Adventures in Seeing – Beauty


Beauty is the harvest of presence. ~ David Whyte, Consolations

I loved David Whyte’s quote above – beauty as the harvest of presence. Since practicing contemplative photography, I’ve considerably expanded my definition of what is beautiful. When I look closely, and see with eyes of love and attention, beauty reveals itself.

The image above is from my morning walk this week, where I spent some time present to the stillness of Lake Ontario. For me, beauty is found in simplicity, which gets to the heart, core, or essence of the subject or moment.

When our eyes are graced with wonder, the world reveals its wonders to us. There are people who see only dullness in the world and that is because their eyes have already been dulled. So much depends on how we look at things. The quality of our looking determines what we come to see. ~ John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace

John O’Donohue has a lot more to say on the subject of beauty in his book. And, I’ve been thinking of his sub-title, “The Invisible Embrace” all week. When we truly connect at a heart level, it is like an invisible embrace, and there is beauty in that connection.

What does beauty mean to you?


This week at the Adventures in Seeing Google+ community, we’re depicting and discussing beauty. The words come from David Whyte’s book, Consolations.

Please be sure to check out the amazing contributions so far and feel free to join the community (if you haven’t already). Submit your photo and reflection, tagging it with the word for the week. Your reflection can be just the word, a metaphor, a poem, a paragraph, or an essay. It’s up to you. See how others reflect on the same word.


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To Revise is To See Again

This is one of those posts that ties together a few ideas that came across my radar last week.

Firstly, I’ve been writing lately and am struck by how the process feels like a constant revision. New insights are revealed to enhance the writing and unnecessary parts are whittled away. Every step is necessary to get to the next one.

In a conversation on writing memoir, writer Andre Dubus III reminded me that the word “revise” means “to see again.” And, of course this is what revising is like; seeing the writing in new ways every time.

Seeing, as if for the first time – with beginners mind.

In this post from The Painter’s Keys, a veteran painter writes to Sara that he wishes he could become a beginner again. Sara replies that it is always possible to go back to “beginner’s mind,” by paying attention, remembering your dreams when you started, exploring new areas without obligation, and imagining possibilities.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. ~ Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Another way to reclaim beginner’s mind is to try something brand new and experience the actual feeling of being a beginner and all that entails – falling and failing.

Last year, I decided I wanted to learn to kayak. I thought it would be easy, but that’s not been the case. It seems that I’m lacking in certain essential skills, as well as some upper body strength – both rectifiable with practice and persistence. It’s been a humbling experience as I flip the kayak over and over again. Yet, I’m determined to learn.

Life itself is a constant process of revision; best to approach it with beginners mind.

Life is an exploration, for each day is a new landscape, a new state of mind, a new body, with different creaks and strengths. The day-to-day shifts are minuscule, until you step off a cliff or a lightning bolt strikes you or someone you love. Then you are transported immediately to another land, where everything looks different, because it is, because you are. ~ Marialena Carr, Writing as Exploration

What if we were to treat each new day like this, as a blank canvas, and with beginners mind? It’s scary and vulnerable and so much fun. We don’t know what will happen, but the possibilities are exciting to imagine.

If you’re a photographer, no matter how expert, it’s always good to go back to beginner’s mind. We do just that in Photo By Design, a 6-week online workshop in visual design and seeing. We spend a week each focusing on individual design elements. It starts in less than a month – Monday, August 17th – and I invite you to register now.

Zen Habits offers 11 Aspects of Beginner’s Mind – a guest post by Mary Jaksch of Goodlife Zen

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“To see is our true nature. To see is not to grasp a thing, a being, but to be grasped by it.” ~ Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

What does it mean to be grasped by something? What does it feel like?

Every day, it’s important for me to get out for a long walk. Sometimes I walk slowly, sometimes quickly. I take different routes. Sometimes I have my iPhone, sometimes my camera. Sometimes, I listen to a podcast while walking, sometimes not.

No matter what, it’s a practice that gives my mind a rest from whatever I’m working on or thinking about. It’s my meditative practice and it brings me right here, right now.

