By Duane Toops
Every review is an exercise in deceit.
It is a clever and an unconscious deception perpetrated on the part of all parties involved in the reviewing process. It is a deception laboring under the auspices that, through formalized examinations, critical appraisals and methodological analyses, one can somehow experience something as a detached, disinterested, and/or dispassionate observer, when in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
We are never passive observers divorced from our experience. We are always, and at all times, active participants in the unfolding everything-ness of all we touch, witness and observe. In this regard, every review is also a revelation that implicitly enables us to see a deeper truth within ourselves and our experience of everything we are amidst.
As John Green explains “when people write reviews, they are really writing a memoir.” At best a review can only ever offer an autobiographical evaluation of an experience; a self-referential snapshot of the way we see a certain part of the world in which we find ourselves coming into direct contact with. It is an assessment of seeing—a point that becomes increasingly clear as I attempt to undertake a review of Jon Kolkin’s book of photography, Inner Harmony: Living in Balance.
Doctor and Photographer, Jon Kolkin, aptly and unsurprisingly points out that “Computers and smartphones can be particularly problematic”—an understatement if ever there was one.
I’ve already lost count of the number of times I’ve checked mine in the course of writing the previous paragraph alone. Each sentence may appear in a rhythmic stream of continuous succession, but this too is a clever deceit. Punctuated between every few lines is a nearly unquantifiable interval of time lost in the service of Instagram Stories and social media feeds.
As Kolkin points out, there are certainly “potential risks associated with being immersed in ‘modern’ society.” These risks often manifest themselves as forces that are almost diametrically opposed to “practices that seek to purify one’s perception of reality.”
However, it is equally problematic to view these various risks and forces as a particularly modern problem.
Kolkin clearly explains that, “Distractions and compulsions were many even in the Buddha’s time, which is why his teachings…have supported people in every era as they journey through their myriad of challenges”.
We are so busy looking, that we have forgotten how to see, and at heart, these teachings have always been about seeing—about seeing reality, about seeing fully, about seeing clearly. Thus, each one of us has the task of cultivating creative ways in which to regain “stability and clarity,” to open ourselves to an “ever expanding vision” that will aid us in our efforts to “dampen [our] habitual distortions.” In this regard, Kolkin sees “photography [as] a powerful educational tool.”
It’s easy to look at a photo with only a passing appreciation.
After all, ours is a world engulfed by an overabundance of images. Overstimulated and desensitized, we see through half closed eyes. Our gaze grazes across a screen in a fleeting fraction of an instant. We tap the like-button and move along. Lost in the infinite scroll of luxuriant vacations and avocado toast, its tempting to believe that the thousand words contained in a single picture have somehow lost all currency in the economy of what we are truly able to see.
But, the truth is, a photograph is always so much more than the simple snap of a shutter. A photo is an opportunity for us to examine the various ways in which we see; to see where we are afforded the chance to be attentive, to see where and upon what we direct our attention. To transfix and to be transfixed in a world alive with color, texture and composition; reveling in a moment in time that reveals to us the history of light and awareness.
What else could this be called but compassion, affection and love?
Kolkin spent 12 years wandering throughout Asia taking images that show the serene simplicity of monastic life; collecting moments, moments in time, moments of stillness and calm. Shelley writes that, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”
As I look through Kolkin’s work, I can’t help but think that this is precisely what he is doing with each photograph he takes. He draws back the curtain of our capability to see. He demonstrates that in our heightened and desperate search for the exceptional, we fail to take note of the awe and enchantment that inundates every aspect of what we experience. He teaches us to see , appreciate, and acknowledge the intrinsic worthiness of even, and especially, the most ordinary of things.
With graceful unadornment and unembellished elegance, free from any and all pretension, Kolkin is “capturing images to…tell a story;” a story that connects us to ourselves, and to each other, to the quiet spaces in our shared experience of being together. This is a story written in the language of our hearts, a story told in the touch of the present moment, a story of worship and adoration for the wonders of the world around us.
The beauty of attention and awareness is what makes art and meditation so compatible, perhaps even one and the same thing. They both probe deeply into the strange and almost magical uncanniness found in even the most mundane moments of simply being here.