Finding what I need instead of what I am looking for
The other day I was looking for a photograph and I came across this image that stopped me in my tracks. I could no longer be bothered with what I was frantically looking for and became calm and still.
This image brought back memories of a powerful physical experience of being in the Florida Keys standing on a beach filled with a sense of awe and gratitude.
It had been a particularly difficult period in my life and yet the moment I saw this beautiful scene all of my anguish and anxiety that I had been experiencing fell away in an instant and was replaced with a profound sense of absolute tranquility.
What struck me about this experience was that it was ineffable.
I had no words to describe the experience. All conscious thought stopped and I was suddenly aware that I felt connected to the entire universe. My existential crisis vanished. In that moment I recognized my own self imposed limitations, my unlimited possibilities, and the spiritual gifts that I was given to navigate life.
At the inexplicable moment the light in the sky touched my heart I was completely removed from linguistic thought. It happened in a flash. It was the guttural “AAH…” that precedes the external “OH MY GOD!” It was an instant of pure energy that I can only describe as an awareness of the spiritual self that flows beyond the corporeal. It was the universal OM vibration that causes us all to tap our feet in unison with one another.
That moment made me aware of every one of my perceptual faculties. I could see every nuance of the changing colors in the sky and its reflection on the surface of the water. I could feel the light kissing my skin with warmth and the wind shooing it away.
I could smell and taste the salt in the ocean and in my own sweat, and in the tear that had slowly travelled down from my eye to my lips and tongue.
I could hear the crashing waves and the gulls, and I could hear the palpable silence in all the other people on the beach who were as awestruck as I was.
When I become aware of nature’s beauty that is close enough to touch and yet illuminated by a star over 94 million miles away I am rendered speechless.
The sublime beauty of light, color, texture and space transcends me into a primordial state of being that appreciates the poetic beauty in mortality. These experiences inspire an “aha!” epiphany that has been variously described as:
- mystical experience
- peak experience
- transcendental experience the peace that passeth understanding
- unity consciousness
- union with God
- nondual awareness
- Emotional Wellbeing
Looking back at this memory I realized that the power of the experience was tied to the absence of the internal narrative self that was filled with doubt and memories of the past and fears for the future.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard describes existential crisis as being a condition where our sense of self no longer fits our life circumstances and when we struggle to see the infinite possibilities and the divine.
Kierkegaard believed that despair is the condition we are all left with when our sense of the finite and infinite is out of balance.
Prior to the moment I made this photograph I had been in a state of despair.
Now, years later, as I was looking at these photos the words NON SYMBOLIC EXPERIENCE immediately rose to the surface of my thoughts. This prompted me to go online and search for that term to see who else had come to this conclusion. My research took me down many rabbit holes and I have included a list some of the more interesting articles I have come across below.
The research I found most interesting was the work of Dr. Jeffrey Martin. Dr. Martin has synthesized neuropsychology and philosophy into scientific research methods to discover the elements of mental wellbeing that are associated with a heightened level of consciousness related to non symbolic experiences.
His research involved extensive interviews and biofeedback measurements of over 2000 people from all walks of life and all faith (or non-faith) practices. He utilized functional MRI technology and psychological research protocols to quantify as well as qualify levels of consciousness and wellbeing.
Whereas the majority of cognitive processes occur automatically at the sub conscious or unconscious levels, these moments of non symbolic experience connect the subconscious and conscious to create a profound sense of heightened awareness that I can best be described as an expansion of time and space that is able to take a nanosecond and stretched it out into an extended period of awareness that seems to radiant outward across vast distances. I know this sounds like new age ideas that are not mainstream, but the experiences of all the people had similar characteristics.
In his report Dr. Martin writes, “Buddhists often referred to a sense of spaciousness while Christians spoke of experiencing a union with God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit depending on their sect. Often participants talked about feeling that they extended beyond their body depending on their sect…. Often participants talked about feeling that they extended beyond their body, sometimes very far beyond it.”
The net effect of this heightened awareness is an overall sense of wellbeing. What I find exciting is that he has been able to categorize the elements of wellbeing into clearly defined and measurable outcomes:
Sense of self: Move away from a highly individualized sense of self to a position of greater distance and connectivity with others. This sense of expansion transcends distance.
Cognition: A significant reduction of the number of thoughts. Self related thoughts and emotional thoughts fell away.
