Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Importance of Unanswerable Questions

Recently, I've been wondering what makes something contemplative. Having just finished the second book on Nalanda Miksang Contemplative Photography with my teacher, John McQuade, and having just finished a round of contemplative writing weekly courses, I am poised at a spot of post-immersion and contemplating what it means to contemplate.

I get this question a lot: What is the contemplative aspect of these practices? Is it that we only write about or photograph content that "seems contemplative"? That's too restrictive a definition, and if people are hoping to illustrate a feeling of contemplative-ness in either words or pictures, they quickly find out that is a misconception in these two forms. Does it mean calligraphy, flower-arranging, in terms of forms? No, we can even do contemplative, angry, Jackson Pollock-like painting, if it is does from direct experience and perception.

So there is one answer, from my tradition(s): contemplative practices slow us down enough to connect with what is actually happening, and create from that place. In Shambhala Art teachings we call it "Square One" - the open unknown before we create ideas or concepts. Returning to that in writing, photography, calligraphy - or dance, painting - even in conversation, is essential for maintaining the open-minded and -hearted quality of contemplative practice.

My co-author, John McQuade, expressed it this way in our upcoming book, The Heart of Photography (due out July 1):
This direct contact with visual reality and the experience of harmonization of eye and mind is the first contemplative connection: to be there, with the “there,” through the there. This sounds abstract, but it could not be more sensuous and direct. You actually experience what you experience as you experience it. 
In addition to this open state, or in complement to it, is the importance of unanswered - and unanswerable - questions. Often newer writing students think contemplative writing must be "philosophical" - e.g. ask a lot of questions, ponder big things. In some ways, that is off - you could be following your mind and writing down a lot of purported answers and opinions, and that would be very contemplative, in the first sense of the word described above in these traditions. But in other senses, that is right on. The key is being with not knowing. Being contemplative doesn't just mean asking, "Does God exist?" - it means being willing to not have an answer. Being contemplative doesn't just mean wondering about the meaning of life, it means knowing it is likely not fully knowable. It turns out the way in to these big questions is through little questions, at least as one of my teachers, John McQuade, and my co-author, also expressed:
(C)ontemplative practices are meant to help us find ways into these big questions. Contemplative practices are little ways, like rocks in the stream, crossing from one side to the other. Rock by rock, step by step, we cross over. These little ways do not provide direct answers to these questions, but they do provide a path for us to engage them...            Generally, contemplatives do not ask big questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” Instead, they investigate little inquiries, such as “What is color as color?” through felt experiences that explore questions like “How does color as color feel? How does it manifest? How is our experience of color? What difference does color make to a situation?” and so forth.

How is it that engaging the small leads to a felt understanding of the large? We cannot answer huge questions with our tiny minds - it turns out the color of things, the shape, the texture - whether expressed in words or images, movements or touch - actually is a drop from the larger, an excerpt with all the full meaning of the large questions:

This contemplative engagement is not religious or philosophical. It is working directly with your ordinary, everyday experience, to release you from stress and help you open to everyday appreciation. Bit by bit, on the rock path through the river, we cross over from claustrophobic habit to natural freshness, from stress to delight, from the thing world to the phenomenal world, from conventional world to ordinary magic, from confusion to insight and wisdom.
Keep an eye on our website for updates on how to pre-order/order your own copy of our new book, Heart of Photography. And in the meantime, you can find copies of our first book Looking and Seeing on Amazon, or, even better, buy direct from us on CreateSpace.

Keep asking questions you don't have answers for, by connecting with the daily details while keeping your heart and mind wide open to the unknown.

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