The Way of the Camera

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

Is taking photos an act of violence?

Is curiosity, then, a form of violence, a wanting to see, know, capture – for what? Posterity?

I know I will die and it won’t matter how many photos I’ve taken, and it might not matter much to the world either. At most they might be of some cultural significance, or historical value, though these days there is a sea of tomorrow’s historical records proliferating online.

Is there a cost to all this? It’s well-documented that certain tribal cultures believe a photo taken of a person is the stealing of his or her soul. If this is true, we are a world of walking zombies, and from how we tend to imagine zombies, they are a violent breed indeed.

I know that my intentions have never been violent. I’ve always loved looking at the world through a camera lens. When I was twelve I was shooting leaves from a bird’s eye view and making ‘abstract art.’ It was only when I started shooting people – with them unaware – and only after a long, long time of doing this, that I start thinking about the nature and consequences of my behavior.

Of course, one could make an invasion of privacy case, and just as certainly, this is a form of violence, if we can define violence as an act of ill will, malice or harm toward another being. I have no excuse: I couldn’t keep myself from taking these photos, which I genuinely found arresting and beautiful, because that’s what people are to me: arresting and beautiful, without exception.

All the secrets of the universe, which are also without fail mysteriously beautiful to me, lie in the bodies and souls of the world’s creatures. As above, so below. Of this I am sure. But this inability to put others’ possible preferences – to not be photographed, or give their consent – ahead of my own amounts to selfishness, at the very least, and at the most, violence.

When I was travelling in India, my karma came back to me rapidly, and frequently. Just when I was starting to be more conscientious about whom and what I was photographing, I found myself in the hot seat, being photographed constantly.

Babies were plopped unceremoniously – yet with flourish – onto my lap. Children were forced into my arms, whether they wanted to be or not. Men pushed themselves into me and flung their arms around me for the sake of a ‘snap’ or five, usually taken with cell phone cameras, and apparently I was consenting because I didn’t (normally) run away.

It was at turns amusing, surprising, aggressive, bemusing, annoying and comical. Sometimes it happened a few times a day, and I grew used to it. But once, when my husband and I were arguing, not far from a bustling bridge in Rishikesh, a man came up and, uncharacteristically, didn’t ask for a photo. He just came up to me, pointed his large camera in my face, and started shooting. I said, “Not now, please, it’s really not a good time,” trying to be polite despite my mood. He completely ignored me – though I was the object of his photo! – and kept taking pictures.

This felt like a violent intrusion into my life, and it struck me immediately how I have very possibly done this to others. I haven’t been as aggressive, maybe, but haven’t I sneaked photos even after someone in the distance may have shooed cameras away? Haven’t I instinctively felt I should be shooting, but did it anyway?

Love and respect for our fellow Earth-citizens isn’t just a theoretical game. Compassion is not a hobby, and it’s up to us to figure out the boundaries of what is art, what is creativity, what is sharing, and what is respect for the sanctity of others.

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Let’s Not Make the Movies of Our Mind into Horror Films.

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Why do I think I always have to be getting somewhere?

Why do I think that the world isn’t strong enough to bear the burden of my shadow, so that I have to hide it and pretend everything is okay?

Why do I think the worst thing I can do is let people down, at the expense of my own truth?

Why am I scared I will never truly belong to the communities I love and respect so much?
Our thoughts can be dizzying, terrifying things.

If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself more than once getting dragged into a very deep and intense storyline produced by none other than your mind. It may have started with a simple nagging feeling, and rather than shrugging it off, you’ve let yourself get absorbed in a drama featuring such rambunctious characters as Doubt, Fear, Guilt, Hopelessness, Confusion and Thwarted Dreams.

While these journeys are scarier than any horror film, we accept them as fact with alarming ease.

We take them to be natural extensions of “who we are” and “how life is”, and because of this, they keep returning with a vengeance.

In Buddhism, there is the belief that we will face the same situations in life until we’ve finally learned the lesson. We’ll meet people and situations that trigger us is in similar ways, until we finally get it. If we think that “getting it” means blaming people because we know it’s their fault and avoiding our challenges because we “know” they are impossible, we are on the fast track to a sequel situation.

All this is because our minds are so good at taking us along our egoistic paths and abetting our desire to avoid confronting our deepest and truest selves.

