Posts Tagged ‘illumination’

Ideas are the Easy Part

ideasI can’t believe I’ve only written 5 blog posts in a year here. Truth is, I do wake up every morning saying to myself  ‘I should write a blog post today‘. The closest I get most days is simply jotting down more ideas for posts. This is the thing—for many of us ideas are the easy part. They come unbidden; most often not the result of concentrated effort–spontaneously rather–usually when in the midst of some random, otherwise-engaged activity. So they pile up–countless ideas spoken into my iphone ‘notes to self’ while out on a stroll, driving, or jotted down after a shower. When I know I’ve had a particularly good idea, this gives me a sense of accomplishment—a sense of ‘siempre adelante’ as a colleague of mine here signs off on his emails: ‘always forward’. Love that. And so it goes….days, weeks, months pass. Although It’s very exciting and gratifying to have this sense of ever-evolving ideas and the sense of aliveness therein; actually acting on those ideas– making stuff happen, requires tremendous focus and discipline which seems to elude me much of the time.

What I’ve learned is that it’s all about balance, and understanding that only time, and a certain amount of intention, can allow us the fresh perspectives we need to move forward in the best possible way. It’s not always about pushing and productivity. Sometimes it’s more about allowing, stepping back, letting go, trusting the process and paying attention to the unexpected gifts given. That’s when the really good ideas present; ideas that foster change and positive growth—the ones we really need. Then, and most importantly, it’s about creating structure and routine around acting on those ideas with enough consistency to rewire around whatever evolution is taking place. Pariyatti cautions: ‘Beware the ill-directed mind’…..such a road-blocker. This takes no small amount of discipline and conscious effort.

I love how the formula for creative productivity can mirror the best way to approach living our lives on a day-to-day basis, especially when managing change. If you’re really tuned in you realize you are being guided; the trick is to have no expectations as to outcome–tricky stuff. That’s where the magic happens if you allow it…recognizing (re-cognizing) where the real opportunity is, and being comfortable with all the uncertainty therein; trusting the process. In my experience, this is where the best art comes from, and the best quality of life as well.

Beauty as a Core Value

Agave_window_blg“The saying ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is usually taken to mean that the sense of beauty is utterly subjective, that every person’s tastes are different. Another more subtle and relevant meaning: if our style of looking and seeing become sensitized to beauty then beauty will shine through in everything we see.” ~John O’Donahue.

Krista Tippett, who is the host of NPR’s OnBeing speaks to this aspiration in her new and resoundingly inspirational book Becoming Wise An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. She states the book’s purpose as offering a grounded and fiercely hopeful vision of humanity for this century—of personal growth but also renewed public life and spiritual evolution. It insists on the possibility of a common life for this century marked by resilience and redemption, with beauty as a core moral value and civility and love as muscular practice. How inspiring to see someone I so greatly admire validating sentiments I’ve been expressing here–beauty as an essential value in our own personal growth and human spiritual evolution.

The appreciation of beauty seems like something that should be innate or built in to our psyches— perhaps once it was more universally understood. But in recent years with the onset of technology and so much visual clutter competing for our attention, with so many new modes of creating and ways of understanding developing to handle this information overload, we have actually become impoverished in our enrichment by beauty on a daily basis….too many choices inhibit the appreciation of any one choice. ‘Popular’ and sensationalism (politics anyone?) as values have replaced Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

In her book Krista takes John O’Donahue’s definition of beauty as her own, for naming beauty in all its nuance in the moment-to-moment reality of our days: beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive….Beauty isn’t all about niceness, loveliness. Beauty is about more rounded substantial becoming….about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth, and also a kind of homecoming for the enriched memory of your unfolding life.”

So much to ponder there, and so worth the pondering. What resonates for me is ‘beauty as that in the presence of which we feel more alive.’ As a visual artist, this gives me something to aspire to…a great jumping off point for any human effort.


The ‘Good Eye’

goodeye_2Like many who have built a career around being a photographer, I’ve often been told I have a ‘good eye’. It’s more or less a necessary job skill. A question that has come up throughout my career  is whether or not having a ‘good eye’ is something that can be learned, or is it some innate ability? ‘Good’ here doesn’t mean good as we usually use the word, as in good or bad. For sure, some are gifted with a ‘good eye’ —a natural sense of the visually correct and beautiful. In my experience, some of the people with the best ‘eyes’ have not necessarily made it their life’s work to do anything with their innate ability. Democratizing social media platforms such as Instagram now offer an outlet for those amazing ‘eyes’—they abound—and humble me.

