Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stop and Look

Last night my husband printed off a wonderful photo-journalism blog for me called "No Caption Needed: Iconic photographs, public culture, and liberal democracy."

The bloggers, Hariman and Lucaites, were looking at some photographs (from the Boston Globe site) of divers spinning through space on their way from the diving board to the water, and I loved what they had to say. In this particular post, Hariman quoted Yeats' line:

"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"


and then said "Well, this is how: stop time and take a look."

Maybe that's why shooting photographs has become such a wonderful introduction to mindfulness for me -- because that's what it's all about: stopping time, and taking a look. Mindfulness is about letting go of all the time-based preoccupations around past and future that occupy us and just focusing on the moment. And how better to capture those "Kodak Moments" than with a camera?

Isn't that what we who seek are looking for, to know the dancer from the dance? And does that differ from the photographer's quest to capture a whole story in a moment? How is it that we can begin to distinguish that essence that both makes each of us unique and ties us together? By stopping and looking; by stepping out of our preoccupation with the world around us and the distraction of time-based ruminations to actually notice what is right at our feet?

As far as I could tell from continued exploration, the no-caption blog was quite a bit more political than mine tends to be. But I decided to drop them a note to say how much I liked their blog, and thought I'd include a photo. Of all my photos, this one seemed most likely to reach across the divide between contemplation and politics -- and to speak (iconically, of course!) about public culture.

Because, from his haircut and his clothes, I have assumed (though I do not know) that this young man in the wheelchair has been a soldier. I see him stopping and looking at the ridiculous and superficial gaiety that is this amusement park, and noticing that it is shut down, under wraps -- a symbol for all he has lost.

And then I see the title in the sign: Altered States of Funk, and I wonder, who is the dancer, and who is the dance? Is what I see only a projection of my own altered state? What if he were an employee in the park, reveling in the quiet before he opens up, removes the covers, and lets the squealing children in? What if the wheelchair isn't his?

When we are caught up in our lives and our stories, it is easy to make assumptions and jump to conclusions that may have little to do with others and everything to do with our own "altered states." Because this world, and time, and the pressures of past losses and future expectations all take us away from what is true, what is real, what is the dance we were born to do.

And if we don't stop and take a look at who we really are and what's really happening, now, in this moment, we're allowing those altered states to govern us; to keep us wheelchair-bound til we forget we ever even knew how to dance.

But if I choose to stop and pay attention, there is a chance that I might see myself in this young man; a chance that I might gain both connection and insight. As it says earlier in that same Yeats poem, "Among School Children",

"a tale she told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy -
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato's parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t'other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age -
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler's heritage -
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child."


I believe that it is this kind of awareness, the sense of connection and understanding that grows in that brief moment of attention, that allows us to tap into the heart of compassion. We just have to stop and look.