I have been slowing or pausing the frequency of my posts and will likely continue that trend for the near future. It doesn’t feel necessary for me to go any more into it at this point, but perhaps another time.
In basic terms, submerging myself in the details of work and choosing to be more highly present with my family is simply taking more time and focus. I have been finding some joy in this mix and not a small piece of me is pleasantly surprised at the fullness of my life at this moment.
So, in reflection of my inward life let me share some photographs I have taken recently, an outward metaphor for the intense density and richness of color that I have been experiencing.
And yes, all of these were taken within the last month. One bizarre day in which the temperature plummeted and left us with five inches of snow overnight, mostly melted and back up the the mid sixties by the following day.
These images are not mine, they were taken on the family ipad by our 3 1/2 year old, and I stumbled upon them recently when I was trying to fix an issue with the device.
Since getting into photography myself I have made some cameras available to my kids as well. For a while the digital camera was more of a curiosity and sough-after play thing than an actual camera. The novelty of what it could do didn’t seem to last too long, unless the other child became interested in it once more that is. Nothing is quite so interesting as what your sister currently has, no matter whether you wanted it three minutes ago or not.
My six year old understands things mechanically, and has a knack for putting together the cause and effect of what is happening. She is the child of endless “why” and “how” questions, and it is through trying to support her in asking those questions that I have learned many interesting things that I never would have thought to ask. She picked up the camera and was quick to start figuring out which button did what. It didn’t take long before she was able to get a good solid picture: subject in the frame, well lit, zoom in if need be.
My 3 1/2 year old shows a much different relationship with the device. With the first digital camera we had, and now with the ipad, I see her off in corners of the room by herself, often looking at things very closely, and working hard to capture something multiple times. She isn’t interested in the technology or the settings. What she is interested in is unclear, but it is obvious to me that she sees something, and feels like this might be a way to capture it.
I am very curious to see if this interest continues or develops. As I have discovered, handing a camera to someone and seeing what comes out is a fascinating way to peek inside their minds, and especially to see a bit through their eyes. I have been self-reflecting through a camera since the end of last year and it is very fun for me to get a quick glimpse inside the head of my middle child.
Yesterday I was able to enjoy an afternoon moment of simple joy. After a couple of difficult days, struggling with home school and work schedule overlaps and uncertainty about both my job and the new normal, I was able to catch a bit of a break.
The weather was amazing, absolutely perfect. Warmer than had been predicted but not hot, clear blue skies, light breeze, perfect.
Two of my three kids were playing in the backyard while I watched. My son slipped on some dry grass that is always the last part of the lawn to turn green, and then grows like crazy all year long. The dry patch had been shedding tiny brown stalks all spring and this gave us all an idea.
Nothing like a bit of natural confetti and moments of down time to experiment with a camera.
It had been a few days since I had really taken any pictures, and longer since I had taken anything that I felt really excited about. Despite the simplicity (or because of it) I found myself enjoying the process, my kids, and the moment all at once. Something I really needed.
Nothing more to be said except that I hope all of you can find a slice of bliss amidst the stress of our shared uncertainty. Shout-out also to Yuri for inspiring in part the idea for throwing things into the air and taking pictures of them with his No Gravity project, though my interpretation wasn’t nearly so daring.
I have been struggling a bit recently with my chosen philosophical paths. There are some lines of thought pulling at me insistently from the edges and it is beginning to be very clear to me that I can no longer ignore them. This is mostly as a fair warning to my current followers that I will probably be diverting further from photography within the next few posts, and possibly longer, as I struggle to figure out just what this line of thinking will lead me to.
Before I get into the specifics of my current mental turbulence, I think it might be helpful for me to dig around a bit and try to pin down what I think both Taoism and Stoicism have to say about the larger question of Ethics, and what it takes to be a good person in the world. What might a higher good look like as a goal to strive for? What does a person need to do or think in order to live a good life? How relative is all of this judgement and how much of it may lie outside of ourselves?
