Saturday, July 16, 2011

Contemplative Mind versus Analytic Mind

Andy Karr, co-author of The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes, offers an explanation of the difference between contemplative mind and the thinking, or analytic, mind.

I had written to Andy, inviting him to elaborate on this topic.  This is his response:

One thing that might merit further discussion is the nature of the contemplative mind, and how that differs from the thinking (or analytical) mind. I'm going to have to finger paint a little to try to communicate what I mean, so please bear with me.

Thinking mind functions through polarities: beautiful and ugly, big and little, hot and cold, light and dark. Thinking "abstracts" knowledge from experience, and therefore, thinking mind can only know aspects of experience (just as a map abstracts the landscape of a journey and only shows aspects of what will be seen along the way). No matter how many aspects of something the thinking mind knows, they are always abstractions of what actually is. This is the inherent limitation of thinking mind.

There is another way of knowing that does not work through abstraction. For the sake of this discussion we could call it "contemplative mind." Other names for this are insight, non-conceptual wisdom, intuition, etc. This contemplative mind is often hidden from us by our discursiveness. In fact, thinking mind can not know the contemplative mind, since contemplative mind has no aspects to hold on to. Because of this, people often conclude that the contemplative mind doesn't really exist.

The point of contemplative practice is to introduce us to contemplative mind, and give us confidence about this way of knowing, and working with the world. In photography, contemplative mind knows what the eye sees in a complete way, rather than the limited knowing of thinking mind. Contemplative mind is an incredible resource that we have always had, but seldom use. Through the practice of contemplative photography, we can familiarize ourselves with this innate ability.

To expand a bit on what Andy says, I believe the operant term here is practice.  As photographer-artists, we practice our craft to perfect it. We incrementally improve, but for most of us the ultimate goal of perfection is well beyond our reach.  This is a somewhat different use of the term "practice" from the way Andy uses it above, but I think there is an overlap that applies.  Photography as an artistic enterprise can become a practice in the sense that Andy uses the term when we bring a contemplative mind to the endeavor. Practice in both senses of the word brings  improvement and growth.  Practice might not make perfect, but practice can move us forward.  The practice of contemplative photography can bring us into a kind of relationship with what we photograph that is different from the way we relate to our subjects when we approach them from a thinking or analytic mode. But one can inform the other.  The analytic mind and the contemplative mind are not mutually exclusive. They can work together as allies, even as partners.  Rather than allowing one to reject the other, we can make space for both to reside comfortably within us as we photograph.

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