The Good Eye can be learned. On the one hand it’s very much about educating our process of Seeing— becoming more discerning observers. My eye was, and still is, honed by looking at great art-constantly, and asking myself: why does this work? We can break down and study the components of visual discernment— color, form, shape and proportion, light and shadow, contrast, texture, line, angles and curves, composition—and become more acute visual thinkers.  This is about the practice of seeing–deliberately. It’s a kind of sophisticated attentional training. By tuning in to the components of sophisticated imagery we wire our visual sense to the Good. Like anything else, the more you focus (pun intended) on a skill, the more automatic it becomes.

The second and equally important part of developing a Good Eye is the opposite of the analytical aspect above. Good here means that our mind is uncluttered by preoccupation, relaxed and open. It’s more about a letting go—of thinking, of preconceived notions, of labeling what we see. It’s about seeing clearly without filters and biases, it’s about allowing ourselves to be completely present and open to the moment, to feel the image—to re-present reality through the lens of our unique and pure perception. It’s an internal, intuitive, fearless kind of seeing. It’s a form of self-forgetting; it feels like flow. Photography approached in this way borders on spiritual practice, and images created in this space are the ones that resonate most with the viewer.

The Good Eye is a muscle we can build like any other. The fact that we have the camera now always in our pocket is an advantage if used rightly—to tune in rather than tune out—as a practice it is incredibly enlivening.

Reclaiming Beauty

bwverttulips_blogI recently came across a tagline for an interior design business which captures an idea I’ve been pondering for some time now. It read, simply, Creating beauty, Changing lives. Of course the reference to the very commercial enterprise of marketing home furnishings is blatant, but it also speaks to the idea that the presence of Beauty, in it’s purest sense, can add deep and immeasurable value in our lives—beyond the surface appearance of things. The Creation of Beauty in one sense has been a central theme in my professional life as a commercial photographer charged with beautifying everything from sanitary napkins to pet food. Then of course there was all the more obvious beauty when I had a choice of subject matter. Did I feel I was changing lives? Hardly. But the pursuit and creation of beauty as an ongoing theme in my life has been hugely enriching, something I’ve often taken for granted. Now with a little distance from the commercial aspect of it, and as I dive deeper into the study of the nature of it, I see the call to Beauty as an essential core value in all of our lives moving forward—as a way of being, as a philosophy, as a grounding principle. I’ve touched on this in previous posts here.

Huge trade-offs have been made in the unprecedented advance of technology, efficiency and productivity due to lack of attention to Beauty. With what-it-means-to-be-human being reinvented at an ever accelerating pace, we are looking for new frameworks for living our best lives, being our best selves. Our ways of approaching the world need to be informed by different values. How can Beauty be reclaimed, as per the Greeks, who held it equal to truth and goodness? How to separate and articulate the term from so many current shallow associations—where we are suffering from a poverty of discernment, where the media generates relentless images of mediocrity and ugliness, enshrining it as the norm, and where many of our built environments lack grace and spirit? The wonderful contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton speaks to this often and states: “One way evil reaches us is through ugliness”— something to ponder.

How can we apprentice ourselves to beauty?

Beauty is not a luxury. Real Beauty is not glamour per se; rather an invitation to order, coherence and unity…available to everyone in any situation. And whereas Beauty indeed is in the eyes of the beholder, there are centuries’ old standards informed and shared by cultures all over the world. We can only be enriched by integrating a certain amount of discipline around reconnecting with those standards, in large and small ways, internally and externally, daily. When we experience the beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming.

Flip the To-Do list

actions_intentionsAre your day-to-day actions in line with your intentions? Intent is a form of directed attention. If the quality of life is, in fact, a function of what we pay attention to, then it is more critical (and challenging) than ever to be mindful of how we spend our days. For those of us who don’t have structured work lives, or anyone looking to evolve, create and/or accomplish anything significant, I find this a useful question to be checking in with. It’s easy to lose sight of our priorities in the efficiency/productivity-obsessed culture we live in.

One useful way of staying on track is to Flip the To-Do list. Most of us put the simplest, most immediate and mundane-yet-necessary tasks  at the top of the list; i.e. have something fixed, email someone, shop for this or that: react and respond. We move through the first half of the list feeling we’ve been productive and had a full day; we feel good about ourselves. Item #1: check. Item #2: check. Then we rewrite the list for the next day, replacing the top half of the items. Repeat.