One day this week, I set out early for my walk to avoid the heavy heat of the day. As I strolled by the park, I noticed that the wading pool, almost always filled with children, was empty. There is a fountain in the pool that sprays water.

I walked the perimeter of the pool, I saw the way the light and the fountain were creating designs and ripples. My focus was on the water and everything else around me faded into the background as I photographed instinctually what I was seeing. I could hear the sounds of the water from the fountain hitting the surface of the water and actually felt it in my body.

It was a moment of pure presence. I was mesmerized.

The thought then occurred to me that this is what it’s like to be grasped by something. We are mesmerized, pulled in. It’s calming and hypnotic. Focus is laser sharp.

Fun Fact: The word “mesmerize” comes from an 18th century Austrian physician named Franz Anton Mesmer, who developed the theory of animal magnetism, sometimes call mesmerism. He believed that there was a transfer of energy between animate and inanimate objects. Later, this theory was applied to hypnosis.

Below are two of the photographs I took at the pool.

What mesmerizes you and how would you describe the feeling?


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From Perception to Thought

I’ve been writing lately; going deep. My mind is full with thoughts and ideas, making my daily walks even more important. On this day, I was just beginning my walk and entering the park. I saw a flash or orange that made me stop. The photograph above shows what I saw – my initial perception.

I then took a moment to figure out how to compose in order to show just what I saw – no more, no less. Visual design always makes my day.

The Zen of Seeing

While reviewing notes from one of my favourite books, The Zen of Seeing, by the artist Frederick Franck, I came across this excerpt describing the progression from perception to thought.

7th century masters had become aware of time as composed of ultra short time fragments which they called NEN, thought moments of such flashing brevity that for all practical purposes could be called timeless.

first Nen – first perception of something which is purely intuitive and cognitive; a flash of profound insight.

second Nen – flash of mental reflection, becoming aware of my intuitive insight; a profound “knowing.”

third Nen – this awareness becomes “my” awareness, integrated in my conscious; processed in that region of the mind where reasoning, labelling, introspection, ego-feeling take over.

First nen is perception, the space before the thought. Second nen is when we become conscious of the perception. And, third nen is the conceptual thought. We’ve put a label on it.

One of the most rewarding aspects of photography, for me, is realizing and trusting “first nen.”

These moments happen when we’re open to whatever arises. When I’m open, first nen perceptions come easily and often. Sometimes I can be startled into openness by a strong perception. This example above was one for me.

There are many ways that openness can be blocked. For me, the two main ones are my incessantly busy mind and judgments (the worthiness factor).

To settle the mind, I do exercises to bring me into presence, like a pre-photo walk meditation or focusing on a couple of senses (like sounds and the feel of your feet touching the ground).

The best way to work with judgments is to acknowledge them and then get curious. Is there another way of seeing the subject or the situation?

In the case of this photograph, it did open me up for the rest of my walk.
More on Openness and Perception

Grace and Four Blocks to Openness

Julie duBose speaks about perceptions

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7 Ideas for Summer Photography

Summer is in full swing here in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and there’s no place I’d rather be. I try to get out and walk slowly, taking it all in with my eyes and my camera as often as possible.

I also like to re-read Mary Oliver’s, The Summer Day, excerpted below.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?

A few years ago, I created a worksheet with ideas for photographing summer. With my renewed interest in visual journalling, I thought I’d share some of the exercises from that original worksheet, as well as a few new ones.

Note: If it’s winter where you are now, save this exercise for your summer or check out my winter photography worksheet.

1. The Colours of Summer. Photograph the colours of summer where you live. Which ones attract you most? Check out the psychological meanings of those colours.

2. Summer memories. Make a list of some of your favourite summer memories. Beside each, write word associations or feelings that you attach to the memory. For example, picking grapes with my grandfather – juicy, family, happiness, hot sun, grapevines. If there’s an activity that you really enjoyed and haven’t done in awhile, make a point to do it. Photograph the experience.

3. Take a summer sensory walk. Pay attention to what you see, smell, hear, and can taste or touch. Photograph from that presence.

4. Visual Listening. Find a place to sit outside with your journal and camera in hand. Do Patricia Turner’s visual listening exercise.

