Twenty-one years ago, I left Canada to study and live in south-western France, where I turned twenty-one. Coincidentally, my younger sister was on a gap-year program in England. We spent Thanksgiving together in Cambridge after which I took the TGV back to Montpellier. At a bus stop outside the train station, I noticed a sandy-blond haired man, middle-aged I thought, clad only in a tattered sky blue blanket, the kind you would use on a bed underneath a quilt. After getting on the bus, I started to read Liberation – an ultra liberal newspaper of the sort we do not have in the format of a national newspaper in Canada. I had vowed to myself that I would speak, read and write as much in French as I could during that year, even in my personal journal. When I paused my reading to look around the bus, the man in the sky blue blanket spoke to me.
“Where are you coming from?”, he asked. When I told him of my weekend with my sister, he smiled wryly.
“You have travelled so far to see your sister, when you have so many brothers and sisters right here”.
This was true; but, I spoke in defence of the long-standing relationship cultivated often between siblings which creates an easy, authenticity, and can really help us to notice when life’s circumstances are taking us away from ourselves.
The man in the sky blue blanket was unimpressed. ”And when you read with the paper up in front of your face, you put up a barrier between yourself and the others you might otherwise connect with on this bus”.
We spoke of this view of mindful beingness, I would call it now, for about half an hour, until I descended at my stop. The man in the sky blue blanket was continuing on to the university to meet with some students. An unassuming German follower was leading him there.
His words affected me deeply, and mirrored a growing sense that I had about writing and the interruption of lived experience. I began to question the amount of time I spent writing in my journal, and the time behind the lens of my manual camera. For me, these arts were a method of honing in on my experience, of paying even more attention to the angles of the buildings around me, to describing the way the waiter weaved amid the tables of the terrace cafe. Writing and photography were my entryways into mindfulness. But, did they somehow also create a barrier or decrease my time in un-mediated savouring of nature, city scapes, people? This was the question posed by a man who had spent decades perhaps, wandering through Southern Europe, living in the moment as it was.
The Mindful Beingness Predicament
For years I kept a journal; it allowed me to reflect on, re-savour and share moment and perceptions of life. At one point, though, I sensed a schism, a disconnect. Because few people were reading my writing, I felt I had no witness. I felt my life split between the act of living and the act of reflecting on the act of living. The result was, I decided to explore photography, which seemed to me to have the advantage of being more easily shared with others, being immediate, tangible and a visual art. It was also a craft done in the same moment as the visual experience was going on. Perfect, I thought. But soon, I recognized the split between myself and my experience as I was constantly viewing it from behind the lens. Photographs, though wonderful for exploring the lines and angles of a European building, cannot capture those most subtle, sacred landscapes – the mist rising off a lake in early morning, or the vast mountain chair rising through the haze. The photographs also do not possess the energetic of the atmosphere, the fragrance or energy of nature.
No, I vowed, mindfulness alone was my art. I hurdled into a decade of meditation, research and practical writing.
Exploring Mindful Writing
One night, many nights, I had a dream. Words rolled out of the ethers and I found myself again writing down the night. Surreptitiously, I re-entered the writing life. Suddenly, writing was again for me the unpacking, profound symbol-cracking exploration of lived experience – not a distraction from it. Unlike Facebook posts, or tweets posted in real time, which can, I think, distract a person from an experience which is going on at the same moment, writing is not usually an interuption to the experience being written about. Of course there is a synergy with the environment of the writing event – the cafe life, perhaps. But the writing event is an experience in its own right. Inspired writing may come out of a dream or half-dream state. Sometimes the act of writing, reflection takes one into “the zone”, an alpha/theta state which is at once healing and revealing – a state of quiet insight or invigorating bursts from the knowledge fields. In this type of writing, we become the timeless witness. It is a mystical experience.
For this type of writing to come forth, all that is required is an openness to the depth of one’s own experience as it is, nothing more. And yet, it is full of magical synchronicity and symbolism. I find travel can also be a key to heighten our awareness, our receptivity and sense of adventure. When we move out of our unconscious, habitual patterns, our comfort with familiar contexts that allow for living on auto-pilot, we are called to pay attention in order to navigate our new setting.
Exploring Mindful Photography
Recently, I connected deeply with a photograph from 1905 of a young girl in a white frock and a teenage boy in short pants and long stockings on a piece of land I know well. To see the curves of the rocks and the worn path where they sat, and to feel their energy as I again walked those same paths gave me a sense of the continuity with the past. I recognized how much of a role photography now plays in holding and transmitting our recent history to us – as painting once did – holding cultural information that is passed down simply though the image of people at cultural landmarks, historic homes, or on personal plots of land like farms. This reminded me of yoga in many ways, which was passed down through subtle energy, written or visual information and word of mouth.
