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A singular image

Last month I read a book I hadn’t intended to read. Entitled The Camera Does the Rest, it is an illustrated history of the Polaroid camera. Its author, Peter Buse, chronicles the creation, the triumphant success, and the sad demise of the Polaroid phenomenon in twentieth-century American culture. More broadly, he assesses the impact of Edwin Land’s brilliant if rather bulky invention, once considered near-miraculous, in the history of photography. There had been nothing quite like it before, and though it foretold the digital era, its unique properties have yet to be fully replicated by digital technology.

I ordered Buse’s book in August 2016, shortly after it was published, with the intent of giving it to my friend and colleague Ted Morgan. Ted had recently retired from teaching and was suffering from a serious illness. A master printmaker and Emeritus Professor of Printmaking at the New York State College of Ceramics, he had turned in the latter part of his career to photography as his principal medium. Ted had long been fascinated by Polaroid cameras, and in March 2014, an exhibition at Alfred University’s Fosdick-Nelson Gallery featured a group of his small, black-and-white Polaroid photos, in which he explored the play of light and shadow in reclusive, unpeopled places.  Given this interest on Ted’s part, I thought that our friend might enjoy reading about his favorite camera during his convalescence.

That was not to happen. When Ted’s condition dramatically worsened, he went home to Ohio to be with his family, and we lost contact. Shortly thereafter, he passed away. For the next eight months his intended gift, still in its pristine, shrink-wrapped state, rested on a bookshelf in my study, a reminder of Ted’s life, work, and unexpected passing. But in August, I decided to open the book and read it, partly in Ted’s memory. To my surprise, it proved engrossing.

Generously illustrated with color photos of and by the various Polaroid models—the Swinger, the SX-70, the Spectra—Buse’s detailed study traces the development of the camera from its introduction in 1947 to its discontinuation in 2008. At the same time, he poses two general questions: What, exactly, was unique about the Polaroid camera, and what purpose or purposes did it serve?

Over its sixty-year life-span, both the identity and the market of the Polaroid brand continued to evolve. Initially this inspired invention, manufactured by a small company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was regarded as a toy and promoted as such. As its popularity grew, however, the camera came to be seen, by its maker and users alike, as what Buse calls a “technology for memory”: a means of preserving moments from family gatherings, holidays, and the like. Because its novelty attracted attention, it also gained a reputation as a conversation piece, a social lubricant, and a “party camera.” Toward the end of its lifetime, as its circle of enthusiasts expanded to include the cultural elite, this mass-produced camera found favor with professional artists and photographers, among them Andy Warhol and Ansel Adams. Yet, although its forms and purposes multiplied over the decades, the Polaroid camera managed to retain its two most salient attributes, which set it apart from all other cameras.

First and most apparent was its capacity to generate so-called “instant” photos. This distinctive feature fostered a relationship of spontaneity, candor, and interactivity between photographer and subject. The camera produced a finished, unalterable photo—a material object, not a fluid digital image—a minute after the picture was taken. The photo was as fresh as the experience itself. That photo could then be given to the subject, or shown to others, or kept as a souvenir. Photographer, subject, and whoever might be present took part in this intimate, seemingly magical process.

Second, a Polaroid photo was one of a kind. It could not be reproduced. Since Henry Fox Talbot’s invention of the “positive-negative” process in 1839, that process had yielded a negative as well as a positive image. From that negative, more copies could be made. By contrast, Polaroid’s was a “direct-positive” process: it produced no usable negative. As Buse observes, the overall direction of photography, most evident in its recent, digital forms, has been toward the multiplication of images from a single shot. As if returning to the days of the daguerreotype, the Polaroid process produced, in Buse’s phrase, a “singular image.”

Perhaps it was that absolute singularity, joined with the open, “as-it-was-happening” character of Polaroid snapshots, that attracted Ted to the Polaroid camera. Regrettably, I never asked him. In any event, those qualities have something essential in common with Zen practice, which also centers our attention on the dynamic present moment. However dull or exciting that moment may seem, Zen teachings tell us, it is unprecedented and unrepeatable. All the more reason to treat it with care, presence, and respect, as Ted Morgan did in his life and art.


Peter Buse, The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography, University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Untitled Polaroid photo by Ted Morgan (2014).

