Whenever I bring up this image it reminds me to pay attention to the commonplace items and situations that tend not to be seen or are easily passed over. It may be the act of seeing beyond looking, more than anything else, that enriches the present moment. Brief acts of perceiving are the visual equivalent of contemplation. One of the benefits of conscious photography is that it requires us to stop and spend an unusual amount of time pondering, perhaps just soaking in, the beauty of the subject’s form and texture, how it’s situated and lit.
I sometimes recommended a little exercise to my students: when they’re in waiting situations—an airport terminal, doctor’s office, business meeting or just at home with the electronics turned off—to pick a subject, put an imaginary frame around it and forget any words or functions associated with it. As a blind person seeing clearly for the first time, enjoy the subject’s attributes. Notice how it’s lit, and how the light accentuates certain features while diminishing others in deep shadows. It’s a practice that not only cultivates aesthetic perception, it accomplishes the Buddhist practice of mindfulness—accomplished by being aware in the moment, of the moment. Being present with what is, no matter what it is or where we are. Indeed, paying attention to singular being—like a towel, push pin, wrench or chair—can evoke appreciation for all being.
I thought of titling this post “Perception,” but the point that I most need to remember is to STOP NOW! PAY ATTENTION. Just sit or stand still with no distractions and appreciate what’s in front of me, what I normally take for granted. Even the computer display, the keyboard, the picture on the wall and the tissue box. As I look at these without naming, the question arises, What did it take for this to exist? Right here, right now. How many people were involved in bringing this into being? It’s part of the Great Mystery—that we and everything else exist and are present as witnesses. One of the teachings in Zen is “unitive perception,” the experience of being able to see the temporal and eternal simultaneously, the sacred and the profane in the same object. By stopping and paying attention to the little things, that can happen. And afterward, through the act of deep awareness there comes a feeling of exhilleration from having tapped into essence, the Reality beyond the personal reality.
A person has not only perceptions but a will to perceive, not only a capacity to observe the world but a capacity to alter his or her observation of it—which, in the end, is the capacity to alter the world itself. Those people who recognize that imagination is reality’s master we call “sages,” and those who act upon it, we call “artists.”
About This Image
Title: Hand Towel
My producer and I spent two days in a fire station waiting for an ambulance run where we would film a traumatic situation for a program on paramedics for a prime time series called A Matter Of Life. For hours and hours, we sat with batteries charged, the camera and it’s attached light ready to go at a moments notice. This towel was hanging on the bathroom wall. Fortunately, I had a still camera with me. Ever since, the photograph reminds me to stop and pay attention whenever a form, texture or ray of light attracts my attention.
To finish the story, on the second day a call came in—a man having a heart attack. Due to the paramedic’s quick and competent action, he survived and we got an hour’s worth of footage showing the process from the sirens screaming out the door to the patient resting comfortably in a hospital bed. As dramatic as that was, the towell is the more poignent memory.