Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Illusion of Culmination

Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.”

The Imogen Cunningham quote above is too precious for my liking, but it communicates the need to remain open to new perceptions and experiences rather than identifying a select few as culminations to build your worldview around.

Regarding a moment with a contented, "It doesn't get any better than this," expresses a gratitude that we ought to identify often, but it is a contentment based too often on lakefront cottage summer sunset conditions rather than a mindfulness that can enrich a wider variety of moments. There are things to appreciate at any moment, not just during the ones when we feel most favoured. The cloud and rainbow coexist at times and we ought to be aware of the balances that (must) exist rather than just the imbalances that favour us at a given moment.


If we are privileged, we often cocoon ourselves with the technological or material interventions that favour and comfort us with a preferred version of things that is less-than-realistic - comprised of slick, well-sold aspects that cloy with the built-in obsolescence lurking just beyond the flush modularity. The appetite for more comfort is a key thing that makes many reluctant to buy into a response to our mounting environmental crisis. Our contentment is bound up in the material and mindless rather than tuning our receptiveness to what can be experienced if we were to reflect on what we have and what we are surrounded by. The contented sigh that accompanies "it doesn't get better than this" expresses an aspiration to merely be sated. Humility and the potential for greater receptivity to simplicity, wisdom and the serene melancholy that is central to wabisabi remain at the periphery or hidden in plain view when we are locked in on the accumulation of material advantages.

The absolute, couldn't-be-better realm that we so often contrive attempts to dress up splendour as a substitute for beauty. Rather than cocooning ourselves with a false ideal, it is better to be open to a beauty that is subtler and more organic. It is better to adapt to full life cycles, rather than selected moments such as an unopened rose, and appreciate each moment for the various stages of life or passage of light we are witness to.


If we indulge in mere splendour rather than less evident beauty that accompanies each moment of time, we put ourselves on a roller coaster of peaks and valleys of contentment and dissatisfaction when the conditions do not suit us. The parental rite-of-passage visit to the ER will be stressful, but it can be a moment of peace and reflection if you acknowledge the visit's eventuality, especially if it is a minor incident that you can look back upon with a laugh. Grey hairs and wrinkles, despite the dread they provoke, are gentle reminders of the passage of time, of change, of a humble challenge to the perfection we attribute to newness and youth. We ignore the contradiction that we are looking to the future (newness) and to the past (youth) at the same time when we clamour to acquire such perfection.

Remaining in the present and accepting it poses the risk of being a platitude, but it gives us the possibility of achieving what Frank J. Barrett calls "radical receptivity" in his book Yes to the Mess. Listening, seeing and reflecting intently on our surroundings and the moment enlightens us. The pursuit of the perfect is paused as we extend our senses to more deeply engage in the moment and the realities that are layered around us as we amplify the passage of time moment by moment.

When we expand and maintain an openness to input and weigh those inputs carefully and sensitively, there is an opportunity to respond to our surroundings and integrate them into our view of the world continually. From a photographer's perspective, there is strong motivation to make use of what we experience and make what we can from what our senses are receptive to. Photographers may choose to enchant, bewilder or shock us. They may indulge in the option of breaking our hearts. Whether there is a camera or not, anyone can do the same, if they choose to be receptive. The same opportunities are offered to us by each of our senses, but opting to narrow our experiences by marking our life experiences with culminations that are ideal, perfect or conclusive shuts us off, bit-by-bit, from the depth of feeling that can come from new experiences.

Without taking note of it, we regularly bestow the status of "culmination" on experiences in our lives. Ultimate cakes or kisses come to mind first and there are other experiences and states that can suspend us in the past and narrow our receptiveness to the present. Nostalgia takes root and it keeps us out of the present. Advertisers and opinion-makers offer that recollection to us with an empty promise of restoring a vanished moment in time, but pursuing that is an exercise in delusion.

Turning away from both nostalgia and the teched-out future perfect, we can come to appreciate the transience and the instructive change unfolding around and within us. Rather than regarding them as moments as peaks which ought to be preserved and maintained by whatever means necessary, acknowledging and accepting their transience might nudge us away from the pursuit of that material culmination and toward a more spiritual and reflective grasp of the textures of time and material that are available to enrich a moment if we are receptive to them.

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