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.

The Olympics and Spirituality

Sports, perhaps especially the Olympics, are somewhat similar to religion. I’m not the first to point this out, by any means, but from time to time, I’m reminded of the similarities:

  • We identify with a group/team based on certain beliefs/desires (we want our team to win, or to achieve salvation).
  • We participate in group rituals (prayer, coming together to watch sports).
  • There are sancta of the group–sacred objects that are invested with special meaning (ceremonial cups/souvenir  cups).
  • There are teleological hopes (achieving salvation/wait ’til next year).

But beyond this listing of similarities, I have a feeling that sports and religion function similarly in fulfilling a spiritual purpose. While this isn’t an unusual claim for religion, it’s less common for sports. Yet, spiritual engagement in sports is the best explanation for why we become so invested in sports (and particularly the Olympics).

We identify our own fate/fortunes with that of our team. Why does it matter to me if the Red Sox win? It doesn’t change my life in any material way. Yet when the Red Sox win, it makes me happy. It gives me joy. Somehow, I’m identified with the team, at an abstract, maybe even Mystical level. When a U.S. gymnast beats a Chinese or Romanian competitor in the Olympics, we celebrate. Why? Not because it will impact our quality of life, or the trade deficit, or anything “real.” And yet, it does seem to make a difference to us.

As with prayer, some of us participate alone in our homes, while others go out into public groups (I’ve been noticing a variety of pubs advertising that they’ll be showing the Olympics). During the “services”, there is both the set order of prayer/events, as well as the “sermons” (either commentary, or those feature stories about the locale of the games). There is even the “wisdom literature,” whether that’s a scriptural reading, or clips of USA Hockey beating the USSR in 1980.

Why does this matter? It matters because we are willing to give great importance to our spiritual lives, while trivializing the attention we pay to the Olympic games. Perhaps we should be more generous to ourselves around our Olympic habits (or addictions, as the case may be). The Olympics provide us with an opportunity to feel good about being Americans, without any partisan bickering, without any caveats (“I’m patriotic, but not pro-military,” for instance). Instead, we are all able to root for our athletes, who, in some way, represent us, and to feel pride in their achievements. And through that pride, to feel connected to all the other Americans who also feel pride.

The Fragility of Life

Rabbis have an odd perspective on life (at least, this rabbi does). We see people at their extremes:

  • Extreme joy: Wedding, bar/bat mitzvah
  • Extreme sadness: funerals
  • extreme exhaustion: baby namings

We experience on a regular basis events that for others happen occasionally over the course of a life (case in point: at a wedding last weekend someone told me it was the loveliest wedding she’d ever been to–then noted that it was only the second wedding she’d ever been to; for me, it was my first wedding (of the year), but will be one of at least 7 or so I am present for between now and October). I am present when families experience the death of a loved one. I’m visiting in the hospital as a person realizes his mortality is not quite so abstract as he had assumed.

Rabbis listen to the stories of people’s lives. We are allowed into their lives in ways which others aren’t: people put up fewer filters, and are more likely to tell us how they’re really feeling when we ask. Which is good, because otherwise we (or at least, I) can’t respond to them usefully.

All of the above is preamble to this: I’ve been very aware of the fragility of life during the last week. Teaching an adult education session on Yom Kippur, I was found myself speaking of how the liturgy of Yom Kippur seeks to remind us of the fact that each of us might die in the coming year. Calling someone I hadn’t spoken to in months about returning some tiki torches I borrowed for a congregational event, she answers the phone from her husband’s hospital room, where he’s been for the last month since being in an accident. And, of course, there’s the basic experience of aging, which is to say, more of our own friends fighting cancer, losing parents, etc.

So, last weekend, when I got into the car to drive 3 hours to a wedding, I brought a certain awareness of how fragile our existence is: how easy it is to glance away from the road, and drive into a tree, for instance. After all, it happens all the time–just not to us (at least, not on a good day).

I leave you with the point I was making in the class I taught: it’s not that we should live every day as though it were our last, but that every now and again, we should think about whether we’re living our life in such a way that if it were to end tomorrow, we’d be pleased with the life we’ve led.

Meditations on a Cup of Coffee

There’s something special about the first cup of coffee in the morning. Both symbol of the start of a new day, and the fuel to make it happen. The first sips are bracing: both hot and somewhat bitter (I drink it with milk, no sugar). It’s the taste of incipient productivity.

