whole: day 6

‘the only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision’. 

Helen Keller

If I’m not careful, what I see with my eyes, and how I see it with my mind, often lead me into either/or binary: I like this/don’t like that; that’s alive/that’s dead; that’s beautiful/that’s ugly; that’s God/that’s not God.

Yet the practice of contemplative photography helps me see with all my senses, with mind, body and spirit, with heart and head.  It helps me receive experience more non-judgementally and helps me discard the either/or filters and blinkers that narrow or blind my vision.  

Although I act like a perfectionist in so many areas of my life, I have a few quirks which show that there are a few cracks in that totalising blindfold.  For example, I have long been attracted to rust. (I distinctly remember looking through a viewfinder at rust on a railway bridge railings for a textile project when I was fourteen).  It is the combination of strength and fragility, wear and tear, colour and texture that attracts me all at once.  I find the infinite variety of rust stunningly beautiful. 

One of the most helpful ideas I have been introduced to in the last decade is that of wabi-sabi, which helps me understand my attraction to broken, decaying, rusting things.  In The Artist’s Rule Christine Valters-Paintner cites Crispin Sartwell’s definition of wabi-sabi:

Wabi as beauty is humility, asymmetry, and imperfection, a beauty of disintegration, of soil, of autumn leaves, grass in drought, crow feathers.  For such reasons, an appreciation of wabi is an appreciation of the world and a certain sort of refusal of its transformation for delectation.  Wabi as an aesthetic is a connection to the world in its imperfection, a way of seeing imperfection as itself embodying beauty … Sabi is a quality of stillness and solitude, a melancholy that is one of the basic human responses to and sources of beauty … Thus wabi-sabi is an aesthetic of poverty and loneliness, imperfection and austerity, affirmation and melancholy.  Wabi-sabi is the beauty of the withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, intimate, coarse, earthly, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral.

(Crispin Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty, cited in Christine Valters-Paintner The Artist’s Rule (98))

the beauty of the withered, 


 tarnished, scarred

My imperfect vision is drawn to what is imperfect in the world.  It is one thing to be tolerant of a thing or person who is somehow ‘broken’, when I compare it/them to some imagined ideal standard, it is another to hold up such imperfections as being ‘of God’.  For paying attention to ‘imperfection’ in the wabi-sabi sense, names that yearning in me to see what is below the surface, the essential underneath the obvious.  In my experience, that is where the holy is most often to be found.  That is the sense of what I understand in this Bible passage:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4.16-18 (NRSV))

let there be room for not knowing

There are days when I imagine my vision to be ‘broken’ either through illness, lack of imagination or of contemplative intent.  There are days when others rubbish my photography for being of uninteresting subjects (often they mean uncommercial) or full of imperfect technical precision.  Yet if I keep letting go of what I expect to see and be present to what is actually before me, however initially unbeautiful or imperfect it may seem, it is not long before I see how the eternal is at work in this, in me.  I catch a glimpse of how the Whole is renewing me daily.

Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don’t know.

Pema Chodron

the essential underneath the obvious. (iPhone image)

Published by Kate Kennington Steer

writer, photographer and visual artist

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