Emotion: Overall decrease in range and experience of emotions. Less likely to be overwhelmed by emotions and less likely to be triggered into emotions. Reduction of stress and anxiety and an increase of inner peace.
Perception: Increase in focus on the present. Increased awareness of the senses that is related to a decrease in thoughts and emotions related to the past or future. Less target fixation and an increase flow of information from all the senses. Much more likely to quickly return into a state of inner peace after a dramatic emotional moment that is triggered by an event.
Memory: Some loss of memory occurs do to less importance being placed on personal memories and personal narrative histories. There is an overall decrease in the narrative stories being stored in memories. The memory loss is related to personal histories but memory of physical and biological details as well as important details from of conversations remain in tact.
Sense of agency: A decrease of agency is related to an overall perception that life is just unfolding and the need to take aggressive action is decreased. A noetic sense that everything is perfect just as it is emerges or that there is a correct choice revealed in every situation that arises.
From his research he has determined that improved wellbeing is associated with a persistent non symbolic experience. These experiences create: mental stillness, emotional peace, a reduced identification with personal history, and a stronger focus on the present moment and an overall sense that “everything is perfect exactly as it is and could not be any other way”
Achieving a persistent non symbolic experience happens naturally in some and with great effort for the rest of us.
There is no single path towards a non symbolic experience. Each person has to unlock the unique combination of IN THE MIND and ON THE MIND techniques that range from positive psychology strategies, meditation, and awareness practices such as the techniques Eckhart Tolle teaches.
For me photography is my path to enlightenment.
Photography is a meditation and awareness practice that offers me a way to return again and again to a non symbolic experience that I can best describe as my own personal spiritual awakening.
When I raise the camera to my eye I am attempting to arrange the compositional elements into a harmonious union of light and subject. To get there I have to enter a hypnogogic state that balances the finite and infinite (nondual awareness) and transcends language by emphasizing the graphic qualities of an image over the verbal labels of what something means (which is defined by culture). It is a a predominantly silent meditation with the occasional exclamations of YES!!!.
The physical subject of a photograph represent the finite and the light represents the infinite. When I think about this I am reminded of the deeply reverent salutation of “Namaste”
Contained within 3 syllables is a complete statement of mutual respect: “the light within me honors the light within you.”
The balance of these elements in a single two dimensional composition has the potential to elevate my spirit beyond the confines of the despair that Kierkegaard describes and that we all experience as part of our humanity
In fact the artistic imagery we insert into our daily environment can have a significant impact on our wellbeing at a subconscious and conscious levels. The artwork we view throughout the day is a stimulant like an energy drink that elicits an emotional response even if we are not consciously aware of it.
Black and white photographs can stimulate psychological distance that facilitates abstract thinking and problem solving while color imagery can trigger desired emotional states that range from highly aggressive and active emotions (reds and oranges) that stimulate feelings of empowerment and personal agency, to calm and peaceful (blues and greens) that are restful and restorative.
We need the full range of emotions to survive. As we move room to room we can align the artwork with the function of the space to help us improve our wellbeing. This is what Feng Shui is about.
As we face different challenges in our life we can change the imagery to reflect the stimulant we need to balance our sense of self any given moment.
Reflecting on the rediscovery of this image once more I can see that I found what I needed instead of what I was looking for. And for that I am grateful.
If you have landed here and made it to the end of this post I hope you have found something helpful as well.
Gunther, A.J. (2013). Kierkegaard’s Concept of Despair. Sophia Project, http://www.sophia-project.org/uploads/1/3/9/5/13955288/grunthaler_despair.pdf
Levin, J., & Steele, L. (2005). The transcendent experience: Conceptual, theoretical, and epidemiologic perspectives. EXPLORE, 1(2), 89-101.
MacDonald, D. A. (2000). Spirituality: Description, measurement, and relation to the five factor model of personality. Journal of Personality, 68, 153-196.
Martin, Jeffery (2013). “Clusters of Individual Experiences Form a Continuum of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences in Adults (Basic Research Summary Working Paper).” Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness, http://www.nonsymbolic.org/PNSE-Article.pdf.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. American Psychological Association; Oxford University Press.
Thomas, L. E., & Cooper, P. E. (1980). Incidence and psychological correlates of intense spiritual experiences. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 12, 75-85.
Toft, Doug. “Doug Toft.” Doug Toft, 5 Feb. 2019, douglastoft.com/toward-a-science-of-enlightenment-four-big-ideas-from-jeffery-martin/.