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The Art of Noticing: Creativity through contemplative practice

Ten years ago, when I started taking pictures with reckless abandon, I also began to develop a habit I’d later regret.

For me, interest in photography sparked many years earlier with a single photo. It was a picture of the Inspiration Tower at Shepherd of the Hills in Branson Missouri. I remember discovering that I liked the image better when I tilted the camera so that the tower rose into the sky at an angle. It was a fun moment of exploration and creative discovery, and in it, I was doing things right. 

Despite that spark, I didn’t get into photography in earnest until much later, in the age of digital cameras and the infinite scroll on websites like Flickr. At first, I continued using a camera to explore the world and make creative discoveries. I remember wandering the streets of Montreal and discovering a reflection of a street lamp in a window. Somehow I imagined I had found myself in the home of a family of street lamps and I was looking at a picture of one of their relatives. It’s silly, I know, but it was fun at the time. 

Architecture of Montreal

The Downfall

The trouble came with the massive array of fantastic photos that were becoming more and more available on the web. I’d take photos in a particular place and then take to the web to see what others had discovered in the same place. In those other photos, I saw many things I’d missed. And I saw the number of likes, comments, and shares the other photographers were receiving for their efforts. 

I found myself questioning the quality and validity of my own efforts when I didn’t get as many likes or comments. What was wrong with what I was doing and how could I improve? As a result of this questioning, I started wandering around looking for opportunities to produce photos like those I had seen on the web. I started to develop the bad habit of looking for photos I’d learned were more likeable. 

Because I was looking for specific things, I stopped seeing what was in front of me. I stopped noticing what was interesting and important to me. I stopped exploring the world with an open mind and making creative discoveries. I got lost in a limiting view of the world, and that left me less happy with myself and the work I produced.

The further I went down the road of other people’s interests, the further I moved away from understanding my own. The further I moved away from exploring my interests, the further I moved from understanding how I felt about what I was seeing. And if I don’t perceive or understand what I’m feeling when I produce images, how can I expect them to convey emotions for others? Paul Cezanne, who was described by Picaso as “the father of us all,” is noted as having said “A work of art which did not begin with emotion is not art.” 

Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Finding My Way Back 

Luckily for me, somewhere along the way with the help of a friend, Timothy Sens, I woke up to my problem and made some changes. In addition to being a photographer and digital artist, Timothy is a jewelry artist. Maura and I met him when she discovered his work in a local gallery and asked him to make her wedding ring. Over time he and I developed a routine of meeting up every weekend to take photos. Not long after, he discovered and introduced me to Miksang photography. 

Miksang is a Tibetan word (pronounced "Mik-song") that means "good eye." Miksang photography is a form of contemplative photography. In essence, it is a practice of going for a walk with an intention to notice and photograph what catches one’s attention. That noticing, when it happens, is referred to as a ‘flash of perception.’ 

Imagine you’re walking down a street having a conversation with a friend, and you suddenly stop talking as a bright red Ferrari pulls into the intersection ahead of you. Maybe it was the bright red color of the car or the rare, exotic nature of the scene. Whatever the reason, it was meaningful enough to you that you stopped what you were doing and gave your attention to it instead. That’s a flash of perception. 

Now, I practice the art of noticing. I practice noticing not only what grabs my attention but also how it makes me feel and what it makes me think. I make an effort to understand why certain things tend to grab my attention more than others. And in doing so I learn more about myself and the world around me.  

Through this contemplative practice, I have learned to respect and value my own ideas and emotions. I have learned more and more about what I care most about and why. And I’ve found that I like the images I produce about a million times more than those I was before.

Koi fish swimming through a smokey surface

Extending the Practice

As is always the case, I discovered that other areas of my life can benefit from contemplative practice. In fact, anything can be a contemplative practice, depending on how we do it. For many of us, all that is missing is this habit of noticing. How often, for example, do you notice the breeze on your skin or the warmth of the sun on a chilly day? How often do you notice when interactions sap your energy or give you more? How often do you notice the effect distraction has on your ability to enjoy your work? 

Given the benefits I’ve realized, I highly recommend developing a contemplative practice for yourself. You can turn any hobby or aspect of your work into a contemplative practice. Develop a habit of noticing, then watch the world come newly alive around you as you tune in to what is most important and interesting to you. In this way you will develop habits that boost your creativity and stimulate the development of more creative ideas and solutions to problems.

Thank you for reading. As always, please feel free to contact me with any questions, comments, or ideas.

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