Finding Our Way Inside Direct Experience

 Berries in Black Water

I recently received an excellent question from a student of contemplative photography. I felt that it was so relevant to many of us that it would be worthwhile to explore her question in some depth.

 From Dani:

Julie: You’ve written that the process of contemplative photography is about connecting with the experience of seeing and that it results in a feeling of peace and equanimity. In your book you also describe it as a full-bodied experience.

I’ve been frustrated at myself for feeling like I wasn’t really able to identify with this experience. The harder I try, the more elusive it seems to be and then the relentless internal critic really takes over and concludes that I’m a “Miksang failure.”  

Do you have any suggestions about how overcome my inability make this kind of connection with the world?

Hi Dani.

This is “contemplative” photography, which means we contemplate our experience instead of thinking about it. When we think about our experience, we separate ourselves from it. We don’t even give ourselves a chance to notice what our experience is. We have it all sorted out very quickly as we move on to the next thing.

In Miksang, we ask that students shift their attention from the thoughts about what they see to the experience of seeing itself.

Black car white wheel

It is all about the primacy of perception. The experience of seeing arises before thoughts about what we see, and as we glimpse that first moment of freshness, if we can relax into that moment and stay with it, we will actually be able to experience it fully.

This in itself is pretty revolutionary. Normally, we are very quickly sure in our mind about what just happened, what it meant, and what we think about it. But often we are not so sure about the experience itself, as it was completely overwritten by our take on it.

It’s not hard to understand how you have gotten yourself all tied up in a knot. Your thoughts about your experience conflict with what you think the experience should be and what the experience actually is.

I find that when I have a problem that seems complicated and difficult to figure out, I need to change my approach. This is the first step towards untying the knot. Your thinking mind can’t figure it out. I know from my own experience that if I realize that I’m struggling, and then I’m struggling with my struggle, and this is making me even more tied up in a knot, then struggle is no longer an option. It’s time to pause and “put in the clutch,” so to speak. We can give ourselves a break so we can reassess our approach.

The fact is, we can’t understand the experience of direct seeing until we have actually had it. Thinking about it won’t get us there. When we let go of our ideas about what the experience should be, relaxation and openness will dawn in our mind. This is the essence of simplicity, nowhere to go, no thing to do. We can just be. We can fully rest our being in this moment, in our open, fully present state of mind.

Each of the descriptive terms that we bring up about the experience of direct seeing, such as full bodied, a sense of evenness, peaceful, still, and so on, all point to a state of being that naturally arises from relaxation and acceptance of ourselves and our visual world as we are in this particular moment. The solution to your dilemma is to let go of your thoughts, your strategies, and your attempts to measure your progress and success. 


We want to turn any clues into formulas, uncertainty into security. This is our habitual way of relating with our experience. From this point of view, “dumbing” down our experience with overlays and judgments is a successful outcome. It’s analogous to “taming the frontier” and “maintaining order.” Predictability is reassuring.

And yet, as we often say in Miksang, “with less certainty, there is more freshness.” 

So what to do? More Human Camera! You have been to courses with us, and you know how to do it. The main point is to start fresh, over and over. Come back to square one. Relax, feel your feet on the ground, and breathe. Feel the air on your skin, the earth under your feet. Relax and drop your shoulders. Just be. And then look out at the world. When the thoughts start to bubble up, gently let them dissolve.

Do this over and over. Come back to freshness when your mind wanders. Let your discipline wear away the veneer of your patience, and then bring it to your sense of frustration and resistance. You can trust that if you stick with it, you will experience a gap in the whole thing, and instinctively you will know what to do. You will, out of the blue, just let go. You will give up caring about whether you get what you want.

And the peace will come. The evenness will come. As you develop a mind of stillness and acceptance towards yourself and your world, these experiences will all come. As you gain confidence that you can relax and let the world in, and you let go of your habitual ways of interacting with your world, you will find yourself meeting it with all your senses. The buffers surrounding your senses will relax. You will have a full- bodied experience of seeing and feel peaceful and joyful all at once. You can do it!