The most interesting aspect of these arts of Zen, as D. T. Suzuki has said, is that they don’t exist for the sole purpose of creating a work of art, but they are rather a method for opening the creative process. They comprise means of training the mind and of living our lives. ~John Daido Loori
A friend recently referred me to a book discussing Zen and creativity. What I know of Zen comes primarily from the writings of D.T. Suzuki, and rather than offer my own limited understanding, I recommend his books to anyone interested in the topic. Creativity, on the other hand, is a topic I’ve been following for some time, both as an artist and as an avid reader of scientific publications. Many discussions linking ancient philosophies with present day practices often try to muscle the latter into the rituals and language of the former, and the book my friend referred me to is no exception. Such books often are written by practitioners and masters of such disciplines who then apply them to art or to other areas of life, but in my mind there is also much to be gained from going in the opposite direction: start with art, and identify valuable and applicable lessons in the philosophy, without becoming mired in esoteric dogma and terminology.
The first idea that struck me about Zen’s approach to art is that art is regarded not as a means of making things, but rather as a means of experiencing things. In other words, the primary reason to engage in art making is not the end result, be it an image or some other artifact, but rather the inner experience of creative expression; which also becomes a means for the artist to communicate to others some of the thoughts and emotions that moved him or her to create. Such an attitude stands almost in stark contrast to the result-oriented work ethic instilled in western society, which is more concerned with external effects: productivity, volume, profitability, etc. When considered alongside recent findings in psychology, and particularly the psychology of happiness, it is clear that the inner rewards of making art and of engaging in creative activities are indeed more powerful and enduring than short-lived spikes ensuing out of popularity or sales. Paraphrasing words I heard from a scientist, who is also a Buddhist: it turns out that Eastern philosophies are better than Western ones at predicting what will make us happy.
Another aspect of Zen I find interesting is the way the philosophy is passed on from teacher to student. Zen defies definition and as such cannot be taught as a set of facts or techniques; it requires training the mind to respond in natural and intuitive ways, rather than analyze and reason. Zen masters always lead by example and, other than the teaching of various Buddhist practices, the essence of Zen is taught by challenging the student, sometimes in very unexpected ways, to react to things without forethought or preconception. Photographic workshops almost always take the opposite approach: visiting prescribed locations at predetermined auspicious times when “good” images are to be had; describing and practicing camera and processing techniques toward specific and known outcomes, etc. Indeed, such skills are needed in order to make a photograph, but once they are are learned to a sufficient degree, I find a more Zen-like approach to be profoundly more useful and satisfying: rather than seek specific outcomes, find places and subjects you are interested in, and let the images come to you; encounter subjects and situations and, when they elicit a response, articulate your response to them visually, in an intuitive and unfiltered way.
As I sometimes tell workshop attendees, the biggest down side of photographing Mesa Arch at sunrise is that you end up with an image of Mesa Arch at sunrise. If you don’t stop to consider what other options and approaches are available to you, you may not fully appreciate what you are missing. Allowing yourself the privilege of giving visual expression to your most intimate and personal inspirations, as part of experiencing something unexpected and emotionally moving, may open your eyes to great personal revelations, and to what I believe to be the most elevating rewards that photography has to offer. A similar concept in Zen is called Satori. To accomplish such states, think of making your photographs convey something of who you are, innately and without pretense, rather than what something or someone outside of you is, or what you believe that others may wish to see.
In my own experience, the most effective and moving way of relating to an inner experience when encountering a subject or scene that moves you to create, is to quiet and focus the mind on the experience, and to reign in errant thoughts and distractions. Zen meditation, known as Zazen, trains the mind to become quiet and focused, which is not easy and requires prolonged practice to accomplish. The psychological state known as flow, also related to creativity (and more recently linked with what is known as the brain’s default mode network, which can be thought of as the brain’s inner conversations with itself, when not focused on the outside world), affects the artist in much the same way that meditation does. Time seems to disappear, distractions and anxieties are set aside, and the mind becomes calm and clear. Once experienced, the benefit of such states becomes eminently obvious, but it is difficult to explain to those who do not have firsthand experience with them. Those who practice photography in a rushed and calculated way, or when distracted by other people and thoughts, may never know how much deeper and more rewarding their experience may be by letting go of such things; by not worrying about a “keeper” or any other outcome, slowing down and being mindful of the experience in all its dimensions—inner and outer, emotional and physical; and suspending considerations of other concerns when engaged in creative work.
Lastly, in learning to meditate and quiet the mind, one also learns to manage involuntary thoughts and distractions that arise naturally but that can also be consciously set aside for a period. Beginners often attempt to silence and ignore such thoughts and to banish them from the mind, almost always unsuccessfully. More experienced meditators know to acknowledge the thought, rather than attempt to ignore it; examine it, then consciously set it aside and refocus the mind and start over. This approach of acknowledge-and-let-go (sometimes known in other forms of meditation as catch-and-release) can be immensely useful in today’s world of constant distraction and multitasking. The competitive culture of so many photographic communities, when not properly approached, may make the practice of photography far less enjoyable and expressive than it can be when practiced primarily for the experience, rather than social interaction. In both making and presenting art, especially in social contexts, you may find it very liberating to acknowledge in advance that others may or may not like it; may or may not find it better or worse than that of someone else’s; may or may not accept or understand your chosen methods, motivations or personal sensibilities. We are social creatures and such considerations affect and stress us by default. But when explicitly acknowledged and let go of, you are in a very real sense also setting yourself free—free to be who you are and to express yourself in the most meaningful way that you can. And the rewards for doing so, while difficult to explain to one yet to experience them, can be deeply rewarding in ways that no award or recognition can amount to.