Lately, I’ve been listening to audio of people chanting Om while I meditate. I feel listening to chants of Om increases my energy and offers a sound on which to focus.
Since February, I’ve been pretty good at meditating everyday with a few exceptions due to traveling. I find a quiet place to sit down, set a 20 minute timer on a mobile app, and meditate until the gentle ring of the timer alerts me that 20 minutes has passed. Over the last two months, I meditated for exactly 20 minutes each time. Exactly may be the wrong word. After the timer rings, I spend between 10 seconds to a minute transitioning back to the non-meditative present. But, the timer is always set for 20 minutes. And I almost always know when the timer is about to go off.
On Thursday, I tried something new setting my timer to 25 minutes. And wow, I could feel those extra five minutes. I had a pretty good idea when the 20 minutes finished. Those extra five minutes felt intense. I felt like I wanted to jump up and down or go for a run. Maybe, I was just antsy. But, I felt like my focus on my breathing was even more clear then the first 20 minutes. In general, I think the first couple minutes of meditation are easy and minutes 17 and on have been easier but the middle fifteen minutes can be the hardest to get into a flow state.
In the 1970s, Susan Sontag wrote several essays on the nature and essence of photography. One essay, America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly, begins describing Walt Whitman’s romantic embrace of America. Sontag writes that Whitman’s poems are “a psychic technology for chanting the reader into a new state of being.” She sees Whitman’s work as envisioning a populist transcendence where the differences between beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality become footnotes to the greater reality of a beloved community. From the perspective of the readings for Principles of Awareness, the Whitmanesque humanism resembles Martin Buber’s poetry on the I-Though relationship. That relationship is a state of being where “the other” is not separated by discrete bounds from “the self.” Both poets point humanity towards an embrace with the infinite. The unboundedness of poetry contrasts starkly with the finitude of photography.
Photography is a medium of reduction. Photographs capture a moment and transform that single moment into a prolonged mediated memory. Like a Markov Model, photographs create a false sense that future depends only on what we see in the photograph and not the events that culminated into that particular moment. Sontag explores what went missing in photography’s reduction by contrasting two famous exhibits: Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man” exhibit in 1955 and Diane Arbus’ retrospective in 1972.
In 1955, Edward Steichen brought together 502 photographs for 273 photographers from 68 countries to “prove that humanity is ‘one’ and that human beings for all their flaws and villainies, are attractive creatures. The people in the photographs were of all races, ages, classes, physical types.” And, the photographs and people in them looked beautiful.
On the other hand, Diane Arbus’ retrospective contained 112 photos all taken by Arbus where “everyone in them looks (in some sense) the same… most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings—who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer.” The definitive message in Arbus’ work (from Sontag’s perspective) is that “humanity is not ‘one.’”
At its core, photography misses the historical understanding of reality. Both exhibits had an intended message, but the message was lost in the medium. Songtag explains that “purporting to show that individuals are born, work, laugh, and die everywhere in the same way, ‘The Family of Man’ denies the determining weight of history—of genuine and historically embedded differences, injustices, and conflicts. Arbus’ photographs undercut politics just as decisively, by suggesting a world in which everybody is an alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities, and relationships.” The reduction of humanity to either joy or horror fails to encompass the complexities, connections, and compassion of the universe.
What Whitman wanted was to generalize beauty, to find beauty in each and every individual, thing, and moment. But the photograph naturally confers importance to an instant and an object. Technically speaking, we cannot photograph each and every moment. And even if we could, we couldn’t humanly process these photographs. Photography requires a selection and that selection requires omission.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that photography cannot be beautiful. On the contrary, photography can be wonderfully beautiful. The problem is that photography appears realistic and can be mistaken for reality without a critical understanding. The wonders of photography can reveal visions that we might never otherwise see. I might never see an Earth-rise in real life, but I’ve seen the photographs and it certainly is brilliant. But photography’s revelations are always particular leaving the greater context of the universe concealed. If we’re seeking awareness, we’ll have to go beyond photographs.
Below are three images from both exhibits.
Here are three photos curated by Edward Steichen for “The Family of Man” exhibit that opened in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art.
Here are three photos taken by Diane Arbus over the course of her career.
The early bird gets the worm, and the late rising worm lives to see another day. Timing matters! I have been experimenting with when to practice silent meditation throughout the day. I imagined sometime in the morning would be ideal, but I wanted to approach timing from a beginner’s mindset. So, I’ve tried meditating before eating breakfast, after taking a shower in the morning, in the early afternoon, in the early evening, and right before bed.
So far, I’ve found the morning meditation rhythm is the easiest to incorporate into a daily ritual because there are fewer scheduling conflicts. But, there’s something pretty sweet about saving up the meditation window for a later moment in the day. I don’t have a schedule for meditation yet. I’m enjoying the intentionality required in choosing an unscheduled 20 minute meditation window every day.
The Waiting Place is probably best summed up in two pages from Dr. Seuss’ Oh The Places You’ll Go.
In life, sometimes, we get stuck. And, we’re waiting. And waiting. As I’m writing, I’m at a small airport in the Midwest waiting to get on a plane that I was supposed to board last night. If I could, I’d love to teleport home, drink some tea with honey, and rest to get over this cold that I developed over the last few days. But, teleportation isn’t in the cards today. So, I’ll have to wait. Anyone who has ever read Dr. Seuss knows what happens on the very next page. We’ll arrive at “bright places where the boom bands are playing.” I am tempted to write, “I can’t wait,”*** but I know better. Without a doubt, I’ll do everything to minimize the wait and step up the boom. But, somethings are a matter of timing. Now, the question becomes what we do when we are waiting.