At the core of Taoist thinking is that every unique individual has his or her own path to walk in this life. The work that we all must do if we want to live an engaged, full, aware life, is to get to know ourselves and to find that path, while also learning about the paths of the world around us, and acting in accordance with the natural flow of all things. An interesting twist that takes place here is that our “attuning” ourselves to our own nature isn’t a journey of action, a rerouting of the choices we have made up until now. It is a changing our our perceptions about the world around us and our place in it. It is largely gaining perspective about the true relationships that people, objects and creatures have with one another so that we can align our expectations with the way things really are and will continue to be, whether we go quietly or kicking and screaming.
Humans, and all objects of creation, are naturally disposed to being within their own flow at all times, and the act of us getting back to that isn’t an action of learning more facts, or doing “virtue calisthenics”, it is actually an action that has to do with getting rid of the unbalancing social constructs that we have built around ourselves within society. Dr. Carl Totton, head of the Taoist temple in L.A. has compiled a wonderful summary of key Taoist concepts with some of his colleages in which he describes this processs:
For Lao Tzu the method of happiness lies in attuning and aligning oneself to the eternal principle of the Tao as it manifests through you and all other manifestation. In order to do this we must eliminate desire and attachment, and practice “daily diminishing.”
This journey of “daily diminishing” is aided by practices of observation of the natural world, maintaining curiosity and generosity with others, as well as self-reflection and meditation practices to help us to get in touch with deep aspects of ourselves. None of these activities can be taken for us. A deeper understanding of ourselves and our connection to the world around us is always a personal journey and can only be undertaken individually. We may look to others for inspiration, guidance and support, but they can only ever point us in a direction and offer perspective from their own work. One cannot pass enlightenment or being one with the Tao on to another human being. This is a significant piece of Taoist ethics in my understanding: that one must primarily focus on his or her own journey, and not be too quick (if ever) to pass judgment on the position of others.
This places Taoists in an interesting relationship to society around them. Even though terrible things may be happening around them, a Taoist is likely to remain distanced and somewhat neutral. After all, who are we to judge what is positive and negative. Taoists teach that these energies are really only different aspects of the same energy, and that there is always the seed of one within the other, as depicted within the yin yang symbol. Where we see difficulties in the world there may be other opportunities springing up, or following close on the heels. Where we see pain and suffering there may also be growth and development occurring. Likewise, how often do we pass judgment that things are going well when in fact disaster is looming just on the horizon as a consequence?
Amidst all of these judgments a Taoist is likely to say that we must keep perspective on what we can change, and to understand that our perceptions are limited. We must first focus on ourselves, especially because thinking that we can make better choices is often foolish. Please do misunderstand. Taoists are also very compassionate and kind, and would be quick to offer relief to those who are suffering, and support where they can, but they would not presume to try and “fix” a situation or tell others how it should be handled. At least that is where I am coming up against my reading of the philosophy.
Taoism isn’t a philosophy or religion that proselytizes, due to this ingrained belief that to try and influences other’s on their individual paths is both unhelpful and foolish. How then, could a Taoist be an activist for political or social change? How could a Taoist feel comfortable pushing their ideas of what is better onto other who must come to that understanding for themselves?
I think the particular piece of this equation that is most problematic is something that underpins this idea quoted earlier about “daily diminishing”. Ted Kardesh, another Taoist priest, explains in a later passage from the previous quoted introduction how this works to bring us back to a natural state by returning us to the way we were always meant to be.
Taoism states that all life forces tend to move toward harmony and balance because it is in their nature to do so. From the Taoist viewpoint we, as humans, have the choice of consciously aligning ourselves with the Way, or remaining in ignorance and resisting the natural order of the Tao. To choose the latter means to remain disconnected from our own personal processes, our own Tao, as well as life’s grand flow.
The implication, as I read it, is that humans should naturally be in this state of awareness as part of the larger flow of existence. Indeed, there are many other writers within the tradition who talk about a time prior to now when presumably Taoism wasn’t needed because everyone was simply at one with the world from the beginning.
In a sense, what we are looking at here, is a sort of original sin, in which we are born into a world unbalanced and given the choice to spend our time digging ourselves back to a place where we can reconnect to the source of all things, or to remain in ignorance and suffering. We are born elsewhere and, if we are able, must try and return to a home that we never knew.
