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.

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/

Tao of Glass: Shoot to Learn

Taoism and Buddhism speak well to me because each of them express so deep an interest in actionable self-improvement. This is certainly not to say that all other traditions do not have their own daily practices focused on the same goal, but for me it is much easier to point out as a core foundation for both of these traditions. For both, though this is especially focal for Buddhism, the focus is on building a meditation practice. Taoism is strongly tied to a wide range of physical health practices, broadly known as qigong, which can range from simple sitting and breathing exercises to deeply complex martial arts routines.

For an even more straightforward perspective focused on routine practices for self improvement it may be helpful to look at Stoicism. This Greek Philosophical school emphasizes practices to continually review one’s opinions and perceptions, including maintaining a daily journal to guide self reflection.

Photography has a great deal in common with this broad picture of practice. When returning to photography I was deeply self conscious of the fact that I had a lot to learn. I had passed up opportunities to formally study photography in college and had this image in my mind that I would have a steep learning curve ahead of me. That, of course, is certainly true, but not in the way that I imagined.

Within a couple of weeks I was able to get a firm grasp on the fundamentals. Taking pictures certainly isn’t difficult in and of itself, just the press of a button. Some theory was certainly necessary. Understanding how aperature, ISO and shutter speed relate to each other and for the triangle of exposure is a key concept that underlies what is happening within the image capture and how one can affect the outcome.

Visual concepts surrounding subject, form and composition in an image were things I was able to bring with me from years working in other forms of visual media.

After reading through a few explanation of these concepts, especially trying to get a handle on aperature and focal length, I spent far more of my time looking at cameras, trying to figure out just what I needed in order to get started.

Where the real magic happens with photography is that in order to improve, reading isn’t enough, I am just going to have to go out and take pictures, lots of pictures. Snapping isn’t enough, however, I am going to need to be thoughtful about it, think about how the pictures are turning out and try to figure out what I can adjust to make the more successful the next time.

The same concept applies equally to the philosophies listed above. Both Taoism and Stoicism share some basic concepts that are necessary to get one’s head into the right perspective, and to begin to see how connections can be made. There are common practices and core exercises that many others have found helpful to their own time spent following the path, and it is often helpful to spend time talking with others to share what their experience has been like.

When it comes down to it, however, these are not armchair philosophies. One can only truly appreciate and understand them by going out in the world and practicing. At first the way in which one practices may feel awkward and unnatural. For myself it has been a little more than two years of micro adjustments along with a scattering of qigong and meditation practices, which have not continued in an unbroken line, but have continued to adapt, to re-balance themselves as other aspects of my life ebb and flow.

I am coming to photography second, and in many ways I am more prepared to dive into this art form because of my time spent developing a practice towards the Tao. I am more comfortable with the knowledge that I do not know what I am doing fully, and that I do not need to have my destination firmly in hand when I set out. One step at a time, camera in hand, with regular practice, I will find myself far enough along the path that new possibilities will become available to me.