The Habit of Seeing: Visual Meditation

Seeing, or Being Seen?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been talking about different ways of seeing. This week, I’d like to try something a little different, namely addressing seeing as a form of meditation. Put your camera down, and let’s just see for a bit, shall we?

Meditation comes in all shapes and sizes, including contemplative prayer, sitting meditation (zazen), walking meditation, and even various types of visual meditation, many of them using objects – mandalas, the Om symbol, or even a candle flame – as meditative aids. Let’s start with what meditation isn’t: the purpose isn’t to zone out, to empty your mind of every last thought, and accumulate wealth (Rhonda Byrne be damned*) or to somehow run and hide from the world. So if it’s not those things, what is it? Instead of zoning out, you are instead tuning in; instead of emptying your mind or field of vision, simply acknowledge what’s there; rather than focusing on accumulation (the “taking” of an image), focus on the subject itself first, without thought as to what you’ll take of or from it; and instead of turning your back on the world, engage it.

The object here isn’t to visualize something; we’re not trying to conjure something, or to plaster over what’s already there. Rather, be present to what’s already there. Acknowledge it as it is – its color, shape, and form, its light and its surroundings, and anything else that the scene presents to you (including non-visual cues like sound and scent) – without judgment. Don’t worry about whether it’s beautiful or ugly. Just let it be as it is. Acknowledge that is-ness, along with any thoughts or feelings that come up as you’re seeing it. Most of all, slow the hell down.

When you manage to do this (and if I’m going to be honest here, I don’t do it as often as I’d like or even as often as I try to), something interesting starts to happen: first, you start to see things simply as they are, camera or no camera. Second, you can begin to let go of expectations of your subject and decide whether or not to make a photo based on what’s there versus some nebulous potential of what you might make of it later on.

Integrating a meditative component into your photography doesn’t have to involve anything fancy, complicated, or difficult. Nor, for that matter, does it have to be a spiritual or religious practice (though it certainly can be if you want it to).

As with much else I’ve written in this space, the purpose of this little exercise is twofold. Part of it, of course, is for your benefit. But, if I’m being honest, I also write these things as reminders to myself from time to time. It’s a lot easier to approach photography like a kid in a candy store – wanting to take one of everything – than it is to approach it like a seven-course meal at a good restaurant,** taking the time to savor and enjoy the moment and resulting photos, taking a bit of time between to “digest” and process what you’re seeing.

So tell me, what have you done to change your approach to seeing?

*Of course, I mean that in the nicest way possible.

**I mean the speed with which you approach it, not so much the heartburn afterward.

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