This (now past) summer I was going to go to a Vipassana retreat.
I was all booked up for August, but then my darling cat Billie got cancer and I didn't know how much time she had left, but I knew for sure I wasn't going away even for a day while she was still around.
It was probably for the best as I'm not sure I would have been able to go through the experience of the retreat without freaking out: for a week, there would have been no privacy (you'd share a room and bathroom with another woman), no conversation (absolute silence except when asking a question of your teacher), hours and hours of meditation a day, and total contemplation even when not meditating: books and writing (and, needless to say, any other more technological medium) were forbidden.
I think this latter clause would have been the one to really freak me out: I can tolerate sharing a room for a week though it would not make me happy; I could tolerate the loneliness of silence because a lot of the time I spend many of my days like that; but no reading and no writing? I am not sure.
And then I think of all the people I see in the streets, at the supermarket, on the bus; people who shop and talk on the phone and text at the same time, people who sit on the bus thumbing their iPhone while listening to their iPod while maybe reading on their iPad or Kindle, people who nearly get killed crossing the street or driving because they are on text or cellphone, people who can barely pay attention while having a conversation with someone because they are also "talking" to (many a) someone else via Facebook...
What would all these people do at a Vipassana retreat? Die, go berserk, or maybe, finally, let go and allow the silence and the contemplation to penetrate into the innermost folds of their being?
I have often been a critic of these contemporary mores of ours, the excessive reliance on technology or "social media": the turning what should be a face-to-face into a Facebook conversation; the replacing of a letter with a text message, of a phone call with an email—and the misplaced idea that these media all equal each other, are all one and the same.
But that is not what I want to write about, not again. I want to reflect on the very fact that reflection, observation, and contemplation, may be lost or in-danger-of-extinction art forms, ways of being.
This is not news or an original though by any means—it just came to me more urgently and deeply a few days ago as I was shortcut-walking through the campus of Reed College here in Portland, to get somewhere for a job training.
I walked across a bridge that spanned a beautiful pond, the trees all around turning into their Autumn color palette, the reflections in the pond water in many shades of green, gray-blue, azure.
As the photographer that I once was, I mused on how difficult it would be for me to capture those hues, those reflections, and especially the peaceful, slightly eerie feel and look of the pond on film; I remembered the technical steps I may have to take in order to approximate on film, and then on photographic paper, what my eyes were seeing so quickly and easily.
And then I thought, but today a photographer would not even need to actually see this, they would just make it up on the computer, in Photoshop. Or they would digitally combine several images into one, whereas I once had to spend hours in the darkroom to make a double exposure under the enlarger.
And I thought how much has been lost because of this.
It is not just that I bemoan (I do!) the replacing of film with video, of analog with digital. (And, on this subject, take a look at the British artist Tacita Dean's elegy for 16mm film. She has vowed never to use digital in her art, but what will she make films with in the future?)
My musings on Reed College's footbridge were more about a deeper sense of loss: the loss of our capacity, as a Western culture at large, and as humans in general perhaps, to observe, to contemplate, without distraction, without hurry, and with our utmost attention and focus.
Everywhere I look, everybody (including me, you could say, even now that I'm writing this, because I'm also half-listening to the Classical radio station) is "multi-tasking"; no one is deeply, intently, concentrating on one thing, and one thing alone.
Are we afraid of what we would discover about ourselves if we were to train our gaze and mind on one thing and one thing alone for a prolonged period of time, if we were to let go of all the distractions around us? Or are we afraid of what we would discover in the thing observed?
Are we afraid to find only emptiness at the bottom of it, or are we afraid to find too much, too many murky depths there instead?
Why can we never just sit and sit still and do nothing?
Why the hurry, why the constant chattering, the constant noise, the constant multiple engagements of our mind?
Do we need to demonstrate to ourselves that we can, that we are better than animals who apparently can only focus on one task at a time? Has it really come to this?
I think about those photography students today who may never have to develop a roll of film, may never have to mix chemicals, may never have to spend many patient hours cooped up in a darkroom like some art vampires, to then emerge with the gift of a beautiful print...
Most of all, they'll never even have to hunt for that Cartier-Bressonian "decisive moment", or that Ansel Adams-like obsession with the right light, the right composition in the viewfinder. They'll never stand in front of that pond for minutes, contemplating the eerie reflections, pondering the vermillion, ochre and russet in the tree leaves, and then take out their camera and aim for a picture.
All this would require too much of their attention, too much of their introspection, perhaps.
It would require them to switch off their cellphones, to disregard the urgent beep of a text or Facebook message, and surrender to the two worlds at hand: the one inside them, the one immediately in front of their eyes.
I'm happy that writers still have to go deep inside themselves to find the world they aim to convey; they still need those capacities of observation and introspection and they still need the solitude (at least inner—though I can never understand those who can write in a coffee shop, I need my own house and silence all around me, preferably at night) to be able to write.
But I worry that all of us as humans are losing the capacity to observe and contemplate; and that, as artists in any medium, we are also at risk of losing our imagination.
Imagination is born partly of observation and contemplation, and also of limitations. As a photographer, I knew that not all images were possible to me as they are in painting, so I endeavored to recreate those that came into my mind within the confines of my chosen medium. In that process, new images and ideas were born.
Limitations are as nourishing to the imaginative mind as possibilities are, and I do not believe that the endless possibilities offered by Photoshop result in better, more imaginative, artistic creations.
I stood on that bridge for minutes, contemplating the eerie pond, the lovely hues in the trees and the water, while streams of students rushed to classes behind me, not one of them stopping even for one moment, not one of them even shooting a glance at the pond, because they (thought they had) seen it a million times before. But each time it was a different pond, with a different light. But what did it matter to them? They didn't need to observe those changes in light, they could just sit in front of a Mac in the art lab and create their own shade of light in a digital image. Yes, that is creative too, I am absolutely not discounting that.
But can we see how much we lose when we do not watch?