Spirituality and Photography: Mindfulness

Recently, I’ve given a couple of lectures on Spirituality and Photography (combining two of my interests and giving me to a chance to show off some of my photography while talking about something I’m actually qualified to talk about, spirituality). A number of people have asked to look at my notes for the lectures. And I’m really flattered, but . . . that rather assumes I’m working from a rather more fully outlined schema than I in fact do. When I make notes for a lecture, class or sermon, I put down just enough words to remind myself what I’m trying to say, and the basic structure of what I’m trying to say. Often, I won’t even look at those notes during the lecture, but they exist in case I need them.

Nonetheless, people have asked for me to share, so I figure I’ll go ahead and write a series of blog posts on the subject of Spirituality and Photography, beginning today with Mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of attempting to be aware of everything about something. So, if it is a sitting meditation, it might be a complete awareness of your body, breathing in and out, how your weight is being transferred to the chair or ground, and all thoughts that wander through your brain as you are trying to have no thoughts except those about your breathing, etc. If one is eating a piece of chocolate, we attempt to focus on the taste, the mouthfeel, the scent. To really notice the chocolate.

Looking at a photograph is very similar.

Blooming Dogwood
Blooming Dogwood

When we look at a photograph, we are completely aware of everything within the frame. Conversely, nothing outside the frame comes to our attention. In the photograph of the Blooming Dogwood, there could be a gorilla jumping up and down just to the right of the frame, but because it’s outside of the frame, we don’t pay it any attention. Our attention is limited to what is actually in the frame. (For the sake of relieving those of you who were concerned, there was, in fact, no gorilla in evidence when I took this photo).

This artificial limiting of what we pay attention to focuses our attention on what is present. The longer we look at the photo, the more we see. Color, composition, the things we can almost but not quite see, and our emotional response to the photo are laid more bare because our field of view is limited by the photographer’s choice in framing the photograph. To look at a photograph closely is to engage in a type of meditation.

When you take a photograph, the process is even more exacting. A photographer needs to develop the ability to truly see what we look at. It can’t be just about “gee, that’s pretty,” because what our brains see as pretty in real life will most often not translate to a pretty photograph. Our brains are able to filter out extraneous parts of an image. But when we create that frame of the photograph, we notice everything.

Forsythia
Forsythia

For instance, take the photo of Forsythia. I looked out my window one day a few years back, saw pretty flowers and took a photograph. When I took the photo, I wasn’t paying attention to the house in the background, the dead raspberry canes in the foreground, or the intersecting fences. Yet now, looking at the photograph, each of these intruding elements interferes with my attempt to show the profusion of yellow that spring forsythia blossoms bring. We are aware of the other visual elements because our brains do not filter them out in a photograph as our brains do in real life.

The photographer must learn to see real life as it will appear once photographed–to see all that is there, not just the part the brain wants to focus on. This is a form of mindfulness, of awareness of the world. Seeing what is instead of what we perceive. Paying close attention to the world is a common spiritual practice, across religious traditions. Doing it with a camera is just one more way of engaging our spiritual selves.

Pretty Pictures from Israel

This post has nothing to do with Israel, except that the pictures were taken there. But they aren’t really Israel-specific. They are flowers and water, and things like that. You know, pretty pictures that happen to be taken in Israel.

And, in addition to the photos in the post, there are a bunch more in the gallery at the bottom.

Winter to Spring

About a week ago I returned to Portland after a couple of weeks on the East Coast–Boston and New York. The Day I left New York, the view out the window was this:

As you can tell, it looked like winter. My understanding is that things have not gotten significantly better since then.

So, around midnight, as I’m reaching my front door, I look down, and decide I must be hallucinating. Because I think I’m seeing narcissus blooming.

I get up the next day, trying to make sense out of what I saw, and truly, spring has somehow happened while I was away.

And as I look around at the flowers, I realize that these are not a freak early blooming. Other flowers are also in bloom:

And I wander a bit around the neighborhood, finding yet more flowers, including the cherries and the camellias.

All of this seems a bit early to me, but I’ve got to say, I love spring in Portland.

Spring is Showing Up Around the Edges

Here in Portland, we’re seeing the first signs of spring. On my walk to work earlier this week I brought along my camera, and took a few pictures as I went. First, right outside our home: narcisusNarcissus. I don’t think I’ve noticed this being the first flowers of the spring before, but this year, it beat out the forsythia.

As I was walking to work, I definitely saw crocuses. Many crocuses. Purple onescrocuses1, yellow ones. Purple and Yellow ones. I only got pictures of a few, but you’ll have to take my word for it, there are many crocuses all over. yellowcrocuses

I’ve also seen some camelias, which is interesting in that I think of them as a much earlier flower. Nonetheless, there they wwere in full bloom.

