Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Contemplative Masters Series: Emily Dickinson

Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of
living is joy enough.

   Emily Dickinson wrote all her 1800 poems either in her garden or in the bedroom of her Amherst, Massachusetts home.  I believe that if she had been a photographer, she would have done the same.  She would find her inspiration in her surroundings and would never feel the need to seek it outside the perimeter of her daily existence.

   The soul should always stand ajar, ready to
 welcome the ecstatic experience.

    If one cannot find inspiration, joy and the ecstatic experience near to hand than it is unlikely you will find it in any other place.  But if you can take pleasure in how a spot of sun illuminates you bedroom curtain or marvel at the color of grass after a spring rain, then you are well equipped my friend.  

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
 One clover, and a bee, And revery. 
The revery alone will do, If bees are few.

Today is the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton's birth. For me, Merton is the most important contemplative master. I've created a collage of images of my trip to Gethsemani Abbey in 2013. You can read my post on my experience in my daily photojournal...

Friday, January 30, 2015

Reflections on the Tao: Changing Direction

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
- Lao Tzu 

   I've always enjoyed this quote.  It shows the humor that infuses a great deal of Lao Tzu's writings.  So much of religion and philosophy is so deadly serious; Lao Tzu appreciated the lighter side of life.  But this quote has a serious implication as well.

   This year marks the 10th anniversary of my return to photography and so much has changed over that time.  I was much more "serious" in the beginning.  Fine art black and white photography was my path...all else was unimportant.  But slowly, very slowly at first, my eyes opened up to the contemplative possibilities of the photographic image as well as the world of color photography.

   I changed direction several years ago and I am very thankful that I did.  What I learned was that what I needed from my camera work was a more inward and self-reflective journey.  I had to put aside my ego that kept shouting in my ear, "It is all about exhibits and sales!" and listen to my soul who said in a much quieter voice, "Oh no it isn't!".  I couldn't be happier.

   I will be having an exhibition of my pond series late this summer and that will be wonderful but what the pond has given me is worth far more that any ego boost, or sales, I may get from the show.  That is the real gift changing directions all those years ago has given me...the permission to just enjoy my life with my camera and not constantly be chasing the next show or wondering how to market my work.  That is a wonderful and liberating feeling indeed.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"I'd Like to Hand it to You" by Sue Alexander

Photograph by Sue Alexander
...the gift of the winding
 journey inward.

Thanks to blog reader, Sue Alexander for her gift to all of us today.  We are all on this journey through our photographs and reflections.

   I thought this gift was particularly timely after yesterday's post on journeying home and the spiral has always been one of my favorite symbols.  The inward journey can take a lifetime but as Lao Tzu says:
A journey of a thousand
miles begins with a single step.

   Contemplative photographers make that journey photograph by photograph and there is always time to pause and glance back.  The experiences and even the wounds from our past have gone into shaping who we are today but they don't have to dictate where we will go from now on.

   As I said yesterday, our images are sign posts that guide our journey inward.  They are all around us, everyday, and all we need do is to pay attention.  Even the smallest thing can be a powerful focus for reflection.  Meditating on the common place is a contemplative practice I strongly encourage you to try.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Journeying Home...

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

- Maya Angelou

   Home is at the core of our being although we think it is something we will find "out there".

   We walk for most of our lives around the perimeter but at some point some of us stop walking around in circles and turn inward. It is like a light has gone off and we know that everything we have been seeking "out there" has been "in here" all the the center of who we really are.

   For me, and perhaps other contemplative photographers,  our images become a kind of road map...sign posts along the way.  We don't need to know the way, we will be guided.  We try to refrain from asking, "Are we almost there?" like anxious children in the backseat of the car.  We know we will get there when it is time.  In the meantime, we will stop and read the signs.  We will even allow ourselves to take a detour from time to time.  It is all apart of the journey home...


Tuesday, January 27, 2015


  I have been attempting to declutter my home lately.  I must admit to being one who likes to save things.  Things people give me, things I pick up along the way..."stuff".   But recently I have been blessing them and setting them free.  In the process I have found that it is opening up a whole new way of being for me and although I have a long way to go yet, I am enjoying this liberation from "thingfulness".

When I let go of what I
 am, I become what
 I can be.

