“I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell myself to hold on to these moments as they pass” ~Counting Crows, Long December
I’ve recently gotten into photography. Though I don’t have an amazing camera, I do have one that is separate from my phone. I find creative fulfillment in setting up a shot, moving an inch this way or that to catch the best light or trying to be still for several minutes at a time to capture the perfect moment on film.
David and I were sitting in our favorite chairs on our favorite deck, wrapped in blankets and sipping wine. Jason Isbell was playing on vinyl in the house, a melodic backdrop to the crows cawing as the sun set. The sky turned a riotous color, pinks melting into purples, wispy clouds kissing the edges of the giant orange ball and unexpected grays in the liminal spaces between to add depth and contrast. I ran to get the camera, setting it on the deck as a makeshift tripod and kneeling uncomfortably on the hard wood to peer into the lens. I waited, holding my breath….and…click. “I got it!” I crowed, startling the birds from their roost.
“Actually,” David commented dryly, “you missed it”.
He was right. I caught the shot but missed the moment. The only true sin.
The word sin comes from Hebrew and means to be absent or to miss. The words misbehavior and misconduct speak to the idea that the only true sin is missing the moment. It’s no accident that the word present means both right now and a gift. We are gifted with free will and the ability to think as we please. We choose our thoughts. Sadly, most of us choose to time travel, either ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. We squander the present moment, too busy to be what Buddha calls “rightly mindful”. Present is a gift. If you’re thinking about a better moment, or a worse moment, you’re missing this moment. How often are we walking blindly through the miracles of our days, too busy or distracted to pay attention to the present moment?
But my husband was also wrong. My camera has become an integral part of my mindfulness practice. Looking at the world through a camera lens has awakened me to miracles that before went unnoticed. Everything seems worthy of my gaze this days. Before, a run might be for fitness, or to burn off the calories from that extra glass of wine. Now, more often than not, I find myself stopping to gaze at the flowers blooming along the creek line, startled by the way the light explodes through the limbs of the dead tree on top of the hill. I remember poet Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished.
Photographers practice seeing the moment as it is, stripped to its essence. Where the thoughtless see a building, the mindful sees light, symmetry, beauty in the devastating or mundane. With this attention to detail, every second becomes noteworthy.
The key is to stay present without falling into the illusion that time can be frozen or truly captured. True mindfulness rests on focus in the present moment, not on the outcome. Photography then, as with any endeavor, can be a tool or a roadblock to being present.
I recently went with my friend Becky to see James Taylor in concert, a bucket list item of many years. When he sang You Can Close Your Eyes, Bonnie Raitt joined him onstage to provide harmony and some serious guitar licks. It was so moving, such an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime twinkling, a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it moment. Becky and I cried happy tears and held hands. And yet far too many people around us missed it, videoing the song. They were watching their screen rather than James, and the camera built an impenetrable wall between them and that experience. Did they want to show their friends what a great time they had? Was it a deliberate attempt to preserve the moment for the future? Were they validating the experience through shaky video and low-grade audio? What a sin. In this case, the lens acted as a barrier rather than a doorway to real connection to the present.
It was an important lesson to me to be very intentional when I pick up my camera. To use the lens as a way of seeing deeper into existence, rather than as a way to distract myself from my present thoughts and feelings. I’m not likely to put the camera down anytime soon. I love the rush of snapping the perfect shot, recording the best parts of my day. But life is about more than a shiny, flawless Instagram post. I need to stand witness to the moment more, simply exist in an experience rather than fall prey to the urge to hold on to it somehow.