannot adjust our perspective with new information without challenging it against our current beliefs. Taken another way, we cannot grow and evolve our values unless we expose them to information not already known to us.

Taoism has a lot to say about curiosity, and I think this is a place where it comes uniquely into focus. It is good to have a clear set of values and to live by them, but can we really know how clear or steadfast those values are if we do not expose ourselves to new information? Curiosity is a virtue in an of itself because the more we learn about the world and people around us, the more information we have about ourselves. When we expand ourselves beyond our “comfort zone”, is this not just another way to describe putting ourselves into the path of cognitive dissonance intentionally?

One final aspect of cognitive dissonance that I want to highlight in a positive way is that most often our values are challenged and adjusted automatically. There will be times during which we will be able to sit consciously with our values, but more often then not they are being adjusted subconsciously in the background of our everyday lives. Building a strong value foundation through Taoist or Stoic practices not only strengthens the ability of our conscience to alert of potential issues, but it also helps our subconscious system to better self-correct. The deeper and more clear our values are, the simpler it will be for our minds to sort them and course-correct in an appropriate way. Rather than rejecting information and building walls, we will be able to absorb and adjust while having the humility to learn and grow, knowing where our core values begin and end.

Another positive outcome of all this is that I believe it provides for a reduction in cognitive load. When we can clearly articulate our values and core beliefs we will have less cause to spend time spinning our mental wheels and enduring the psychological stress caused by carrying these discrepancies around in our minds. Perhaps one piece of enlightenment is simply the expansive mental resources we have at our disposal when they aren’t being constantly used to try and figure out who we think we ought to be in any given moment.

Key Concept, or The Concept?

Taoism and Stoicism both value having clear perceptions of the world around us and our relationship to it. In order to do this and to live a skillful or virtuous life, we must constantly work to learn who we are, what we value, and how to live in accordance with our own nature. I think it is clear that the mechanism of cognitive dissonance is tailored for exactly this process. We seem to be naturally built to do this for ourselves. It is hardwired into our minds and has been documented and studied for decades, with much more left to describe.

If this is the underlaying psychological mechanism that allows us to take in new information and reform our sense of who we are, isn’t that more than just a helpful way to describe the process?

If we are to think about the scope of where things fit in, should we be thinking about cognitive dissonance as an aspect within these philosophies? Would it not be more appropriate to say that Taoism and Stoicism are the initial steps we use in order to build our cognitive dissonance muscles?

This is certainly a discussion I would like to explore further in another post, because I think it may have some interesting implications for how we think about the position of philosophy within our lives and.

Curiosity and Kindness

If nothing else I wanted to use this post as a way to point out that Taoism and Stoicism seem to be pointing the way we are built to go naturally. By following the helpful guidance of these philosophies we can strengthen an internal system that, like a muscle, will become even stronger with use, and will make the work of self discovery easier along the way.

In order to take advantage of it we need only look to some core beliefs while treating ourselves with kindness. Like any workout regimin it might be awkward and painful at first. We may not look quite as good in the mirror as we imagine ourselves standing next to other sages in the gym mirror, but if we don’t take those first steps we will never discover the further benefits.

Once we are on the track, all that is required is that we continue to approach the world with curiosity, open to new experiences, and seeking out things that we do not already know.

Of all the values that I would like to be known by, I think that kindness and curiosity are pretty good ones. Thanks for reading, and please, let us make this a conversation. I would love to hear if this resonates with you or inspires follow-up thoughts.

The Tao of Glass: Manual Focus Lens Qigong

After my initial foray into photography armed only with my cell phone camera, I decided it was time to step up to a “real” camera. I didn’t take this transition lightly, as the next logical step in my photographic journey, or because I was told that one needs to use a more expensive camera in order to take good pictures, or to call oneself a photographer.

My choice was driven by two major factors, and was the result of plenty of research.

First, and not quite as important in the scheme of things, is that I learned that megapixels were not all created equal, and that the 12 megapixel cell phone camera wouldn’t produce the same quality of a 12 megapixel full frame, AP-C or Four-Thirds camera sensor. Having a bit more image processing power allows me to get images that look great even when printed large, which is a nice bonus.