I have been reflecting lately and over the course of the past 25 years, on the role of photography, literature, art and writing in our lives and as spiritual practice. Earlier I wrote that photo-taking interrupts the unmediated experience of the moment. And yet, taking a photograph may be a very mindful act. To do it, first we engage with the subject, view the colours and lines, arrange the focus and depth of field, or at least the general composition within the viewfinder. For a few moments, perhaps longer, we are focussed entirely on that subject. We are enthralled by it, and we may even connect with its energy. We are in a meditation with object. But at which point do we need to come back and re-connect with our own embodied experience of now – be present to ourselves in order to continue mindfully?
For me, it seems that there is a strong correlation between the amount of time in sequence that I am engaged with such an art, and the loss of centre that leads to unmindfulness. For example, I may be a very centred and focussed on taking pictures of a historic building, and feel an increase of mindfulness and wellbeing. As I pay attention to composition, focus the art of image capture. But after some time, if I don’t come back to plain witnessing of the now, the breath, my energy, I begin to bump into people, trip over equipment, lose awareness of what is going on around me. The instrument – the camera – removes me every so slightly from the moment as it is, and disbalance arises. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the number of clicks in short amounts of time. In this sense, older photographic equipment, like the light box, or even manual cameras, had the advantage of being slow, requiring attention to mechanics. Taking hundreds of snapshots haphazardly with no prolonged viewing of or connection to a subject does not really possess the same quality of art of of mindfulness. That said, it may still result in capturing interesting moments in life and society, and therefore still has value socially and personally. But, because of the automatic camera and the propensity towards taking rapid snapshots, photography may be viewed less commonly as an art, and even less as an act of mindfulness.
So, it seems that in fact, the mindful attention and engagement with the photographic subject is part of what makes some photographs art, and others simply souvenirs. And yet, years from now, a viewer, deeply connecting with a snapshot, for whatever reason its subject holding symbolic meaning for that person, may become art, or create for that viewer an opportunity for unusual attention. Is viewing art and the creating of art then inherently a mindfulness practice?
Balance: Drawing from the Ethers without Floating Away
I have heard many times the reflection by ascetics and rationalists that reading stories is a waste of time or that stories do not reflect reality and hence have no capacity to educate or transform us. As a long time reader and write, my experience is that nothing is further from the truth. To start, my view is that ‘fictional’ stories still do reflect reality. They usually are an exposition of social dynamics, common psychological states, or a reflection on the lived experience of the author. Charles Dickens, for example, wrote novels about the poverty and social disparity in England in the 1850s with a view to increasing awareness and initiating social reform. He succeeded! How many people have been affected by the stores of characters like Oliver Twist or Tiny Tim. This is just one example of the interface between real life and novels.
Other types of stories from romantic to science fiction relate stores of love and loss, joy and disappointment, hope and the personal quest for meaning. When we have a profound experience of reading or writing, we are engrossed in the reality portrayed. I often have the experience of not hearing someone calling my name when I read or write and am deeply engaged in it. Not hearing, or not registering the call as relevant to what I am doing. I continue to connect intensely to the reality I’m engaged with. Again the question – is this meditative or afflicted? Certainly it is a trait of Vata to be so comfortable in etheric states and other realities for prolonged periods.
I notice that like in a formal seated meditation, after engaging single-mindedly with a book or writing session, I need time before coming back to a wider variety of stimulus and to come back to base with a fundamental, experiential, embodied connection to the now as it is, in the moment I am physically in. Although allowing the mind and awareness to go to a place and time other than the physical now can be meditative and inspiring etc., if prolonged without respite, to reconnect deeply to the physical present, it can ultimately leave us foggy and disconnected. As with formal meditation, we need to be aware of when we’ve simply drifted off.
Reading is meditative in the sense that the mind takes on the process of reading and the story as its present, its now. We give our full attention to it, delve into it. That is mindful reading for me. When it goes super-mindful, this meditation on an object allows for the experience of full oneness with the experience of reading, the situations read about, as well as full awareness of the body, breath and reality outside of the reading. Everything becomes a total energizing synergy. If this does not happen completely, or focus on the present of the body is lost, ultimately we feel disbalance begin and we know we need to stop reading and go to the bathroom, or rest, or answer the calls of our family or friends. In other words, the enriching state ultimately comes to a close.
Having described both how art as meditation on the object is a deep experience of mindfulness, and also how it can become disbalancing, or how we know sessions must come to a close, I feel the need to reiterate that my experience and profound belief is that art is a powerful method and expression of mindfuness meditation and connection to energy of oneself, of the object and connection to the continuity of human history. Art, like appreciation of nature, is one of the fundamentally worthwhile pursuits. Unless we intend to spend our days only on formal meditation, as a recluse or in a retreat, all meditation leads to meditation in action; ‘being’ while doing things – reading, writing, thinking, gardening, office work, activism, etc. The question is merely what activities inspire us most, for what length of time at a stretch and which activities allow us best to play our role in this life.
Osho often reflected that when we do what we enjoy, what is natural to us, we go into a natural meditation. Being and doing become one.