- Lao Tzu

   I have found that having fewer "options" is really quite liberating, in the camera bag as well as the clothes closet.  I long ago dispensed with carrying multiple lenses and now I am considering a smaller, lighter camera.  The technology has advanced to such a degree that it is possible to make beautiful images without all the photographic paraphernalia that we use to lug around.  When you are burdened down with equipment then it is the equipment, and your relationship to it, that takes center stage.  Paring down is becoming more and more important to me as I journey along this path.  I want to immerse myself in simplicity in as many areas as possible in the year to come.

Look for the least to say the most.

   Some call it "minimalism" but you could call it the "uncluttered image".  Looking for the least to say the most is another way to declutter your photographic thinking.  I'll be looking at that as well this year.  Living, and photographing, in a "minimal" way isn't about about doing without, it is about doing within.  We have everything we need already inside us...all the rest is just accoutrement.  When you start tripping over them, it is time to let them go.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Religion of Ordinary Life...

And some, like me,
are just beginning
 to guess at the
 powerful religion
or ordinary life, 
a spirituality of
 freshly mopped
 floors and
stacked dishes 
and clothes blowing
on the line.

- Adair Lara

    Next month it will be 10 years since I received my grant to go to the Western Isles of Scotland and renew my passion for photography.  What an interesting journey it has been in those 10 years! For the past 3 years I have been recording that journey on this blog. This image of a clothes line on South Uist is so exemplary of that initial trip, when I was fully immersed in the monochrome image.

    What hasn't change in those 10 years is my equally passionate engagement with the commonplace.  The "religion of ordinary life" as Adair Lara calls it.  Now, I no longer need to travel great distances to practice my "religion" surrounds me everyday.  

   It isn't just my ordinary life that fascinates me but the ordinary lives of the birds and squirrels, the trees and pond, the flowers and grasses by the roadside.  It is the ordinary life of the natural world around me that draws my lens and my heart.

Look at the trees, look at the birds, look at the clouds, look at the stars... and if you have eyes you will be able to see that the whole existence is joyful. Everything is simply happy. Trees are happy for no reason; they are not going to become prime ministers or presidents and they are not going to become rich and they will never have any bank balance. Look at the flowers — for no reason. It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are. ~Osho

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Lost Art of Getting Lost....

   David Chemin is a talented and prolific photographer and writer.  His website is filled with wonderful resources for those wishing to perfect their technical skills.  But it was his story on Maptia recently that really caught my attention.

To be lost, and 
surrender to that, is
to stop talking long
enough to listen
to a place.

      Ever since the invention of GPS, the art and craft of getting lost has been forgotten.  Everyone wants, no needs, to know where they are at every second of every day.  For me, all the best discoveries I've made during my travels have happened when I strayed off the path and gotten lost.  But getting truly and magnificently lost is an art that few people have acquired.

How to perfect the art of getting lost:
  • Practice close to home.  Begin by trying a new way home from work or school or drive down a road you've never ventured down before.
  • Share the experience with someone; make it an adventure.
  • Stop frequently to take in the location; this isn't a race! 
  • Find one special thing along the way that you wouldn't have seen had you not gotten "lost".
  • Make finding your way home a challenge.  Get out your map and try your orienteering skills, you might discover new places along the road home.
     Once you have a few adventures under your belt you will feel more confident that being lost is really a wonderful thing and you will be more likely to allow yourself the experience from time to time.  One wonderful place to practice is on a small island.  You can only go so far and when you get to the waters edge, turn around!

   By all means, safety first!  Tell someone what you are doing and the general direction you are heading, when you expect to return.  take along your cell phone with a GPS app.  Check the weather and bring snacks and water.  Give yourself plenty of daylight time to accomplish your journey.  Be sensible in your choice of locations to get lost in.  A National Forest with no trails probably isn't a good choice.  Neither is a dangerous part of large city.  Common sense is always best.

It's enough to know where I am.
  In this moment.

   Here is a link to David's story on Maptia...

   And a final link.  Thank you to Kim Manley Ort for turning me on to this wonderful Ted Talk feature with Daniele Quercia.  The last line is appropriate to this discussion about letting yourself get lost from time to time..."If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine.  It's deadly."

"Happy Maps"

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Another Wu Wei Winter...

