Seeking Compassion in Stoicism

When I finally started reading some of the key Stoic writers in my journey to better understand the philsophy, I was quickly struck by a recurring pronouncement of empathy and compassion for one’s fellow man.

I had come to the philosophy with a partial and flawed understanding that the philosophy was primarily focused on distancing oneself from emotions and the influence of other people. The impression that many people have is that to be stoic is to be untouched by the good and the bad that happens to you, and to those around you.

My early encounters with the text, however, brought up many quotes that I found surprising given this preconception that I had come in with. Stoicism as espoused by Marcus Auralius is not only a way of living that encourages one to take the perspective of others regularly, but it also calls on Stoics to minister to their suffering brethren. A sentiment that rings more closely to what I am used to hearing as a trait of Christianity.

One of my favorite passages from Marcus, as with all his writings, was something he wrote to put a check on himself, to make sure that he was keeping his mind on service to his duties and humanity.

How have you behaved up to now towards gods, parents, brother, wife, children, teachers, tutors, friends, relations, servants? Has your principle up to now with all of these been to ‘say no evil, do no evil’? Remind yourself what you have been through and had the strength to endure; that the story of your life is fully told and your service completed; how often you have seen beauty, disregarded pleasure and pain, forgone glory, and been kind to the unkind?

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 5, 31

In the same breath as he talks about how he has treated those around him he also mentions being unmoved by pleasure or pain. These two concepts, of being both immune to the influence of emotion, and compassionate to our fellow man, are not mutually exclusive.

Below all aspects of Stoicism runs a current of thought in which we understand that our emotional reactions to things are based on our own judgement about those things. If we understand that we have the power to adjust our responses to the world, then all manner of things that happen to or around us lose their power to make us unhappy.

I am able to form the judgement that I should about this event. If able, why troubled? All that lies outside my own mind is nothing to it.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 7, 2

Marcus was an Roman emperor and writes a lot about dealing with difficult people, both friends and enemies. His version of compassion if often tilted quite strongly towards tolerance of individuals whom he might otherwise find difficult to deal with. Though some people might feel that this perspective is a bit weak, far from the sort of warmth we often associate with compassion, I would argue that true tolerance of any other person is an incredibly difficult and generous stance to strive towards.

Men are born for the sake of each other. So either teach or tolerate.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 8, 59

One of the striking ways in which Marcus helps us gain perspective on the wrongs done by others, is to point out that everyone has only the choices to act in accordance with their own knowledge and circumstances. He also finds it prudent to point out that perhaps the wrong that we think they have done may not in fact be what we imagine. Who are we to presume that our perspective on the situation is correct in the first place?

Presented with the impression that someone has done wrong, how do I know that this was a wrong? And if it was indeed a wrong, how do I know that he was not already condemning himself, which is the equivalent of tearing his own face? Wanting the bad man not to do wrong is like wanting the fig tree not to produce figs, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh, or any other inevitable fact of nature. What else can he do with a state of mind like his? So if you are really keen, cure his state.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 12, 16

Being a Stoic isn’t about building a wall around yourself so that the actions of others will not be able to affect you. It isn’t social distancing and filtering in such a way as that the words of others come to us from arm’s length. It is actually the opposite. It is being so secure in our own judgement and virtue that we can open ourselves up fully to be present in the mind and position of the other person. It is an act of actually trying to step into their shoes and see where they are coming from. It is by getting ourselves away from our own prejudices that we are able to see more clearly, and when we can see from the other person’s perspective it seems simple that we will have some sympathy for them as a fellow human being struggling to do the right thing the best way that they know how.

I have come to greatly admire this aspect of Stoicism that is difficult to convey and seems often to be lost in the description. We can only ever truly affect change within ourselves, and the focus of our attention should be on living in accordance with our own inner nature in order to lead a virtuous life. As social creatures and part of a larger connection of living beings, our virtues need also be turned to how we deal with others. True tolerance isn’t a shutting people out, it is an attempt to understand them. Our ability to not take their actions personally has nothing to do with fortitude and strength, rather it has to do with wisdom and empathy.

