By David Ulrich
One of the many paradoxes found in Zen is the complex relationship between single-pointed concentration and an expanded, unconstricted awareness.
These may seem like diametrically opposed experiences when, in fact, they are viewed as two sides of the same coin in Zen—comingling with each other in a single spec-trum of consciousness. How can cultivating concentration and awareness help us as photographers and creatives?
I’ve observed many photographers at work. Those who are the most successful have one defining feature: they become intensely absorbed with their task, to the exclusion of all distractions. Even hunger and bodily comfort are secondary to their concentration, and I’ve seen them maintain this state of focused intensity for hours. They dance with the flow of the scene, patiently wait for the right light, the right conditions with a single-pointed gaze on the subject.
It’s the same with most artists.
Richard Boleslavsky writes, in the first lesson of Acting: The First Six Lessons: “Remember this word Concentrate. It is important in every art and especially in the art of the theatre. Concentration is the quality which permits us to direct all our spiritual and intellectual forces toward one definite object and to continue as long as it pleases us and to do so—sometimes for a time much longer than our physical strength can endure…This strength, this certainty of power over yourself, is the fundamental quality of every creative artist. You must find it within yourself, and develop it to the last degree.”
Most artists, though, experience an inherent paradox with this disciplined sort of focus. As you engage the process intensely, and stay with it in spite of all sorts of mental and environmental distractions, another sort of attention—bigger and softer—begins to appear.
Carlos Castaneda calls it the “second attention.” As you strive toward discipline and focus, a rich sort of engagement and a broader, inclusive awareness begin to arise on their own as a result of your hard work. You enter into a state so prized by artists, athletes, writers, and indeed anyone engaged intensely with a task. You enter the flow. The work develops a momentum of its own—one that you have at first initiated but now exultantly participate in. A greater energy takes over. You are energized by the work, and an expanded focus and intense absorption come naturally.
In The Courage to Create, psychologist Rollo May refers to this state of flow: “This leads us to the second element in the creative act—namely the ‘intensity’ of the encounter. ‘Absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved,’ and so on, are used commonly to describe the state of the artist or scientist when creating or even the child at play. By whatever name one calls it, genuine creativity is characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.”
In Zen meditation, you often begin with the simple action of sitting still and experiencing the rise and fall of the breath and the mere witnessing of passing thoughts and emotions without comment. You concentrate fully on what is.
This is difficult and you often need to bring the wandering mind back to the present moment.
In my experience, as you stay with this effort of attention and concentration, something opens and widens. A clarity and awareness appears that you experience as being unconstricted, expansive, and inclusive. In this state, the mind becomes aware of your inner conditions as well as the sensory details of your surroundings, the atmosphere, and the presence of any others in the room—without preference or judgment. Krishnamurti calls it “choiceless awareness.”
Photography, if approached with enthusiasm and commitment, can help you discover these expanded states of awareness and enter the flow.
Reprinted with permission from Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography by David Ulrich, copyright (c) 2018. Published by Watson-Guptill, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.
Photographs (c) 2018 by David Ulrich
Formatted for TTB: Dana Gornall
David Ulrich is an active photographer and writer whose work has been published in numerous books and journals including Aperture, Parabola, MANOA, and Sierra Club publications. Ulrich’s photographs have been exhibited internationally in over seventy-five one-person and group exhibitions in museums, galleries, and universities. He is currently co-director of Pacific New Media Foundation
in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. He has taught for Pacific New Media, University of Hawai‘i Mānoa and was a Professor and Chair of the Art Department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. For fifteen years, he served as Associate Professor and Chair of the Photography Department of The Art Institute of Boston.Ulrich is the author of Zen Camera: Creative Awakening with a Daily Practice in Photography and The Widening Stream: the Seven Stages of Creativity, as well as the co-author of Through Our Eyes: A Photographic View of Hong Kong by its Youth. He earned a BFA degree from The Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston and an MFA degree from The Rhode Island School of Design. He is a consulting editor for Parabola magazine and a frequent contributor.
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