Be Still
 Be Present
 Be Patient 
The Three Be's of 
Contemplative Photography 

 It seems to be shaping up to be another Wu Wei Winter for me.  The storms, frigid temperatures, wind chills in the -25 degree F range as well as achy joints ( there a correlation?) have kept me in-doors the last couple of weeks.  Good time to practice one of my favorite photographic sage exercises, Wu Wei.

   Wu Wei is literally translated into "doing by not doing" or sometimes as "effortless effort".  For me, it means photographing only what comes to me.  In this case, it was a plump wild turkey!

   What has changed this winter though is my willingness to embrace the abstract elements of my subject and apply a more painterly and color focused approach to this south end of a north bound bird.  I loved the patterns and colors of the overlapping feathers.

   Then I was blessed by a visit from a barred owl.  In all the years I've lived here, one has never come this close to the house and stayed for so long.  I watched him watch me for a few minutes.  That was a real treat! Now that I think about it, an owl would be the perfect metaphor for my three B's above!

   I may not be able to get to the pond for the time being but clearly my experiences at the pond over the last nearly seven months have gotten to me!  If you want a quick brush up on the Characteristics of a Photographic Sage, including the practice of Wu Wei, here is a link to all the relevant posts.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Embracing the Bones...

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.

~Andrew Wyeth
   This may just be my Winter Etching for 2015.  It is a branch from my trumpet vine that somehow escaped being tied up this past fall.  I love the simple and elegant calligraphic quality of it.

   Andrew Wyeth understood the bleak beauty of winter and many of his paintings hinted at the Chinese aesthetic of large areas of "empty" space.  Of course, it is far from empty but it does give the eye a place to rest.

    The Chinese were also the masters of the single gestural stoke.  They said so much with so little.  This photograph may not be an etching exactly but it has that radical simplicity that I love so much in Chinese brush painting so I might just bend the rules a bit.

   Winter in Maine is the perfect time to embrace the bones of the landscape.  This stark simplicity will not be here come spring when a whole new aesthetic will be present.  Time to celebrate this season of whiteness...

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Contemplative Poetry Series - Rumi

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.  A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.  Welcome and entertain them all!  Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice.  Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.  Be grateful for whatever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
Translated by Coleman Barks
   A special thanks to Lacy Clark Ellman from A Sacred Journey for reminding me of this wonderful  Rumi poem.  I have always thought of my photographs as gifts but now I can imagine them as guests as well; visitors to this human house of mine that must be treated with kindness and respect, whatever thoughts and reflections they bring to me.  They are all sent from a loving universe to guide me, I just have to welcome them in.
   What guest will you invite in today?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

"I'd Like to Hand it to You!"

   I love photographing hands...hands at work, hands at rest.  Hands reveal so much.  This is a hand project that has been rumbling around in my head for awhile.

   If you could hand someone a special gift, something that you feel is essential for their happiness and well being, what would it be?  Well, here is my gift to you for 2015...

 I give you the gift of
 a seeking heart.

   This is, as some of you may recognize, my scallop shell container which holds my pilgrim tokens.  I bought it a few years ago in France and it goes everywhere with me now.  It symbolizes that "seeking heart" to me.  Pilgrims of any stripe are seekers and the journey needn't be to faraway places.  Seekers are those who are always looking, always open to the new and the serendipitous.  Seekers may grow old in body but never in spirit...they are life long learners on every level that matters.

   Now, what would you give to others if you could?  How would you symbolically represent it?  If any of you wish to share your gift with those on this blog, please send me a photograph of your hand holding the "gift".  Send it to  I would love to see what your gift would be! 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

More thoughts on paying attention...

   On my first trip to the Burren region of County Clare in Ireland in 2007 I was in a very different place, photographically speaking, than I am now.  It was the landscape itself, specifically the limestone pavings of this place, that set me on a completely new way of relating to the world.

   I spent a day walking over the limestone and getting down on my stomach to explore the spaces in between.  I became fascinated by these little environments where life, seemingly miraculously in some cases, sprung up and thrived.

   I knew I had to record them in color and it was the first time I worked seriously on an image in this way.  It came about because I decided to pay attention to the small view rather than the large view, the later of which this region in famous for.

   Paying attention takes time.  A lot of time.   You can't be in a hurry and you can't worry about "wasting" your precious time in a place.  That is so easy to do when you are on holiday and have a limited amount of time to spend in a given area.  I suppose that's why returning, as I did to the Burren in 2009 and 2014, is so valuable.  You've done the "big" things and can now spend more time with the "little" things.