Compassion, it seems to me, is not only an aspect of the Stoic tradition, but a cornerstone. If we truly do the work of understanding who we are, and the challenges that each person much endure in their own ways, then compassion is a natural outcome. Blame is not a factor in the equation. We are all in the same struggle together, and we can never truly harm one another, and to share our experiences and sympathies with one another will help ease the burden for all.

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 6, 39

Persistence in the Pocket

My eye has always been drawn towards edges and transitions, the cracks, the spaces where one thing ends and another begins. This has a lot to do with my insecurity as a child, growing up constantly looking at others to figure out the “right” way to do things so that I could avoid making mistakes or exposing myself to shows of ignorance.

I always wanted to know the “why”, the reason that things held together just the way that they did. Learning about one piece of the puzzle was never enough if I didn’t see how it fit in with the things around it.

Focusing on human created systems can be very frustrating for me. We tend to build things out only so far as profit calls for. All too often our systems have sharp edges, cutting off abruptly as soon as it become inconvenient. Even the most well-intentioned and thoughtful systems cannot cover every contingency for lack of imagination or resources.

For man-made systems the edges and gaps are a liability. The spaces between these systems are where the dust collects and unintended consequences arise, which often require more systems of their own to patch over and bridge the gap. This, often, only creates more edges.

Nature, however, runs different kinds of systems. No single element is neglected, and nothing is wasted. I like to think of natural systems as persistent, rather than pocket.

If anyone wants to know whether they are interacting with something holistic, comprehensive and natural, look for the edges, look for the gaps.

This was my experience a couple of days ago on a frustrating photo walk. In this time of seasonal transition and social insecurity it seemed as if everything were presented only in washed out yellows and browns. Even the blue sky in contrast seemed dull.

The only color I could find in this stark landscape were the subdued glow of moss on tree branches and the warmth of rotting wood inside of long-felled logs.

Despite the fact that everything seems to be in a holding pattern, just waiting for the next sign of spring to unleash growth, life has never truly stopped. At the borders, on tree trunks, in the crevices where water and warmth slowly decay tree stumps, life continues. Raw materials are being broken down and turned into something new all the time, even if we don’t see it. In fact, it is in these crevices, cracks and divisions that the real magic of life happens. The transition between twig and bud, the transition between the end of one life and the beginning of another, that is the where the greatest magic of growth occurs.

Photo Story: Colorful Bokeh Bits

Inspired by my last session stuck downstairs in the playroom with my camera, I approached the next one with a much more open perspective.

The actual objects in our playroom don’t interest me very much as subject matter for photos. Much the same with my photography outdoors I am more interested in the overlapping of textures and patterns, and the small details that get overlooked. When surrounded by man-made objects, which do not generally have their own inherent natural qualities or details, I was struggling to figure out where to point my camera.

The answer to this question, as the answer to so many questions of my childhood, was legos. I liked the idea of restricting my viewpoint, and using objects to disrupt the objects in the room so that they wouldn’t be recognizable in the photos. This way, it wouldn’t matter so much what I was shooting, rather how I was shooting.

I created a simple viewfinder/tunnel out of lego (duplo to get technical) windows so that I could focus the light and attention of the camera.

That, combined with the multi-colored strings of lights that we have set up down there were enough to create some really interesting abstractions using a close focus and bokeh from the lights.

The lego frames were semi-reflective, and by adjusting how they lined up I was able to create slices of the round light glow, and to multiply the effect in some interesting ways. One of the most interesting things I learned is that my mirrorless fujifilm x-e1 isn’t always going to create what I see on the viewfinder. Several of the lights that I saw clearly on my screen did not show up after I had clicked the shutter. Something to do with the angle or intensity of the light.

Once again the power of play wins out. I guess I will continue taking this lesson to heart, especially given that we are potentially going to have to spend some serious time social distancing in the near future depending on how things go.

For now, I hope that everyone is able to take a step back, take stock, and find some unique perspectives to help brighten up the day even when things don’t initially looks so positive.

Trail Running At Night: Moving Without Seeing

Trail running is possibly when I am at my happiest. It combines a natural physical exercise with being strongly connected to nature, and it engages my mind strategically in a way that road running does not. Navigating the technical difficulties of the trail clicks into something deep inside that feels instinctual, gives my brain a low-level workout and creates a meditative space to decompress. There are many great metaphors tying trail running to life, especially when thinking about how one always has to look ahead, assess the near term obstacles and formulate a plan on how to manage them. That may seem great on paper, but even that much ability to plan ahead is generous in comparison to what life is really like.

