A Case For Philosophical Moonlighting

Light has often been used a metaphor for truth, knowledge and enlightenment. To take it to extreme, we can envision our sun as a representation of “the” Truth, the ultimate conceptualization of reality as we know it.

As humans with a limited perspective on the world around us we continue to search for scraps and clues about the sort of existence we are living. Developing or adopting a philosophy brings with it a road-map to help us make our way at night. When the light of truth isn’t apparent, then our philosophy is like the moon, reflecting the truth to us in the darkness.

Leveraging the wisdom of others we are able to see a path forward as well as some of the obstacles in the way. Philosophy, like the moon, comes to us from a fixed perspective. In order to utilize the knowledge and experience that are contained within, it must necessarily be grounded within a context and history. From this context we can extrapolate about our own lives, but will always come up against areas that our philosophy cannot illuminate.

If we could move the light around at will, we would be able to eventually see all that there is to see, but that just isn’t the way it works. True, with time, the experience of our lives acts as the turning of the earth, and our relationship with our chosen philosophy will naturally change. Over the course of our time in this world we will experience times when our philosophy is bright and clear, and times when it is obscured by clouds. Times when it is waxing and on the ascendance and times when it is waning and about to abandon us to the dark.

Unlike the moon we are not tied to the reflective properties of only one philosophy. We are free to sample from the broad range of human experience and perspective. A key point to keep in mind about life philosophy is that it is meant to be a lived an experienced tradition. The writing and thinking itself cannot provide the same perspective as will come when one takes the time to explore and experience some of the practices in daily life.

Much Western thinking has a problem with identity politics and the need to belong to a specified label in order to fit in. Many people may find it uncomfortable to read works from the thinkers who have come out of other traditions and to adopt practices that don’t easily fit in with how they see their current philosophical or religious identity. Ideas do not come with true labels, however, and the beauty of our situation now, with many people sheltering in place and maintaining their social distance, is that it is a perfect time to indulge in explorations that may not fit comfortably in with what others think of you. Just like the taking on of an extra job outside of your listed career, I encourage anyone to use this time for some philosophical moonlighting.

I, for one, have been thinking quite a lot about my own two poles of philosophy: stoicism and Taoism, chosen because of their strong resonances but also as a conscious split of the “West” and “East”. This, of course, if a false dichotomy. I am very interested in exploring philosophical traditions that have arisen in other cultures which do not have the developed social awareness here in the West, especially African thought. I will hopefully have some more experiences and resources to share as I dig in and see what new perspectives I can find.

Humans will continue to keep asking questions in order to understand the sort of life we are living. The questioning may be very different, but the answer will be the same for everyone. No matter how many moons you have hanging in your sky, then will all be reflecting the same light, and illuminating your path, and showing just a bit more of the landscape we are all wandering within.

I hope that you and yours are well and safe. If you are interested in learning some more about Stoicism or Taoism I can recommend a couple of good introductions for each. If you have a good introductory book for any other school of thought I would love to hear about it and add it to my list, and my collection of moons for this strange dim time.

Taoism Resources:

  • “Tao The Watercourse Way” by Alan Watts, Book.
  • “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff, Book.
  • What’s This Tao All About“, Podcast.

Stoicism Resources:

The Joy of Practice

When I was in middle school I wanted to be a writer of science fiction or fantasy novels. Our school had a well published children’s book author come in to talk to us for a while and I was very excited because she had just written a book for children who wanted to become writers, and that was going to be a focus of her talk. Everything she talked about that day was drowned out by one quote that has either haunted me or helped give me perspective since. I can’t claim to quote directly, but the idea is something like this:

“Ask yourself: do I want to write a book, or do I want to have written a book?”

This points to the dream of the end reward as opposed to the reality of the hard work that one needs to put in before that goal can even begin to materialize. Strangely enough I wrote quite a bit, and continued to do so for a few years, until a growing sense of unease about the quality of my work started to have a negative feedback loop. The more critical of my own writing I became, the less I felt like trying to write in the first place.

Putting work into any craft is the only way to realize results. I would be surprised to meet anyone who hasn’t heard a version of the phrase: “practice makes perfect”. The disconnect, however, between the hard work required at the beginning and the eventual payoff is often extremely difficult to overcome. For me, framing it in the sound logical perspective of rationality wasn’t enough to get me going on a path I thought I wanted.

Visual art was the next interest that began drawing me in. I think one of the appeals, and ultimate distractions, of “art” class in American education is the variety of media. Boiling down the education of creative visual problem solving into a handful of survey classes is a huge disservice and also gross misrepresentation of what students could be learning from these classes. I fell into the same trap that most other do, namely mistaking a variety of projects, mostly different kinds of media, for building skills.