   So, it makes it all the more important to me that on that first trip, when there was so much to see and explore, that I took the day, the whole day, to look down instead of out.  With hindsight I can say that it has made all the difference...

You might also like to read this original post on Paying Attention from February 6, 2013 ...

Monday, January 19, 2015

Photography and Memory...

   My genealogical research has been wonderfully illuminating.  The best part of it has been the real feeling of connection I have with not only my past but my ancestor's lives...even the ones I never knew.  I've done it primarily through the visual image, like this old Polaroid given to me by my cousin.

   The bridge is long gone, the area filled in, but it lives here in this little image stored away for nearly 40 years.  In the creation of my digital scrapbook, I try to use as many photographs as possible and if I don't have a photograph of a particular person, I photograph objects from their lives or the places they lived.   Endless lists of names and dates, which is typical in most genealogical books, while interesting and necessary, are sorely incomplete for me.  I need a visual link.  That is the photographer in me, I think.

   I suppose a vast percentage of photographs created each day are meant to record something.   A "I saw this, I was here and these people were with me" sort of thing.  So many are shared and then forgotten.  There is even a site where you can share an image and it disappears after a few days...automatically.  We are a momentary and continually transforming culture...look at it, add a comment like LOL or OMG and then move on.  I guess contemplative photography is the antithesis of that mindset.

   Photographs can be so much more than mere records of the past, they can be triggers to deep and personal reflection as well.  This one of the old bridge that was less than a quarter mile from my childhood home brought out all sorts of recollections for me and one was that the physical places from our lives, past or present, can have a meaning that goes far beyond what a photograph can capture. In this case, it was the idea that a place can be where we proved our courage by sitting high up on the bank below it as a train rumbled through.  Fool hearty surely but it was a childhood right of passage nonetheless.

    When we look into rather than at these photographs
 we will find some hidden corner of our own soul 
and that is surely worth the effort.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Photography as a Way of Life...

To take a photograph is to align the head,
 the eye and the heart. It's a way of life.
  ~Henri Cartier-Bresson 

   Photography as an art, as a passion, as a hobby, yes, we can all relate to that but to see photography as a way of life is a whole different thing.

   It wasn't until I started my daily photojournal that I began to understand Cartier-Bresson's statement that, indeed, photography can be a way of life, inextricably linked to your daily routine.  As natural and necessary as brushing your teeth.  Not to have my camera with me would feel unnatural and unbalanced.

 The camera is an instrument that teaches
 people how to see without a camera.

~ Dorothea Lange

    Even if I am not actually carrying a camera, I am still looking through a virtual lens.  I think that after all these years I have, in some respects, become my camera.  It is simply how I live these days so I guess I could say that photography, either real or virtual, is my way of life.  Maybe that is the ultimate goal, to see and relate to the world as a kaleidoscope of beautiful images...all worthy of our attention...each with its own message and meaning for us.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

In Their Own Words - Eckhart Tolle

    There is nothing more still than a frozen Maine landscape.  The sleek surface of ice coated snow looked like polished satin.  By moonlight it was positively magical.  Sitting in silence is a crucial part of my contemplative practice...whether I choose to make a photograph or not.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Exploring the Edge...

   Borderlands are especially important in Celtic Spirituality.  The place where two ways of being touch are deemed sacred.  Edges, between light and shadow, water and land, sand and grass, are all around us everyday.  This one was just 50 feet from my back door.

   The winter landscape allows these borderlands to be especially vivid.  Their elegant simplicity can be striking.  There is a decided zen feeling to this one I thought.  Minimalism personified.

   It was the twig, frozen in the snow that was particularly appealing for me.  Blown off in the recent high winds, the tiny bud ends will never spring into life now...their potential gone.  Yet the reflected light in the deep shadows speaks of hope and renewal.  Beneath this blue and white quilt of frozen snow are all the bulbs I planted in the autumn.  They are there...waiting.  This reminds me of a Rumi quote...

Don't think the garden loses its ecstasy
in winter.  It's quiet, but the roots are
down there riotous.

   Here is a link to another post I did last year on borderlands....