Life is much more like trail running at night.

Most of the forward motion I have had in my life seems to have been unplanned. I ended up taking classes in areas other than my chosen major, I followed my wife to another city for her graduate education and found my employment out of necessity. It became an actual career path through the encouragement of others pushing me along and supporting me. When my wife graduated I followed her again for her career and was incredibly lucky to find a place for myself in our new city with my old employer.

Looking forward to predict what might happen next has always been a bit dubious in my case given this history, but 2020 is shaping up to offer even more challenges. I have just learned that many more changes are coming for both my wife and myself. Her job was upended a few months ago and mine just informed me that I would be transferring roles and duties, losing my beloved colleagues and probably travelling more.

All of that is of course layered in and around the changes happening due to the COVID-19 pandemic. My wife is a university professor and chair of her department, which has decided to close campus and finish off the semester online only, creating a whole slew of questions without answers. My current travel for work has been suspended and the pressure on our day to day operations has caused many of our usual systems to be placed at the wayside while we figure out what the new normal looks like.

Of course, way beyond myself, it feels like this is a time of unprecedented upheaval around the world, and most of the people I talk with are feeling quite a bit of uncertainty about more than one area of their lives.

For me it feels very much like I am standing in a dense fog, trying to look down the path, and finding myself completely unable to see more than a few feet ahead. I was lucky enough to have a day like this recently and the time to get out with a camera to capture it for a few fleeting moments before the sun burned it off.

Trail running at night (or in dense fog) is an exercise in moving through obstacles without the luxury of foresight, and as such, has some great lessons that I am trying to internalize for other parts of my life right now in a moment where I just can’t see what the way forward looks like.

There is a river of creation, and time is a violent stream. As soon as one thing comes into sight, it is swept past and another is carried down: it too will be taken on its way.

Marcus Auralius, Meditation Book 4, 43

Core strength and flexibility are the things one can and must rely on.

In the daylight it is possible to run at the extremities, to plan your steps carefully and to use the obstacles to your advantage. One might intentionally step on roots or rocks in the path to gain more traction or to maintain momentum. Strong ankles and knee control can help take the force of these moves but only if the steps go according to plan.

When running at night it is better to run at the core. Since it is not possible to assess an obstacle ahead of time it is necessary to control the stride starting at the hip. Leave the knee and ankle as flexible as possible, so that when the foot comes down it can roll with the terrain. Keep the feet below the body and the center of gravity low. Focus on planting one foot, gaining balance and then pulling the next up. Get the knee ahead of you and bring down the ankle loose and flexible.

In this way one finds oneself focused inward, maintaining balance and regularity of stride, thinking much more about what the hip is doing than what the ankle is up to. Trying to hold a foot too rigid when you don’t know how it is going to land is a great way to sprain an ankle or worse.

Human beings are soft and supple when alive, stiff and straight when dead. The myriad creatures, the grasses and trees are soft and fragile when alive, dry and withered when dead. Therefore, it is said: the rigid person is a disciple of death; the soft, supple, and delicate are lovers of life. An army that is inflexible will not conquer; a tree that is inflexible will snap. The unyielding and mighty shall be brought low; the soft, supple, and delicate will be set above.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 76, Victor Mair translation

The core strength we rely on in our broader lives can serve the same function as we move into uncertainty. Having strong values and social networks will allow us to handle obstacles, not by lining ourselves up ahead of time, but by giving us a framework of support that will catch us, and a blueprint to know where we should made adjustments rather than stand fast against an obstacle.

A core strength of our family is the way we prioritize one on one time, time spent in nature and time for each parent to spend recharging individually. If any of those aspects start to slip or happen less frequently we know that an adjustment needs to be made. Trying to maintain the external specifics for plans we have made, appointments on the calendar, isn’t going to matter as much as being able to spend quality time together and maintain the balance.

