Particularity

Ribbed Bivalve Shell

 

Linda and I have been visiting outdoor antique shows in the summer months for many years. While she looks for an occasional curiosity for the house or a gift, I look for objects to photograph. Although the above image was made in the studio—and neither object was obtained at a fair—it calls to mind an important observational lesson acquired by walking around and scanning items on display at these fairs.

In the early years, I used to wear myself out walking up and down the rows of vendors, looking for that rare situation where the quality of light illuminating an object peaked my aesthetic sensibility. Later on I noticed that there was a pattern to the places where I was more likely to find something to photograph. They were the booths that were less cluttered, and the objects on display were separated by some space. When the items were all clumped together in one case or on a table, none of them seemed important. Visually is was chaos. But when one object was singled out for display, isolated, my eye went right to it. Now, when I see a cluttered display I pass it by. If the vendor doesn’t care enough about his or her offerings, it’s not likely that I will either. Conversely, when I see objects separated out, displayed on a clean surface or cloth where the sunlight enhances its form, color or texture I have to investigate.

Our minds are visually impatient. When presented with a rose bush we look from one blossom to another. And when we’ve seen them all we move on. Whether it’s cars, food, furniture or shells on the beach, we want to see everything. That’s natural and appropriate. But by taking it all in—the wide perspective—we can miss the deeper experience that comes from focusing on just one object and staying with it for a time. We all know the greatest compliment we can pay an artist is to spend time with his or her creation.

Novelists use “particularity” to describe a character, setting or situation. Here’s the description of a scene: “Sam pounded the bar, insulted the bartender and threw his beer bottle on the floor.” We get the idea, but particularity makes it sparkle: “Sam’s eyes lit with rage. He pounded his black fist on the bar, grabbed his Budweiser by the throat and, cursing the bartender, threw the bottle to the floor. It shattered and people scattered as peanut shells rose and floated along on waves of dark liquid and foam.” In writer-speak, particularity amounts to “showing” rather than “telling” what happened. Since “God is in the details,” it behooves us to go in close and examine one item at a time.

An object surrounded by space creates a context of value. It’s why museums and gallaries give as much space as possible to their important holdings. And sometimes and artist will choose wide matting within a frame to surround a picture with blank space. Likewise, filmmakers hold on a shot so viewers have time to examine the elements within the frame. And to set them off, jewelers display their finer pieces with lots of space around them. The message of space surrounding an item or image is clear: “This is precious, worthy of your undivided and sustained attention.”

Out in nature our visual strategy is more often deductive—scanning the whole beach before looking for the particulars on the sand that appeal. The shell in this image is very common. Ordinary. But when it is displayed alone with care and lit to enhance its features, it becomes extraordinary. With our attention held on a particular shell—an inductive approach—we gracefully ease into appreciation and gratitude for all shells, and nature itself. I’ve noticed: while a forest can evoke a “Wow” in me, a single tree can speak more poignantly to me of “treeness,” of essence beyond but including magnitude.

In environments like antique, flower and car shows where there’s a lot to see, the mind wants to move on once we’ve recognized an object for what it is. But the soul is better served by focused attention, beyond recognition. So in these situations, I avoid the booths or areas where there is visual “noise,”  and gravitate to the displays where there’s evidence of order and caring in both subject and presentation. That’s when I’m more likely to find something worth photographing. Presentation matters.

 Always to see the general in the particular is the very foundation of genius.

Arthur Schopenhauer

About This Image

Title: Ribbed Bivalve in Wood Bowl

File #: 852

The above shell was found on the beach in Florida. I was in the studio playing with the light on a wooden bowl, trying to see what a highlight on the bottom would look like under diffuse and specular conditions. I liked that the diffusion created a cloud effect, so I looked around for an object that might be appropriate to put in the center of the bowl. I thought the shell was too big at first. But when I moved it above the center and looked at it on the ground glass it seemed to be floating above the “clouds.” The bowl sat on a light table, so the background was bright white. Finding this distracting, I used a voltage regulator and brought the brightness down to middle gray.

Equifinality

Alphabet Letters

 

The whole system’s principle of “equifinality,” a term coined by the father of systems theory, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, holds that in open systems, those that have external interactions, a given end state can be reached by many potential means. To lock on to a single pathway, observation or solution can overlook a simpler or better way to reach a goal. The advice then, for managing complex human and social systems, is to reserve judgment and keep an open mind.

One of the implications of this principle is that each and every member of an individual human or social system has equal opportunity to affect the outcome of the whole—by paying attention to potential solutions and staying open to alternative pathways to reach a goal—noting that any change will affect the output or outcome. Change any element, person or function, however slightly, and the system will perform differently than it otherwise would. Stated positively, no matter how small, invisible or seemingly insignificant a person’s function, he exerts an influence on the system’s performance and outcome.

A rock group is an open system composed of interacting members. As such, it performs differently each time the performers take the stage. Things happen. One musician substitutes for another. A guitar is not properly tuned. The drummer is trying out new sticks. The lead singer is depressed. The amplifier was replaced and now the sound is different. Likewise, corporate cultures change when an employee begins to eat lunch at his desk, when a mother brings her toddler to work and when an executive begins wearing jeans. It’s the reason we can’t step into the same river twice. Every millisecond, the water molecules are different; stones move; leaves fall in; the wind and fish contribute to turbulence. The example I cited for my students has to do with film and television production considered as a social system. Change one word in a script, decide not to stop for lunch, swap out a microphone or a light—every decision alters the outcome. We see it in television series’, where success in the first season generates more money, more expensive talent and new writers who have their own ideas about what will succeed in the next season. Time and larger budgets brings changes and suddenly The Good Wife isn’t so “good” any more, Sherlock’s cases become more complicated and are anything but Elementary and Person Of Interest shifts the story emphasis from an interest in persons to cyber warfare.