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I once had a neighbor who rarely stopped complaining, chiefly about his ailments. On one day it was his allergies, on another his asthma. On rare occasions, when his body was being relatively compliant, his monologues might briefly turn to other matters, but sooner rather than later they came back to his maladies. He seemed incapable of changing the subject.

However pronounced, my neighbor’s habit of mind was not all that unusual. The activity of complaining is as embedded in human nature as the verb describing it is in the English language. Complain derives from the Latin plangere, which means “to lament or bewail.” From the same root come plaintive, plangent, and of course complaint.  If you are of a certain age, you may recall that physical afflictions and disorders, which are now euphemistically called “issues,” were once known as complaints. There were back complaints, neck complaints, stomach complaints, and many more. Some were real, others imagined. All caused the sufferer to complain, which is say, lament, often to no avail.

In popular culture, the practice of Zen is sometimes perceived as a remedy for complaints, physical and emotional.  Some years ago, as I was arriving at my chiropractor’s office for my appointment, I ran into a longtime friend, who was just leaving. “What’s a Zen master like you doing in a place like this?” he jokingly asked. Underlying his good-natured question, I suspect, was the notion that meditative practice can magically cure the ills that flesh is heir to—or, failing that, enable the practitioner to rise above pain and suffering. Unfortunately, the converse is more often the case. Zen practice is about awakening to reality, not escaping from it.  By curbing the habit of mental wandering and by fostering the disciplines of “stopping and looking,” Zen practice enhances our awareness of our sensations, pleasant and unpleasant, even as they are arising. That awareness can warn us of serious problems in need of treatment, but in my experience it does little to relieve present pain. If you are looking to Zen for a mental or physical analgesic, you would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

What Zen practice does offer, however, is a way of responding, wisely and compassionately, to whatever pains we may incur. In at least four fundamental ways, the practice can enable us to see our lives more clearly and respond accordingly.

First and most important, even ten minutes of meditation a day can reveal the difference between raw physical pain, which is inevitable, and reactive emotional suffering, which is not.  Pain, whatever its origin, is what happens to us; emotional suffering is what we add to the pain, often as a result of our resistance. By paying close attention to our immediate experience, we can learn to recognize that resistance as separate and distinct. And we can endeavor to let it go.

Second, as we come to know our own minds through daily meditation, we can observe the mind’s unceasing urge to generalize, extrapolate, and speculate: to envision dire outcomes and often to fear the worst. Brought under mindful scrutiny, this catastrophizing tendency loses much of its force and power. It, too, can be noted, duly acknowledged, and allowed to dissipate of its own accord.

Third, Zen meditation heightens our awareness of impermanence, including the impermanence of our everyday discomforts. In Zen teachings this dimension of our experience is known as “emptiness”: all conditioned things, including our aches and pains, are empty of inherent existence. Chronic they may be, but they are also insubstantial. To recognize that fact will not take our pains away, but it can help us to endure them.

And last, the compulsion to complain can be met and counterbalanced by what Zen calls the “practice of gratitude,” which is to say, the active cultivation of that quality in our daily lives. “Grateful for my life, I breathe in. / Grateful for my life, I breathe out.”  Whatever our religious beliefs or absence thereof, stopping at least once during the day to offer gratitude for our lives in general and certain aspects of them in particular can be a powerful, countervailing force against reflexive complaining. Words, it’s true, are only words, but if repeated on a daily basis, words of gratitude can have a profound impact on the ways we think and feel.

That impact can be deepened, I might add, if the words are accompanied by the now-uncommon practice of bowing—even if, in the words of the American poet W.S. Merwin, one is “bowing not knowing to what.” Should you choose to explore this practice, you may find that it is nearly impossible to bow in gratitude and complain of one’s infirmities at the same time. The one action precludes the other. For that reason alone, the practice of gratitude is a potent antidote to the habit of complaint.

________

Cartoon: Mike Baldwin / Cornered

W. S. Merwin, “For the Anniversary of My Death”

 

 

 

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ENSO by Shinge RoshiThe British poet Sir Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) once described words as repositories of meanings. Those meanings may be social, historical, or political. They may also be hidden or manifest, dormant or active. The word silly, for example, once meant “innocent,” as in “the silly sheep,” but that meaning is no longer current. By contrast, the original meanings of other words may be extant in one culture but not in another, though the two share a common language.

