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Gary Snyder is stalking me. First, this article in the New Yorker (link to PDF scan; article not available from New Yorker website. Oh, and page 2, a photo of Snyder and Allen Ginsberg was accidentally scanned upside-down. Let’s just pretend that was a bit of a dada touch.) and then, waiting for a friend in the Harvard Co-Op, I happened upon this book of Beat Generation photography which, naturally, featured a few shots of Snyder.

It’s interesting to notice once something (or someone) enters your world, how it/they kind of crop up everywhere for a while. I’ve long had a personal fascination with the Beat generation. Ok, that’s a bit of an understatement. I have a total obsession with Jack Kerouac. Previous to reading the New Yorker article, my familiarity with Gary Snyder was limited to his role as Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums; a book which greatly influenced my late-teens. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a Buddhist home, so it was only natural that reading a novel about Buddhism by my favorite author would send me on a bit of a spiritual quest in my adolescence.

(Incidentally, during this period, I once had a two hour conversation with some Mormon missionaries about Buddhism. That has nothing to do with much of anything, but I managed to get one of them thinking about how it’s all the same void, man, and that was good enough for me.)

Certainly Snyder, who is an ordained Zen monk, has a greater connection to Buddhism in America and Buddhism as explored by the Beats than Kerouac, and I really should take this serendipitous stalking as a sign to get more familiar with his work. I found this essay on Buddhist Anarchism, and though it was written in 1961, a lot of Snyder’s points still hold true.

No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam. The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies — Communist included — into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.

Substitute “War on Terror” for “Cold War” and this is still an all too accurate portrayal of modern life. Our current economic crisis was fueled by unbelievable greed. I’m not sure if anarchy is a better solution, but it certainly would be an improvement for government to keep in mind that we as humans are all interconnected – and that link extends to all human work, including banks and corporations. If one of us fails, we all may fail.

Anyhow, I digress. It’s interesting that Gary Snyder has popped up in my life, and I’m definitely interested in finding out more about what this Beat sage has to say.

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My previous M.O. with photo-blogging had been to post one photo per day that I felt was the “best” – either the best summary of the day or the technically “best” photo I took. The more I think about it, the less this practice gels with my idea of what I would like this photo-blog to be. I don’t want to be analyzing my photos trying to decide which one is the “best.” Of course, I aspire to be better as a photographer. Naturally I want to improve my skills, and I believe that this comes from practice. I would also like to improve myself as a person, and in my Buddhist practice, I think that trying to constantly analyze myself is counter to this effort. Analysis leads to self-flagellation for not meeting whatever “standard” I’m holding myself to that day. It’s better to just try to always improve. Always improve with my technical skills. Always improve with my personal skills. Just, always striving for enlightenment.

So, I’m going to post a selection of photos from each day. Perhaps the whole selection. Perhaps just what appeals to me most at that time, but I’m not holding myself to any rules. I’ll try to at least post one photo per day, but there may be exceptions. Today, for instance, I haven’t taken any photos because I’ve been extremely run down from a complicated week. I think it is better to allow myself some space to fail rather than feeling guilty about missing a day. So, I didn’t post anything today. I’ll try to do better tomorrow. It’s all I can do.

Anyhow, what I meant to write about is an article I read by Pema Chödrön in this month’s Shambhala Sun about “Pause Practice” how I feel that it relates to my photography practice. In it, she advises us to pause in our days when we feel ourselves getting caught up. Just stop. Take three deep breaths. Create a gap from whatever was going on in our minds to be actually present in the moment.

You get so caught up in the content of your life, the minutiae that make up a day, so self-absorbed in the big project you have to do, that the blessings, the magic, the stillness, and the vastness escape you. You never emerge from your cocoon, except for when there’s a noise that’s so loud you can’t help but notice it, or something shocks you, or captures your eye. Then for a moment you stick your head out and realize, Wow! Look at that sky! Look at that squirrel! Look at that person!

I feel like this is especially apt in photographic practice. Each photo is like a gap in the narrative of what we’ve seen. Look at that sky! There! I’m fully present in this moment, I’m framing it, and I’m clicking the shutter! Look at that squirrel! I’m watching him through the viewfinder and that moment is the only one for me right now! The best photos come from dropping your ego and simply allowing what is happening through the viewfinder to happen, and the photo finds you. Every time I drop my self long enough to pick up my camera, I’m creating a gap in my day. I’m creating that gap and recording it. Later, I can look back and remember these moments if I so choose, but the process is what’s important. Sure, some photos might be imperfect or not how we remember them, but it’s the taking of the photo – the putting the mind down and just seeing – that’s what connects us to our world, to our moment.

Pause practice can transform each day of your life. It creates an open doorway to the sacredness of the place in which you find yourself. The vastness, stillness, and magic of the place dawn upon you, if you let your mind relax and drop for just a few breaths the storyline you are working so hard to maintain. If you pause just long enough, you can reconnect with exactly where you are, with the immediacy of your experience.

When you are waking up in the morning and you aren’t even out of bed yet, even if you are running late, you could just look out and drop the storyline and take three conscious breaths. Just be where you are! When you are washing up, or making your coffee or tea, or brushing your teeth, just create a gap in your discursive mind. Take three conscious breaths. Just pause. Let it be a contrast to being all caught up. Let it be like popping a bubble. Let it be just a moment in time, and then go on.

You are on your way to whatever you need to do for the day. Maybe you are in your car, or on the bus, or standing in line. But you can still create that gap by taking three conscious breaths and being right there with the immediacy of your experience, right there with whatever you are seeing, with whatever you are doing, with whatever you are feeling.

The article is not available on Shambhala Sun‘s website – I’ve typed it out in a Word document if you are interested in reading the whole thing. The article is copyright Pema Chödrön. Waking Up To Your World

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