Can the ethical base truly be so narrow as to focus on only one person at a time? True, the belief is there that we are all connected to each other and every other aspect of the world. The work that we do to return ourselves to nature is work that is done to everyone and everything, and the benefits resonate. However, there are millions of Taoists in the world including venerated religious leaders, teachers and sages. Presumably they are exhorting a strong influence on the course of the world, and yet we are still in a position where we must begin at ground zero. We are still in a place that must be significantly out of balance if we need to get back to a place that other creatures are simply born into.
I have some thoughts about how I can turn some other key concepts in Taoism into a larger ethical structure, and I will expand on them in an upcoming post. I am skeptical, however, that moving beyond this self-focused perspective would be embraced by other Taoists.
I am sure I am not the only one struggling with questions about what I can do to make positive change in the world during times like these, and I would be curious to hear from anyone who would like to share how they answer this question for themselves.
Light has often been used a metaphor for truth, knowledge and enlightenment. To take it to extreme, we can envision our sun as a representation of “the” Truth, the ultimate conceptualization of reality as we know it.
As humans with a limited perspective on the world around us we continue to search for scraps and clues about the sort of existence we are living. Developing or adopting a philosophy brings with it a road-map to help us make our way at night. When the light of truth isn’t apparent, then our philosophy is like the moon, reflecting the truth to us in the darkness.
Leveraging the wisdom of others we are able to see a path forward as well as some of the obstacles in the way. Philosophy, like the moon, comes to us from a fixed perspective. In order to utilize the knowledge and experience that are contained within, it must necessarily be grounded within a context and history. From this context we can extrapolate about our own lives, but will always come up against areas that our philosophy cannot illuminate.
If we could move the light around at will, we would be able to eventually see all that there is to see, but that just isn’t the way it works. True, with time, the experience of our lives acts as the turning of the earth, and our relationship with our chosen philosophy will naturally change. Over the course of our time in this world we will experience times when our philosophy is bright and clear, and times when it is obscured by clouds. Times when it is waxing and on the ascendance and times when it is waning and about to abandon us to the dark.
Unlike the moon we are not tied to the reflective properties of only one philosophy. We are free to sample from the broad range of human experience and perspective. A key point to keep in mind about life philosophy is that it is meant to be a lived an experienced tradition. The writing and thinking itself cannot provide the same perspective as will come when one takes the time to explore and experience some of the practices in daily life.
Much Western thinking has a problem with identity politics and the need to belong to a specified label in order to fit in. Many people may find it uncomfortable to read works from the thinkers who have come out of other traditions and to adopt practices that don’t easily fit in with how they see their current philosophical or religious identity. Ideas do not come with true labels, however, and the beauty of our situation now, with many people sheltering in place and maintaining their social distance, is that it is a perfect time to indulge in explorations that may not fit comfortably in with what others think of you. Just like the taking on of an extra job outside of your listed career, I encourage anyone to use this time for some philosophical moonlighting.
I, for one, have been thinking quite a lot about my own two poles of philosophy: stoicism and Taoism, chosen because of their strong resonances but also as a conscious split of the “West” and “East”. This, of course, if a false dichotomy. I am very interested in exploring philosophical traditions that have arisen in other cultures which do not have the developed social awareness here in the West, especially African thought. I will hopefully have some more experiences and resources to share as I dig in and see what new perspectives I can find.
Humans will continue to keep asking questions in order to understand the sort of life we are living. The questioning may be very different, but the answer will be the same for everyone. No matter how many moons you have hanging in your sky, then will all be reflecting the same light, and illuminating your path, and showing just a bit more of the landscape we are all wandering within.
I hope that you and yours are well and safe. If you are interested in learning some more about Stoicism or Taoism I can recommend a couple of good introductions for each. If you have a good introductory book for any other school of thought I would love to hear about it and add it to my list, and my collection of moons for this strange dim time.
Making connections between disparate things, be they ideas or objects, has always had a special kind of fascination for me. Unlike comparing apples to apples, I think it can be much more enlightening seeing apples and oranges together.