Nature is one such word. In ordinary usage, nature refers to a physical world apart—or seemingly apart—from the human: the world of stars and planets, mountains and rivers, flora and fauna. But as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, the word nature could also refer to a quality altogether human: one’s “natural feeling and affection” (O.E.D.). Thus, in 1841, the English cleric Charles Henry Hartshorne could observe that “There’s often more nature in people of that sort than in their betters.” Commoners, in other words, often expressed more natural feeling than did the lords and ladies. By the end of the nineteenth century, lexicographers had deemed that older meaning archaic, at least in England. But in Ireland, it has persisted into the present century. In Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow (1954), a prison guard who has just learned that a fellow guard has done him a favor responds by saying, “I’m more than grateful to you. But sure I’d expect no less from you. You’re all nature.”

The notion of “nature” as a source of natural feeling may also be found in the Buddhist tradition, as can the word nature in English translations of the classic teachings. In Zen that source is sometimes called “true nature” or “original mind,” but most often it is identified as “Buddha-nature.”  Specific concepts of Buddha-nature vary widely from sect to sect, but broadly speaking, this ambiguous term refers to an innate capacity for such qualities as kindness, empathy, generosity, and forgiveness. All spring from one’s Buddha-nature. In this respect, Buddha nature resembles the “nature” to which Charles Hartshorne and Behan’s prison guard allude.

Yet there is also a crucial difference. In its Irish context, “nature” is seen as a quality of mind and heart that a person may or may not possess—or possess to a greater or lesser degree. Whether that quality is inborn or not is an open question, but, as used in Irish discourse, the word nature serves to differentiate those who take a generous, compassionate, and forgiving attitude toward their fellow human beings from those who do not. Or cannot, given who they are.  To have “nature” is to have a good heart. Not every person does, and those who demonstrate that lack by their words and deeds are regarded as having “no nature.”*

Not so in the Buddhist tradition, where Buddha-nature is viewed as a universal potentiality. Buried though it may be beneath layers of conditioning, this seed of awakening is believed to reside in every sentient being. In the Zen tradition in particular, Buddha-nature is seen not as something we have but as something we are. And, in the language of Zen, we can all “aspire to Buddhahood.” Just as the practitioner who pursues the “path of liberation,” as it is called, can eventually experience freedom from fear and suffering, so those who aspire to Buddhahood can, in due time, discover and realize their potential for compassionate wisdom.

Central to this pursuit is the daily practice of meditation. In its monastic setting, meditative training begins with the taking of vows and the establishing of a solid ethical foundation. From there it proceeds to the development of mindfulness and concentration, primarily though seated meditation. By concentrating the mind and opening the heart, the practitioner becomes intimately aware of those unwholesome feelings, thoughts, and mental states—greed, anger, jealousy, and the like—that pass through us and sometimes take up residence. With diligent practice, however, monastics and lay practitioners alike can also learn to recognize such wholesome states as loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, even as they arise.

These positive states can be “watered,” as the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh has often put it. They can be nurtured, as one might nurture a seedling. In the Zen tradition, there are many practices designed for that purpose, one of the simplest being this gatha (meditative verse) by Thich Nhat Hanh, which practitioners are admonished to recite in the early morning:

    Waking up, I smile, knowing I have twenty-four new hours.

    I vow to live mindfully, and to see all things with the eyes of compassion.

By such means, the quality of mind and heart we Westerners once called nature is encouraged to take root and flourish. And over time, our thoughts, speech, and actions can be transformed accordingly.

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— Enso (Zen circle) by Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi

— *”No nature”: In Ireland, observes the American poet Richard Tillinghast, “you are expected to take turns buying drinks. Mental notes of whose turn it is to buy a round are kept, and though no one will ever be so rude as to say so, you will be considered to ‘have no nature in you’ if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain.” Richard Tillinghast, Finding Ireland (Notre Dame, 2008), 146-147.

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189. Inner weather

                                      

                                       That day she put our heads together,

                                       Fate had her imagination about her,

                                       Your head so much concerned with outer,

                                       Mine with inner, weather.

                                                 — Robert Frost, “Tree at My Window”

If you pay attention to your inner life, you may have noticed how your experience of the world around you conditions your states of mind. Sitting with friends on a summer afternoon, you feel happy and relaxed. Watching the evening news, you feel tense and depressed. What may have escaped your notice, however, is the degree to which your mental states condition your experience of the world. “I feel different now,” my granddaughter remarked, having fallen and broken a front tooth, “and the world feels different, too.” In ways less dramatic and often less apparent, that is true for us grown-ups as well.