Core values don’t just give us guardrails to know when things are out of balance, they also point us in the right direction to correct those imbalances. Knowing what matters means that you have a beacon to help keep orientation. Sensing when one partner in the couple is spending too much time taking point and might be getting burned out, the solution is easy: get them some time on their own, even if that means adjusting plans that have already been made.

When running at night, pace must also be adjusted. It would simply be foolish, even if one has run the course before, to try and run in the dark at the same speed one might run during the day. There is no harm in slowing down a bit when things are less clear, and only speeding up again when there is some open ground.

When circumstances force you into some sort of distress, quickly return to yourself. Do not stay out of rhythm for longer than you must: you will master the harmony the more by constantly going back to it.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 6, 11

As a family travel is also very important to us. We have a rough draft schedule of travel and family milestones planned out for the next five years, but now seems like a good time to slow down and not worry much about what is going to be happening next year, much less next month. There will be time when we can revisit those plans and probably keep most of them in some form, but now is simply not it, and that is okay.

Running in the dark means focusing on yourself and having faith in the work you have put in building up your strength. In reality, running in the day shouldn’t be any different. Just because we think we can see down the path doesn’t mean we really know what is going to happen. The part of the path that looks dry may turn out to be slippery, and the branch we want to step on may not hold our weight at the critical moment. Even if we plan the moves correctly it doesn’t mean that we will be able to pull it off. Sometimes one just takes a bad step even with all the right training and strategy.

Both Taoism and Stoicism have been very helpful in preparing me for uncertainty in my life. These philosophies encourage self reflection, which is the only way we can come to know where our core values lay. Only once we begin to observe and prioritize the things that truly matter to us can we properly exercise those values, clarify their contours, and use them to guide our decisions.

Running at night isn’t a practice of sadistic self-punishment. It isn’t something that one should do just because it seems like a crazy idea. our of bravery. Running at night, because it cultivates this necessity of trusting one’s own body, is an exercise in faith. Letting go, trusting in one’s training and capabilities, not worrying about the path ahead, only the stars above and the surreal experience of gliding through the dark, is magical. My experience of this was an experience of faith, and I don’t mean to strip that word of any spiritual meaning. Knowing that I did have faith in myself, that I know some unshakable truths from my core, gave me a sense of contentment and freedom from worry that I haven’t had since.

I write this to remind myself of the feeling, and to try and give myself the perspective that I can be like this all the time. The things we think are stable in life may not be, and even on a clear day we will not be able to predict our future paths. Is it not best to run on faith in our core values, suspending judgement of the path ahead and reacting in the moment as much as possible? I hope that everyone is able to use these difficult times as an opportunity to reflect and redefine, and find some solid footing on the path ahead.

Unlike my trail running experience alone in the dark, we are not running this race of life alone. Now is a time to rely on ourselves, but also a time to rely on one another. Even as we make adjustments to our own lives it is helpful to know that we are all in this together. I hope that all of you and yours are safe, healthy and adapting in this challenging time.

Artist Inspiration: Brett Weston

I have just discovered a kindred spirit in the photography world and wanted to share some of my inspiration. I’m not going to dive much into his biography since that is something quickly found online. Suffice it to say that he was born second son to an already famous photographer but quickly defined his own talents and style.

I came across his work through The Brett Weston Archive, a wonderful site focused on the photography that offers several curated collections that can be viewed online. All images in this post are taken from one of these portfolios titled simply “Oregon”.

What immediately struck me about Brett’s work was his focus on texture and the abstracted patterns of positive and negative space that appear on surfaces or are created through repetition or overlapping of textures within a scene. His work doesn’t seem interested in depth so much as the more two-dimensional patters created by the elements whether they be on the same plane or not.

He seemed to see the confluence of light and dark and wanted to flatten it through high contrast black and white so that the resulting image would show how these elements combined with one another to create something more interesting, rather than showing them in relation to one another within a larger scene.

I’m not sure whether to consider him as a “nature” photographer or an abstract photographer, but a combination of the two certainly seems appropriate, given that he was using the natural elements to highlight an emergent pattern, rather than highlighting a specific subject in its own right.

I very much appreciate the aesthetic and have long been interested in creating similar visuals through various media that I have explored. Seeing a photographer who is able to capture such things so beautifully on film in the way that I can currently only imagine is absolutely inspiring to me and shows me that there is a way forward and a benchmark to measure myself against.