5. Symbols of summer. Why symbols do you associate with summer? For example, this article suggests symbols such as the sun, picnics, fireworks, and barbecues. To me, ice cream and flowers are symbols of summer. Perhaps you could do a project around that symbol.

6. Summer Events. Create a collage of an event (festival, farmers’ market, concert, family barbecue, etc.) or your summer vacation. Here’s one I created from a weekend at a cottage one summer.

7. Create an album. Finally, add your favourites to a summer album (on Flickr or elsewhere). At the end of summer, or in the middle of winter, watch the slideshow and be grateful. Here’s mine so far below.



Do you have any more ideas?


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Once Upon a Time

visual journaling
Once Upon a Time … Sally Drew and I imagined co-facilitating a workshop in visual journalling. In March of this year, our dream came true.

We ventured forth with 25 kindred souls to spend three months exploring what stories our photographs had to tell. It was an intense experience, to say the least.

Last week, Sally and I got together to talk about what it was like for each of us and to review the feedback from participants.

A workshop is always an evolving entity and we learn from each and every one. It’s success hinges on the community gathered, for they bring the materials to life.

We had an incredible community.

Here’s what I learned.

* Our photographs always say something about us.

* Writing about our photographs helps us to learn what they have to say.

* Writing can be enjoyable. Many discovered their hidden talents in writing.

Having never written at all before this course, I learned that I can write words that explain or enhance my photos. I found that I have many ways to write these words – essays, poems, just words, explanations or even using someone else’s words if they are what I want to say. But I have also learned to SHARE my words with my photos. ~ Mary Rawl

* Writing about our photographs teaches us to be more conscious before we click the shutter.

* Our photographs will be perceived differently by every single viewer.

* Writing about our photographs can help us gain confidence in photography and in life.

I feel a profound shift has occurred. I’m engaging with, and embracing, the world, but I’m also reflecting on it. In short, Visual journalling has empowered me: to honour who I am. That’s not a throwaway comment. My confidence has been enhanced: I am taking better photographs and I’m writing about them. I had hoped to learn how to do the latter, but I had not nursed expectations that the former would be true, also. ~ Sophia Roberts

* Sharing our photographs and our writing helps us, but also helps others.

* The practice of writing makes us better writers, just as the practice of photography makes us better photographers.

* Communities are important. We need to support each other’s efforts and uniqueness. We learn more by doing it together.

Sally wrote the following to the participants at the end of the workshop.


“These past 12 weeks have been an emotional maelstrom for me. Aspects of myself that had lain dormant over time started to agitate and rise to the surface. In the safety and support of this community, I learned new channels of creative expression and was consistently inspired beyond words.

At the end, I came out with the knowing that I have the courage and strength to transform my life and am fuelled by the restorative powers of solitude, beauty, presence and reflection.

I extend to you the invitation to defy description.

Remain open to your experiences and explorations.

Feel what you feel, do what you do, express how you express, and glory in the all of it.

Defy the limiting powers of description; for you, your art, your potential – all are limitless.

Walk with your heart open, your camera ready, your connection to all that inspires you and the journaling method that best leads you to deeper understanding and fulfillment.

Defy description, and know – you are significant and your presence and contributions matter.

She does have a way with words, doesn’t she?

I hope you’ll join us for the next session of Once Upon a Time: Your Photographs have Stories to Tell, which will be held in January 2016.

Not sure about writing about your photographs? Why not start with just one word?

Announcing a new project, and it’s free.

As a way of continuing my own practice of writing about my photographs, I’m starting a project based on David Whyte’s book, Consolations. This book includes short essays on each of 52 words. I’ll be reading the reflections for one word each week and then opening to what I see that week around that word. Then, I’ll write about the photograph in terms of that word.

Here’s how you can participate. I’ve created a free community on Google+ called Adventures in Seeing that is open to anyone. You are invited to join the community and post one photograph and your reflection on the word for that week. Tag your photograph with the word. I’ll post a new word each Friday, beginning this week (Heads up: first word is “alone”).

I do hope you’ll join me.

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