Meaning and Nonduality

In a world that places such emphasis on meaning and purpose, the teachings of non-duality challenge all spiritual seekers who attempt to unravel their paradoxical wisdom. When we hear that our lives have no significance, we can easily start to see life bleakly and nihilistically, as meaningless altogether. When we read in the Tao Te Ching that “the world is sacred. It can’t be improved,” our cherished ideas of progress, improvement, and making a difference immediately come into question. We must understand, however, that our qualms arise because we are looking at all of this from the perspective of the doer in a world of divisions. Without the ego that reigns in this reality, there would be no fear of a meaningless life.

Does a flower have meaning? Standing naked and fragile for the short span of its existence, the flower makes no pretence of playing a role or making a contribution. When we look at its delicate form and catch the light scent it unreservedly shares, we don’t ask what purpose it serves; the question of meaning does not arise. The flower is perfect as it is and need make no apologies. Alan Watts argued that only words and concepts have meaning, because they point to something other than themselves; they are symbols, significant only as a conduit for communication. This is not the case with life. As Watts would say, the flower doesn’t have meaning. It is meaning. Catholic monk Wayne Teasdale would add, however, that the unfolding of a seed to the perfection of a blossom, and its subsequent decay, reveal a deep truth about all life. There is nothing haphazard in the process of nature, and according to Teasdale, the comprehensive purpose reflected in a flower suggests a similar truth embodied in our own spiritual pilgrimage to the source and origin of all that is. As he makes clear, this purpose is not of the parts but of the whole—“the divine drawing all things to itself first by the interconnectedness of everything, then through its cosmic symbolism, and finally through the communion and union of the mystical journey itself.”

People go round and round looking for meaning, never realizing that the seeker is the sought. Meaning is found in being, nowhere else. As long as there is one who is chasing it, the chase will never end. Like the flower, we are meaning. We cannot find it in objects or accumulate it through accomplishments. We can only be it. For this reason, Jesus declared that those things hidden from the wise and learned have been revealed to little children—and watching young children at play shows us just what he meant. They are so fully intent on what they are doing, so caught up in what Zen calls the “isness” of being, that the question of meaning never occurs to them. With the innocence that precedes the appearance of the ego, they are the truth so often repeated: life is in the living. When as adults we can return to this oneness, with the wisdom gained from having thought it lost, we will have closed the circle of life.

Are you living in the fast lane?

Do you feel like you’re living in the fast lane? You’re not alone. Many of us live in an unending rush hour. In a world of smart phones and email, texting and twitter, the very devices that are supposed to save us time can have the opposite effect as we hurry to respond to everyone and everything. This manic pace is causing a host of “hurry sicknesses” too, from insomnia and heart attacks to ulcers and migraines. Most importantly, by being out of sync with the natural rhythms of life, we lose touch with the only thing that is real—the present moment.

One remedy to our hurried lifestyles that has been growing in popularity in the West is the practice of mindfulness. In stark contrast to our frantic daily routines, mindfulness helps us slow down and be with what is. To be mindful is to be in touch with the present rather than constantly worrying about the future, dwelling on the past, or being obsessed with the commentary in our heads. Practicing mindfulness—simply being in the now—can quiet the mental chatter and open the senses to the extraordinary miracle of being alive.

If you watch toddlers at play, you will see the kind of thing I am talking about. I get a healthy reminder of living in the now when I spend time with my 2-year-old grandson, Jack. He is totally immersed in what he is doing. No thoughts of yesterday or what must be done tomorrow—only what he is attending to at that moment. And his days are filled with wonder. America poet Walt Whitman pointed to this liberating way of living when he said, “To me, every moment of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.”

Tragically, many of us don’t awaken to the wonder of life until we are threatened with its loss. A terminal diagnosis makes us appreciate what we have so long taken for granted—a bird singing, the laughter of children, the curl of steam rising from morning coffee, holding the hand of a loved one, the sun shining through the trees. When time is short, petty disagreements and concerns are forgotten and we devote our attention to what’s most real and precious.

When I find myself moving into the fast lane or getting caught up in obsessive thinking, what helps bring me back to the now (besides playing with Jack) is feeling and listening. I try to feel what is happening in my body or I tune in to the sounds around me. Simply stopping to notice the ambient sounds that you don’t typically hear when you are living in your head can immediately help you shift from thinking to feeling, from identifying with the whirl of your thoughts to what the present has to offer.

The truth is, when our minds are filled with competing thoughts and tensions or we’re frantically multitasking, we are less effective in everything we do. We are distracted drivers, mindless snackers, poor listeners, even poor parents, partners, or managers. We do a lot of thinking but little living. Once you’re in the moment, you can pay full attention to the task at hand, appreciate the people you are with, or tap into the creative solution that was staring you in the face all along. In truth, the only thing any of us really have for sure is this very moment. Why not start living in it now?

Photography as spiritual practice

A fundamental truth shared by the all mystics of the world is the wholeness of life, the unbounded, nondual glory of what is. And as incomprehenisible as it may seem, we are That. It follows that we are beholding the glories of our own Being. Why is it so hard to imagine? Conditioning; the content of our lives, to a large degree, begins and ends with language, even our understanding of self. To exist and be recognized, and to ensure efficiency in a society that worships speed and productivity, things must be labeled, categorized, defined and pigeonholed. We see what we expect to see, what we have been taught to see. A thick screen of concepts and abstractions blinds us to the unique radiance and artistry of every concrete object. As Jung said, no concept is a carrier of life. Conventional wisdom is the “fast food” of the mind, streamlined, efficient and readily understood by all. It is also the enemy of original vision.

The practice of photography can help us learn to open a direct line to reality, unclouded by the dust of the past – to become intimate with life – but it is always a struggle to see with fresh eyes. To be truly sensitive to the unique visual offerings of the moment, we must set aside agendas and preconcieved notions, be free of pretention, and open to the intuitive and spontaneous reactions of our being as it responds to the beauty and wonder of life. We must open the doors of our senses and FEEL more than think. Though prior training in technique is important, the best work has no identified purpose and often has the quality of an accident. In a sense, the picture takes itself. When we step aside, and give Life itself free reign, unhampered by our premeditated ideas of what should happen, the resultant pictures can be quite remarkable. Only after the fact, when assessing the pictures earlier taken should reason and judgment play a significant role.

This kind of photography promotes the rediscovery of the obvious. It sees the miraculous in the common and magic in our everyday surroundings. When we are not rushed, and our minds are unclouded by conceptualizations, a veil will sometimes drop, introducing the viewer to a world unseen since childhood. We reach a point where we forget ourselves, much as artists and musicians do, and become what is happening. Sink into the moment, and just BE. There was a time, when, as children we inhabited a world devoid of boundaries and unmediated by the canned perceptions with which we were later inculcated. Picasso once said that it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but it took him a lifetime to paint like a child. There is a parallel with photography. We can take photos correctly, and follow all the rules of composition and balance, and still not capture the passion and magic that makes a great picture. To see things in their original beauty, we must crack the shell of preconceptions, and penetrate the habits of the mind. When this happens, you will find a world overflowing with wonder and hopefully capture them in your photos.

I have attached below a few examples of photos taken of commonplace subjects that might kindle your imagination of what is possible: a backyard leaf, highrise reflections, plastic bag, and torn cardboard.