Hope there was a bit of inspiration in there for someone else who reads this! As I continue my own journey into the history of photography I will certainly call out those who speak to me, and I would appreciate having other photographers pointed out to me if there are suggestions from any readers.

Links:

Brett Weston – Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brett_Weston

The Brett Weston Archive online – Portfolios page https://www.brettwestonarchive.com/portfolios/

Photo Story: Folds of Gold

After several absolutely amazing days where we were treated to a preview of summer the dream has been snatched away. Freezing drizzle, along with having the kids off school on spring break, has created the perfect environment for cabin fever. Oh yeah, at at least two of the family are sick right now, so we’re also trying to keep people separated as well as sane.

All of this has been driving me a bit crazy as well since I haven’t been able to get outside and shoot anything besides family pics.

Yesterday, feeling trapped in our basement play room with the pent up energy of a three and six year old, I managed to find a quiet pocket of photographic experimentation to escape into.

We have had a shiny gold set of bed sheets for several years now. I can’t quite remember where they came from, but their current home is in the play room where they are regularly used for building forts and tunnels.

Inspired by the way the cloth was draping and catching the light I decided to do my first staged photo shoot. Using various props to hang the fabric from I tried to create interesting patterns of folds, loosely tugging and piling the fabric so that it would fall somewhat haphazardly, creating a look based on the nature of the material and not something that I had carefully arranged. Thankfully this was a very simple process and lent itself to simple reconfiguration and quick adjustments.

If nothing else it was a great experiment in composition and balance of positive and negative spaces. Limiting the scope to simple color and shape really allows one to see how they interact within the frame.

I can also see how creating abstract photographs of other materials would make for an interesting project. The ways in which other items like paper would create texture through crumples or overlaps could be similarly interesting. Never though I would ever consider shooting indoors, especially not arranged shots in a controlled environment, and I likely won’t spend much time going down this road, but it goes to show that allowing oneself to play with even the strangest ideas could open doors to new perspectives.

Zero or Negative One?

Algebra was never my strong suit, but I’m pretty sure that Taoist math might offer some unique perspectives on how we talk and think about the ways we are trying to live mindfully or with intention.

Taoism states that our greatest misconceptions about the world are caused by our need to categorize things with language and judgement. These judgement give rise to not one, but two ideas simultaneously. For example, when we look at something and judge it to be beautiful, that also creates and equal and opposite awareness that other things are ugly in comparison. If we judge something to be tall, then we are also aware of what it means to be short. We cannot have judgement of something along with a neutral middle, because labeling anything with one label necessitates the existence of its opposite quality elsewhere in the world.

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, Victor Mair translation

I recently started reading the book “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X Kendi. He starts out wisely by focusing on defining his terminology. His thesis (at this early stage of my reading) is that we have fundamentally misunderstood the binary nature of the language around racism.

He works to point out the fallacy of a neutral middle ground between two opposing points. His broad argument (I would highly reccommend reading the book for a deeper perspective) is that the opposite of Racist isn’t a neutral “not racist”, it is an equally active “antiracist”. In this case, removing one from one doesn’t land us on a zero state, rather it is an equal but opposite negative number.

Writing my recent blog post “Intended Consequences” got me thinking about what the world looks like without a neutral middle ground. After talking about how being mindful and intentional in life is a great benefit to us, I got to thinking that we think of mindfulness as a bonus, an add-on to our “neutral” lives. We are exhorted to add mindfulness to our lives like a hack, an extra app on the homepage or an accessory to go along with the outfit we were already planning to wear.

Being and non-being give birth to each other, difficult and easy complete each other, long and short form each other, high and low fulfill each other, tone and voice harmonize with each other, front and back follow each other – it is ever thus.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2, Victor Mair translation

Holding the Taoist concept of equal and opposite judgments, we are faced with an interesting realization. Namely, that one is either acting towards one end or towards its opposite. Changing the language for how we talk about something like mindfulness might shed some light on what I mean. In my previous post I talked about living mindfully and intentionally, but what would the opposite be?