The drinking of coffee falls somewhere between an act of self-medication and religious/magical ritual. We (and by “we”, I mean “I”) count on the caffeine to infuse our system, and add the motivation we need to do the things which need to be done. Yet the power lies not just in the caffeine, but in the very act of drinking. In the Jewish mystical tradition, there is a tradition of reciting a meditation before performing a mitzvah: “Here I am, prepared and ready to accept upon myself this mitzvah in order to bring about the unification of the Divine.” Drinking coffee is a similar act, saying, “here I am, prepared and ready to accept upon myself this day, to make of it something productive.” When I drink coffee, I am acknowledging that the day has begun, and that I am trying to make something of this day.

Yet at other times a cup of coffee connotes a very different sentiment. Drinking a bottomless cup of coffee over weekend brunch with friends bespeaks relaxation and a willingness to spend time carelessly together, not counting the moments, but allowing time to flow by at its constant, relaxed, pace. Most different is the cup of coffee drunk after dinner, which I covet as a child might a lollipop, and resist because I know it will cost me sleep: a forbidden fruit which somehow the elder generation drinks with impunity.

Yet for me, it always comes back to that first cup of coffee in the morning: steam rising from the cup as I begin the day, like the smoke of a burnt offering in the ancient Temple rising to heaven each morning without fail. Drinking it slowly, knowing that I can’t be expected to be productive until I’ve finished the cup. Savoring the taste, the smell, and waiting for the caffeine to kick in, and truly wake me up.

It’s Amazing That Our Bodies Function

Spending time around my grandfather as he is dying pushes my thinking in interesting ways. One of those ways is about how amazing it is that bodies function, and how resilient they are.

Judaism has a specific blessing about this (arguably, Judaism has a specific blessing for everything), and it’s a blessing that has spoken to me for many years.

Blessed are you, Divine One, our God, nature’s rulemaker, who formed humanity in wisdom, and created within us openings and channels. It is evident and known that should one of these openings be closed when it should be open, or open when it should be closed, we would be unable to stand before you. Blessed are You, Divine One, healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

It is known, colloquially, as the bathroom blessing, since it is recited, among other times, when one relieves oneself (it is also a part of the litany of blessings recited each morning upon getting up).

For me, this blessing has always drawn attention to the miracle of the intricacy of the human body. How everything fits together, and, for the most part, functions without our conscious attention. How, until the advent of computers, it would have been impossible for humans to design a system this complex (which is not to say that I believe that we were “designed” by a conscious deity, merely that we could not have designed something like ourselves, which nature did). I have always seen it as a reminder of the delicacy of the human body, the fragility of our inner workings.

As I watch my grandfather slipping slowly down his final road, however, I am, ironically,  reminded just how robust the human body is. Even as his body is riddled with a cancer which does not belong, and squeezes out the organs which do, his body continues to function. His brain, for the most part, continues to function, albeit with the occasional fault. Our bodies are remarkably fault-tolerant, to use the language of technology. And somehow, I find this fault-tolerance an even greater occasion for wonder.

Blessed is the one who heals flesh and works wonders.

Remember Us For Life: Zochreinu L’chayim

The evening of Rosh Hashanah, the services begin like many other evening services. The words are the same, but the melody is different. But we come to the Amidah, and we have a special insert for Rosh Hashanah:

Zochreinu l’chayim, melech hafetz bachayim, v’chotveinu besefer hachayim, l’mancha elohim chayim. “Remember us for life, O King who delights in life, and write us in the book of life, for your sake, God of life.”

This phrase will come around over and over again over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Remember us for life…” What do we mean by this. Is it a plea that we be allowed to live through another year? That’s not the God I believe in, one who controls to quite that extent.

More troubling, perhaps, is what we mean by asking God to remember us. It rather implies a God who might forget us. Again, an idea I have trouble with.

For me, the key is in the second phrase: O King who delights in life. We are asking to be remembered and inscribed for the kind of life that God delights in. Let us make our life this year one worthy of remembrance. Let our lives be such that they are lived for the sake of the God of life.

This plea, to me, speaks to the question of what we make our lives. Will they be lived as something to be survived, or as something to be treasured? Will we make something of our days, or will they be wasted? For the sake or what, or whom, shall we live the next year?

Zochreinu l’chayim. Remember us for life, O God of life.

Remember Us For Life: Zochreinu L’chayim

The evening of Rosh Hashanah, the services begin like many other evening services. The words are the same, but the melody is different. But we come to the Amidah, and we have a special insert for Rosh Hashanah:

Zochreinu l’chayim, melech hafetz bachayim, v’chotveinu besefer hachayim, l’mancha elohim chayim. “Remember us for life, O King who delights in life, and write us in the book of life, for your sake, God of life.”

This phrase will come around over and over again over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Remember us for life…” What do we mean by this. Is it a plea that we be allowed to live through another year? That’s not the God I believe in, one who controls to quite that extent.