Keld took up a camera in the late 1930s and never put it down. He seemed to enjoy experimenting with a broad range of subject matter and technique. It seems from what I have yet explored of his images that his approach to photography was about a project much larger than the final result of any given image. He wasn’t trying to create a certain photograph at the end of the day, he was using photography itself as means to explore the world around him in all of its various forms.
His collected photographs are hosted online through the Royal Danish Library. In this time of social distancing and limited ability to get outside and make images of my own, I have found Keld’s images resonate quite deeply with the way I see the world.
There seems to be no organization to the online database of his photos, which highlights to me the eclectic and wide-ranging set of interests that grabbed Keld’s attention. The things that seemed to catch his attention weren’t the subjects of the scene so much as the relationships between various elements. He captured odd angles of buildings, light and angles, shadows of things as opposed to the things themselves, as well as a whole lot of experimentation with light and image made photographically without cameras.
The way he composes scenes showcases a way of seeing that calls to attention gestalt qualities occurring accidentally, unintentional forms arising out of unique arrangements of buildings and industrial forms.
For me, going through the back log of his work has been a surreal and striking experience. Like the interactions between abstract forms in his photographs, I find myself resonating and relating to his work quite strongly. The description that came to mind was described in a paper by Einstein in which he described “spooky action at a distance”, two particles sharing properties and influencing each other without any direct connection, often separated by vast amounts of space.
This is someone who shares a way of seeing that I can relate to. I can imagine myself taking the pictures that he has taken, and I can see what I think he was trying to capture in those same images.
The experience of making these sorts of connections is more than simply camaraderie, more than a knowing wink and a nod. To share this way of seeing with another artist is like being inside of them. It is an experience of deep sympathy and resonance. We are all ultimately looking to know that there are other people in the world who can relate to us in a meaningful way, and I am beginning to see the broad swath of art as the only real means of finding these visceral connections.
In this time while most of us are spending time sheltering in place and keeping our distance from one another. How vital to continue sharing work that can build these connections over great distance and even gulfs of time, so that we can find others that see how we see and let us know that we are never alone.
If nothing else I am about 2000 images into his collection, and there are more than 18,000 hosted to go through, which should keep me busy.
Collection of photographs hosted by the Royal Danish Library. This resource has an incredible amount of collected media beyond images including writing and visual arts. Though much of the site is in Danish, this is still a wonderful place to explore while sheltering in place.
I feel the rhythms of nature tapping me on the shoulder. They call me back to a perceptive state in which I no longer remember what had been simmering at the edges of my mind only moments before.
Hanging in the air, suspended on thermals, our neighborhood turkey vultures come in a disparate flock home to roost each evening. They transpose across the sky without moving, shifted by the winds. Each bird form moving independently but bonded together through the gestalt of the form, remixing the collective abstract notion of “bird” in relationship to the deep sky and waxing moon.
Observing the flocking birds twinges sympathetic images of bubbles forming on our back patio. The ephemeral time-worm-bodies stretching out and defined by unseen currents before ceasing to exist.
The motion of the unseen around me shows itself only as a reflection of a reflection, translated through an interpreter. I may not be able to decipher the causes or the connections, but I am grateful for the attempt at communication. May I continue to be receptive, to recognize the moment, and to be still within the never ending flow.
We have recently had a lot of fox activity around the neighborhood. This isn’t something we have seen in the previous six years of living here and it has been fairy entertaining. There are at least two foxes that come visiting, the bigger of the two usually makes his morning commute through our front yard as we are eating breakfast, and then returns on the other side of the street. Apparently the squirrels in our neighborhood are pretty good pickings.
A couple of days ago we had a gray misty morning that lasted nearly until noon. We saw the neighborhood fox four times that morning, coming by our window and feeling pretty confident with himself, apparently because he felt that he had a bit more cover in that sort of weather.
I had been feeling a bit restless that morning as well and thought that the gray morning might make for some good photography lighting. I had been keeping my eye on a few trees that line the nearby bike path which were always early to bloom in the neighborhood. One of them has wonderful yellow buds that really set it off from the surroundings. I had been looking for an opportunity to get over there and grab a few pictures while the color was good, but things had not been turning out in my favor.