Then there were the flowers I didn’t recognize. The wild yellow flowers that seemed sort of muppety: crazyflowersKind of cool, aren’t they?

And some reddish buds that seem about to flower: aboutoflower2aboutoflower

This is the time of year when I love walking to work, because I get to see the flowers move along day by day. Each day there are new flowers getting ready to bloom, or trees getting ready to leaf out, or various other changes of state happening all around us. So I’ll keep walking with my camera, and hopefully continue to share photos with you.

Flowers on the Way to Work

I’ve begun walking to work a lot the past few weeks, which is great. It’s about a half hour walk, which is about perfect. Sometimes, though, I take it a bit more slowly, bring out the camera, and stop and smell–or more often, photograph–the flowers. This morning wsa a morning full of flowers. 

One of the things I love about Portland is the profusion of flowers we have through the spring and summer. The variety, the brightness of colors.

Some of what I love about the flowers is the diversity of color and texture. It reminds of me of knitting, in that there are bright colors, though I find that there are colors I love in nature which I would never use in something I knit. The yellow of these sunflowers is one such example. I would never knit with a yellow such as this, but in this context, the flowers are amazing and beautiful. 

Other flowers are much more my normal color-style.

 The purples and pinks of the fuscia make me really happy. The profusion of flowers on the plants don’t hurt either. 

Roses have always been a favorite of mine, in large part for their scent. I also adore the way the flower changes over time from the tight rosebud to the open, ruffled flower. Very often the color of the flower will also change as it opens, which is a wonderful treat. 

Looking at gardens in Portland, there are some other treats: Someone came by to investigate as I was taking photos of some cornflowers and lantern flowers. There was a clear sense of ownership here, and a sense that I was photographing the wrong thing. Apparently, this feline believed that portraiture was a far more appropriate art form than landscape photography. Who was I to argue?

Nonetheless, I did take some closeups of the lantern flowers.These flowers are amazing because they just don’t seem like they should be real. 

And speaking of things which may or may not look real, I took some substantial liberties in adjusting this last photo. The colors may not be exactly what my eye saw, but I find it beautiful. There is a question among photographers and lovers of photography as to whether the goal is to produce a beauty or to accurately represent reality (at least when the two are in conflict). Most of the time I satisfy myself with beauty which is an accurate reflection of reality. This time, I wanted to play a little. 

Walking to work is for me a way to get in touch with the natural world. It’s fairly easy this time of year. Cool enough that I don’t arrive at work soaked in sweat, warm enough that I’m comfortable. Dry enough that I’m not soaked by rain. I hope I’ll be able to continue throughout the year, but we’ll see how persistent I am when the weather becomes less pleasant. Each day comes, one at a time, and I’ll see how it goes, and how the landscape changes.

Pictures of Spring

As previously promised, pictures of spring:

daffodils.jpg

This is a daffodil. I’m rather fond of it, and there are a number coming up right now. Daffodils are pretty, and I’m pleased by that.

forsythia.jpg

Above, you will note forsythia. As previously mentioned, forsythia are exuberant in color, which I find distinctly lovely at this time of year. Go forsythia.

camellia.jpg

Our camellias are pink, which would not have been my first choice, but at this point, I’ll take flowers in almost any color.

As you can (hopefully) tell by my captions, I remain tired and a bit on the punchy side. But it will get better.

Spring is Springing

I really wanted to do a “spring” blog post with the help of some photos, and have been putting off doing it for the last week because I was convinced I would remember to grab the camera from the office and take some photos. However, that has not happened, and a “spring is here” post can wait no longer.

When the crocuses bloomed, I could wait, and not yet write about spring. When the daffodils came up, I was able to restrain myself. The camellias didn’t even really count as a sign of spring, because, really, they’re a late winter flower. The daffodils blooming in the yard yesterday did not quite (but came very close) to requiring a spring posting. Today, however, I saw something which required a spring posting.

The neighbor’s forsythia is beginning to flower. Eva claims I am unnaturally attached to forsythia, and makes the further claim that my attachment is on account of the name “forsythia”. I want to make clear, that my attachment to forsythia may or may not be unnatural, but I believe has very little to do with the name (which it took me years to learn how to spell). What I love about forsythia is the profusion of yellow flowers coming so early in the spring. This is not the crocus, where each plant puts forth a single bloom, or the daffodil or narcissus, where each plant might put out three blooms. It’s not even the camellia where there may be quite a lot of blooms per plant. No, forsythia goes all out and the branches become nothing more than a vehicle for flowers, as the entire leggy branches of the bush become covered from ground to the tip of the branch with bright yellow flowers.

Forsythia has an exuberance of flowering which goes beyond the other early flowering plants. When it flowers, it becomes nothing more than a giant collection of flowers. It is glorious and bright. And for me, it is the symbol that spring has indisputably arrived.