Dig Deeper:

And I recommend Esther d Waal's wonderful little (and it is indeed tiny!) book, To Pause at the Threshold: Reflections on Living on the Border.  I took it on my Threshold Pilgrimage last year and it is a valuable study of these border places.  You might also like to re-read my posts from my trip to Ireland and Scotland here.  You will have to go to "Older Posts" after the first few...there are 30 posts in total!  Pour yourself a cup of tea!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

An Epiphany on Epiphany...

   My first photograph of the pond for 2015, on the feast day of Epiphany, January 6th.  Most appropriate, I thought.

   This pond has been an epiphany for me in so many ways.  Each day I visit it brings me new insights and meaning...even new ways of making my photographs.  On this day the temperatures hovered around 0 but the wind chill made it feel more like -20.

   This little fishing shack on the far edge of the pond stood in a kind of splendid solitude.  Ice fishermen will huddle inside by the tiny wood stove to keep warm as they fish. They would need it on a day like today.  But I wasn't thinking about fishing, I was thinking about the story of Epiphany.  After the wise men visited Bethlehem, which is the tradition of Epiphany, an angel came to them and told them that the should return home by a different way.  That thought, and this photograph, would stay with me for the rest of the day.

   I began this project last June and now in January I have rounded the corner and I'm heading for the "homestretch" as it were but I am definitely "returning home by a different way."  Hearts and minds that are stretch can never return to their previous size or shape...they have transformed into a new state of being and, in my case, a new way of looking at the world.  That was my personal epiphany on this Epiphany of 2015.  A great way to begin the year.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Inspired by: Kimberly Poppe

Approaching  by Kimberly Poppe
   In a further attempt to widen the scope of contemplative photography, I am featuring the work of photographer Kimberly Poppe.  Kimberly practices the Miksang approach in her camera work.

   The Miksang method of seeing is based on the Dharma Art teachings of Chogyam Trungpa. The Tibetan word miksang means, Good Eye.

    For many, the Miksang approach is a natural fit and you might like to explore it more fully through the link I provide at the end of this post.  The interview is filled with great resources.

    In the end, as I said in the 11 January post on this blog, the method and practice you adopt must fit you and there is no need to be a "purist" in my opinion.  By all means, try everything on!  You will eventually settle on what feels right to you.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Fellow Sage: John O'Hagan


Much of the water in the universe is
produced as a byproduct of star formation.

The Mediterranean palm,

The child,
The universe;
This then is where we meet,
In these drops of water,
These tears.
John O'Hagan


   This is the first of, I hope, a series of guest posts from the readers of this fellow sages around the world.  You can send me your photograph along with a reflection, haiku or poem to  I will publish them so others can share in the wisdom you have gathered through your contemplative photography. 

   The meaning of life is
to find your gift.

The purpose of life is
to give it away.

- William Shakespeare

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Reflections on the Tao: Doing and Being

The way to do
is to be.

- Lao Tzu

   Contemplative photography, at least for me, is as much about being as it is about doing.  What is crucial is that you allow the concept to evolve gradually, through time and exploration, until you arrive at a practice (the doing part) that aligns with your essential humanity ( the being part).  It is not a case of "one size fits all".

     Whenever I've lectured or led contemplative walks, I've emphasized that the being part must come first...the doing part will follow.  One must forge their own and unique relationship with the landscape, the world around them.  I built mine through the application of Taoist principles as well as Celtic spirituality but it is, by no means, the be all and end all of contemplative photography.  It is my way, that's all.

   Immersing myself early on in the basic principles of Celtic spirituality and Taoism opened up a path that I could have found in other ways perhaps but it fit me like a well worn pair of shoes.  It was comfortable and nothing pinched.  Many, if not all, workshops and teachings revolve around the doing part and that is very important.  But in the end, it will require that you settle into your own and unique way of being with your camera in the landscape.  Take away from these teachings, including this blog, only what feels comfortable and which fits in with who you are and what you feel in your heart.  Then you will have defined contemplative photography for yourself and it will fit like a glove.


   John O'Donohue, that great Celtic soul that I was privileged to know, wrote eloquently on how the outer landscape is a grand metaphor for the hidden inner landscape of your soul.  His writings on Celtic spirituality have formed the foundation of my thoughts and work as a contemplative photographer.  Here is a wonderful interview he did for the radio show On Being which was recorded just a few months before his death.  I'm sure you will love listening...