10 Quotes for Living a Creative, Contemplative Life



Recently, I finished another wonderful book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called Creativity: The Psychology of Discover and Invention, in which he reports on a study of several highly creative individuals.

I was struck by the parallels between being creative and contemplative. Both lead to more meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Below are ten quotes on creativity from the book and how they are related to contemplation.
1. “Creativity is a process by which a symbolic domain (culture) is changed. To achieve creativity in an existing domain, there must be a surplus of attention available.” (p. 8)

Contemplation helps us simplify and focus our attention where it’s needed most.
2. “Centers of creativity tend to be at the intersection of different cultures, where beliefs, lifestyles, or knowledge mingle and allow individuals to see new combinations of ideas with greater ease.” (p. 8)

Openness to other ideas leads to possibilities.
3. “The most important message we can learn from creative people is how to find purpose and enjoyment in the chaos of existence.” (p. 20)

Through the process of simplifying, we discover what’s most important.
4. “Without a good dose of curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and in how they work, it is difficult to recognize an interesting problem. Openness to experience, a fluid attention that constantly processes events in the environment is a great advantage for recognizing potential novelty.” (p. 53)

Openness and attention are fundamental.
5. “People who keep themselves busy all of the time are generally not creative. Mental meandering (walking/driving/gardening, etc.) is an essential process.” (p. 99)

A contemplative photo walk works wonders as a problem solving or creative practice.
6. “What keeps people motivated is the quality of experience they feel when they’re involved with the activity. This is called being in a flow state. The secret to a happy life is to learn to get flow from as many of the things we have to do as possible.” (p. 110-113)

Flow states happen when action and awareness merge. We are totally present. Contemplation brings us into presence.
7. “Like the beauties of nature, life-threatening conditions push the mind to think about what is essential. Occasionally, a single experience of awe provides the fuel for a lifetime of creative work.” (p. 139)

Experiencing awe or wonder doesn’t have to be a once in a blue moon event. We can have daily experiences through contemplation.
8. “We need to consciously organize our environment, not let either change or routine automatically dictate what we will do. What counts is to be a master of one’s own time.” (p. 144-145)

Only we can decide what’s most important for us – what makes us come alive. And, what’s most important for us is probably most important for the world. Joseph Campbell said, “A vital person vitalizes.” (The Power of Myth)
9. John Gardner (one of the creatives studied in the book) on human potential: “We all have much deeper reserves than we know we have and that generally it takes an outside challenge or opportunity to make us aware of what we can actually do. A lot of our potential is buried, hidden, imprisoned by fears, low self-esteem and the hold of convention.” (p. 313)

Contemplation can help us look deeper inside, listen to ourselves, see where we hold back, and face our fears.
10. “Futurist/ecologist Hazel Henderson(one of the creatives studied in the book) re-evaluated her priorities and decided it wasn’t important to get credit for what she’d been doing, it wasn’t important for her to get anywhere. What mattered was to do the best she could and enjoy it while it lasted without getting all ego-involved with success. This has given her peace of mind and she is busier than ever without feeling any stress or pain. What sustains her is a fundamental feeling for the order and beauty of nature, a calling for creating orderly and beautiful environments around her.” (p. 304)

This is humility and acceptance.

Csikszentmihalyi asks, “What can you do to build up habits that will make it possible to control attention so that it can be open and receptive, or focused and directive, depending on what your overall goals require?”

My answer? Take a contemplative photography workshop.

He ends the book by saying “If you learn to be creative in everyday life, you may not change how future generations will see the world, but you will change the way you experience it.” (p. 364)

More on Creativity and Flow

Being in Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on Flow

The Flow Genome Project

Take the Flow Profiler

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Niagara-on-the-Lake Abstracts – Sailboats in Winter

One of my current projects is to create abstract photographs of my hometown of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada.

With abstract photographs, we try to reflect the mood or emotions or qualities of a place. Each Tuesday, I’ll present a new image from the project.