It’s not very often that we take the time to “think about thinking,” or “how we think.” We tend to assume that our thoughts are merely an extension of us, and cannot lead us astray. We don’t really question the idea that we are our minds, so we don’t critically engage with what is happening as they tear loose and run wild.

We also know that we are simply not happy a lot of the time. We feel frustrated, dissatisfied, defeated, thrown for a loop, maybe backed into a corner.

When this happens, our first instinct is to leap right into the realm of why and how.

“Why has this problem occurred, and how can I fix it?”

Then we scramble, rationalizing our behaviour, finding ways to blame the perceived culprit of the problem, or else attacking the problem with apparent, potential solutions that are fuelled by our certainty that we’ve failed before and are doomed to fail again.

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” ~ Einstein

Problem solving is a skill we’ve developed as humans and has been key to our survival. Learning how to get from point A to point B and how to procure food and shelter, for instance, are great instances of how our thinking minds have been our ally.

However, when it comes to our more “negative” emotions and sense of being stuck, our highly evolved ability to problem-solve actually gets in the way and leads us to a dead end.

Why?

Because we are perceiving these things as “problems” in the first place.

Through meditation and mindfulness practice, we come to see that perceived problems are simply interior states, reactions of our bodies minds and spirits to our external circumstances and our habituated ways of being in the world due to our past behaviours and conditionings.

Rather than “solve,” we learn to “sit with” and accept, and understand the transient nature of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. We learn that gently regarding what is going on within us with respect but non-attachment lightens the heaviness we associate with problems, and allows us a more compassionate attitude toward our selves and the situation at hand.

We learn that “shrugging it off” does not mean avoidance, but the ability to observe how we are feeling, and watch as the feeling both arises and passes away. We even realize that problems are actually opportunities to learn and grow, which makes them the exact opposite of problems.

I’ve studied cinema for many years, and found that we can either be so absorbed and emotionally involved in a movie that we have lost all critical faculties, or that we can learn to pull back, and examine how the filmmakers constructed the film so that it could have such a powerful pull and effect on viewers.

It’s fascinating to realize that the same can be said of our minds.

We can learn to see our minds as constructions that can be understood and dismantled so that their power over our true nature can be lessened.

Sitting down with the intention of watching our thoughts appear and disappear, we see that these fickle entities are not the foundations of our identity, and from there, our opportunities to contemplate who we have become and how we can free ourselves are virtually endless.

Who is Our Inner Witness on the Spiritual Path?

Haiku and Photograph by Tammy T. Stone

Haiku and Photograph by Tammy T. Stone

“If we consider the knower independently of the known, it reveals itself as pure witness. When knower and known are not-two, there is no place even for a witness.” – Jean Klein

In yoga and in our spiritual journey, we seek the transcendence of duality, the arrival of unity between ourselves and the cosmos, knower and known, observer and observed.

One of the ways we work toward this unity is through meditation, by learning more about how to tame the mind’s wild and roaming ways. But immediately, a question arises: who is the “we” in relation to our own minds? Who exactly is it that can control our minds, which we so often associate with our very sense of identity?

How are we different from our minds?

Once we start meditating, we learn pretty quickly, through direct experience, that there is a part of us able to “watch” or witness ourselves meditate, and that “something” accompanies us off the cushion and into our lives as we become more mindful and present in our daily lives.

When we are instructed to observe our in-breath and out-breath, suddenly there “we” are, as though from the outside, tracking the breath’s movements. We are also aware of becoming distracted, and we can guide ourselves – our own minds – back to the breath.

This “witnessing consciousness” is also known as a kind of meta-consciousness in scientific terms; it sounds fancy and official, but that doesn’t make them any less mysterious!

When I think of the witness or observer as I normally understand the words, two visions come to mind.

I think of the unobtrusive but interested observer, maybe collecting scientific data (though the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle teaches us that the act of observation changes that which is observed), or maybe sitting a cafe watching life pass by, somewhat aloof, but with great curiosity. The observer seems to be guided by a higher principle or motivated by a desire to reach greater meaning.

When I think of the witness, my mind floods with images of those who have been at the scene of momentous events like calamities, natural disasters, or the terror of war, who make an active decision to record and transmit what is being witnessed, so that the world can become more compassionate and future generations can benefit from the mistakes and tragedies of the past.