The real reason I wanted to get a manual lens has to do with control and the potential to learn.

Using my cell phone camera I was able to affect two out of three critical functions that go how an image is exposed. I was able to adjust the ISO sensitivity for the sensor and I was able to adjust the shutter speed, or how long the sensor is exposed to light when it takes a picture. What I couldn’t change, however, was the aperture setting, or how wide the opening is that allows light to enter.

With a manual lens I am able to adjust all of these settings on my own in a fluid way. This gives me more control over the outcome of the final image, which is obviously a consideration, but consider this as well.

The lens I have has no automatic parts, so my input in the process is not optional.

To be quite clear, there are plenty of automatic adjustments and features that take place within my camera. I am not shooting film and have immediate access to the results of each shot as it is taken. The digital viewfinder and rear LCD screen show me the results of the adjustments I have made as I make them using the lens.

In the few weeks that I have had this lens and been able to spend some time shooting with it, I have come to fall in love with the process. This is exactly the experience I was hoping for, and one that reinforces my decision to take this path with my art.

Operating the lens and setting up a shot have quickly become a matter of touch and muscle memory, rather than mental calculations. I am not thinking about specific ISO settings or shutter speeds as I adjust the dials, except for knowing whether or not they need to be stepped up or down, and training my fingers to start making these changes without needing to pull my eye away to look at the camera itself.

Taoism has a very long tradition connecting the philosophical ideas to all aspects of life, including nutrition and physical exercises, which fall under a broad and dynamic umbrella of activities known as Qigong, or roughly energy work. Some of these are very simple, gentle and slow stretching and breathing exercises, while other qigong practices range into rigorous martial arts routines, complex Taichi routines and feats of seemingly inhuman endurance.

My limited experience with Qigong, specifically basic Taichi practice and yoga, remind me quite a bit of my time spent with the manual lens while out taking pictures.

I mentioned earlier that using the lens has built up a feel for the practice. Qigong in all forms builds a similar familiarity and “feel” for our own bodies. After having built up only a small sustained practice it becomes easier to notice when things are not in balance within yourself. As your muscles loosen up, it is easier to tell when they become stiff. This awareness is akin to the use of the lens in another very beneficial way. Not only am I aware when things are not exposed within the image the way that I want, I am also able to make those adjustments and corrections unconsciously. Qigong allows us to do the same. When we feel our bodies out of balance we can go back to our routines to help get back on track.

Taoism, in its embracing of this holistic toolkit, helps us to build reflexive and ingrained “muscle memory” as we work to follow our own paths. By spending time thinking about who we are, how we are striving to grow, and how we are feeling physically, we can more quickly identify when things are out of balance, and work to correct them by keeping to our usual practices.

Going manual is not possible in our complex reality in every part of our lives, but I encourage everyone to find at least one practice in which they can “go manual”. Qigong, like all pieces of our unique path in life, isn’t regulated to a strict set of practices, rather it is unique for each person. For me, working the manual lens is qigong, a chance to use my body, mind and subconscious as one, to deepen my understanding of myself, and to set a baseline for balance in my life. I hope that everyone can find something equally helpful.

Photo Story: Passing Again and Again

The images posted along with this entry don’t have a specific story, but they do share a common set of qualities. All of them are images taken within the confines of a very small garden/park plot that sits about three fourths of the way to my daughter’s school. The park is very small, just a landscaped garden patch about five feet by two feet filled with wildflowers.

We pass this park twice a day when we are going on foot. Most of the time we do not stop at all, though occasionally it is a chance to take a tiny detour.

Each time we pass by, no matter how many days in a row I have looked, I see something new. The light changes slowly, and the weather brings new dimensions. Overcast or sunny, whether it has been wet or super cold, these are all factors that play into what I see. Beneath all of this, the relentless slow growth of the plant itself, even now in winter, buds slowly developing, leaves clinging or falling, continues to offer new perspectives.

I have been taking note, and waiting for the moments that we do stop to climb the single tree with a branch placed ideally for small children, so that I can try to capture just a piece of what I notice in passing.

The universe is in the details, and even the smallest patch contains its own worlds full of detail. Adventure travel is one thing, but passing by the wonders on our daily route may be a bigger missed opportunity.