“When I have a camera in my hand, I know no fear.” – Alfred Eisenstaedt
“Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.” – Thomas Carlyle
While I was in France, one of my friends on Facebook posted a comment on one of my pictures. “Jeri, I love your work!”
That comment touched me tremendously, and has stuck with me for several weeks. I have never considered photography my “work”. ‘Work” is what I do in those 60 busy hours, Monday through Friday. Work is the serious stuff, the stuff I am paid to do. Work is my life as a banker and as a change management professional. Work is navigating office politics; work is crisis management; work is massaging Powerpoint decks; work is conference calls. Work is managing budgets, vendors and projects.
Over the last four years, since I received my Canon DSLR as a Christmas present in December 2010, photography has simply been my escape. Photography has been pure fun, and a way for my much-too-serious psyche to learn to play again. And, as I have grown in my photography skills, it has become a personal healing and meditative practice.
One of the experiences I most remember from France was our first day photographing a local French market. Market day in a small town in France or Italy is truly a sight to behold. All the villagers come, and it is a time to not only buy what is needed for the next week, but a time to gather, greet, talk and just enjoy the day. It’s crowded – with people, children, dogs, vendors, musicians and artisans. It’s lively, with people sitting at open cafes, kissing cheeks, and chatting in their native language. Market day is an almost overwhelming feast for the senses. The eyes are astounded by a painter’s palette of colors drawn from the fresh produce, just-picked flowers and hand-made crafts on display. The nose is rewarded at every step with wondrous smells, including pungent cheese, fishy paella, warm, just-baked French pastries, and trays of curry, nutmeg and lavender.
I was not a novice to the European market experience, but I still recall the singular and powerful feeling I had when I stepped into the market in Revel, France. I took a deep breath, filled up my lungs, raised my eyes to the sky and said a silent ‘thank you’ to the universe. I wanted to be nowhere else, and I felt fully present, with not a thought in my head other than to open my senses and my camera lens to everything that was in front of me.
How many times in our daily lives can we say that we are thinking of nothing else but the here and now, that we do not want to be anywhere else but right where we are? A moment where we feel fully present, in all of our senses, to the richness of the present moment? A moment where we feel no self-consciousness, no fear, no regrets, no anxiety? A moment where we just exist as one simple soul on the earth, standing in pure joy, without the ever-present doubts, questions, and past or future thinking? No monkey mind, no churning thoughts, but just pure heart cracked open, to stand in awe and RECEIVE?
That feeling, my friends, is the holy grail of meditation, of contemplation, of pilgrimage. A feeling sought by many and found by few.
That moment in the Revel market was worth every dollar I paid to take the trip. For some strange reason, the camera around my neck frees me to be a different person, one who does not have to work to be present to the moment, one who sees in a different way – and most importantly, one who literally HAS NO FEAR. With my camera, I will hang off the edge of a bridge or a cliff to get the shot, or enter a dark, secret doorway to follow the light, or throw off my natural introversion and engage with complete and total strangers. But more important than those external behaviors, is the internal change that takes place within me. With my camera, I am blessedly free of the mental fears – of not being good enough, of letting people down, of not achieving enough.
Christine Valtners Paintner, in her book, Eyes of the Heart, Photography as a Christian Meditative Practice, says that one of the great gifts of art-making is an “experience of “forgetting” ourselves and our self-consciousness, and stepping into something much bigger.” She describes contemplative seeing as a conscious act, an act of becoming receptive and dropping as much as possible, dropping our own ego desires and projections. “It is only from this space of openness and wonder that we truly see the movement of God in the world”. She calls it “descending into the heart”.
When you learn to see from the heart, you release your fears, your expectations of what you think you will see, and instead receive what is actually there. The ordinary world is transfigured into the wondrous. The sensor in your heart, as well as the sensor in the camera – receives the light coming in, and voila, we SEE.
I seem to have a different type of vision when I am out and about with my camera. The theologian, author and Franciscan priest Richard Rohr talks about three kinds of vision. The first is physical vision, just seeing with our physical senses. The second type is an enhanced vision that comes with knowledge. But the third type of vision brings together imagination, intuition and reason. He describes it as “tasting”, where we stand in awe before the mystery and grace of life, where we feel connected to everything else. The third type of vision “happens whenever, by some wondrous coincidence, our heart space, our mind space, and our body awareness are all simultaneously open and nonresistant. I like to call it presence. It is experienced as a moment of deep inner connection, and it always pulls you, intensely satisfied, into the naked and undefended now…”
Every time I take my camera out to see, I can usually descend into this third type of vision. It’s an experience where I am free, where I am not ‘on-stage’, or ‘working’ in the normal sense. It’s an experience where I am non-judgmental of myself and others, where I can just BE.
There’s a concept in current psychology called “flow”. In thousands of studies with people from all professions, cultures, and walks of life, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi looked at what creates the optimal experience for humans. “Flow” is defined as the happy state of complete engagement in a creative or playful activity, where one feels joy and total involvement with life. Whether you are rock climbing, or writing poetry, or taking photographs, the feeling is described similarly by those who experience it. We lose ourselves to find ourselves.
The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself….the act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same; recognizing that you are a flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication….
The yoga tradition takes this flow concept into a larger life picture, and talks about finding one’s dharma. Dharma means ‘vocation’ or ‘sacred duty’. Everyone has a unique vocation, and your sacred duty is to find that dharma, your true work, and then to fully and completely embody it in the world.
Stephen Cope, the great yoga scholar, says this about dharma.
Each of us must have one domain, one small place on the globe where we can fully meet life – where we can meet it with every gift we have. One small place where, through testing ourselves, we can know the nature of life, and ultimately know ourselves. This domain, this one place that is uniquely ours, is our work in the world. Our work in the world is for each of us the axis mundi, the immovable spot – the one place where we really have the opportunity to wake up.
Perhaps photography is my ‘work in the world’. I don’t know. That sounds way too pretentious for me, an amateur who has much to learn, and one who does not make their living from her art.
But for now it is enough that I call it the place where I go to know no fear; the place where I go to lose myself to find myself; and the place where I go to continually learn how to see better from the heart.
There is so much more to write about my trip to France. In addition to the markets, I was incredibly moved by the ancient abbeys and cloisters we visited. In my next post, I want to share those moments of grace and peace I experienced walking and reflecting within the walls of the monastics.