Living unintentionally, or unmindfully, sounds too much like a passive neutral to me. What if we change the wording to something similar: rather than intentional we can say “with care”, and rather than mindful we can say “thoughtfully”? The opposites to these don’t sound so passive any more: living carelessly and living thoughtlessly seem like dangerous ways to be, and that is exactly what Marcus Auralius is trying to highlight for us when he exhorts us to live with intention in every aspect of our lives, no matter how small.

First, nothing aimless or without ulterior reference. Second, no reference to any end other than the common good.

Marcus Auralius, Meditation, Book 12, 20

It is one thing to think of living with intention, and to infuse our craft with a conscious awareness of what we are trying to achieve each step of the way, but it is not enough to only think of it when it is going well. When we are not being intentional we are necessarily living without intent, blindly, not only losing opportunities to grow and develop, but actively denying ourselves these opportunities. Every time we do something with an intention other than towards our personal growth and development we are missing out on an opportunity to grow and develop, and choosing not to in that moment.

Taoism teaches that the world we exist in is a world of contradictions and opposites. There is no such thing as passive neutral, a zero state. Choosing not to do something allows its opposite to exist, and vice versa. The goal of Taoism is to build a personal awareness with the zero state, the unity that exists when we are able to move beyond the opposites, and see that each splitting of our perception is making it more difficult to see how we are all connected.

Thirty spokes converge in a single hub, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the cart lies. Clay is molded to make a pot, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies. Cut out doors and windows to make a room, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the room lies.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11, Victor Mair translation

So maybe there is a zero state in Taoism, but the catch is that we can’t arrive there by chasing after one or another of the individual directions that appear before us. What I think is most important is to realize that being passive isn’t a way out of making judgements. When we are opting out of moving in one direction, it means that the other side of the coin gets a turn. Being aware of this helps us to make our choices thoughtfully, living intentionally, so that we can avoid the pitfalls of walking blindly through life. Living intentionally also gives us the tools to become better acquainted with ourselves. When are able to spend time looking inside we might finally be able to start moving away from the ones and negative ones, allowing them to cancel each other out, and arrive at the zero sum goal.

Intended Consequences

I just listened to an interview with acclaimed street photographer Valérie Jardin that was conducted on the podcast “Photography Radio”. Valérie is passionate about teaching and was recounting experiences she has had doing instruction with students on location in Paris. One of the things she focused on was the idea of taking photographs with intention, and it sparked a connection I have seen over and over again within the Stoic tradition.

“No action should be undertaken without aim, or other than in conformity with a principle affirming the art of life.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 4, 2

Valérie was specifically talking about photographers who shoot everything that moves (or doesn’t) and end up with 10,000 photos hoping that there will be a few gems in the mix, rather than the photographers who are more critical of a scene and shoot selectively, looking for specific images before they are willing to click the shutter.

The seed of her thought centered on the idea that her students should make sure that they were taking pictures with an goal in mind. Every time the shutter goes off it will make a picture, but the meaning and success of that picture depend entirely on what the photographer was trying to capture.

What I find fascinating when hearing other photographers talk about their work, is what they were thinking when they attempted the shot. Shooting without a plan may result in some shots that seem great, but could the photographer describe why they took the shot, or replicate it later on with a different subject? On the other hand, a photo that might not immediately seem interesting could take on extra layers of meaning when someone hears the story behind it. It may be true that a good photo speaks for itself, but different images speak to different people, and there is no one set of standards for success. In fact, how can we even judge success if we don’t know what the goal was in the first place?

“Do not take any action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 3, 5

We spent a lot of time during critique session while I was studying graphic design talking about whether or not an image was successful. It was forbidden to us words like “nice” or “like” as in, “its nice” or “I like it, good work”. None of those comments are helpful when trying to decipher what worked and what didn’t work when creating an image. If you are trying to highlight the mood of the piece, or the shapes that the shadows create, or bring out the contrast of textures, then we can talk about success, because those things are pretty easy to see. In fact there is no such thing as success in a piece that was created without a motive, because the idea of success depends entirely on having a target to shoot at.