As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I have been privileged, and sometimes overwhelmed by becoming the legacy and carrier of unimaginable things experienced and witnessed by loved ones.

As I write this, hundreds of witnesses are chronicling the ravaging effects of the Nepal earthquake, tearing our hearts apart and inspiring us to help. In an age of instant media access, we are all becoming witnesses, with the privileges and responsibilities this entails.

What is the overlap between a “mere” witness to events and someone with feelings and conditionings who experiences the event?

Can any being ever be neutral, whether out there in society or within our own selves?

Until we experience pure One-ness, we are always a little bit “in” and a little bit “out” of things, and this can be a confusing place to be.

It may well be that the common denominator between the worldly witness and the inner witness is compassion, and the merging this allows between a self that is conflicted or divided within the universe.

Grappling with the witness and observer can be a chaotic endeavor, but I think it’s important to understand this special consciousness inside of us, so that we can become more conscious beings in a world that desperately needs this from us.

Rather than try to understand it intellectually, I’ve tried, below, to delve right into the “my inner witness,” using my meditation practice as the basis.

If the goal is to lose the witness altogether and merge into a compassion-flooded whole, then this is a humble attempt to bring the witness into sharper focus. I would love to hear any thoughts regarding this phenomenon!

Who is The Witness?

The witness tells me I’m thinking while I try to clear my mind, and brings me back to my body.

The witness stands guard but does not offer solace.

The witness stands back when emotions overtake me and whispers quietly, “Let this be so.”

The witness observes me “be” as though from afar, while remaining a part of this “me” fabric.

The witness guides me into nature when I need comfort and solace, and disappears when I am in rapture.

The witness points me to the physical effects of my confusion, by way of telling me that I am not my confusion.

The witness asks me if I’m being honest with myself.

The witness doesn’t argue with any other part of me, even as the parts argue with each other.

The witness doesn’t have the same goals for my life that I do, and doesn’t get frustrated when the goals I set are not met.

The witness seems to want what is best for me, or at least doesn’t veer me in the direction of harm.

The witness is not a friend or an enemy.

The witness knows what I am doing but doesn’t make any judgments.

The witness asks for nothing the way other parts of me ask me to tax myself over and over.

The witness is not a master or a guru.

The witness allows me to be more attentive.

What do I do with this attention?

Which part of me is the keeper of my stories and the inspiration behind the dreams I long to fulfill?

Can the witness take me there and beyond … or can it only witness the evolution?

Authenticity: When “I” is Hard to Come By

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

Authenticity is an inspiring word.

For me, it conjures images of vulnerability and nakedness, being stripped of the means we have for hiding and self-delusion.

I long for a world where we can be our beautiful, imperfect selves and freely express who we are; I recoil when I feel I’m encountering deceptions, lies, or affected fashioning of selves. I’m absolutely sure I’ve been too judgmental, but since I was little, I’ve been very sensitive about what I perceived to be disingenuous behaviour.

I didn’t quite know what to do with that feeling as a little girl, or why I was reacting so strongly, and the last thing I had the instinct to do was examine my own behavior. For a long time now, I’ve been turning this sometimes oversensitive gaze to myself, and I’ve all but frozen, paralyzed by remorse over my own culpability in this authenticity arena.

Know thyself.

Knowing who we are—our sense of self—is the basis for everything that we do. The catch is that knowing ourselves down to the core is a long, arduous task that can take a lifetime to achieve, yet we have to embark on the task of being ourselves out there in the world long before we might reach the desired level of self-knowledge.

What an interesting situation! We try to be ourselves all the time, and watch these selves disintegrate over and over. No wonder it’s so difficult to be as consistently authentic as possible. We know that we are changing all the time. This is theory, it is science, it is Dharma, it is incontrovertible truth.

Change, however, happens at so many physical and psychological speeds that are so often at odds.

At the molecular level, we are zipping by in a state of ever-changing flux; we are a dance party of frenzied motion, unable to be pinned down. There is quite literally nothing to lock into place for scrutiny.

On a grosser level, we have our bodies that we can observe with our bare eyes, which despite the ever-present changes, remain familiar to us over time, even though our baby-selves and older incarnations actually and seemingly bear little or no resemblance to one another.