Equifinality gives us a reason to appreciate that our everyday choices and decisions are already making a difference. My wife’s switching from merely “fresh” to “organic” head lettuce affected changes—in our bodies, in local retail and national farming systems, health systems and the economy. Slight, yes. But nonetheless real. Little things add up. Every time we make a purchase, turn on the radio or television or engage in social media, we contribute to the sustainability of the medium and cast a vote for more of the content. This is especially the case with internet interactions because producers, marketers and distributors garner profits by watching and tabulating our choices.

Knowing that my choices and decisions are constantly affecting change, brings me to the realization that I have the potential to affect positive change in all of the systems within which I operate. That’s an empowering thought. At the same time I want to be more aware of my choices and decisions. Is this the message I want to send? Do I really want to sustain this activity? Do I want to cast a vote for more of this product to be produced? Is this information, service or philosophy in alignment with my values? Does this situation lift me up or inspire me? Do I want to support a company that isn’t socially responsible?

As I write, it occurs to me that this sounds like a lot of self-regulating introspection. Editing this piece, I hesitated and observed that the individual letters I put together, the letters and words I’m choosing and the questions I just posed are affecting the whole system—this contemplation. Do I really want to recommend these kinds of self-regulating questions for myself and you the reader? Indeed I do, because I’m advocating that we dig deep into our authentic selves before making our choices. Making them with more awareness of the consequences, however small, seems to me to be better all around, and more responsible personally and socially.

I have to admit that there are times when I go against the voice of my authentic self, as when I consume more sugar than I know I should. Sometimes we just want what we want—and we accept the consequences. On balance, I find comfort in the act of making “a good faith effort.”

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

About This Image

Title: Alphabet Letters

File #: DC2437

Location: Lawrenceburg, Indiana

Walking the grounds of an antique fair, I came upon these unusual looking magnetic letters sitting on top of an oil drum.

Perspective

Being six-foot-six, I’ve always viewed the world from a slightly higher perspective than most people. For instance I see the tops of furniture and people’s heads, and I can see farther in a crowd. No big deal. But that each of us perceives the world and other people differently—sometimes dramatically so due to our unique physical, parental, educational, psychological, racial, social circumstances and belief systems—is a big deal. Differences in perception, with its attendant communication challenges, is at the root of prejudices, disagreements and abuses that can provoke violence, even war. It has long been my opinion and personal experience that the effective management, perhaps even healing, of the negative consequences of conflicting perceptions lies in a closely related word—“perspective.” (Latin: perspectus, “clearly perceived.”)

I selected this image for contemplation because it beautifully depicts the nature of perception in the context of a whole system. Here, individual drops of oil are seen moving in relation to one another in a tank of water. Although the drops are identical in essence they are all different, each unique in size, shape and tonality due to its position relative to the light source. If they had eyes, each individual would perceive a “reality” different from the others. And we would not be surprised to hear them say, “Get out of my face!” “I’m bigger than you!” “I was here first!” “I will only merge with drops my size!” “You’re blocking my light!” “You don’t belong here!” “You’re ugly!” 

In these instances the individuals are operating from the point of view of “I,” or ego, defining and ordering their world from their limited point of view. Given our senses, that’s normal and natural. Eyes, for instance, evolved at the top of our bodies so we could survey the immediate physical and social surroundings. Relating to—and as—members operating within larger whole systems is how we survive, grow, acquire and contribute. Even when we look up at night, the stars and planets seem not to be relevant to our everyday lives. We know it’s vast out there, but beyond its beauty and curiosity the cosmos seems to have nothing to do with earning a living, parenting, managing work, getting an education or making a difference in the world. Except when viewing a cityscape or mountain range, from birth to death our eyes are largely fixed on a plane not much wider than a football field.

At times I become so focused on and engaged in what’s happening around and in front of me—especially when it involves other people—it seems that life is only about my personal interests and concerns. “Out of sight, out of mind.” Since the beginning, narrowly focused perceiving has and continues to have survival value. But on December 7th, 1972 the astronauts of Apollo 17 expanded our vision by showing us the Earth from space. Suddenly, many of us awakened to the broader reality—that the planet is a living system, whole, undivided and evolving a species that’s profoundly altering it. Since then the Hubble Space Telescope and other technologies have been expanding our perception of the universe dramatically. The knowledge of processes and immensities scientists are currently glimpsing are beyond imagination.

  • The big bang occurred about 14.5 billion years ago.
  • Seventy percent of the universe is dark energy; twenty-five percent is dark matter; and only five percent familiar matter.
  • With light traveling at 186,000 miles per second, it takes one million years for the light from the center of our galaxy to reach the Earth.
  • Nearly ninety-nine percent of our solar system’s mass is in the sun.
  • Our galaxy is 100,000 light-years across and 1,000 light-years thick.
  • There are more than 200 billion stars in our galaxy.
  • The solar system orbits the Milky Way every 200 million years—at a speed of 570,000 mph.
  • Earth resides 25,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way. 
  • Light from the sun takes 8 minutes to reach us. We never see the sun in the present moment.
  • The Carina Nebula lies 7,500 light years from Earth. It’s 140 light-years wide.
  • There are at least 125 billion galaxies in the universe.
  • Star V838 is 600,000 times brighter than the sun. Its size would engulf the solar system out to the orbit of Jupiter. 
  • In the center of the Sombrero galaxy there’s a black hole with a mass equal to a billion suns.
  • Hubble has imaged 10,000 galaxies in the Fornax constellation, which is 13 billion light years from here. 
  • Galaxies 300 million light-years from us are moving away at about 16.5 million mph—and the expansion is speeding up.
  • By one astronomer’s calculation “there are tens of billions of potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy.”

How do we respond to such immensity? What are we to think? How does it affect our perception of “God?” Astronomy magazines and images from space always increase my sense of wonder and appreciation. It’s like seeing the face of the Great Mystery. Beyond that, something more subtle is happening. And it took me a while to notice—the expanded perspective of the universe was occasionally asserting itself as a way to contextualize the challenging circumstances of my life, including the disturbing information and images being reported in the news. Standing back, a planetary and then cosmic perspective puts everything into perspective. Tragic events, personal and social breakdowns, disfunctionalities, violence and so on can trigger compassion rather than fear, disappointment or confusion. I found that a cosmic perspective also promotes understanding and patience by recognizing that humanity is engaged in a learning curve with respect to personal interaction and planetary stewardship. Especially, it impacts the arena of meaning—Who are we? Why are we here? What is the best use of our time and energy? As a species, What does it mean to be fully human? How do we get to right relationship? What’s the proper use of our power? What kind of world do we want for our children four generations out?

I observed above that a broader perspective can contribute to the management and healing of negative consequences due to conflicting perceptions. What has happened in the Congress of the United States is an excellent example of the disfunction, divisiveness and stalemate that occurs in a living system when its members vigorously champion and cling to their perceptions rather than debate their differences with an open, respectful and receptive mind. Collaboration and compromise is difficult; we have to give something of ourselves. We all like to think we know what’s right and best, and we’re advised to have the courage of our convictions, but it’s critically important to understand that the universe is indifferent. There is neither judging nor measuring. No “objective” right or wrong. There is only choice and consequences. Like the oil bubbles in water, we have to decide who we want to be, how we want to behave, how we will use our power and how we choose to perceive each other and the planet? The choices we make are critically important, because we create in concert with our perceptions. So what is it we’re creating—by our attitude, work, family life, votes? 

I saw a bumper sticker recently that read “Life Is Good.” Given what we are, where we are (physically and in consciousness) and how we got here, I’d say life is astonishing!

The impossibility of arriving at ultimate formulations of reality does not represent a defeat for the inquiring mind. It is only final assertions that are suspect, not the process of knowing itself. For we each have a valid and important perspective on what is. And to the extent that we can acknowledge the partiality of this perspective, what we say stays clear and true.

Joanna Macy

About This Image

Title: Cosmic Bubbles

File #: CDC915

The camera was placed above a fish tank filled with water, sitting on black paper. Using an eyedropper, I placed a small pool of cooking oil on the surface, stirred it up and in total darkness made an exposure with a flash unit to light the bubbles and freeze the motion. Being a random process, there was no way to predict the resulting image, so I shot nearly a hundred frames to get perhaps two dozen images that looked interesting.

Flow

“Going with the flow” is an expression that suggests it’s a better life strategy is to align with rather than resist what is happening. As guidance for individual behavior, paddling with the “current”—in the context of home, work and relationships—is certainly easier than paddling against it. In this image of waving grass, sometimes called “Whisp” or “Foxtail,” there’s more to be observed than just the blowing wind. From a whole systems perspective, I note that the stalks that support the tassels are rooted in the ground. They stand together as a community of sorts, and they lean in the same direction in response to the wind. Systemically, as a group, they can be seen as evidence harmony.

Considering flow at the most basic level, I think of atoms uniting to form molecules, molecules combining to form cells, cells joining to form organisms, organisms integrating to form bodies and so on. In nature, flow is represented in schools of fish, crop fields, herds of wild mustangs and flocks of birds, all moving together in harmony with each other and with their environments. Human communities that evidence flow include high functioning families, teams and synergistic work groups where people are all moving in the same direction. On a grander scale, Sweden, Japan and Canada are often cited as societies that are harmonious and less militant, places where there’s less social discord and more people living happier lives. Why is that?

The question is too big and complex to even approximate a reasonable answer, but it elicits a smaller question that peaks my interest—What are the energies that result in or give rise to flow in human systems? An answer to that would also suggest the qualities that contribute to harmony. One thing for certain, they are notas evidenced by religious and political polarization—the energies of intolerance, inflexibility and interfering.

Because analysis of living systems begins with an assessment of individual members, specifically their behaviors and relationships, I pulled up a list of some of the higher human character traits that were part of my “Vision For Television.” Here, I think they go a long way toward suggesting the energies that contribute to flow in individuals and society.

Acceptance • Altruism • Appreciation • Awareness • Caring • Compassion • Confidence • Cooperation • Courage • Creativity • Curiosity • Empathy • Faith • Flexibility • Forgiveness • Goodwill • Gratitude • Helpfulness • Honesty • Humility • Humor • Imagination • Integrity • Intelligence • Intuition • Kindness • Love • Patience • Respect •   Responsibility • Reverence • Tolerance • Trust • Wisdom • Wonder • Zest for Life

I believe these characteristics, or qualities, are contageous. As we experience them in others, they are awakened in us. And given even a small group, they can shape the direction of social change. On balance are the energies that retard flow and harmony, evidenced by the destructive “winds” blowing in the Middle East and other parts of the world where separatist factions and fundamentalist ideologies are bent on destruction rather than construction. Like grasses on the prairie, it makes a huge difference where indivisuals are planted or located. Those who paddle against the flow of life may expend a great deal of energy, but relatively little is accomplished that is enhancing and sustainable; the nature of conflict is merely to escalate.

Feeding my long-term optimism are the seeds of reason, respectful communication, intelligent creativity, wisdom, planetary stewardship and the rule of law, energies that are on the ascendency as evolution favors increased freedom, order, complexity and consciousness. How grateful we are to have been planted in such rich soil.

The evolution of consciousness always moves in the direction of greater love, inclusiveness, tolerance, synthesis, freedom, and empowerment, however slowly and painfully.

Corinne McLaughlin

About This Image

Title: Foxtail Grass

File #: DC4489

Blunt, South Dakota

I’d stopped to photograph an abandoned granary alongside rusted and weed covered railroad tracks. At the road’s turnaround I noticed several clumps of this grass waving in the breeze, so I settled myself on the ground in front of the largest clump and took several exposures, varying the shutter speed and screening the results each time until I had a variety of levels of blur to suggest the wind.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography

Love

 

The King James Bible, One Corinthians 13:13, states, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” The Aramaic Bible in Plain English reads, “For there are these three things that endure: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” One translates “charity,” while the other reads “love.” St. Paul doesn’t explain why charity or love is greater than the other graces. For this contemplation I prefer the term “love” over “charity” because these days sharity is more related to the giving of money or other gifts to helping organizations or people in need. Love, however, is free of this baggage and much more expansive—the reason I chose this photograph.

I noted in previous blogs that faith and hope have higher and lower “vibrations.” Like frequencies of light and sound, they have higher and lower frequencies—and therefore potencies. I use this terminology, not to rank one frequency as better or lesser than any other, but because they are vibratory and irrespective of application, the mysterious substances of these graces are consistent throughout their spectra. 

In my worldview, love has a much higher frequency than either faith or hope, which are uniquely human experiences that give rise to action characterized by a desire for unification. Love encompasses and transcends human experience. Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin S.J., wrote that love is “The affinity of being for being.” I favor this view because it recognizes love as an energy that’s intrinsic to the universe. In support of this notion, engineer and philosopher, R. Buckminster Fuller, often said that “Love is metaphysical gravity.” That is, it holds all things together, in relationship, at all times, everywhere. And with regard to the action that love gives rise to, Mother Teresa said, “It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters.” Putting these together, what we know of love is that it’s an energy, a force the favors relationship and bonding throughout the universe. In the human experience it prompts the desire for unification.   

Country singer, Clint Black, sings a beautiful song that says, love isn’t something that we find or have, “It isn’t something that we’re in, it’s something that we do.” The song references the frequencies of love that are the subject of literature, theater, film and mass media—romance, intimacy, amorous relationship and marriage. As biological creatures it’s natural and evolutionarily necessary for these to be paramount in our consciousness, rites, rituals and celebrations. Within these frequencies we marvel at the process of “falling” and “being” in love and lament the falling out of love. Indeed, love at the lower frequencies is something that we do.

The ancient Greek philosophers understood that there’s more to love than finding it and making it. Their term “Eros” referred to this kind of elemental love—eroticism and intimate love, the kind of love where there’s an expectation of return. “If you make me happy and I’ll make you happy.” “Storge” was their word for the natural affection between parents and children. It says “I cannot help but love you.” “Philia” was affectionate regard for friends—“If you show me virtue, equality and familiarity, I will care for you.” And “Agape” was the term applied to brotherly love, charity, the love of God and God’s love for man. Significantly, this was unconditional love— “No matter what happens or what you do, I will love you.” Thomas Aquinas wrote that Agape was “to will the good of another.” 

All these distinctions regard love as a quality of relationship between human beings or humans and God, given our senses and common interpersonal experience. But at the highest, most potent frequency, “transcendent” love steps away from material, space/time relationships and moves into the realm of Ultimate Reality, the present moment and union at a cosmic level—where there is no object at which to direct love. It simply is, occurring as an unexpected, fleeting and uncontrollable upwelling, a completeness that encompasses all that is, as it is. And it urges no action. Sri Nisargadatta wrote, “When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that’s wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. Between these two my life turns.”

If love is metaphysical gravity, the energy that holds all things together, might it be that the experience of transcendent love occurs when this is fully realized? I’m reminded that we only know such energies by their effects. For instance, we know how atoms and sub-atomic “particles” interact and unite to form matter And we know that they’re forces operating in space rather than particles. But we don’t really know what they are or why they are. The same is true of love. If Bucky is right about the energy of love holding everything together at every level, might it be the fundamental force of the universe? In that case, besides love being something that we seek, have and do, love would be something that we are. Full disclosure, this is what I believe.

Benjamin Disraeli wrote, “We are born for love. It is the principle of existence, and its only end.” If all the above is true, what would be the consequence of living in such a universe? My view combines what Mother Teresa and Thomas Aquinas recommended, that as conscious beings, evolution encourages us to maximize the amount of love in all that we do and, as much as possible, widen our circle of love until it becomes universal and unconditional—willing the good of the universe and all it contains.

On the day-to-day practical side, awareness of these vibrational distinctions can ease suffering. From a Buddhist perspective, the more we move from eros to agape—from thoughts and words of judging to non-judging, from controlling to allowing, from disapproving to supporting, from criticizing to empowering, from denying to accepting, from doing to being—the less we suffer in the face of breakdown and disappointment, and the more we contribute to those we love, to good karma (response to action) and future happiness. Irrespective of the frequency of love on the energy spectrum, it promotes union, the refinement of personality and the expansion of consciousness.    

Some day, after mastering the winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

About This Image

Title: Sunlight Streaming Over The Gulf Of Mexico

File #: DC2876

With my digital camera on a tripod, I made this exposure from the third floor of our rented condo. What you don’t see are the numerous exposures made before and after this precious moment.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography

As a reminder: My email address has been changed to: smitdl@fuse.net

Faith

255-B3

 

Dictionaries generally provide two definitions for the word “faith,” one being the trust or confidence we have in someone or something, the other a strong belief in God or a doctrine of religion irrespective of evidence. This image of a mother holding a child’s hand clearly speaks to the former, but in it I see where both aspects have their origin.

As infants and through childhood we are completely dependent upon others. Trust is given and “a given” if we are to survive. We take on faith that someone, usually parents or guardians, will be there—and able—to provide for our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. It seems like this should be an inalienable right as a prerogative of birth, because care given by responsible adults is what it takes minimally for children to become whole, healthy and contributing persons. That too often these essentials are not provided, deepens my appreciation for what I took for granted as a child. Even as adults, we have faith in family members and friends. They are the ones we can usually turn to in difficult times.

