Seeing the Light
Taking photographs and practicing meditation might seem at first glance to be unrelated activities. For while photography looks outwards at the visual world through the medium of a camera, meditation focuses inwards on unmediated experience. And whereas photography is concerned with producing images of reality, meditation is about seeing reality as it is. Yet in taking photographs and practicing meditation over the past three decades, I find the two activities have converged to the point where I no longer think of them as different.
As practices, both meditation and photography demand commitment, discipline and technical skill. Possession of these qualities does not, however, guarantee that meditation will lead to great wisdom any more than photography will culminate in great art. To go beyond mere expertise in either domain requires a capacity to see the world anew. Such seeing originates in a penetrating and insatiable curiosity about things. It entails recovering an innocent, childlike wonder at life while suspending the adult’s conviction that the world is simply the way it appears.
The pursuit of meditation and photography leads away from fascination with the extraordinary and back to a rediscovery of the ordinary. Just as I once hoped for mystical transcendence through meditation, so I assumed exotic places and unusual objects to be the ideal subjects for photography. Instead I have found that meditative awareness is a heightened understanding and feeling for the concrete, sensuous events of daily existence. Likewise, the practice of photography has taught me just to pay closer attention to what I see around me everyday. Some of the most satisfying pictures I have taken have been of things in the immediate vicinity of where I live and work.
Both photography and meditation require an ability to focus steadily on what is happening in order to see more clearly. To see in this way involves “shifting” to a frame of mind in which the habitual view of a familiar and self-evident world is replaced by a keen sense of the unprecedented and unrepeatable configuration of each moment. Whether you are paying mindful attention to the breath as you sit in meditation or whether you are composing an image in a viewfinder, you find yourself hovering before a fleeting, tantalizing reality.
At this point, the tasks of the meditator and the photographer appear to diverge. While the meditator cultivates uninterrupted, non-judgmental awareness of the moment, the photographer captures the moment in releasing the shutter. But in practice the aesthetic decision to freeze an image on film crystallizes rather than interrupts the contemplative act of observation. Aligning one’s body and senses in those final microseconds before taking a picture momentarily heightens the intensity and immediacy of the image. One is afforded a glimpse into the heart of the moment that meditative awareness might fail to provide.
“To take photographs,” wrote Henri Cartier-Bresson, “is to hold one’s breath when all faculties converge in the face of fleeing reality. . . . It is putting one’s head, one’s eyes and one’s heart on the same axis. . . . It is a way of shouting, of freeing oneself, not of proving or asserting one’s originality. It is a way of life.” These words of the renowned French photographer define photography as an ongoing meditative relationship to the world. For Cartier-Bresson, photography is not merely a profession but a liberating engagement with life itself, the camera not just a machine for recording images but “an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.”
To be moved to take photographs, like being inspired to practice meditation, is to embark on a path. In both cases you follow an intuitive hunch rather than a carefully considered decision. Something about “photography” or “meditation” draws you irresistibly. While you may initially justify your interest in these pursuits with clear and compelling reasons, the further you proceed along their respective paths, the less you need to explain yourself. The very act of taking a photograph or sitting in meditation is sufficient justification in itself. The notion of an end result to be attained at some point in the future is replaced by an understanding of how the goal of photography or meditation is right here, waiting to be realized each moment.
Both meditation and photography are concerned with light. Meditators speak of “enlightenment”: an experience in which light metaphorically dispels the darkness of the mind. Similarly, by means of an odd angle, an unusual arrangement of light and shade or an adjustment in the depth of field, a photographer illuminates something about an object that had previously been unnoticed. Such photography has nothing to do with preserving a pictorial record of things, places and people that are already familiar. It opens up the world in a startling and unexpected way that can be both compelling and unsettling.
The photographer’s concern with light is also a real one. For with insufficient light, one simply cannot take a photograph. Yet the closer you attend to what is seen in the viewfinder, the more you notice how the light which illuminates and the object being illuminated are not two separate things. An object is just as much the medium through which light becomes apparent as light is the medium through which an object becomes apparent. You cannot have one without the other. In taking a photograph of an object, you are taking a photograph of a condition of light.
When this separation between what illuminates and what is illuminated begins to dissolve, it becomes increasingly difficult to regard the object being photographed as a thing existing in its own right “out there.” As soon as you make the perceptual shift to seeing the object as a condition of light, what you observe becomes as tentative, shimmering and luminous as light itself. In paying more attention to the display of light rather than “something” illuminated by light, photography starts to move away from representation towards abstraction. The photographer becomes absorbed by the restless contrasts of line, color, shading, what is in and out of focus to the point where the object as a recognizable “thing” disappears.
This is where the path of photography has led me at the time of writing. My photographs, taken over many years, reflect various stages in this journey. They also mirror my engagement with the process of Buddhist meditation. For both paths have served to deepen my understanding of the fleeting, poignant and utterly contingent nature of things.
This essay is drawn from Stephen Batchelor's book, Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, which will be published by Yale University Press in February 2017.
Stephen Batchelor trained as a monk in the Tibetan Geluk and Korean Sŏn traditions. He works as a teacher, writer, translator, collagist and photographer. Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World will be published by Yale University Press in February 2017.