Reflect. Meditate. We can double down on the waiting and tune into the here and now. Rather than simply let time expire as we’re waiting, we can remind ourselves of ancient wisdom: life isn’t about the destination but the journey. The tricky thing with wisdom is it sounds so good when we say it, hear it, write it, and read it, but it doesn’t work unless we remind ourselves of it. When we wait, we don’t simply wait. We wait for something like my plane! The nature of waiting is the nature of a single object overwhelming our perception. When we can turn waiting into simply being, we open perception to the infinite dimensionality of the universe.
As I’m waiting for my plane, seeking the here and now, writing this post, I’m also in the middle of reading a book on waiting. It’s called Delayed Response, The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World by Jason Farman.
I’ll paraphrase one story to share a flavor of the book and insight into the human tendency towards waiting. The story begins with people complaining about waiting for elevators in post-WWII high-rises in New York City. After a series of complaints, the manager of one building brought in engineers to fix the issue. After assessing the elevators, they determined there was nothing to fix. Then, a tenant from the building who happened to be a psychologist offered advice that the issue underlying the complaints is not about the elevator but the boredom of waiting for the elevator. He suggested installing mirrors in the lobby and within weeks the tenants were applauding the building staff for speeding up the elevator service. Now, this story appears apocryphal and the mirror solution seems more narcissistic than enlightening, but the message is clear: it’s about our mindset.
As a media theorist, Farman approaches waiting as a medium. He describes it as a medium that draws attention to itself. And, of course as Marshall McLuhan was apt to say, the medium is the message. Often, we cannot ignore the waiting because we are trying to accomplish our goals and the waiting gets in the way. Waiting pulls us into the present. We have the choice to fight against it as an obstacle or an opportunity to tune in.
The boom band might just be playing at the waiting place!
***The phrase “I can’t wait” is an English idiom that means I’m looking forward or I’m excited. It’s interesting that we linguistically (and culturally) associate future excitement with the inability to wait. A few years ago when I was living in Egypt, I didn’t realize “can’t wait” was an idiom until I tried to literally translate the idiom into Arabic and my Egyptian friends laughed at an obvious non-native mistake. In Egyptian Arabic, they say nifsee (نفسي) when we might say “I can’t wait.”
In Hinduism, there’s this concept advaita that the true self (Atman) is one and the same as the higher power of the universe (Brahman). I have always felt drawn to this concept. The full understanding that Atman is Brahman brings about moksha, the liberation in the here and now from life’s suffering. Who wouldn’t want that? I certainly would love some moksha. And, I mention this desire to caveat what comes next.
I felt a hint of advaita realization. Maybe, I just felt this because I wanted to feel it. Maybe, I’m tricking myself because this appears to be such an awesome end to aspire to. But, I can only know what I felt, which was a seemingly contradictory connection. I was both alone and with everyone all at once. I felt like I momentarily stepped onto a well-worn path that had neither a beginning nor an end.
I can see how awesome meditation can be. But here’s the funny thing, it doesn’t mean that I desire to meditate all day. It doesn’t even mean that it’s easy to find the 20 minutes to practice every day! (Though I force myself to do it).
The ancients have done it all before. And, they have shared their wisdom. Thousands of years ago, the Greeks inscribed “Know thyself” in stone at Delphi. William Shakespeare, one of humanity’s all-time greatest circumnavigators of the soul, wrote “This above all: to thine own self be true.” But that doesn’t mean the moderns have figured it all out.
What does it fully mean to be true to myself? What makes me, me? This isn’t the first time that I’m asking these questions, and it won’t be the last. Here’s an opportunity to check in on my own principles, examine my authenticity, and seek self-knowledge.
Last week, Tenzin asked us to consider moments of stillness and whether we intentionally seek that stillness or whether it comes by accident. Occasionally, I take walks and sit on park benches and let my mind wander. More often than not, I am doing something intensely. Maybe it’s work. Or some kind of sport. Sometimes it’s a new hobby or reading a book. And other times, it’s visiting friends. And I rarely “turn off.” There’s so much to learn and do, and I want to Thoreau-style “suck out all the marrow of life.” It’s not a fear-of-missing-out kind of thing, but it’s a what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life kind of thing. I’m in search of beauty, magnificence, stillness, and wonder. So, when Tenzin asked that question, I thought in my head, I intentionally seek environments with a high probability of serendipitous stillness. And little did I know, I was being clever and fooling myself. I’ve intentionally sought out the awe-inspiring activities, experiences, and ideas in the world many times over, but I haven’t sought stillness itself. I know I’ve wanted to discover what the Boddhisatvas discovered, but I haven’t put in the effort to make it happen.
This week, I meditated a few times. The hardest part about meditating for the first time was making the time to do it. Part of the spirit of the Principles of Awareness class is to “practice” twenty minutes a day. I realized that no matter what I’m going to spend the next twenty minutes meditating and not doing anything else. The fixed amount of time was freeing. There is no way to make the 20 minutes happen faster, so I figured the best strategy was to slow down time as much as possible. The slower time goes during those 20 minutes, the more I can dig into my awareness. I certainly felt my mind wander, and I kept reminding myself to think about the here and now and focus on my breathing. At the end of each meditation session, I felt tons of positive energy throughout my entire body. After my first meditation, Etta James’ Somethings Got a Hold on Me popped into my head, and I did a little victory dance.
Sitting down and meditating on my own for the first time reminded me of a poem about the journey to self discovery by the late Mary Oliver. Here it is below.
The Journey by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life that you could save.