Sailboats in Winter

Lake Ontario is a magnet for all who live, work and visit the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Last year, I took sailing lessons for the very first time and discovered a brand new (for me) culture – where kids and families spend much of their summer on the water.

However, the sailing season is short as winters are long and cold in this area. The sailboats are grounded for a good part of the year, nestled together; their masts in stillness reaching into the sky, always a reminder on the horizon that summer will come again.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a tourist town. It’s surrounded by water – Lake Ontario on one side and the Niagara River on the other. The world famous Niagara Falls are only twenty miles down the road.

It has a world class theatre called the Shaw Festival, which draws thousands from April through November.

This town was the first capital of Canada and one of the major battlegrounds for the War of 1812. You can see re-enactments at Fort George. The U.S. counterpart, Fort Niagara, can be seen across the river.

This is one of the best agricultural areas in all of Canada, known for its fruit – grapes especially, and is now home to more than 100 wineries.


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The Healing Effects of Awe and Wonder


Bottlebrush Blossom

A U.C. Berkeley study, recently published in the journal, Emotion, is making news through several outlets cited below. It posits that the experience of positive emotions, particularly awe and wonder, lowers inflammation.

“That awe, wonder and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions – a walk in nature, losing oneself in music, beholding art – has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, a co-author of the study.

What is wonder and how is it different from awe?

If you’ve been reading this site for awhile, you know that wonder is a contemplative habit that can be cultivated through photography. Awe and wonder are often used interchangeably, although there is a subtle difference between the two.

Here are the dictionary definitions, adapted from Merriam-Webster.

Wonder: a feeling of astonishment or admiration caused by something that is surprising, beautiful, or amazing.

“Wonder is the beginning of all wisdom. Wonder is the first of all passions. Wonder is the beginning of all writing. Wisdom, emotions, and creativity – all borne from wonder.” ~ Jeffrey Davis, Tracking Wonder

Awe: an emotion that combines dread, veneration, and wonder. It is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.

“In the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear is a little studied emotion – awe. Awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. Awe is central to the experience of religion, politics, nature, and art. Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.” ~ Keltner and Haidt, 2003 Caltech Study

The study cited above details the differences between the two. Wonder results in admiration, but awe adds the element of fear or submission, the sense of being in the presence of something larger than oneself. It can be frightening at times.

Other benefits from experiencing Awe

IMG_6803* Perception of time expands

* More patient

* More willing to volunteer time or help others

* Prefer experiences over material things

* Greater life satisfaction

via a 2012 Stanford Study on Time and Awe
We can experience wonder in several ways, but being out in nature is one of the best. So, if our cameras can get us out in nature, where we’re likely to experience awe and wonder, then let’s do it.

I was recently in Florida, where the flora and fauna are completely different from what I’m used to at home. This led to many moments of wonder as I noticed new forms of bark and blossoms – like the bottlebrush blossom at the top of this post and the basket-weave type bark on this palm tree.

Nature Deficit Disorder

On the flip side, not experiencing nature is epidemic, especially in our western culture, resulting in what Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined as “nature deficit disorder.” He is particularly concerned about children, and believes that the lack of connection to nature can lead to behavioural problems.

Louv, the author of the bestsellers Last Child in the Woods (2005) and The Nature Principle (2011), coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the loss of connection children increasingly feel with the natural world. Nature-deficit disorder is not a clinically recognized condition, he explains, but rather a term to evoke a loss of communion with other living things. Nevertheless, he argues, nature-deficit disorder affects “health, spiritual well-being, and many other areas, including [people’s] ability to feel ultimately alive.” ~ Interview with Richard Louv at National Geographic

Carol Albers introduced me to a new social media campaign begun by videographer Louis Schwartzberg aimed to beat nature deficit disorder (#BeatNDD). I hope you’ll join me and Carol in spreading the word.

Download my PDF on Wonder, which includes exercises to cultivate this contemplative habit.

When did you last experience awe or wonder?


