Contemplative Photography in a Time-Obsessed Culture
by Christine Valters Paintner, PhD
We live with a scarcity of time in our culture. We lament how busy we are, how we wish we had more hours to the day, as if that would solve our problems with feeling so rushed and busy all the time. We feel victimized by our lengthy "to do" lists and day planners. We think that by hurrying we will somehow catch up. But that is a great illusion.
We are all suffering from time poverty in a culture that worships productivity and accomplishments. We become hostage to our calendars. Despite gadgets designed to save us time, we become overwhelmed by our schedules and deadlines, but more efficiency is not the answer. Multi-tasking means we only do several things with poor attention and focus, while increasing our anxiety and sense of desire to do more and more. It fuels our adrenaline and we have lost conscious presence to any of the things pulling us in different directions.
Jacob Needleman, in his book Time and the Soul, writes that most of us are like what the Tibetans call "hungry ghosts"—not really existing, not present to life, obsessed with hurrying and doing things right away. He goes on to write: "But right away is the opposite of now-the opposite of the lived present moment in which the passing of time no longer tyrannizes us." He goes on to say that the "hungry ghosts" continue to starve by hungering only after a false illusion of more hours and more days, when what we really hunger for is the present moment. I could live a thousand years, but if I am not present to it, I will still feel the dissatisfaction and absence of meaning to the end of my days.
The antidote to this deep issue of modern culture is not more hours in the day, but a shift in relationship to those hours. We need to say "no" more often. We need holy pauses. Pauses which open us up to the depth dimension of the world. We move so quickly that we forget that there is another deeper layer to reality, one that can only be seen by stopping and arriving here. This is what the mystics write about. The more we touch the eternal, the more we feel a sense that there is more than enough.
In my new book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice, I describe photography and seeing with eyes of the heart as one way of developing a practice of contemplative awareness: Making time to walk slowly in the world, attend to your breath, slowing yourself down to really see what gifts are being offered for you to receive (rather than take), engaging the lens as a portal into the eternal now, open you up to the eternal where time feels spacious and abundant. When we are fully engaged in this moment, the concept of linear time seems to disappear and we feel at peace.
Consider one small step toward contemplative presence: take a short pause as you begin each activity and as you end it. In that pause, allow three slow and deep breaths, while being aware of any impatience you have or desire to rush through. Just allow a moment to be here and now, being present to the sacred in this moment. When we listen more deeply to that voice, we never hear the summons to rush faster, or be more productive.
Then with camera to your eye, wander through your everyday world seeing beneath the rushed surfaces, noticing which images shimmer, which ones call to you as a gift offered in the midst of the frenzied pace of life. Walk among trees and flowers, be present with friends and creatures. What do these subjects of your world say to you about what is important as you gaze through the lens? How might photography become a way to remember the depth dimension of the world?
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and community for contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of 7 books on art and monasticism, including her latest, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Ave Maria Press). Christine currently lives out her commitment as a monk in the world with her husband in Galway, Ireland.
Photo by Christine Valters Paintner. Copyright 2013