In Buddhist psychology, the part of our makeup that causes us to feel one way or another is known as a “mental formation.” According to traditional Buddhist teachings, the so-called self consists of five components, known as “form” (physical body), “feelings” (sensations), “thought” (perceptions), “mental formations,” and “consciousness.” Like the other components, mental formations are constantly in flux. They pass through our minds like changing weather. But while a particular mental formation is present, it mediates between our raw sensory impressions and our awareness of the world.  It influences and may determine how we think, speak, and act. If, for example, the mental formation craving is present, we are likely to grasp, or try to grasp, the manifold things we encounter. By contrast, if the formation mindfulness is present, we are likely to see those objects clearly and allow them to remain as they are.

Mental formations might be likened to filters, through which we screen the evidence of our senses. At any given moment, what we call the world is in reality an immediate sensory impression—the bark of a dog, the smell of gas, a roseate evening sky—perceived through the medium of whatever mental formation might be present. In a microsecond, what began as a pure impression becomes a complex of thought and feeling, as we superimpose on that impression our personal and cultural memories, our moral concepts, and our fixed opinions. Together this multilayered amalgam becomes what we call our experience. (more…)

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A few months ago, our bathroom wall clock ticked its last. Shopping online for a replacement, I settled on a contemporary Hito analog clock, with a stark white face, plain Arabic numerals, and a stainless-steel rim. The size and shape of a pie plate, our new timepiece incorporates a thermometer and hygrometer, both of them reliably inaccurate. But it also possesses two additional features, which together make its presence distinctive, compelling, and curiously unsettling.

Nowadays, most wall clocks tick. The tick may be as soft as a heartbeat—or loud enough to keep a light sleeper awake. By contrast, the Hito makes no sound at all. Advertised as a “silent, non-ticking” clock, it lives up to that description. If you wish to be aware of time’s winged chariot hurrying near, you must employ your eyes rather than your ears.

Should you do so, you will discover the Hito’s other distinguishing feature: a needle-thin second hand that never stops. Moving smoothly and continuously above the two main hands, it brings to mind the flow of sand through a nineteenth-century hourglass. Combined with the eerie silence of its movement, this concrete reminder of time passing leaves an impression of time itself as objective, inexorable, and unnervingly swift.  And by so doing, it evokes three realities that Zen teachings admonish us to remember, lest we live in ignorance and delusion. (more…)

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Imagine, if you will, that you are standing in the Dental Needs aisle of your local supermarket, shopping for floss. Fifty varieties, in bright, colorful packages, tempt you with their charms. Your options include Top Care Reach, Oral-B Glide, Listerine Cool Mint, Oral-B Essential, Listerine Gentle Gum Care Woven, and, not least, Tom’s of Maine Natural Anti-plaque Floss. You don’t have all day; you must choose. How will you do so? And of your many mental faculties, which will you employ? (more…)

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smith-corona-psTwelve years ago, my son gave me a vintage manual typewriter for my birthday. Black, sleek, and compact, it was manufactured in the 1930s by L.C. Smith and Corona Typewriters, Inc., of Syracuse, New York. All of its forty-seven keys are still intact, including its Shift Key, Shift Lock, Back Space, and Margin Release. Fitted out with a new black ribbon, it can still produce a faint but legible line: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Although I have never used this machine, it occupies a place of honor in my study, a symbol of my vocation and a reminder of family continuity and change. Half a century ago, I wrote my doctoral exams and my doctoral dissertation on my late father’s Royal Empress typewriter. Two decades later, when my son was soon to enter high school, I presented him with my own IBM Selectric, which even then was becoming obsolete. All too soon, that nimble machine gave way to his first personal computer. He is now a journalist by profession and does much of his work on a laptop or mobile device.

My Corona Standard is what Zen teachings call a composite thing. It consists of a multitude of moving parts, nearly all of them visible to the naked eye. Lifting its cover, I can inspect its type bars, type heads, springs, and twin ribbon spools. Turning it over, I can examine its gears, rods, cords, escapement, and walnut-sized bell. Equipped with the appropriate skills and tools, I could dismantle the entire mechanism, part by part. And at some point in the process, this complex, functioning machine would no longer be recognizable or identifiable as a typewriter, a term of convenience for a configuration of component parts. It would be revealed as the temporary aggregate it always was. (more…)

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