The fact is, the most important, creative, and nourishing tasks—create something, start a business, learn something new, add value/be significant somehow—grow—are at the bottom of the list and simply get carried over each day, staring us in the face for days, weeks, months, years, unaddressed. Sound familiar?

Part of the reason for this is the complexity of the ‘doing’ of these things: the discipline and clarity of focus required. Most of your bottom items require their own separate list of actionable steps. Try bringing at least one of the bottom items to the top of the list and leave it there. Break it down into doable-on-a-daily basis tasks. Then bring another and approach it the same way. See if you can create a shift in how you fill your days. In the end everything still gets done, and your energy-releasing ideas can start fueling a more joy-filled existence. This is where real accomplishment lies.

Aesthetic Arrest

lilyfaceI love this term—’Aesthetic Arrest’. It best describes the feeling we have when in the presence of a work of art, or any object of beauty, that has that ‘wow’ quality, that stops us in our tracks. We feel somehow altered by the encounter, taken outside of ourselves, elevated somehow. Robert Rye best expresses it here: “The contemplative instant at which (an artwork) is appreciated by the mind, which has been arrested by its wholeness, and fascinated by its harmony, is the luminous, silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

I’ve always pondered what, if any, is the mysterious ‘recipe’ for creating work that resonates in this way. It’s a bit of an elusive thing, very much the result of letting go and really leaning in to the process of making art. Intention is just the jumping off point. ‘Rules’ tend to get in the way. Yet there are some aspects that ‘arresting’ works share. Sir Thomas Aquinas does a pretty good job of getting close with these suggested attributes for beauty: WHOLENESS (integitas)—the unity of the whole, HARMONY (consonantia)—balance, fitness, symmetry, rhythm of structure, and RADIANCE (quidditas)—’thingness’—a unique product of your thinking. I like this framework because it doesn’t imply rules, rather useful criteria that can be applied to any creation, visual or otherwise—anything in existence, whether man, woman or nature made. It speaks to the soul of a thing; it allows for the inexplicable….yet gives us a standard to aspire to.

When was the last time you were arrested?

The Upside of Exile

exileI’ve written of the need to have ‘Fresh Eyes’ in the pursuit of any creative endeavor here in the past. I came across this essay by Costica Bradatan a couple weeks ago in the NY Times column ‘The Stone’  which beautifully validates, and expands on this idea. It speaks to the upside of exile—typically a term carrying a negative connotation—banishment from all we hold dear, from our sense of  well being and identity which are so much a function of the place we call ‘home’. And yet, with regard any sort of  renewal, refreshment, reinvention, rejuvenation—a certain amount of self-imposed ‘exile’ is essential for new perspectives……

“For when your old world goes down it also takes with it all your assumptions, commonplaces, prejudices and preconceived ideas. To live is to envelop yourself in an increasingly thicker veil of familiarity that blinds you to what’s under your nose. The more comfortable you feel in the world, the blunter the instruments with which you approach it. Because everything has become so evident, you’ve stopped seeing anything. Exile gives you a chance to break free. All that heavy luggage of old “truths,” which seemed so only because they were so familiar, is to be left behind.”

“The redeeming thing about exile is that when your “old world” has vanished you are suddenly given the chance to experience another. At the very moment when you lose everything, you gain something else: new eyes. Indeed, what you eventually get is not just a “new world,” but something philosophically more consequential: the insight that the world does not simply exist, but it is something you can dismantle and piece together again, something you can play with, construct, reconstruct and deconstruct. As an exile you learn that the world is a story that can be told in many different ways. Certainly you can find that in books, but there is no deeper knowledge than the one that comes mixed with blood and tears, the knowledge that comes from uprooting.”

So the challenge (if you choose to accept it)  is how to create that sense of exile—that eye-opening fresh view of things—without sacrificing too much. As Anais Nin famously quoted “Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” On my fridge 🙂 Not always easy, but we are infinitely richer for it….



Routine Creativity

zenstonesblogOne of the most important aspects of Creative productivity is striking a balance between disciplined daily routine and remaining open to new experiences and perspectives—flexible and adaptable—so that we can keep our eyes fresh and energy high. Too much routine can be mind numbing, uninspiring and vortex (tunnel vision) inducing; too little routine reduces the chance of flow and any significant productive creative output. While we can find evidence of creative genius unfettered by routine—the Basquiats and Jimi Hendrixes of the world—there is an unsustainable, crash-and-burn quality to those sagas. Even Toulouse Lautrec showed up everyday for his work in a very routine fashion after his nights of debauchery at the Moulin-Rouge.

