Monday, December 28, 2009

One Twenty Ten

Just as every drop of the ocean carries the taste of the ocean, so does every moment carry the taste of eternity. -- Nisargadatta Maharaj

It’s often said that every ending is a beginning. So it must also be true that every beginning is an ending.

As we celebrate the beginning of the second decade of the 2000s we feel more keenly than ever the loss of what can never be retrieved or relived. The past has a way of doing that, of slipping away without even leaving a note.

Despite our increasingly effective (and intrusive) ways of capturing the sights and sounds that masquerade as our “experience”, there is still one unavoidable fact: no matter how many megabytes of audio and visual data we collect, there is no way to make any of it truly last. Our technology makes us clever archivists, but when it comes to stopping time we’re still knuckle-dragging primitives.

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to live in a world before photography, film, video and sound recording. How has this relatively recent technology altered the way in which we experience the world?

Back when I used to shoot film, actual film, on my 35 mm cameras, I would carefully choose each shot. Film and prints weren’t cheap, and you only had 24 or 36 on a roll. You had to make each shot count. So you thought a lot about composition, lighting and most importantly, value – was this scene or image worth keeping?

Now that we’re all shooting digital we are no longer bound by these frugal restrictions. We shoot indiscriminately. Later, we’ll see if we got anything good.

But what does all this continual image-gathering actually get us besides the need for bigger and bigger hard drives? As we gain endless files of archived images, what do we lose?

Quantum physics affirms the vexing nature of image-capturing. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, also known as “the observer effect”, shows that the act of observing alters the observed. There is no way to look at something without changing the thing you’re looking at. Early in her career as a young anthropologist on the island of Samoa, Margaret Mead dutifully recorded the self-reported rampant promiscuity of her adolescent female subjects. Many years later the same girls, now old women, told another anthropologist, “we made it all up.” They said it was fun making up stories for the American scientist lady. And, they said, she seemed to eat it up. Mead’s influential work, based on her research in Samoa, touting the alleged harmlessness of casual sex had a profound effect on the twentieth century. The innocent lies of a handful of Samoan girls arguably contributed greatly to a sea change in the sexual mores of the modern world. Mead thought she was recording objective reality. It turns out there’s no such thing.

The act of observing alters the observed. But even more importantly, it alters the observer.

As a boy I used to shoot a lot of super-8 movies. It became an obsession. Everywhere I went, whether I was shooting or not, I noticed great compositions, I framed shots, kept a watchful eye on lighting conditions and logged locations into memory for future projects. My eyes had become mere accessories to my camera. The process took me over. I stopped shooting super-8 film many years ago, and to this day, I still have not purchased a video camera. I’m afraid of what might happen.

I am also in the habit of journaling when I travel. Whenever Lori and I go somewhere, I bring a blank composition book and couple of pens. As I drink my morning coffee I write for an hour or so about the previous day’s events. I love to write, and I love coming home with a detailed account of our time in Manhattan or on Kauai or on the windy moors of Cornwall. There’s just one problem. As we’re walking through Stone Age ruins or standing in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night at MOMA in New York I’m thinking, hmm, what should I write about this tomorrow morning? Even without a camera around my neck I’m still strangled by the process of encapsulation.

No matter the technology, the fact remains that our attempts to capture reality have captured us.

Recently, I’ve initiated an experiment. What if I just stood in the middle of my life and stopped trying to record the “important” moments? What if I just reveled in the experience of the now? Rather than compose shots, design pan-zoom combinations or draft paragraphs, what if I just stood there and breathed the Navajo prayer, “beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty below me, beauty above me, beauty behind me, beauty before me; I walk the pollen path.”

Wherever we are, we are forever at the center of an ever-changing vortex of sacred transformation. None of it can be captured; none of it can be frozen and put on a shelf for later experience. This is it. Here and now. We are either present to it or not. You can’t have it both ways.

In our obsessive craving to possess everything we overlook the simple truth; we already are everything. This holy moment contains all the grandeur and majesty of the ages. We look incessantly outward, just beyond the grasp of our outstretched hands, blind and numb to the treasure within. “Without going outside, you may know the whole world,” Laozi writes in the Dao De Jing. Every drop of water contains the whole of the ocean and every moment holds the fullness of eternity. We don’t need to capture and cage the heartbreaking poignance of the fleeting moments of our lives. There is nothing to grasp or possess. Time, Plato says, is just the moving image of eternity. The eternal Presence is forever, unavoidably within us.

2009 was a blur. What if we brought a different, more awakened consciousness into the new year? If it’s anything like 2009, 2010 will be over before you know it. It’s already slipping away. Put down your camera and open your eyes. There is only going to be one 2010.


Flo said...

WOW! I see a glimpse of eternity through your continuous awakening. It is not about possessing the moments, but simply being in the moments. Thank you for the reminder.

Deanna said...

Aaah, but then after stopping and just being in the moment, you blogged about it, which is a beautiful thing since then we can enjoy those words and thoughts, too.

Regarding the photo thing - the idea that really bugs me is knowing that none of those captures is permanent - any method of recording anything externally is vulnerable.

BrandonPeele said...

beautifully written. I've experienced the same effect. It's one of the reasons I don't carry a camera (though my phone has a decent one). Between 05 & 07 I blogged alot and committed myself to two lengthy articles a week, and as you can imagine began to see life through the lens of blogging best practices. I'm finding twitter to have an influence on my thinking as well. Probably a good thing for me actually, as I can be quite verbose.

btw - pls put a widget on your blog to allow ppl to subscribe to new posts.