Have you ever, like me, been shocked to take a real look at yourself in the mirror and find that what’s staring back at you doesn’t at all appear like the younger, more glowing image you have in your head of you-from-years-past?

Our minds and psyches are what allow for our perceptions of continuity, and this both enables us to get by in a functional way and also gets in the way of our growth.

How do we reconcile the deep-rooted need to accept and embrace the realities of change, and our love of the more “permanent” aspects of ourselves and our relationships?

How do we remain authentic throughout the turbulent ride of inner and outer forces influencing us?

It’s strange, to think of being able to watch my own cells under a microscope, to say nothing of my thoughts, in meditation, coming and going at an alarming rate, and simultaneously speak of an “I”, a person who loves mountains and sitting under trees, who savours that first sip of coffee in the morning, who loves green more than grey, who revels in picking up a pen to begin a journaling session.

How much do I sacrifice by letting go of these identities of self, and also how much do I sacrifice by holding on?

This is all still (fascinating) theory. In Buddhism, we learn of the principles of anicca (impermanence) and anata (no-self).

Theory aside, I was inspired to write this because of a much more personal and intimate feeling—at this moment, I feel authenticity ebbing away. It comes as a muse, flirts with me, dances between the words I put to page, but then, to my eye anyway, all but disappears by the time I finish working.

I feel I’m running after who I think I am—who I’ve been, who others see, who I want to be—rather than actually experiencing, and then sharing of myself authentically.

All these selves are blending and authenticity seems far removed compared to the simple feeling of unity I have when I’m unplugged, out in nature, communing with trees and mountains. In this state, the fragments threaten to fly off into oblivion and “me” starts to feel like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book—not that those aren’t fun.

Maybe this sombre feeling comes from a jagged mind in need of rest, or even a longer vacation (from myself?) so that the heart has a chance to assert herself, find her deepest connections. The heart is unencumbered by fears of self-annihilation, but I don’t listen to her enough.

Sometimes I forget I’m even looking for her truths.

The heart is where everything must spill forth from, where the problem of authenticity has no reason to exist. It’s scary, the idea of putting these ever-revolving thoughts and fears aside when I have been so sure they could lead me toward the solutions to riddles that have teased me.

I do know I’m not afraid of silence, even when it attracts fears in their wildest forms. The storms will inevitably pass, and on their way out, hint at the vibrant self in their wake.

 

 

Poem (to be a tree)

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

 

TO B A TREE

When meditation won’t come

when the breath is undone

and your mind is on fire

and your heart is so tired,

come and let’s see.

Let’s try being a tree.

Maybe the tree’s in the yard outside

or in our heads, or a park nearby,

or peering over rocks on a sandy shore,

craggly and wise forevermore.

Maybe there’s a treehouse for sleepover nights,

for spilling deep secrets in the dimmest of lights.

Maybe, right now, our hearts are screaming

weighing us down in all their hurting.

Let’s turn into a tree that carries on,

brimming with peace like the newest dawn,

not at all haunted by who she might be,

which is how we should be,

if we want to be free.

Let’s watch the roots from the center unfold,

longer and stronger with each story told,

as they breathe Earth’s offerings in order to grow,

thriving and sparkling on the ground below.

Have you ever nestled into those giant roots’ arms,

become transfixed by their greatest charms,

have you wondered what happens when they finally meet

for subterranean hellos, what news they greet,

as their connections deepen around the world

their flowing tendrils gently unfurled?

Now let’s rest in evening’s dark,

and sit against the great tree’s bark.

Feel the strength. Feel the love.

Feel the air swoon high above.

Feel how she has nowhere to be,

how there’s no anxiety in the tree.

Feel the girth from years of life,

of being witness to so much strife,

how she rejoices at our victories and cries at our woes,

and knows that it comes, and knows that it goes.

Feel the coolness against your back,

the ridges marked by time, not lack.

Now let’s bring our hand to touch,

look how quietly she’s grown so much,

how she never hesitates or has any doubt,

how she breathes, pure grace, within and without.

We can wrap our arms around the tree,

tune in to the immovable power of she,

feel our hearts pattering and sure

soothed under the weight of all that we were.

Feel the tree’s heartbeat against our own,

feel the kindness the tree has shown

to so many of us needing to calm our fears,

maybe for thousands upon thousands of years.