Beyond talking about the single image, framing the conversation in success and intention will often lead us to future iterations and solutions. If the textures weren’t clear enough it will be easy to try a different mixture of settings and try again. If the shape of the shadows doesn’t balance well in the frame then we can shift position and look for a new composition. If the images are successful it will likely trigger thoughts about what other subjects might benefit from the same technique, which will lead to further photos and more exploration.

This translates well beyond photography. For me I have recently begun questioning the intention behind my use of Instagram. I’m not quite sure why I have been posting there, and now that it is in my mind I will likely decide to give it up unless I can figure out the value it is generating. In this case it is a question of time being used up that I could be putting somewhere else.

More critically I find myself struggling to be intentional with my parenting. The feeling that I have been in the same room with my kids and not truly present with them stings very badly when I notice it happening.

I find that being intentional doesn’t only serve me when it is trained on the most important aspects of my life, or the creative pursuits. The act of being in the moment and being thoughtful in one’s actions starts a virtuous cycle. When I am the best version of myself and take this to the mind-numbing task of responding to work emails it becomes clear. If I am able to take an extra moment and read between the lines of the email to formulate a more thoughtful answer that addresses something the sender meant to ask but didn’t quite know how to word, then I have a deeper sense of pride in my work. Feeling good about how I handled that particular task usually means I am less anxious about the next task on my list, and I find myself more able to be in the present.

In comparison, if I am blowing through the inbox just shooting for inbox 0, then I usually approach the next task of my life in the same mindset, not focusing, just trying to get through it so that I can get to the end of the day. At which point I often look around and wonder why I thought that was the goal.

“Concentrate on the subject or the act in question, on principle or meaning. You deserve what you are going through. You would rather become good tomorrow than be good today.”

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 8, 22

This isn’t to say that each moment need be one of extreme revelation and insight. Better to be awake and thoughtful about the choices we are making, however, then to find ourselves awake later down the road not knowing how we got there.

Links:

Photography Radio Podcast: Interview with Valérie Jardin, December 15, 2019.

ValerieJardinPhotography.com

Photo Story: Where the Drainage Ditch Ends

Between finishing up some emails for my actual work and picking up the kids from school I had just about one hour to sneak in a few photos. There is a small wooded area with a winding stream cutting deep furrows into the steep dirt walls just over a mile from the house. One short bike ride and I found myself walking familiar paths but seeing very unfamiliar things.

The paved circuit that is meant for walking is basically a loop through the woods out one side and back by the stream on the other. On the way through the woods it crosses one section of paved drainage ditch that helps control flooding or the nearby lumber yard.

I have mentioned before that holding this camera has made me less willing than I used to be when it comes to staying “on the path”. This trip was no different. It as been dry here and the drainage ditch looked more like an invitation than ugly infrastructure.

Walking to the end of the pavement I found myself at the beginning of what I knew as the winding stream, but what in reality is a long pond that only flows when it has been raining. That might explain why the banks are so steep and clearly eroding, but not constantly.

The view from this perspective was quite surreal and I found myself completely transported out of my self and my world. Suddenly I was sunk below the lip of the world, seeing where it has torn off from the rest of reality, hanging in the darkness. Perhaps the flat-earthers were right all-along, though I did not run into any dragons thankfully.

The whole trip lasted only about 20 minutes, but in that time I was outside of time, looking and shooting and simply absorbing, and that is something I have often found through this pursuit of photography.

Ink and Wood: Inner Landscapes

At a critical moment of my young adulthood while I was travelling abroad for the first time in my life, I found myself in Hong Kong studying Chinese art history, and losing myself in the magical wandering landscapes of black and white ink scroll paintings.

I was immediately captivated by images created using only simple brushstrokes, deep black inks and cloudy washes. Within these simple parameters were created fantastical mountain scenes, steep rolling cliffs, bristling trees and silently tumbling waterfalls, all shrouded in swirling mists. A combination of the details and the impressionism drew me in and invited me to spend my time wandering in those images.

The history of scroll paintings is ancient, and like all art forms it has developed and evolved constantly along the way. Landscapes are just one area of focus for within the history of scroll paintings, but have become incredibly important as an area of focus because they have developed strong ties to underlying philosophical and religious ideas about man’s relation to the larger world.

