Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Photography and Deep Listening

I went to Rollins College last week to hear poet Billy Collins lead a discussion about poetry and photography. I expected to enjoy the evening while gaining some fresh, helpful insights about writing. What I didn't expect was to have panel member Anthony Brannon, a famed photography historian, make spiritual connections that resonate strongly in my spirit. In fact, they are still stirring around inside me.

The spiritual connection started for me when Billy Collins remarked at one point how pictures are about the past. Consequently, they have a nostalgic quality about them. Brannon responded by telling how Thomas Merton used photography as a contemplative practice. "Merton," he said, "took pictures to help him himself be alive to the present moment." Brannon also said that "photographs propose the future precisely because we don't understand everything in them." In effect, some photographs require us to sit with them, hold them, and ponder them. He also pointed out how the "truth of a photograph can change us."

At that point I was reminded of last week's reading for our centering prayer group. Thomas Keating in his book Mystery of Christ was reflecting on the three apostles witnessing of Christ's transfiguration. He wrote, "The practice of interior silence produces gradually what the voice in the vision produced instantly: the capacity to listen."

In the context of Brannon's remarks, it seems a photograph could work like a vision in helping us hear from God. This deep listening is what I want—to be alive to the present moment, to sit without understanding everything, and to be changed by the truth in the depths of my being. I'm in this for the long haul, and I'm grateful for my regular practice of centering. Yet it's encouraging to think how God works in unexpected ways, even in a conversation about poetry and photography.
--Anna Cotton

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cultivating Mindfulness

In spite of my best intentions and efforts to live in a way that is grateful, centered, and mindful, I tend to get distracted. I assume we all do to varying degrees, and this is OK. But I’ve recently found a practice that helps me some in this regard: memorizing and/or composing short mindfulness prayers for various daily activities. Thich Nhat Hanh has translated a bunch of short prayers (called gathas) in Present Moment Wonderful Moment. He encourages us to memorize these short prayers, to change them and make them our own, to write new prayers that are appropriate for our situation. The wonderful thing about them is that they are tied to daily activities--drinking tea, using the phone, washing dishes. As we incorporate these prayers into daily life, the activities themselves become reminders of our need to be awake. When we get distracted, turning on the faucet or making a phone call or myriad other activities can remind us to live in the present, to be aware of God's presence with us. Here is one of my favorite gathas from Nhat Hanh’s book; it is for drinking tea:

This cup of tea in my two hands,
mindfulness held perfectly.
My mind and body dwell,
in the very here and now.

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