We also have faith in the systems that provide the contexts for our lives—schools, churches, small businesses, corporations, non-profit organizations, local governing bodies and the Federal government. My careers in education and business were all grounded in faith—that my teachers knew what they were talking about, that higher education would lead to desirable and creative work opportunities, that the economy would be such that I could find employment, that there would be a demand for what I had to offer, that salaries in my field would be enough to comfortably support a family, that employers would recognize my talents and reward achievement and that there would be people who would share my vision of a cable television channel dedicated to programming in support of human development. And so on.

Along the way we discover that some of our faith in people and institutions was misplaced—as in the latter television initiative. And so we learn that neither individuals nor institutions can always be trusted. Not everyone is responsible, not everyone behaves ethically. People and circumstances change. And so, through disappointments we develop some discernment as a hedge against misplaced faith.

As with “hope,” faith has higher and lower vibrations. The higher is acceptance of what is, as it is. Bo Lozoff, an American writer and interfaith humanitarian wrote that “Faith is a profound acceptance of life’s ultimate goodness no matter what happens.” At the opposite end of the faith spectrum is fanaticism—excessive, irrational, uncritical zeal characterized by an unwillingness to recognize and respect differences in opinion or belief. Robert Pirsig, author of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance wrote that “No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kind of dogmas or goals, it’s always because they are in doubt.” In this regard I think of John Vasconcellos’s often quoted political perspective, that “We are engaged in a struggle for the soul of our nation. A struggle between two visions of human nature: faithful and cynical.” Indeed, held lightly and with an open mind, faith can unite and lift us up. Grasped too tightly it divides and holds us down.

In the long run the fate of a civilization depends not only on its political system, its economic structure, or its military might. Perhaps, indeed, all of these ultimately depend in turn upon the faith of the people, upon what we believe and feel about man; about the possibilities of human nature; about our relation or lack of it to such intangibles as the meaning of morality or the true nature of value.

Ashley Montagu

About This Image

Title: Mother and Child Holding Hands

File #: 255-B3

As I was unloading my camera equipment from the car, I noticed bright specular sunlight streaming into the living room. Linda and Jennifer were there, so I took out the camera and asked them to stand in front of one of the windows. I positioned myself with the window to our side and made several hand-held exposures of different poses. This one stood out.

I didn’t want the room to show in the background, so I grossly overexposed the film. Even so, the negative has some out-of-focus detail showing, so I overexposed the background when I printed it.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography

Also a reminder: My new email address is— smithdl@fuse.net

Legacy

Feather In Rock

 

PLEASE NOTE: MY EMAIL ADDRESS HAS CHANGED TO: smithdl@fuse.net

What do we leave behind? Does it matter? These are questions that comes to mind as I contemplate this image. Without any pretense or intention, a bird left behind not only a feather, but also the potential for a human being’s aesthetic enjoyment and growth—and in the context of this blog, contemplation. My being in this place with a camera and finding the feather attractive actualized that potential and as a consequence extended the bird’s “contribution” to the world by many years. It’s a kind of redemption. Posting the image here as an electronic image extends it even longer in time and much further in geography. So time and distance are part of the bird’s legacy, its contribution.

Another factor relates to the material left behind and how, over time, it transforms. For instance, this feather could have been picked up, added to a collection, used on clothing or for decoration, or made into a writing instrument. Physicality is the initial condition of material, be it natural or man-made. When that material disintegrates, if a human being remembers or finds beauty in it, the locus of contribution becomes mental. Aspects of the initial condition then reside in consciousness. Relative to this image then, the question becomes, What does the image of this feather contribute to consciousness?

Certainly, for me there’s an aesthetic contribution. The feather is beautiful in form, gradation, contrast and texture, particularly as it lies enshrined within the hard and jagged rock. Another contribution for me is the evocation or consideration of source. I imagine the bird that this feather belonged to, consider its lifespan and environment, the species and rekindle an appreciation of the evolution of birds in the period of  the dinosaurs.

Applying this to human beings, physically speaking, we leave behind our stuff, our belongings, the objects we made and acquired. What to do with it when we’re gone is a serious issue for collectors and producers. In my case, it’s photographs. So I asked myself—since everything under the sun, including the sun, has been photographed, even considering my unique motivations and point of view, does the world really need another photograph of a mountain range, flower, street scene, or cocktail glass? Short term—perhaps. Long term—no. Everything, even images and words projected as electrons on screens, has a limited lifetime. Eventually, all matter succumbs to the law of entropy.

Years ago as I considered the issue of legacy I played a mind game, imagining a very long chart where, along the x-axis there were increments of one hundred years stretching from 40,000 years ago when Homo Sapiens first appeared in Europe, to 40,000 years into the future. Then, I put one thing at a time on that chart, assigning it a line that extended from first appearance to last, marking along that line in red the duration of its maximum vitality—it’s period of contribution to the world. I began by looking at the lifespans of some of the acknowledged grand contributors—philosophers, mystics, prophets, artists, scientists, engineers, warriors and inventors. Their physical lives were short, but their contributions and names still enjoy some vitality—largely through modern education. When I assigned lines to ancient civilizations, I observed that their beginnings were gradual and their endings relatively abrupt. Established religions and nations were too recent to imagine much more than their beginnings, although some primitive religions and early nations have died and their vitalities have waned. Were these lines to be animated, each would fade in and fade out. With the x-axis representing time and the y-axis representing contribution to consciousness, it was easy to pinpoint spikes, for instance with the appearance of Confucius, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and so on.