Experiences of Art, Nature and Spirituality May Help Prevent Disease – Huff Post Live

How Feelings of Awe Lower Inflammation – Traci Pedersen, Spirituality & Health

Turning to Wonder with Contemplative Photography – Center for Courage and Renewal

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A Retreat for Nature Lovers

P1160198This is a story about coming full circle.

About ten years ago, I was trying to decide what the next phase of my life would be – post raising children. Photography was my passion, but I didn’t want to lose my love for it by turning it into a business.

I’d also become very interested in environmental issues, and decided to do a Masters program in that subject. My goal was to work for a not-for-profit environmental organization.

Going back to school at my age was so enjoyable and interesting. The program I enrolled in taught me so much. And, I did briefly work part-time for a wonderful environmental organization called Earth Charter Indiana.

However, photography kept drawing me back.

Fast forward about seven years. At my Star Island workshop last fall, I met a woman named Deb McKew, who works for a wonderful organization called BRI – Biodiversity Research Institute.

According to their mission statement, they assess emerging threats to wildlife and ecosystems through collaborative research, and use scientific findings to advance environmental awareness and inform decision makers.

Deb is the Communications and Publications Director for BRI and has a passion for writing. She came up with the fabulous idea to create a workshop that bridges the scientific research being conducted by BRI and the art world.

In other words, to allow artists the opportunity to see BRI’s work in action and express the experience through their art.

On Block Island (12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island), BRI tracks raptors and songbirds as part of their research, and also maintain a saltwater marsh.

For five days this October (4th – 9th), BRI will be hosting a retreat where science meets art. There will be three sections of 8 participants each – art, photography, and writing (although there will be some writing in all three sections).


I will be leading the photography section and am very excited about the opportunity. I feel as though I’ve come full circle, combining my love for photography, writing, and environmental work in one place.

If you’re with me on this, I hope you’ll consider being one of the eight in this very special and intimate retreat.

Learn more by clicking here.

And, if you know of someone else (or a group) that would appreciate this type of experience, please pass it on to them. There is a special offer (see below) for registering before May 1st.

I’m offering one free spot in either my Going Abstract or Keeping It Simple workshops this fall for anyone who signs up for the Block Island retreat before May 1st.


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Inspiring Photographer Saul Leiter

Recently, I watched a documentary about the legendary colour photographer, Saul Leiter (1923 – 2013). It’s called “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life from Saul Leiter.” Watch the trailer below.

“An unassuming man who shunned attention, Saul Leiter photographed on the streets of New York, mostly within a few blocks of his East Village apartment. With their rich layering and swaths of beautiful color, Leiter’s images induced moments of quietude and contemplation amid the bustle and chaos of New York City street life.” – David Walker, PDN News

Saul Leiter’s photography resonates with me deeply. He was a New York City street photographer, who did fashion shoots to earn a living. Yet, he has become known for his impressionistic colour work on the streets of the city. Leiter lived in the same neighbourhood for over sixty years.

According to one article from Photographers Speak, he was a “quiet iconoclast,” working in colour at a time when most fine art photographers worked in black and white.

He shot vertically rather than horizontally most of the time.

He used telephoto lenses to compress perspective rather than the more typical wide angle for street photography.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes from the film.

“Everything is suitable to be photographed. A photograph of a window covered in raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person.”

“I don’t plan to photograph certain things, I come across them. I enjoy catching certain moments. I tend to react to what I find.”

“There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden, maybe. You think?”

Below are links to some wonderful articles about Leiter and the quotes that stood out to me.

An Interview with Saul Leiter from Photographers Speak

“He had a distinct visual grammar that featured off-center perspectives, compressed spatial dynamics, and a predilection for breaking up the frame in unpredictable and exciting ways.”

