Starting The Day

| March 27, 2014

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words. –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I walked out of the  house before dawn today. The world was a ghostly wonderland of silver and blue as the last of the moonlight reflected off a thin layer of new snow, left over from a small storm that drifted through while I was asleep, and that by now is many miles away. The air was rich with the unique and subtle aroma of the wet soil so characteristic of this desert. Blindfolded, I can recognize this place by scent alone, and it smells like home. Everything was still and quiet and I stopped along the path to my office to appreciate the silent splendor. My dog and office companion Millie sat by me quietly, knowing my eccentric habit of stopping every so often for no apparent reason. In the office, I turned on the heater and Millie sniffed around her favorite armchair before spinning a couple of times and settling into the soft cushion for a nap.

This was about an hour ago, but the scent of the wet earth is still on my mind. I turned on some soft music and sat down to print a recent image, for no reason other than to see it printed. Soon the snow will melt, the red cliffs will glow for a few minutes as the sun climbs in the sky, and I will take another break just to stare at it for a bit before the rest of the world awakes to a blue spring day, unaware of the magic that passed, rushing to work or school or other daily occupation, often wishing for nothing more than for the day to be over again.

Whether surrounded by natural beauty or entombed in concrete and asphalt, humans have a natural tendency to settle into routines, to become accustomed to things to a point of emotional numbness. Of the many lessons learned from living as an artist, one of the most important was the necessity of resisting the tendency to take things for granted. The scientific term for this all-too-natural tendency is hedonic adaptation, meaning that no matter how good or bad we have it, after a period of time we accept as ordinary whatever circumstances make our daily routines. Ordinary… it’s a word I abhor, to a point where I will turn off any speaker making references to “ordinary people” as distinct from a few privileged ones, and even not vote for politicians who routinely use expressions such as “ordinary Americans.” Who wants to think of themselves as ordinary?

Unlike so many difficulties in life, hedonic adaptation is remarkably easy to overcome by adopting simple habits – consciously stopping to notice, to appreciate and to acknowledge things and feelings and people and ideas that elevate the spirit; what some call mindfulness. Being so easy, one wonders why more people don’t do it. Most people don’t because it is not sanctioned as a beneficial practice by most growth-driven cultures, always anxious about the future to a point of dismissing the importance of the present. Those who practice it, however, are never in doubt of its transformational effect.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to recommend photographic locations to people who were concerned about “wasting” their time on a trip; whose idea of a visit to natural places culminates in how many “great” images they come back with, rather than the potentially far greater experience of being in the place, smelling and hearing and touching and discovering and learning it.

If I may make a small suggestion that can greatly improve not only your photographic excursions, but every single day of your life, it is this: get up a little earlier and immerse yourself in something beautiful and creative each morning. Process or re-process an old image, make a print for no reason other than to hold it to the light and admire its beauty and recall the moment of its making, read something interesting, listen to beautiful music, stand outside and feel the weather on your skin and study the light and listen to birds and consider how fortunate you are to be, to have the capacity to appreciate such things, even to understand some of them. As one of my good friends likes to say: treat yourself. The rest of your day will derive from this small acknowledgment of the beauty around you, defying hedonic adaptation, keeping wonder alive, placing anxieties in proper perspective. Break out of the routine in a rewarding way, each day.

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. –Henry David Thoreau

Refuge

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (9)

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  1. Frank Field says:

    Guy – As usual, right on target. Nothing beats the quiet of the twilight and dawn hours. Frank

  2. Russ Bishop says:

    Beautiful Guy. Wander and wonder – good words to live by.

    I start most mornings with a run through the foothill orchards near my home. If I time it right, I can watch the sunrise twice – always the beginning of a great day.

  3. Tina Blum says:

    Guy,

    I’m sitting on the porch of our rented Maui vacation home, overlooking Napili Bay. The crashing waves on the rocks below me block all sounds except a few wisps of the traditional Hawaiian music I have playing. Jeff and I brought our children and our first grandchild on this trip. My plan was to stay at the house all week, enjoying the sights before me and the people around me. It’s been tempting to go out and “do” something…a whale watching trip, a drive across island for pictures. I’ve resisted these temptations and am reveling in just being still for a bit.

    I found your article after picking up my iPad for the first time in 3 days. What a refreshing message. It’s one I’ll hang on to when I return to the mainland as a reminder to savor the moments.

    Thank you

  4. Very true words! I expect a lot of people fall prey to the temptation of thinking they would practice mindfulness (and brilliant photography) if only they lived and worked somewhere more conducive and beautiful. But I can speak from experience that such is not the case, mindfulness is still something one must practice deliberately, and sometimes it takes real effort. Literally outside my door, I can look at a wonderland of jumbled boulders much like the Alabama Hills, an ephemeral desert lakebed playa, exciting Cambrian geology, and the high peaks of the eastern Sierra over the ridge. But hedonic adaptation is always just a thoughtless day away. On days when I’m busy and my mind is scattered, I barely see any of it until I remember to pause, breathe, and rejoice in the valley I call home. Photography here is similar: I often fight with the temptation to whine that I need to take a long trip, as if there weren’t years of photo opportunities in my immediate surroundings.

    Or ask any long-time outdoor guide about burnout. Every guide eventually struggles not to regard his amazing workplaces and trips as part of a routine, day-in day-out grind, despite the fact that his clients may be on the trip of a lifetime. I recall one summer of guiding back-to-back trips through the Gates of Lodore when I became utterly bored and unappreciative of world-class scenery; what I wouldn’t give now to spend that kind of time in Lodore again!

    There are still places I’d much rather live than others, and I still love traveling to see new scenery, but the idea that a different home or workplace will be make life wonderful forever is an illusion. Lasting joy in one’s surroundings is always born within.

  5. Thanks a lot for this really interesting post, as always I must say!

  6. Harley Goldman says:

    Very well said, Guy.

  7. I am writing this from India. Quite far away from your corner of the world. But your words helped me to enjoy my moment here…thank you Guy!

  8. Nick Oman says:

    Guy,
    I am continually inspired by your writing, more so about how to live life in general than almost anything else.
    Thank you

  9. Visiting your blog after a bit of hibernation. Indeed I confess I am lost in the concrete jungle too. This post is an inspiration for me to wake up. Thanks for such wonderful words again, Guy!