More troubling, perhaps, is what we mean by asking God to remember us. It rather implies a God who might forget us. Again, an idea I have trouble with.

For me, the key is in the second phrase: O King who delights in life. We are asking to be remembered and inscribed for the kind of life that God delights in. Let us make our life this year one worthy of remembrance. Let our lives be such that they are lived for the sake of the God of life.

This plea, to me, speaks to the question of what we make our lives. Will they be lived as something to be survived, or as something to be treasured? Will we make something of our days, or will they be wasted? For the sake or what, or whom, shall we live the next year?

Zochreinu l’chayim. Remember us for life, O God of life.

Elul: A Time for Spiritual Introspection

Tuesday began the Jewish month of Elul. Elul is the month in the calendar that leads up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and is seen traditionally as a time of spiritual introspection and evaluation. It is a time of preparation for the High Holidays, or the Yamim Nora’im, the “Days of Awe.” It is a time for looking at the year which is ending, and looking at where we are in our lives, and where we wish to be. It is a time for adjustments in how we are living, and a time for plotting where we wish to be at this time next year.

One of the spiritual practices I suggest that Jews take on during Elul is reading over the machzur, the prayerbook for the High Holidays. The prayers are somewhat different from the daily or Sabbath prayers, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically. If we are encountering them for the first time in a year when we try to pray them at Rosh Hashanah, we are all too likely to find ourselves trying to figure out what those prayers mean, rather than focusing on what we want them to mean in our lives. So, I suggest reviewing the prayers during this month of Elul.

I, myself, also try to review the prayers. It’s not that I don’t remember them: I can recite many of them from memory. Rather, I review them to see what they say to me this year. The words of the prayers may not change year to year, but I do. The words of prayers only have meaning when someone prays them, and that meaning can shift depending on who we are and what we need at that time of prayer. So I review, to see what the prayers have to say to me this year.

All of this is by way of introducing what I hope will be a series of blog posts over the next month, in which I explore various of the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope these will be of interest whether or not you are Jewish, whether or not you believe in God. At the very least, it should be a view of how one rabbi engages with prayer and finds new meaning in ancient words. But if this isn’t your cup of tea, rest assured I’ll be back to my normal random musings come mid-September.

Elul: A Time for Spiritual Introspection

Tuesday began the Jewish month of Elul. Elul is the month in the calendar that leads up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and is seen traditionally as a time of spiritual introspection and evaluation. It is a time of preparation for the High Holidays, or the Yamim Nora’im, the “Days of Awe.” It is a time for looking at the year which is ending, and looking at where we are in our lives, and where we wish to be. It is a time for adjustments in how we are living, and a time for plotting where we wish to be at this time next year.

One of the spiritual practices I suggest that Jews take on during Elul is reading over the machzur, the prayerbook for the High Holidays. The prayers are somewhat different from the daily or Sabbath prayers, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically. If we are encountering them for the first time in a year when we try to pray them at Rosh Hashanah, we are all too likely to find ourselves trying to figure out what those prayers mean, rather than focusing on what we want them to mean in our lives. So, I suggest reviewing the prayers during this month of Elul.

I, myself, also try to review the prayers. It’s not that I don’t remember them: I can recite many of them from memory. Rather, I review them to see what they say to me this year. The words of the prayers may not change year to year, but I do. The words of prayers only have meaning when someone prays them, and that meaning can shift depending on who we are and what we need at that time of prayer. So I review, to see what the prayers have to say to me this year.

All of this is by way of introducing what I hope will be a series of blog posts over the next month, in which I explore various of the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope these will be of interest whether or not you are Jewish, whether or not you believe in God. At the very least, it should be a view of how one rabbi engages with prayer and finds new meaning in ancient words. But if this isn’t your cup of tea, rest assured I’ll be back to my normal random musings come mid-September.

Surrender

In pretty much all spiritual traditions I’m aware of, there exists the discipline of surrender: the acknowledgement that we are not in control of our destinies, regardless of our delusions to the contrary. Certainly this is a central feature of most 12-step programs, but it has its roots in traditional spiritual paths as well. It is a based on a sense of humility: the idea that no matter how we may see ourselves, we do not really have control.

This realization is not meant to free us from the obligation to live our lives in the best way we can. Rather, it is to acknowledge that no matter how carefully we may plan, we cannot force our lives into a certain path. When push comes to shove, there are elements of life that are beyond our control.

Tonight, I come face to face with that need to surrender. No matter how hard I may try to fall asleep, I seem to remain awake. And so, I surrender, and admit that I cannot force sleep to come. And write one of the five or so blog posts running through my head.