So, this restless morning, I decided to drag my whole family out for a morning walk just so I could photograph one tree.
As often happens when one decides to embark upon an adventure, interesting things are discovered.
As we were fully on the bike path, a third of a mile into our loop and near my photography goal, we saw the second neighborhood fox hanging out off the path, enjoying a freshly caught meal. It didn’t see us at first, and when it did notice me sneaking up with my very-non-zoom-35mm it didn’t immediately run off because it didn’t want to bother having to relocate for brunch.
Despite the fact that I did not have remotely the right equipment for the job I managed to snag a couple of good shots as the animal decided what its next move was going to be. I don’t think I’m going to be investing in a telephoto any time soon, but I did enjoy the thrill of the hunt while I was there. I can certainly see the appeal.
Growing up I struggled to pin down a haven for myself, a place that would be unchanging, a situation that would be predictable. I wanted to have a sense of normalcy in the midst of a world that seemed to be ever changing the rules and scenario.
It has continued to be difficult to pin down any time of my life that I could describe as “normal”. Only in retrospect can I point to periods of time in which I felt like I had a sense of what was going on, a sense of stability. When those times were happening, however, I would not have described them as normal. It is also not these periods that I cherish the most.
Talking about change as a constant has become a pretty throw away piece of conversation. I am in a position at work to coach employees and peers through change, but despite the lip service that we give to the idea that “nothing stays the same”, it continues to be an uphill struggle for all of us to embrace this concept that we cannot hold on to what we think of as normal.
Here’s a slightly different take, however, that has helped me to re-frame it for myself. It is one of the core beliefs of Taoist thought that ties me to the philosophy and continues to challenge my thinking.
In Taoist physics it is understood that everything that exists, every particle of matter, every wave of energy, is connected at the root, is fundamentally the same energy, not separate except in the way that we describe it.
The Way gave birth to unity, Unity gave birth to duality, Duality gave birth to trinity, Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42
This quote from the Tao Te Ching suffers in under the limitations of language. It makes the creation of the universe seem linear in time, when in reality the description of giving birth is more like a continuous process. In the way that the sun gives birth to light.
The myriad creatures (all objects and creatures that we experience in the world) exist but are not separate from Unity. If we are able to look close enough, and quantum physics has proposed the same idea, we would be able to tell that everything is simply energy vibrating at different frequencies, resonating with itself in different ways in order to manifest matter in all kinds of forms.
In metaphorical terms, The relationship of all under heaven to the Way is like that of valley streams to the river and sea.
Tao Te Ching, Chapter 32
This is a beautiful way to think about it. Water cycles, either falling as rain, flowing through streams or collecting in the ocean, perhaps locked in for millennia as ice, or under the earth, but never not water, never not connected to the unity of the water cycle, eventually always flowing back to the source and starting again.
Here, change in the water cycle isn’t a change of adding or subtracting. The water that is here now has been recycled since long before humans, before dinosaurs. Change may alter the course of the water, the specific forms that it takes, but change does not destroy it.
Change in this system is a heart beat, a renewal of the energy so that it does not become stagnant, a bringer of life.
It is the law of conservation of energy, that the grand total of energy and matter in the universe cannot be changed. One may be converted into the other, but the whole unity of existence cannot be diminished, it is always complete.
Tied in with the ever changing forms of matter and energy are our perceptions about these things that make them seem more different than they are. It is our labeling of things are larger and small that make them seem so different, when in reality they share the same energy, are the same source, merely appearing different in the way that we experience them.
There is nothing under the canopy of heaven greater than the tip of a bird’s down in autumn, while the T’ai Mountain is small. Neither is there any longer life than that of a child cut off in infancy, while P’eng Tsu himself died young. The universe and I came into being together; I and everything therein are One.
Chuang Tzu, Chapter 2, Yutang Lin Translation
Embracing contradictions in our understanding of reality is a core concept and skill within Taoism. Our language makes it very difficult to speak about the true nature of things without getting ourselves into horrible tangles. That is a key reason why Taoists spend so much time trying to observe the world around them, to gain understanding beyond words.
