being lost, wu wei, and photography

Forest, Moel Famau

Some years ago I was on holiday in Somerset, by myself.  Each day I went walking in a different place, and on one occasion I ended up in an extensively forested area.  I’d been walking for a couple of hours, had stopped to eat my bread and cheese and olives, and realised I wasn’t sure which way I’d come or how to get back.  In all the time I’d been walking I hadn’t seen anyone at all, so there wasn’t much chance of being able to ask for help.

I felt the beginnings of panic, but pushed it away and rationalised that there was plenty of daylight left and even if all I did was walk in one direction, then sooner or later I’d come to a road and I’d find my way back (this is the UK, after all, where there isn’t that much wilderness left).  I felt a bit calmer, took a few deep breaths, lay back on the grass, and allowed myself to enjoy, for the moment, the warmth of the early spring sun on my face.  Then it came to me – the sun had been dazzling me from my left as I walked from the car park, and taking into consideration its rotation as the day went on, I could probably figure out roughly which direction to go in.  I could, I did, and it got me home again.

I was reminded of this on reading a post by Parker J Palmer, which included this wonderful poem by David Wagoner:

Lost
by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.

Palmer tells a similar story to mine in his post, about a time he got lost, and how he began to panic, and how he calmed himself down and suddenly knew what he needed to do.  I’ve always been very scared of getting lost – unreasonably so.  To quell the panic that surges up I feel the need to do something, try something, anything, to solve the problem, but frantically poring over maps and doing mental calculations just increases the desperate feeling of being hopelessly lost.  The best way to solve the problem is to stop, be still, calm down, come into the present, and become aware of where I am at this moment.  Only then can I understand how to get to where I want to go.

You can see the parallels with life.  We live in a an action oriented culture and when we come to a part of life where we feel lost and directionless, the need to do something can be strong.  Taoism has a term – wu wei – which means, literally, non-doing.  Paradoxically, in the Taoist state of non-doing you are actually doing quite a lot.  However, what you’re doing is allowing yourself to feel a sense of connectedness to others and to your environment, and strengthening your ability to tune in to both inner and outer messages.  It relies on being present to the moment.  Any action you then take – using action in the sense in which we mean it in the West – becomes spontaneous, effortless, and highly effective. We might call it intuitive, or inspired action.  ‘Stand still.  Wherever you are is called Here.’  – let the forest find you.

Coming into the present – the Here – not only removes the panic caused by imagined, disastrous futures but focusses attention on what’s around us, what we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.  Those things we now notice give us the answers we need.  We might call this mindfulness.

I hope you can also see the parallels with a contemplative approach to photography.  We go out with our cameras and feel lost and directionless – nothing inspires us, there’s nothing to photograph.  We try harder.  We look and look.  Still nothing.  We’re frustrated, all this effort tires us, irks us, so we give up, stop, and decide instead to enjoy the walk.  Suddenly we notice the patterns on the water, the shapes of the clouds, or the colours in the tree bark. In this coming into the present, the Here, we begin to see again and, amazingly, the photographs find us.

Walkers, Moel Famau, North Wales