Photographing Zen

The Harbor Guardian in Sakai, Osaka

I don’t mean that how you think. I don’t think it’s actually possible to photograph zen. I know, I know, elite cinematographers have been photographing zen for decades. But that’s not what I mean. I mean zen.

Zen’s a weird word. A lot of time people get zen confused with Zen Buddhism, a Japanese flavor of Buddhism that stresses zazen, seated zen. But zen itself, is meditation. And the Zen Buddhists will be the first people to tell you that zen isn’t just a sitting thing.

I first came across this idea when I was a young practitioner of Aikido. Aikido teachers love to tell you that Aikido is moving zen. Later, when I got more personal experience with zazen, and with the moving zen they often do between sitting sessions, I began to understand what they meant.

Now… here’s the part where my opinion become very tenuous and there are a million more educated opinions out there. So get your grains of salt ready.

Mt Fuji Sunset from Enoshima

I’ve come to associate zen with the alpha brainwave state. That’s that spot that you go to when you’re on top of your game, you’re not thinking, and it feels more like you’re channeling something and just along for the ride. Professional athletes talk about time slowing down. I believe it. I’ve been there. I think most of us have.

That zen state is a place I love to be. I’m addicted to being there. In aikido, in rock climbing, in yoga. I’m actually really bad at being in it while I’m doing zazen. But when I’m working – It clicks. It’s one of the reasons why I love cherry peeping. I can disappear into that zen state of photography, and block out all of the hanami drunks, and the blue tarps, and the power lines.

It’s funny, sometimes on trips to do landscape photography, I’ll fade out of that zen state, and look at the other photographers I’m with, to see them absorbed in their own zen states. I could probably steal all their wallets at that moment, and none of them would notice. I know I wouldn’t. I can think of a few people that have gotten annoyed because they’ve had entire conversations with me while I’m in that zen photo state… conversations that afterwards I will have heard not one word of.

I love to be in that state, even in front of my computer, in Photoshop, or writing. I think that’s perhaps why I still often physically write. There’s something about the meditative practice of physically dragging the pen across the paper that triggers those alpha brain waves.

That zen state isn’t just restricted to art. Craftsmen of all sorts have talked about that zen state in their work. Cleaning as zen is a common thing in Zen Buddhist teaching. I think I get it… but usually, when scrubbing the grime out of the corners of my bathroom, I’m not there, not in that zen state. I’m usually in more of a bitch-and-moan state. But that just speaks to my own failure to become enlightened.

Maybe someday I’ll get off the wheel. But for now, I’ll just disappear into my photography, and into that alpha brainwave state.

Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois