Thursday, May 16, 2013

Quieting the Mind Through Contemplative Photography - Guest Post by Christine Valters Paintner

 On May 9th I reviewed Christine's wonderful new book, Eyes of the Heart (read it here).  As a follow-up, Christine has kindly agreed to do a guest post on The Photographic Sage...

Abba Poemen said: "A (person) may seem to be silent, but if his heart is condemning others he is babbling ceaselessly. But there may be another who talks from morning till night and yet he is truly silent; that is, he says nothing that is not profitable." (Poemen 27)

Quieting the mind may be the biggest challenge we face as people desiring a more contemplative way of being.  Finding external silence is the first step, but once we immerse ourselves in a quiet place, we may discover something unsettling – that our minds are full of chatter, our thoughts seem to be on a never-ending loop of criticism and commentary. We discover this in keen ways when we sit down to meditate, or try to create art from a place of stillness.

The early Christian monks of the desert, described the silence they would seek as hesychia, which means stillness, silence, a profound inner quiet. As Abba Poemen describes person can live alone and still experience much noise within and a person can live in the midst of a crowd and have a true sense of stillness in their heart.  True inner silence offers us the gift of freedom from the endless stories we make up about the world.

When we experience moments when we find ourselves releasing words and simply entering into an experience of wonder and beholding, this is the silence of God, moments when we are arrested by life's beauty.

Silence is challenging. We create all kinds of distractions and noise in our lives so we can avoid it. Thomas Merton writes about people who go to church and lead good lives but struggle with quiet:

"Interior solitude is impossible for them. They fear it. They do everything they can to escape it. What is worse, they try to draw everyone else into activities as senseless and as devouring as their own. They are great promoters of useless work. They love to organize meetings and banquets and conferences and lectures. They print circulars, write letters, talk for hours on the telephone in order that they may gather a hundred people together in a large room where they will all fill the air with smoke and make a great deal of noise and roar at one another and clap their hands and stagger home at last patting one another on the back with the assurance that they have all done great things to spread the Kingdom of God."

Merton is fierce in his critique of all the ways we cling to words to feel productive, while never making space to surrender into the unknowing of silence and experience silence as beyond all of our good words and intentions. Silence is what makes our actions meaningful, not the other way around.

The desert monks invite us to consider what it means to be selective about our words. Cultivating silence is about making space for another voice to speak. Silence is a presence rather than an absence. I can fill my day with endless words or I can choose when to speak and when to keep silent.

Regular practice of silent prayer and meditation helps us to grow aware of the chatter of our minds and the judgments we carry about ourselves and others. By becoming fully present to these thoughts and being compassionate with ourselves, we can start to notice when they rise up in everyday life. The desert elders remind us to pay attention to our inner judgments as a form of noise which poisons the silence we so desperately seek.

This is where the practice of contemplative photography can offer us a gift.  When we engage in art as meditation, it offers us an opportunity to witness the thoughts that arise when we move into this place of stillness.

Try going for a long walk with no agenda other than to pay attention.  Go alone so you are not tempted into conversation with another.  Bring your camera and stay open to receiving the gift of images which shimmer or call to you. Resist the urge to “take” or “capture” images, and let your camera become a tool for receiving.

Then begin to notice what happens with your thoughts.  When they start to rear up in ugly judgment or incessant words, breathe deeply, and gently let them go. When your thoughts want to grasp a moment, to capture it through the lens, see if you can soften that urge and let it go. This may be your practice again and again, just releasing the hold of your thoughts.  This is the first and essential foundation of our contemplative practice – whether through photography or centering prayer or another form.  You might spend a lifetime simply letting go of thoughts.

But also notice those moments when you lose yourself in the experience you are having.  When you have a genuine encounter with something holy that takes you out of yourself and so for a few minutes feel the freedom from the tyranny of your own thoughts.  Savor the moments when time loosens its grip on your awareness and you find yourself in time outside of time, when you touch what feels like the eternal.

Both of these aspects of our practice are essential – noticing the thoughts that come up and gently releasing them and also savoring the moments when you feel genuinely free from worry or the need to control your experience.  Photography is about paying attention and learning to see in a different way.

Silence isn't just the absence of sound, but a form of human consciousness. This silence of the heart is a profound place of moving beyond ego, judgments, and dualistic thinking to witness the presence of the divine. In silence, we can experience a sense of inner expansiveness which makes more room for God's presence.  Our cameras can become a portal into this experience. 

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and community for contemplative practice and creative expression.  She is the author of 7 books on art and monasticism, including her latest, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Ave Maria Press). Christine currently lives out her commitment as a monk in the world with her husband in Galway, Ireland.


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Patricia Turner said...

Why thank you! Ive never considered a donation button! I'm so glad you are enjoying my daily musings and my guest posts. It means so much to me to hear from my readers!