Then, I imagined myself and my collection of archival photographs on that scale. I will be gone in less than the space of one increment. And stored under ideal conditions, my photographs will have disintegrated within one or two more increments at best. It was a sobering thought. And it generated some really good questions about how best to invest my time and energy. What matters? What is worth doing? Should I stop photographing and conserve the materials? Should I destroy my collection of prints rather than burden those who come after me with it? Does it even matter that I leave something behind? If so, what would it be?

I pondered these questions for quite some time. Then I had a realization. Indeed, the world does not need and can well do without another photograph by me. So with respecst to my being here, what does the world need? What of a person survives in the world? What moves the species forward and upward? My answer is the quality of thought and the integrity to live responsibly as individuals with unique potential. What the world does need are human beings who are growing and contributing to the quality and expansion of their own and the collective consciousness. Both. Specifically, human evolution is advanced as individuals progress along the lines of their higher potentials—the consciousness of love, compassion, wisdom, ethics, tolerance, cooperation, altruism, empathy and the like, living these qualities into the world. This, because human evolution is less about physical change, and more about the refinement and development of consciousness as we become planetary citizens, ideally stewards of the Earth. Any activity that contributes in this way matters greatly relative to the development and long-term success of the species.

Typically, insight generates more questions. What is the substance of what we contribute? Is it positive? And what are we contributing to? Am I just making someone else wealthy? Am I serving an agenda or values I do not respect? Is the workplace contributing to well-being of the planet as well as my growth? Is it helping to expand my consciousness and deepen my appreciation of others and the world? What we do to earn a living is an enormous and significant part of our contribution. So also are the contributions of time and energy devoted to helping others. But consciousness alone is the contribution that both matters and endures. Even more significant than work and enrichment in this regard are personal relationships. They may be the most challenging at times, but they can also be the most productive in terms of raising the consciousness of self and others.

Referencing the evolutionary timeline again, I do not wish to minimize the contributions of those who amass the most “toys,” money, achievements, fame, knowledge or friends. Rather, I just observe that such contributions have a relatively short lifespan on the x-axis and tend to actually diminish or distract from progress on the  y-axis. Why? Because of a simple axiom: As we think so we act. As we act so we become. As we become so we model. And as we model so we contribute to consciousness—personal, social and universal.

If Carl Jung is right about the “collective unconscious.” If Teilhard de Chardin is right about the “noosphere,” the thinking envelop that surrounds the Earth like an atmosphere. If Irvin Laszlo and the Theosophists are right about the “akashic field,” where every thought is recorded and can be accessed, then every thought, word and deed is a contribution that endures. Nothing is ever lost. So rather than being saddened by the reality of physical impermanence, these observations  encouraged me to engage more in the activities and relationships that optimize my potentials and expand my consciousness. And what does that? Whatever brings joy. Not excitement or happiness. Joy is much bigger. It’s the sense of satisfaction and rightness that comes from being in the moment and in the flow. It’s when the soul is being fed. It’s feedback that tells us we are progressing on the y-axis.

We must become the change we want to see in the world.

Mahatma Gandhi

Every piece of the universe, even the tiniest little snow crystal, matters somehow. I have a place in the pattern, and so do you.

T.A. Barron

About This Image

Title: Feather On Rock

File #: 675-C2

Point Lobos is a little park on the Pacific coast near Carmel, California where photographer Edward Weston spent years creating some exquisite black and white photographs. What makes the place extraordinary are rock formations that abut the ocean with tide pools rich in marine life. Also, because the wind is strong there, the trees have taken on unusual shapes.

I happened on this feather, sitting in the little crevice just as you see it, so there was no manipulation on my part. All I did in Photoshop was to reduce the contrast so the highlights in the rock displayed some texture.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography

Joy

 

When I first printed this image, I thought it was quite a nice expression of childhood exuberance. Now, because I see the figure representing humanity standing in relation to the vastness of earth and cosmos it evokes the spirit of joy in me—and how that is our proper response to life. Given how our bodies evolved from the earth, I like how the figure seems to rise from the ground and reach for the sky. It speaks of our place in the universe, grounded and seeking.

I’m reminded of the Buddhist admonition of  “right perspective,” expressed in the Noble Eightfold Path. Images coming from the Hubble, radio and microwave telescopes are revealing the unfathomable scale, beauty and variety of cosmic manifestations—and that can be humbling. The human body is smaller than an atom in relation to the universal body, yet there is an immensity within, hinted at by Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” More specifically, in our inner circle and outer observations, if we look for them, we can find demonstrations of the immensity within—our capacities for love, compassion, altruism, courage, humility, creativity, empathy, sharing, helping, growth and exploration to name a few. The evolution of matter has led to and resulted in, even accelerated, the evolution of reflexive consciousness. We know that we know. And as we catch glimpses of the universe story, we’re struggling to understand our place and the purpose of our power; to create, integrate and coordinate on the way toward a definition of humanity that is as much “we” as “I.”

Shakespeare’s despondent Prince Hamlet, contemplating suicide, wonders whether it is nobler “To be or not to be.” A variety of life experiences can raise this question in us, sometimes in circumstances where the joy has gone out, where we’ve lost the perspective of who we truly are, why we are here and what each of us has to contribute. Right perspective is knowing that, although minuscule and vulnerable in form compared to the immensity of the universe, we are each a vital and functioning part of the Source. To be is to enjoy membership in it, to be one with it, an expression of it. And there is no greater privilege. The operative word here is “enjoy,” to be in the state of joy as a result of this perspective.

Philosophers from Socrates on, regarding happiness as the ultimate good, debated its nature and how to achieve it. Today, formulas abound in books, on television and on speaking platforms to help us find or choose happiness. But joy is not the same as happiness. While joy can deliver happiness, in essence, it is a felt quality of alignment with purpose and connection to the greater life. For me, it comes in moments of gratitude, appreciation, increased awareness or insight. It’s a feeling of deep satisfaction that comes from focus and immersion, being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. When we’re aligned and in the flow, time stands still.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leader in the field of positive psychology, defines “flow” as “a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.” In his talks he says flow is the secret to happiness. Indeed, but in my worldview, happiness stands on the shoulders of joy. As I see it, happiness is a positive emotion that ripples like waves on the surface of the ocean. Joy is more fundamental, a emanation of soul from the depth of the cosmic ocean, a subtle confirmation or message that says our current thinking or activity is both aligned with purpose and in harmony with the advance of life.

