While we have featured many guest posts in the past, we are setting the intention to bring you more Wisdom from your fellow students of the contemplative path. We hope you will find these posts enriching, enlightening, and inspiring for your own journey. If you would like to submit a post for future consideration, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read on for an enlightening testimonial to art as a spiritual practice by Cynthia Bourgeault’s student, Diane Walker.
Back in the days when I was living in Vermont and heating my house with wood, we used to say wood warms you four ways: once when you cut it down, once when you drag it home, once when you chop it into kindling, and once when you burn it. For me, contemplative photography works the same way: you get several opportunities to be warmed by that spark of the sacred.
That divine spark expresses itself as a kind of recognition, and it happens for me at four different points in the process: when the subject calls to me; when I’m deciding how to photograph it; when I develop the resulting image, either in the darkroom or on my computer; and, finally, when I decide to engage with the image and see what it has to teach me. And in each case, the key to the process lies in paying attention: being present, being mindful, and not trying too hard to control the results.
If you’re a professional photographer, you may well have been taught that an amateur photographer takes a picture and a professional makes a picture. But if you are a contemplative photographer, it’s more about making yourself available for what needs to be revealed; a matter of showing up, keeping your camera handy, and being consciously present, listening for what calls to you.
So what does that mean – to be a contemplative? What does it mean for photography to be an act of faith? According to Ed Bastian,
“Contemplation is not an aimless meandering of thought, but a disciplined activity by which one explores and investigates an idea, an insight, a sacred persona, or a truth, in a thoroughgoing way, pursuing its consequences for all aspects of our lives.”
Once I looked at it that way, I could begin to see parallels between his definition of contemplation and the way the spirit was moving through my photography.
So what do I mean by that? To be a contemplative photographer is essentially an act of faith, and it has these same four contemplative components. The discipline lies in being aware and open; it’s a commitment to listen for that divine spark – even to seek it out – and to keep my camera with me so that I can respond. The activity is the response to the spark, the conscious act of composing the photo in a way that allows the subject to speak most effectively through the camera. The idea, truth, or insight then appears – somehow – in the finished photo. And the consequences become clear when I engage with that photograph and try to understand and write about what it could possibly have to teach me.
When approached from this perspective, the photo can begin to serve as a metaphor for some aspect of the spiritual life. And the whole process is about faith and trust: confirming my heartfelt belief that somehow, in engaging with the photo and exploring the metaphors it suggests, I can learn something about that truth or insight and the consequences it has or will have on my life and the lives of those around me.
Sometimes the moment is accidental; the feeling, the impulse to see and respond, comes first, and you just have to hope you have your camera with you (and that’s one kind of discipline). But you also need to be conscious about showing up; to make the effort to go out with your camera, in faith that there might be something there that needs to voice itself through your work.
It may not initially be obvious, when you’re taking the picture, where the process is leading you. Sometimes the true meaning of the work only emerges when you bring the image to life – whether in a darkroom or on a computer. It may be that the key element will emerge in that process, in whatever manipulations you feel led to perform as you bring the image onto the page.
And sometimes, it’s not until you meditate on the final image itself, that whatever truth it has to offer may be revealed – and, having come to that understanding, over time I developed what is now my daily practice. Each morning, after I awaken, I read a chapter or so of something spiritual with my cup of coffee. After 20 minutes of Centering Prayer, I sit down at my computer, wander through my photos and look at them to see what might be calling to me today.
I then spend time engaging with that photo, asking what it might have to teach me. Sometimes the words come quickly, and sometimes it takes a lot of pondering, but eventually I post that response on my blog along with the photo and send it out into the world. And there’s that contemplative process again: the discipline of sitting down and meditating, the activity of finding a photo, the time spent examining it to search for the idea or the truth, and then the writing itself, exploring and sharing the consequences of that truth.
So that’s it; that’s how contemplative photography as an act of faith has become, for me at least, a journey to the Sacred. The four ways in which the spirit moves through the process – finding a subject, taking the picture, evaluating the image, and then writing about it – nicely parallel the four steps of contemplation. There’s a discipline to it, then an active exploration, usually some truth or insight to be gained, and, in the end, some consequences to be learned and shared along the way.
And in conclusion: if I were to share any last words about contemplative photography, I think they would be this: all creativity – not just photography – is really an act of faith. So I invite you to explore your own creativity – whatever form that may take. Take on a practice, a discipline. Have fun with it! Release your need for control, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Stay open to possibility and trust in the process – because here’s what I believe: there’s wisdom everywhere, all around you. You just have to pay attention.
Diane Walker is a contemplative photographer, painter, and writer with an extensive background in journalism, religion, and marketing. She is the former Communications Director for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Washington and has served on the faculty of the Diocesan School of Theology. She has lived on four different islands in Washington state, and has served as the volunteer exhibitions director at ECVA, a national artists registry with online exhibition space. A regular practitioner of mindfulness meditation/Centering Prayer, Diane pairs her writing and spiritual practice with her art, producing a daily blog of photos, paintings, and meditations at contemplativephotography.com. She is the author of Illuminating the Mystery: Photographic Meditations on the Gospel of Thomas.
Diane’s work can also be found on the cover of our audio teaching with Mirabai Starr, One Heart: Weaving a Tapestry of Interspiritual Community.