What was most difficult and damaging about creating visual art in this way, was that no one taught the student how to learn from failure. In fact, there is such an emphasis in the curriculum currently on relativism, that it is difficult to even talk about a work as being “unsuccessful”, because who are we to judge the creative work of another person? After learning the vital skill of critique later on it came clear to me that quality could be assessed. Achieving better results, however, wasn’t quite so clear. Assignments were given and students were pushed to create more, forcing them to practice, but never was it framed in those terms. Each project was an end in itself, and we were supposed to come away with a successful project. The emphasis was still that each piece created could be good.

Again I took a break, and again I came crawling back to art on my own accord, feeling a connection that I couldn’t shake. Following the advice of practicing artists I decided I needed to just start creating things, as much as and often as I could. It was still a retrospective process, however, related what I had learned about writing a book. I was interested in the final product. Working quickly I could get there in one sitting and have something to show for it, but much more often than not I would be disappointed by the results.

I wanted to paint an image, but wasn’t exactly interested in the process of painting itself.

As I started to transition into more illustrative works, my technique shifted towards more detailed, and therefore more time-consuming work. I began reading about capital “P” practice that professional illustrators embrace: building up shoulder muscle strength through the repetition of drawing freehand straight lines. Building muscle memory and perceptual awareness by learning how to freehand three-dimensional boxes rotating in space as seen from any angle, and copying proportions of anatomy over and over again.

Drawing and painting, like any skill, can be taught step by step. The carpenter learns essentials about how to form, treat and fit wood together in an organized fashion so that they can go on to flex their creativity.

Breakthrough came upon picking up the camera seriously. For the first time I experienced joy in the practice. Rather than getting myself to sit and do what needed to be done to build my skills, I find myself eager to go out and shoot. I enjoy the results, but I enjoy the process just as much. This, I think, is a kind of balance that we are all seeking.

For this reason, the sage acts but does not possess, completes his work but does not dwell on it.

Tao Te Ching chapter 77, Victor H Mair translation

Water doesn’t need practice in order to flow downhill, it is the nature of water to do that. I think that finding the pieces of ourselves that come naturally and bring with them joy and inspiration are the ways in which we connect most closely to our own nature.

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: Rivers in the Gravel

In my last post I used an image that I found literally laying at my feet, in a place I never would have thought to look.

I had only recently begun exploring photogrophy as a more serious project at the time I took this picture. All I have been using up until recently was the (arguably quite decent) camera on my smartphone, playing with shutter speed and ISO to learn as much as I could about proper exposure and technique.

What was probably more annoying for my family during that time (probably still) is that I was constantly fiddling with my phone and taking pictures everywhere that we went. The upside of this is that I have continued to be even more eager to get outside with the family, dragging everyone to the local parks and woods as much as possible, even though it was middle of winter at the time.

My family is game, however, but not without their own opinions, as is perfectly within their rights. Picking locations that my children will enjoy is usually pretty easy because they are also into exploring nature, the more dirt and mud the better. On this occasion, however, they really wanted to head to the playground very near our house, attached to an elementary school. This playground has some nice equipment and lots of space to run, but everything is either covered in pavement or pea gravel. Not what I expected to be a photogenic location.

Despite this I still spent as much time as possible trying to find interesting shots, even if it was just practicing focus adjustments and composition.

As the play time extended over the one-hour mark and the weather continued to be unseasonably pleasant I felt as if I had exhausted all of my potential photography targets. As I was debating whether or not I needed to convince everyone that we were going home, the golden hour of sunset started, adding some extra contrast to the scene.

There, at my feet, was an interesting sight. Long pine needles, grouped together, lined up in wavy formations, snaking around the gravel. Here was nature at work, using rain water to collect needles and deposit them artistically around the playground to highlight where water pooled and drained. It was an amazing example of the fact that we cannot avoid the influence of natural cycles, even in environments that have been constructed specifically to eliminate needed maintenance of plants and landscaping. In some ways, seeing these flowing needles out of a more natural context highlighted the forces at play. This was a wonderful subversive wu wei at work, effortlessly showing us that no matter what we do nature will not be sidelined or ignored.

I got a few pictures in the angled light, but wasn’t able to capture the energy of these needles. Just having seen it, however, I felt even more sure about my time spent with a camera. Training myself to look helped me to notice something I never would have seen before, which added so much value to my visit to the playground that day. For me it was a friendly gesture, letting me know that no matter where I looked I couldn’t truly be separate, and that if I keep myself open, I will be able to connect myself with something larger, even in the most unlikely of spaces.

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.