For a deeper introduction to the subject I encourage you to follow this link to a collection of Essays posted through Department of Asian Art within The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/clpg/hd_clpg.htm

Something about the flowing line work really grabbed me from my first exposure to this art form. Each portion of the painting is generally made up of similar repeated brush strokes, building on each other to show texture and form. This is because the brush strokes themselves were based upon the same forms used in calligraphy, which requires specific methods for writing. There is fascinating connection between the fact that the forms used to create landscapes are built out of the forms to create language. It might be seen as a meta-version of “a picture is worth a thousand words”, compounding upon itself. There is also the idea that each person has a unique for to their calligraphy, and the way in which one person writes shows something about who they are as a person. This was equally true for this style of painting.

These men extolled the virtues of self-cultivation—often in response to political setbacks or career disappointments—and asserted their identity as literati through poetry, calligraphy, and a new style of painting that employed calligraphic brushwork for self-expressive ends. The monochrome images of old trees, bamboo, rocks, and retirement retreats created by these scholar-artists became emblems of their character and spirit.

Essay: Landscape Painting in Chinese Art, The Met

I have repeated returned to this art form as an inspiration through many different explorations of media over the years. Repetition, line work and density of layering in order to create texture and depth have all been qualities I find interesting. This I think resonates in some of my philosophical views and the idea that we, and the world around us, are a beautiful collision of chaotic elements coming together in just such a way as this. There is beauty in the chaos, and it is only possible to see the beauty of each element in relation to the rest of the picture.

My journey through visual art has been strongly tied to self expression. I use the work I create to have a conversation with myself about what I find meaningful and inspiring. This meditative and immersive aspect of scroll paintings immediately made sense to me and resonated at a deep level. Learning that this was indeed part of the genesis of the original art was both eye opening for me (and validating) but also seemed as if it could not be any other way.

Going beyond representation, scholar-artists imbued their paintings with personal feelings. By evoking select antique styles, they could also identify themselves with the values associated with the old masters. Painting was no longer about the description of the visible world; it became a means of conveying the inner landscape of the artist’s heart and mind.

Essay: Landscape Painting in Chinese Art, The Met

One of the most fascinating things I remember learning about landscape scroll paintings, was that they were meant to be semi-interactive. Many scrolls are very long, much longer than could be fully opened for viewing on any desk, or even in most rooms. Though the height of the image was often quite comfortable to sit on a desk, both trailing ends much necessarily be rolled up, like a roll of sketch paper used for children’s drawing tables. The artist would roll one end and unroll the other to move the paper along an work in sections, allowing portions to dry before moving on. This also affected the way in which they must be viewed. In order to experience a painting the viewer must also begin at one end and move the image in sections by rolling and unrolling through the image. In this way the viewer was encouraged to follow the imaginary journey through the rolling countryside in a temporal way, almost like a visual novel or film strip.

So the images weren’t intended only as a means for the artist to express themselves, but also used as a means of inviting self-reflection and escapism in others.

Up until now I have been struggling to create images from within myself that will inspire me and help pull me outside of myself. Looking backwards, that seems a bit like trying to turn around far enough that you can have a conversation with yourself. Though the idea is noble, the physics just don’t work. Photography has shown me that the images I am looking for are already out there waiting to be found. Nature will always be able to create a more perfect colletion of elements than I ever could. Rather than generating the image my perspective now is to try and be receptive to it, to capture it and allow it to speak to me.

The ink paintings has returned to me in the form of dead wood. Looking closely at fallen logs, split and aged with time, scarred by the elements and bare to the light, show striking resemblance to the forms and flows of Chinese scholars sitting in seclusion trying to find themselves.

Like the image above I have recently been focused on finding these deep patterns of texture on fallen logs that translate into surreal landscapes all on their own. I have been collecting them in a new portfolio project on the site and will continue to add as I find more.

Gallery: Ink Paintings In Wood

For now, here are a few of the ones that speak more clearly to me and allow me to go on escapist journeys of self-discovery like the original masters.

Cheers, thanks for reading as always. Here again are the links to the two resources cited in this post:

The Met, department of Asian Art:, essay on Chinese landscape painting: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/clpg/hd_clpg.htm

China Online Museum, Chinese Landscape Painting: https://www.comuseum.com/painting/landscape-painting/