Taoist Ethical Problems: Where Have We Been if not Home?

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.”

Dr. Carl Totton, An Introductory Primer on Taoism

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.

Ted Kardesh PhD, An Introductory Primer on Taoism

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.

Photo Story: The Fox Hunt

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.

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.

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: 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/

Photo Story: Fire in the Cold

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

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

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

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

The Tao of Glass: Manual Focus Lens Qigong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Story: Passing Again and Again

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

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

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

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

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