“I admired a tremendous number of photographers, but for some reason I arrived at a point of view of my own.” ~ Saul Leiter

“I never felt the need to do what everyone else did. And I wasn’t troubled by the fact that other people were doing other things.” ~ Saul Leiter

“I don’t have a philosophy. I have a camera. I look into the camera and take pictures. My photographs are the tiniest part of what I see that could be photographed. They are fragments of endless possibilities.” ~ Saul Leiter

7 Lessons Saul Leiter Has Taught Me About Street Photography by Eric Kim

“I think I’ve said this before many times—that photography allows you to learn to look and see. You begin to see things you had never paid any attention to. And as you photograph, one of the benefits is that the world becomes a much richer, juicier, visual place. Sometimes it is almost unbearable — it is too interesting. And it isn’t always just the photos you take that matters. It is looking at the world and seeing things that you never photograph that could be photographs if you had the energy to keep taking pictures every second of your life.” ~ Saul Leiter

A Casual Conversation with Saul Leiter – Time Magazine

“Max Kozloff said to me one day, ‘You’re not really a photographer. You do photography, but you do it for your own purposes – your purposes are not the same as others’. I’m not quite sure what he meant, but I like that. I like the way he put it.” ~ Saul Leiter

Postscript: Saul Leiter (1923-2013) via The New Yorker

“The overriding emotion in his work is a stillness, tenderness, and grace that is at odds with the mad rush of New York street life.”

“The content of Saul Leiter’s photographs arrives on a sort of delay: it takes a moment after the first glance to know what the picture is about. You don’t so much see the image as let it dissolve into your consciousness, like a tablet in a glass of water.”

A Short Interview with Saul Leiter via In-Public

Obituary, Saul Leiter, Legendary Colour Artist

There’s a nice collection of photographs at this New Yorker article. Or watch this 5 minute meditative slideshow set to the music of Miles Davis.


There are many videos online with Saul Leiter. Here are a couple.

Saul Leiter on Vimeo – a 14 minutes interview from a year before his death

Saul Leiter in Conversation with photography critic, Vince Aletti

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The Art of Doing Nothing


“I want to learn to do nothing. Be empty of attachment to things. To allow things simply to be, without my needs and projections.” ~ Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway

Doing nothing is not easy for me.

It’s not that I’m constantly physically active – far from it. I’m not a doer, but I am a thinker. What’s hard for me is to have my mind do nothing.

Yet, I firmly believe that cultivating a state of nothingness – which to me, means being totally present, without preconceived ideas or expectations, is extremely worthwhile.

It’s the state where creativity and right action is seeded.

Just as the ground in winter seems to be dormant, we know that it’s actually preparing the way for new growth. The same goes for the mind and body.

As usual, I think about how photography can teach me to do nothing. Last week, this article from National Geographic, What Does Nothing Look Like?, drew my attention.

Photographer Murray Fredericks visited Greenland over the years 2010 to 2013 and photographed “nothing.” Take a look at his amazing photographs.

“What I’m really fascinated with is the psychological impact of a photograph. Why does a landscape image have such an effect on people? Even when it’s an image of nothing.” ~ Murray Fredericks, National Geographic

Perhaps the answer to his question is that nothingness is so pregnant with possibility. His photographs make us pause and actually feel something. The paradox is that they are not really of nothing. We just don’t normally consider bare land, space, and light to be “something.”

Doing nothing might also help in our relationships, to others and ourselves. In his article, The Disease of Being Busy, Omid Safi says:

“I want my kids to be dirty, messy, even bored — learning to become human. I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing? I am taking the time to reflect on my own existence; I am in touch enough with my own heart and soul to know how I fare, and I know how to express the state of my heart.”

If we take the time to practice doing nothing, maybe we’ll find our heart, or the heart of someone else.

How do we practice doing nothing?

* We could actually pause and do nothing. Start with five minutes and just be and observe without judgment. This could develop into a full blown meditation practice.

* Practice photographing nothing (or space or light) like Murray Fredericks does. Or, photograph nature doing nothing, like the birds above. They can teach us how to be.

* Take a daily rest. Again, just five minutes will do. Lie down. Close your eyes and let go of thoughts.

Is this something you find hard to do? Do you see the value in doing nothing?


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