To clarify with an example, it can be said of Adolf Hitler that he was in the flow, a visionary and a man of “integrity.” He was focused to the point of obsession. And he acted with integrity to his vision. But what we deplore is both the vision and his means of achieving it. We can imagine that he experienced feelings of happiness when things were going his way. But did it give him joy? We cannot know, but his boisterous, strident and dictatorial manner and speech—as revealed in film footage—are characteristics that dampen rather than attune to the subtle qualities that affirm life and the expression of the higher capacities cited above. Soul emanations are subtle. They thrive in calm and tend to rise to the surface when the emotions are still.

I like to think the soul uses joy to keep us on the path to fulfillment. An airplane pilot approaching a landing strip flying blind in a snowstorm pays close attention to the instruments that tell her when she is on or veering off course. When she’s on course, the trajectory lights are green and her confidence is maintained. If she can hold to it and correct for when the lights turn red, she will arrive safely at her destination. Likewise, subtle jolts of joy are an indication that I’m aligned with my purpose and connected to the larger system that affirms life and keeps me on course. Essentially, joy is positive feedback. May you have lots of it, and may it bring happiness along with it!

With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.

William Wordsworth

About This Image

Title: Child Of Light

File #: 554-A3

I was visiting a local park with my family. I wanted to photograph the clouds over the hill but it needed a subject, so I asked Jennifer, who was about ten years-old at the time, to go up the hill. I had no preconceived notion of what I wanted her to do, so I just asked her to stand in a certain place and then raise her arms. The exuberance with which she did it was perfect, so I took the shot. It’s a simple images but it speaks.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography

Identity

 

Egg

On another day this image could evoke a contemplation on birth, fertility or gestation. Today, because I’m seeing this chicken egg as the potential for an individual, it draws me into considerations of identity. It prompts me to ask, “Who am I?”

I once heard a story about a prince who was asked this question by his sage tutor. The prince gave his name and the sage shook his head. “That is what they call you. I want to know who are.” The prince answers again with his title. “Are you not more than your title?” asks the wise man. “Who are you?” “I am the son of a king,” the youth says. Again, his teacher shook his head. “Who are you?” This went on and on until the prince could answer no more. “If I am not what I am called, if I am not where I come from or the family or kingdom I was born to, if I am neither my body nor what I say or do or think—because thoughts are fleeting—who am I?” The sage looked the prince in the eyes and said, “To know who you are, remove everything about you that can be named. What is left is who you are.” The prince frowned. “But that would be the same for everyone.” The sage patted his pupil on the hand. “Now, do you see? We are one in being, many in becoming.”

The story suggests that identity is a verb, not a noun. We are entities in process, lives under construction within the context of “interdependent co-arising,” a Buddhist phrase signifying that everything is contingent upon everything else, and that everything in the universe is emerging as a unified whole at every moment. But there’s more to it. Being precedes becoming. I have to be, in order to become. So our deeper identity is even more fundamental. And that takes me to another story. This one is true. Ishi was a Native American who survived the genocide of the Yahi Indians of California by living in a cave for many years. Anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and T.T. Waterman were excited to find someone who spoke the nearly extinct language. Fortunately, they found a speaker of Yana, a related language, and this man understood a little of what Ishi was saying. With the tape recorder turned on, the first question they asked was “Who are you?” Ishi responded by telling a story that lasted two and a quarter hours. And he refused to stop until the story was fully told. Eventually the linguists discovered that he’d told part of a creation story called “How Wood Duck Wooed His Bride.” To explain who he was, Ishi told about the archetypal characters from whose wise and foolish acts he learned his strategies for living. He saw himself as one who enacts, re-creates or brings into the world through his living, the wisdom and behaviors of the creators. Such enactments of creation are at the heart of indigenous ritual around the world.

In both these stories, individual identity equates with the whole, however that is perceived. Our labels, skin color, cultural affiliations, family and other relationships, status, occupations, resumes, beliefs, values and other attributes do not define us. All of these distinctions can be shared by others. It’s just that the more distinctions there are, the easier it is for an outsider to separate one individual from another. So this is what we do. And it’s what those in the identity business attempt to do by associating us with ID numbers, passwords, fingerprints, iris scans and pin numbers. By increasing the number of distinctions, incidental identity can be narrowed to a single individual.

What about DNA? That’s unique to each individual. Am I my DNA? Not even physically. A DNA sequence is just the blueprint for a particular body. It doesn’t define us as a person. Being self-aware, I know that I am more than my body. Am I then the amalgam of a uniquely integrated body, mind and spirit system? That doesn’t work either. Heraclitus famously noted that we can’t step into the same river twice. Just so, this body, mind and spirit—person—is not who I was yesterday.

A mind game provides some insight. Imagine that you are the only person on the planet. You know this to be a fact. Everything is intact, as it is today, except you have complete access to all the riches and resources of the world. No locked doors, everything is open and available. On the one hand you have the world all to yourself—unlimited and healthy food, the grandest living quarters, access to the great libraries, museums, technologies, access to great art and recorded music, including the Internet. On the other hand, it’s lonely. You can’t ride a roller coaster because there’s no one to stop and start it. Studies have shown that isolated human beings don’t survive for very long.

