NOTE: This post was first published in February 2015.
“Mindfulness” is everywhere these days, sometimes in unexpected places. My friend and photography teacher, James Martin, forwarded two excellent, short video conversations with Jay Maisel, the acclaimed photographer. What Maisel said is not only good advice for photographers, it applies to writers (and other people who are creative) as well.
In the first video, without using the term or referring to other forms of artistic expression, Maisel describes creativity as a form of mindfulness. “If somebody said to me, ‘Give me two words that will make me a better photographer,’ I’d say, ‘Be open. Be open to what’s actually in front of you, to what really is happening at that moment.’” In response to questions about what he looks for when he shoots photos, Maisel says, “I’m not looking for anything. That’s the trick. I’m trying not to look for anything.”
Anyone who’s ever been trying to work out a plot knows that the best ideas often come during the blank moments of an idle mind: in the shower, driving on a quiet stretch of road. And the pitfalls of photography are much like the difficulties encountered when writing: “It’s stumble, bumble and fall and pick yourself up and start again. There’s no mystery to it.”
Yesterday, while reviewing a couple of particularly lifeless pages I had written, I realized what was missing were telling gestures–motion or expressions that would indicate mood or attitude. In Maisel’s second video, he talks about that very thing—the importance of gesture. “Gesture is not [movement]. Of course it is, but it’s also the quality of a table leg, the way a tree looks, the way you stand….”I’m looking for specificity….You can’t just say ‘water.’ Water has millions of different gestures. It can be placid, it can be reflective, it can be violent.”
The photo accompanying this blog is one I took that attempts to convey what, though I didn’t know it at the time, Jay Maisel describes. I was wandering through a Buddhist temple in Nepal, tired and not thinking about much of anything, when I came upon this quiet corner, a place with a pleasant breeze where someone must like to sit and maybe even practice Mindfulness.