Let’s turn an eye to the branches of trees,

curved into their sacred geometries,

arching in a final, undulating dance

as they move toward their skyward chance.

Maybe leaves have fallen and winter’s come.

Maybe spring has returned as Earth’s great sum,

alive with green ripeness, soft and course,

ready to receive from the celestial source.

Up there, so high, there is no fear.

The ground holds space; the ground is near.

The breath of life hums through the tree,

which demands nothing, and is full, and is free.

This is how calm can be regained,

how a balm for mad minds can be reclaimed,

as we drop to our knees and bow,

in the presence of a holy now,

so we can come to rest with ease and glee

at having become a glorious tree.

To Fall in Love With a Beautiful, Human Mess.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

“We must be willing to encounter darkness and despair when they come up and face them, over and over again if need be, without running away or numbing ourselves in the thousands of ways we conjure up to avoid the unavoidable.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

“Come and see: As above, so below; as below so in the sea; as high above so in the upper sea; as above, so below; as below so in the lower sea.” ~ Zohar Beshalach 2:48b

 

The personal is political and the political is personal, but we still see everything as separate and so we ask:

How did we get here? How has all this happened? How could there be such a mess here, in our midst, among us?

We want our brains to answer, scramble to form conclusions, but it’s our hearts that are hurting.

The temptation can be so strong, to hide under the covers where it’s warm and safe, even though we know deep down that in this state, nothing can enter and we can’t get out.

We try to change things without actually taking the steps needed to change from the inside out, and this is the primary—primal, even—contradiction in a vast sea of them; and the cycles of human suffering continue.

The solution isn’t to stop blaming others and start blaming ourselves, because accountability is not the same thing as blame, and because self-blame doesn’t solve the riddle of this mess we find ourselves in any better than blaming others does. Neither can we can’t blame the mess for being what it is, which is what we are.

But we are beautiful. Beautiful things shouldn’t be able to generate ugliness in the world.

Yet here we are. It is made, and some of it is very ugly.

Our contradictions and paradoxes are not to be avoided, or forever indulged. They come directly from us and they’re interesting, and need to be acknowledged, observed and witnessed.

Humanity, glorious as it is, is a messy adventure, whether we understand how we have come to be here and why, or not.

Our contradictions are the building blocks not of the world, but of our self-understanding.

We respond, for example, to notions like be positive, and go for it! with triumphant determination, but say no when resistance presents itself.

We don’t like facing resistance even though doing so engenders change and allows for creation.

We feel the need to go easy, the way of comfort, and resent that no revelations emerge on this path.

We want to fly without leaving the ground.

We want to think through our feelings and infuse our dreams with common sense.

We think sad is wrong and happy is right—we think there is wrong and right, like we think there is you and there is me and that our existence in no way depends on each other.

We think that, from the position of separation, we can know the realities of the other.

We think we can filter everything through a framework of knowledge and wonder why we aren’t reaping the rewards faith brings.

We think the only way to feel good is to feel good immediately, and always.

We think there is an always, even though nothing lasts as long as you can hold it, and we’re going to die.

We think dying is something to be avoided though dying is inevitable, without exception.

We think living long is better than living well, without wondering where this idea comes from.

We think we can run away.

We want to make the best use of our time and then clutter our minds and environments with distraction.

We want to be understood within this cluttered environment filled with distraction.

We want clarity without making things around us clear and free.

We want to see through the mess of our own creation.

We want. We run in circles. We want some more.

The beautiful thing, though, one of the most precious things about being human, I think, is that we do want to see, to understand.

And this is because of love. Love compels us to emerge from the chaos and into something something softer.

Because we have consciousness (which is love-fueled), we have the drive and impulse to get down to the bottom of things, to have clear vision and a space for compassion. This unites us even as our distractions and messes attempt to pull us apart.

This strong pull toward the best kind of survival—a mindful, conscious, clear and compassionate survival — is something we should be so grateful to have in our human arsenal.

With it, we can move toward self-enquiry, find the deep, quiet spaces within, from where we can glimpse at the idea that there are no real contradictions, and start to plant the seeds of a wise transformation, though we are not yet always wise.

Seeing past our contradictions, guided by love: this is the great, human hope amid a mess that need not remain.