Now, add another person of the same sex. When you were alone there was no distinction. Now there is. His skin is white and yours is black. He is short; you are tall. You like art and music; he prefers fast cars and hunting. Add another person of the same sex and there are more distinctions. This third individual asks, “Who are you?” And you say “I’m the tall black guy who likes art and plays a guitar. This is not who I am, but the descriptors distinguish me from the other two individuals. As people are added, distinctions become more and diverse. And as the numbers increase, each person becomes more unique and his or her bundle of differences can be used to identify him or her—incidentally. Again, substantially, the differences do not define them. In the previous stories, the perception was that I am who I am as a consequence of the whole. Said another way, my being is grounded in the beingness that we share. The more of us there are and the more diverse we are, the more unique each individual becomes. Dr. Beatrice Bruteau expressed this succinctly when she wrote that “Distinction and union arise together.” Teilhard de Chardin S.J observed that “Union differentiates and personalizes.”

So in this image of an individual egg, I appreciate that its fundamental identity as a potential bird, rests neither in the attributes that will distinguish if from other chickens, nor in its function as a producer of more eggs and chickens, but in the fullness of its “chickenness.” So one chicken asks another, “Who are you?” The philosopher chicken answers, “I am the substance of chicken.” Extrapolating, when asked about our own identity, an answer that is more accurate—but far too cumbersome and pretentious to articulate—is that we are the substance of humanity seeking to understand what that means in the context of an interdependent and emerging universe.

Among the definitions of the Indian greeting, “Namastè,” there’s one that comes fairly close to acknowledging this. “Namastè: I honor that place in you where, when you are in that place and I am in that place, we are one.”

Birth is bringing what is inside out. Ecstasy is bringing what is inside out. The whole natural order, the cosmogenesis, is a cosmogestation. It is growing as an embryo grows, organizing itself, and progressing from stage to stage, ‘fulfilling itself,’ so to speak, becoming what it is.

Beatrice Bruteau

About This Image

Title: Egg

File #: S382

I wanted to capture the texture of an egg in a high key context, so I set up a 4×5 camera and extended the bellows so the egg, sitting on a curved piece of plexiglass, would fill the frame. Not wanting much depth of field, I kept the lens fairly wide open, perhaps at an aperture of f4 or f5.6. So as not to create a dark shadow, I bounced the light off a white sheet of foam-core placed overhead and adjusted it so the shadow would grade in the middle of the egg. That helped to accentuate the texture as well. White egg, white background, one light, shot on color negative film. In Photoshop I gave it a slight tint. Otherwise, it would have appeared to be black and white.

I invite you to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography

Work

 

Welding

The image of this railroad worker reminds me to appreciate being able to choose work that’s in alignment with what gives me joy and a sense of fulfillment. My parents didn’t have that luxury. Many people love manual labor and don’t want to be sitting at a desk or computer. They deserve our respect and appreciation. I think of the difficulties people had in finding any kind of work during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era, including the immigrants who came to this country without two nickels to rub together. And I think of the billions of souls worldwide who, under the thumb of kings and dictators had no choice but to spend their days toiling in the fields and fighting on battlefields. Subsistence and staying alive throughout most of human history was “job one.” If the ability to choose work that’s growthful and enjoyable isn’t one of the attributes of civilization, it ought to be. It’s a major privilege.

Every year, when I asked my students what was more important to them in considering a career, money or the opportunity to be creative, the vast majority chose the latter. That was not surprising because they were majoring in a creative field—filmmaking, visual communication and television production. Had I put that question to accounting or business majors, the answer would likely have been different. One of the benefits of education beyond high school is that students have both the freedom and opportunity to choose a field of interest that can lead to either work or a job. For me, a “job” is a contract involving the exchange of time and energy for money. The reward is solely extrinsic. That’s not to demean it, not at all. I’m reminded of the many people holding jobs as a stepping-stone toward reaching a goal, and those who love their jobs and, as a consequence, perform them well. “Work” on the other hand involves an occupation that provides intrinsic rewards as well as financial compensation. Such benefits can include personal growth, adventure, education, the joy of meeting a challenge, service to others, the healing and helping professions, advancing science or research, opportunities to be creative, teach or contribute in other ways.

I further distinguish between work and “vocation,” the motivation of which has less to do with personal reward and more to do with dedication to a calling, the need to serve others.  It’s the kind of work one is compelled to do, regardless of compensation. It’s in this vein that Kahlil Gibran wrote that “Work is love made manifest.” I put great artists in this category. And then there’s the notion of work on behalf of the human project. Thomas Berry wrote that “The great work before us is reverence and restoration”—reverence for all living things and restoration of the planet, the work of responsible stewardship. In this regard, Matthew Fox asks, “Are we making products that are useful and necessary or are we exploiting the earth and degrading our planet for future generations? How does our work relieve the suffering of other beings on the planet?”

This image, combined with these perspectives prompt several considerations for further contemplation. Why am I doing what I do? What are the intrinsic rewards? Is my work commensurate with my purpose? How is my work a contribution—to what or to whom? Is it contributing to my field or the human project in some way?

Once we recognize that we are interdependent, it only makes sense to work together. It does not make sense to try to beat out the other guy, because there is no such thing, in the ultimate calculus, as “I win, you lose.” I can only win when we all win.

Willis Harman

About This Image

Title: Railroad Worker

File #: 058-A3

With written permission and an ID to photograph in the railroad yard in the Union Terminal in Cincinnati, I spent the day shooting everything that attracted my attention. When this man saw me with a camera he shut off the welding equipment and raised his goggles to ask what I was doing. I showed him my ID and asked if I could take his picture. He consented and went back to work.

I had to get some distance from the welding sparks, so the original negative includes a lot of distracting sky above and on the left side of the boxcar. To eliminate it and to strengthen the vector between the man’s goggles and the hot spot, I cropped rather severely. The camera was hand-held, so the shutter speed had to be fast enough to maintain sharpness yet slow enough to blur the sparks.

You are invited to visit my portfolio site: David L. Smith Photography