I was pleased to come across a recent NY Times op-ed article where David Brooks, celebrating President Obama’s recent UN speech, links routine and hard work to Creativity and…world order. He holds up the habits of writers and artists as inspirational and exemplary, citing Mason Curry’s wonderful book on the daily rituals of artists mentioned previously here.  Brooks writes  “Order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring. Building and maintaining order—whether artistic, political or global—seems elementary, but it’s surprisingly hard”. Indeed.

Henry Miller declared “I know that to sustain these true moments of insight, one has to be highly disciplined, lead a disciplined life”. How do we find this balance? As Creatives we need to ground ourselves in a daily routine–we need to find what time of day we are most productive and build our schedules around that. We need to show up for a few hours every day, no matter what, and simply put in the time at our chosen craft. It has been my experience time and time again that the rewards come, the muses show up, and everything flows from there. It is in the routine that we find the freedom, the inspiration, and most importantly—the staying power to honor the best we have to give—every day.


Necessary Beauty

peonies_black_blog To the ancient Greeks, human society was characterized by three values, equal in importance: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. By that definition, the experience of beauty involved the appreciation of Aesthetics, Art and Nature. As someone who has made a living making things look beautiful, I’ve often questioned to what extent I was adding value to more than the clients’ sales numbers or my own satisfaction. I was therefore happy to come across this reference to Beauty a couple years ago—the creation and experience of it—as having equal value as those noble pursuits of Truth and Goodness. Even philosopher Alain de Botton goes so far as to state: “One way evil reaches us is through ugliness”. So, in terms of one aspect that makes life worth living: What is beauty?

In his book aptly titled Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed Howard Gardner speaks to the need to revisit the conception of beauty for this new age we’re living in “lest we succumb to such a joyless, or normless, or pointless existence.” He states that the pursuit of experiences that are beautiful constitute a crucial part of life. Of course this discussion would be irrelevant if more basic needs such as food, shelter and safety weren’t satisfied. Yet, in this time of over-abundance, ironically, we do seem to be suffering from a ‘poverty of discernment’, where aesthetic standards and ideals seem to have been abandoned and replaced by…anything and everything (Miley Cyrus anyone?). And yet…

Does the concept of beauty still hold its value? How do we introduce young people to the concept of beauty? To what extent should the rest of us re-conceptualize traditional ideas of beauty, leaving behind picture-postcard aesthetics and narrow definitions of what constitutes beautiful?

I like Gardner’s new criteria for beauty; it allows for a much broader range of possibilities:

  1. The object/subject is INTERESTING.
  2. Its’ FORM is memorable…sufficiently powerful or evocative.
  3. There is a desire to ENCOUNTER THE EXPERIENCE AGAIN, due to liking, curiosity, or a feeling of awe.

…So much more to work with there. At the end of the day I do embrace the cliche ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. The sooner we each identify what is beautiful to us, the sooner we can fill our lives with beauty as a virtuous path….I think it helps to have a new framework.  What makes you ‘Tingle’?

Image copyright Sacco & Watt.

Tip #4: More Ideas Create Better Ideas

EW_CJ_dollheadThe difference between Einstein and the rest of us is this: when looking for a needle in a haystack most of us would stop when we find one. Einstein would continue to tear the haystack apart until he found every possible needle. Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents. Both of these creative geniuses knew that the best way to arrive at the one great idea was to have lots of ideas–many of them perhaps mediocre. I remember being blown away by a series of paintings at MOMA several years ago, not by their obvious beauty but from their title and explanation.  The series was entitled the ‘No’ paintings. The explanation was that with each piece, once the artist got to a place where he thought he was done, he would say ‘No’, and keep pushing to make it somehow better. I absorbed this message in a very powerful way; it changed the way I approached my work from then on.

The first idea we have is seldom the best idea, because it’s reproductive (one we, or someone else has already had) and not necessarily the best solution to whatever problem we’re dealing with, whether personal or professional.  It helps to have a spirit of discovery, a willingness to look at things in new ways, and let go of the need for perfection. Coming up with lots of ideas isn’t always easy, but the likelihood of a more elegant solution, and noticeable change will be the result.







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