Please read the post first!
If you only watch the video, it’s like crashing a party where everyone speaks a different language. It’s still a party, but it would be so much better if you could actually talk to someone.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Each of us
a cell of awareness
imperfect and incomplete.
with uncertain ends
on a fortune hunt that’s far too fleet.
Over the course of several weeks, three separate times we stood vigil over the dying. Death trumpets no sound upon his arrival. Yet he is always right there, creeping in the shadows just around the corner. Sometimes we can almost hear his imperceptible scraping against the floor as he comes up from behind.
In his wake, he leaves rings without fingers, hollow suits, empty shoes, and other invisible holes that we cannot fill. We gather our memories and we soak in them, but too soon they become dim and nebulous and begin to fade. So we clench our eyes more tightly shut and hope to preserve our rememberings by shielding them from the light of the waking world. In the end, they become dreams and then vague apparitions, so hazy and distant that we might wonder if they were ever there at all.
It may be that the greatest triumph of the modern mind is our ability to live most of the time as though death does not exist. It wasn’t long ago that dying was as present and visible as living – maybe even more so. In many cultures, death was celebrated as vigorously as life. We live in the post-modern world, and we generally find this appalling and morbid. Death is The End, and no one wants to think about that, so we send him into a dark corner where we think he can’t be seen. We try to get him to sit there quietly, and we command him to behave himself and come only when we call. If you’ve ever lived with a cat, you know how this turns out.
Last week, Jennifer and I were preparing dinner. She was excited by a podcast she had heard featuring Deepak Chopra, and she suggested that we listen to it as we worked. If you’ve heard Chopra speak, you already know that he has a gift for taking the most abstract ideas and making them digestible. So, we began our meal-making ritual and we listened.
For me, the process of learning, understanding, and internalizing something is much like my process of art-making. I think, I prepare, I collect a lot of raw data, I work, I fail, I feel guilt and self-loathing for not making progress, I work again, I fail again, and then…I wait. That means that I’m working even if it looks like I’m doing something else. It’s also one of the things that drives my lovely Jennifer right up the wall. Life with an artist is never easy.
Everything goes into the hopper. Sometimes the stew cooks up fast, but most of the time it needs to marinate. Either way, at some point the hopper approaches critical mass. That’s when things get tough. I’m struggling then because I feel like I’m just on the edge of something but can’t quite see it yet. The harder I try to figure it out, the more opaque it becomes. The waiting is the worst part. But I’ve learned the hard way that if I stick it out and just keep stirring the stew, something wonderful will happen. Inevitably, some little thing goes into the hopper that brings it all together. In a flash, I suddenly see it! My mind reaches out in a thousand directions at once, and the pieces snap together. What follows is a flurry of creative activity, and I can’t get it all fast enough. I’m in a frenzy because I must grab it before it disappears.
This is what was beginning to happen as I listened to Chopra speak. He talked about many things that were familiar to me: how we become conditioned by the world around us, how we isolate ourselves from the world and each other by building a separate self, and how we lose sight of the big picture by succumbing to pressure, fear, and anxiety. Then he tossed the secret ingredient into my stew by asking the biggest questions of all…
“Have you ever wondered who you really are?
After a moment goes by, what happens to it?
When you have a thought and it leaves you, where does it go?”
Snap! My brain was having a party. I answer those questions through meditation. And that, of course, is exactly where he went.
Try this for one minute. Close your eyes and breathe. Be aware of your surroundings. Do nothing. Just observe. Do it for thirty seconds. There’s no fear or stress or anxiety in that moment. Now turn inward and observe yourself. Who is it that’s observing you? It’s you! That’s you as you really are. You won’t feel time or pressure or anything else in that moment because you’re in “nowness”. That’s your Eternal Self, shapeless, ageless, and unconstrained by time or space. Notice that you don’t feel any of those things in that moment. This is what it feels like to be completely present. You don’t need me to convince you. You know it’s true. Give yourself one minute and ty it. You’ll see.
Do it now.
That was easy, wasn’t it? This is exactly the state I’ve been describing to you and asking you to put yourself in when you are practicing your photography. Remember this the next time you go out to shoot. Put yourself in this state before you open your camera bag. Do it again before you push the shutter button. Do it again and keep doing it. This is how you stop chasing photographs. You won’t stress over missing “the shot” because you’ll see photographs everywhere. Have you ever been with a photographer who can go to any location or walk into any room and instantly find a dozen great shots? They see, just like you do. They know their gear, just like you do. They know about the art of photography, just like you do. It’s true that some have more natural talent than others, but it’s also true that talent is cheap. And you already know that hard work isn’t the entire answer either. The missing ingredient is nowness and it’s why those photographers don’t struggle. Enter nowness and practice your art there. Allow the photographs to come to you. It isn’t always easy and it takes practice, but if I can do it, you can do it too.
And that’s how we know we don’t end when we die. The body dies and the separate self we so carefully constructed dies. But we don’t die because we are not those things. I’m sure I was sensitive to all of this because there has been so much death around me lately. But it’s also because I’m always working, always filling the hopper, always cooking the stew. For me, art is life and life is art.
Here’s an experiment for you, and it directly relates to the photograph at the top of this post. There are great unfinished photographs in your library. You shot them a while ago, and they’ve been sitting there for a long time, waiting for you to catch up to them. They may have even grabbed your attention for a moment when you uploaded them to your computer. At the time, you didn’t know what to do with them because your vision was ahead of your awareness and skills. Just for a moment, you entered nowness while looking through the viewfinder but didn’t know it. Go back into your library and find those shots. I promise you that they’re there. You’ll recognize them right away. You’ll always be shooting a little ahead of yourself, so be sure to do this once a year or so.
I had one of those moments in Prague last October. I didn’t know it until after I got home and started working on this photograph. Even then, I didn’t know it until I was well into the edit. When I took the shot, I thought I knew what the photograph was about. But I didn’t recognize my own nowness – it turned out to be about something else. That’s what the video is about.
During the tumult of dying that we experienced here, something else happened. I was as shocked as the rest of the music world to hear that Rush drummer Neil Peart had died. This hit me hard, partly because I was already raw, but mostly because that music, and him in particular, are a part of the foundation of the person I am. Peart’s status as probably the greatest drummer in rock history is unassailable. But I’m a guitar player, so that’s not why I felt such a sense of loss; he was also a serious bookworm and the band’s lyricist. In 1976, Neil Peart made it cool for a skinny, longhaired teenager in Chicago to love the books that were, and still are, my constant companions. I was struggling mightily with my own sense of isolation, and he let me know that I wasn’t alone. His poetic sense of his own life, and his later reflections on our human state opened doors deep inside me. Later, they sustained me through many of my journeys through the darkness. In his words, I saw myself and found a way forward. The lyric at the top of this page began ringing in my head as our dark period began. Peart was still alive, and I hadn’t heard that song in many years, but it was so persistent that I have listened to it many times since then. It was definitely in the hopper when I heard Chopra speak. Peart described what I am. Chopra helped me connect that with who I am. My little brain made a thousand other connections with a thousand other things in the same instant, which should keep me busy for awhile.
The work you make is important. Your art is your gift back to the world. When you enter nowness as the artist you are, you have the ability to part the veil for a moment and reach into the darkness. What you bring back from that darkness makes the world a more beautiful place. Like Peart’s lyrics and Chopra’s voice, it has the power to reach across time and space and touch another soul. What could be more important than that?