If we can embrace even a piece of this understanding it will be possible to see that two truths exist side by side: nothing that exists can remain the same, nothing that exists will ever be different.
Seeking a sense of normal may be a doomed endeavor if we are looking beyond ourselves. Our surroundings, our friends and family, our work and financial situation and any other outward aspects of our lives cannot be depended upon to remain the same. If we need a set schedule and unchanging social interactions then we are destined for trouble adapting in this world.
On the other hand, it can be possible to see things from a different point of view. No matter how much the outward aspects change, the fundamental reality never does. We are all, and always will be, connected at the deepest possible level.
Dimensions are limitless; time is endless. Conditions are not constant; terms are not final. Thus, the wise man looks into space, and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too much; for he knows that there is no limit to dimensions. He looks back into the past, and does not grieve over what is far off, nor rejoice over what is near; for he knows that time is without end. He investigates fullness and decay, and therefore does not rejoice if he succeeds, nor lament if he fails; for he knows that conditions are not constant.
Chuang Tzu, Chapter 17, Yutang Lin Translation
It is not easy to adapt to new situations, but it is much more difficult when we are struggling to back-pedal, to return to a sense of what is normal. Only by exploring and embracing the situation we find ourselves in right now can we embrace what is good, and begin to adjust what we do not like.
Things will not always be pretty or comfortable, but that is just where we are in the cycle. It will not be long before things look different once more, whether due to our perceptions of them or the way that they change around us. Either way, even though there is no such thing as normal, there is also no such thing as abnormal either.
Cameras, like humans, come in a multitude of models, and each model can vary from its brethren when it is combined with a different configuration of lenses, strobes, memory cards, recording equipment or filters. These unique combinations of innate technology and/or mechanics are set up in such a way that they are able to deliver a suite of results based on software settings and configurations that further differentiate them from one another.
Each camera contains these qualities inherently, and retains them regardless of the setting and surroundings. My Fuji X-E1 is capable of capturing images at 16mb with an ISO setting pushed to an extreme of 25600 with a shutter speed set at 4000. It may not create anything other than a blown out white wash, but it might capture the details of something moving quickly at dusk. The results are up to the interpretation of the third party viewer, but the environment doesn’t have any effect on what the camera itself does.
We have our own built in skills and capabilities, and it is important to remember that our surroundings don’t change that. No matter what is happening around us there are somethings that we will always have no matter where we find ourselves.
The camera doesn’t complain that it is only being taken out to do street photography rather than taking pictures of weddings, or landscapes, or families with squirming children. It will always be focused on executing the skills it was created for no matter what is exposed on the film.
The stoics talk about this as duty. One isn’t usually able to choose the job or position that one has in life, but it is important to attend the to duty that one is given as best as possible regardless of what it is.
If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep your own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean – then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.
Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 3, 12
It is easy to frame the events unfolding around us in ways that seem to shape our lives and our options. At any given point in our lives we may be feeling boxed in, or limited in other ways. However, just because we aren’t in the job that we want, or the place we want to be living, doesn’t mean that we can’t execute the skills that we have to the best of our ability.
Cold as it may seem, the perspective I want to focus on is this: the machine can only perform its function, unaware of the context, uninfluenced by the perceived outcome. The camera doesn’t worry whether the image was over or underexposed, or whether the gallery visitors appreciate the composition of images that it created. It is focused on the execution of its duty regardless of the skill with which it is manipulated.
We can choose ourselves how much we need to be influenced by the perceived outcomes of our work and how it is received by people removed from us. We can choose to focus on aspects of our surroundings and circumstances that we imagine to be limiting factors, or simply not ideal. Or, we can keep in mind the purposed to which we are trying to apply ourselves. Perhaps it is artistry, or being a skilled worker, or being a parent who is present and emotionally available.
Regardless of the situation we can choose to focus on how we execute those actions, rather than worrying about what might come of them once they are beyond our control.
Let any external thing that so wishes happen to those parts of me which can be affected by its happening – and they, if they wish, can complain. I myself am not yet harmed, unless I judge this occurrence something bad: and I can refuse to do so.