“Artistic vision comes from a mind clear enough to fall in love with what we see.” —Chogyam Trungpa
Contemplative photography, Miksang photography, provides us a way to see the world with fresh eyes. (Miksang, Tibetan for “good eye,” was introduced to the West by the Tibetan Buddhist meditation and dharma art master Chogyam Trungpa.) It brings together eye, mind and heart to make images that can expand our vision and appreciation of the world.
Miksang has nothing to do with technique or trying to make great art. Practicing Miksang photography develops our ability not just to look but to see with direct, unmediated perception.
I have been taking photographs on and off for many years, but thanks to my participating in a Miksang photography workshop at Seattle’s Shambhala Center two years ago I started seeing and shooting things in new ways. I learned to pay close attention to pure colors, light and shadows, abstract patterns and interesting details everywhere.
In considering how I had up to then approached taking pictures, the first thing I realized was that I was always thinking about what was beautiful or stunning and then trying to capture in a photograph that beautiful or stunning image. I was looking at everything through filters, so many mental filters that I couldn’t perceive anything directly, clearly and freshly. These filters were made up of all that I know and were shaped by judgments, opinions, fears and old memories.
But how in hell was I ever going to see without looking through all those hard-won filters? The answer came by means of the practice part of contemplative photography. To see what is actually there and not what our mental fabrications make apparent turned out to be a mindfulness awareness practice, full of joy, that can open our minds to the infinite beauty that is all around us all the time.
Most people think that “to contemplate” simply means to think about things. However, the first dictionary definition is “to look at attentively”—that is, to observe carefully. (When asked to define Zen in three words, Suzuki Roshi said “attention, attention, attention.”)
When I first started trying to take Miksang images, I found myself lost in my thought-streams—in concepts of what was beautiful—and still wanting to take great abstract art photographs. I struggled to incorporate these thought-streams and aesthetics with what I had learned about clear seeing.
Then I captured one or two images that surprised me in that they did not seem to come from my usual conceptual pursuits. A small crack opened in my overfortified mind and I remembered how Leonard Cohen sang, in “Anthem,”
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Space came in as well as light, and I began to open myself to being present with the world in a new way. Although I still mentally filtered almost all my images, I started seeing such things as a certain sharp edge, an arresting pattern, a delightful texture, an intense color in ways I had never seen before.
Now I am starting to fall in love with the world. My heart takes over from Central Headquarters for brief periods andallowing itself, eye and mind to simply see our world. Then Central Headquarters lets me know that if I would just change this or alter that, this would be a better photograph. I habitually want to manipulate, fix and improve everything.
This is where discipline of the practice got hard for me. It wasn’t easy just to see clearly what’s there and depress the shutter before second and subsequent thoughts could intervene, could take over.
When I reminded myself of the basic Miksang premise and injunction—No manipulating of the image!—I said to myself, “You have to be kidding. Can’t I just crop or lighten these?” An unequivocal no was the answer.
Miksang photography is like meditation – observing your thoughts and letting them be as they are without making short stories or manipulating them in any way.
Miksang photography is also similar to other Buddhist contemplative art forms Trungpa gave us: ikebana, calligraphy, stroke practice, Mudra space awareness. But with Miksang photography you can be fast, loose and out of control. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and occasionally results in an interesting photograph.
For more images and info about contemplative photography, check out:
www.seeingfresh.com This is the website for the new book, The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes by Andy Karr and Michael Wood, from Shambhala Publications.
fabric artist in featured photo: Joan Wortis