On Saturday, September 22 I led a contemplative photography and meditation workshop at Mercy Convent and Retreat Center in northeast Nashville. It was the first of its kind in Nashville that I’m aware of, although I’m sure not the last. The idea, suggested by dharma friend Lila Wheeler, seemed intriguing to me, but initially unclear in execution. Where would we do it? Who would be interested? And how would the day progress?
The first and most significant hurdle was finding an appropriate place. After researching several options that didn’t quite work I settled on Mercy Retreat Center, a convent for retired nuns in Northeast Nashville. They’re local but rural, and rent their facilities to groups for reasonable rates. I booked it sight unseen. Finally, after a few months of only imagining the place from the few photographs available, I went to see it.
As I arrived at the center, I wasn’t too impressed. The building was generic looking other than some stained glass windows and a long, covered entrance. The grounds were pleasant but lacking in drama. I wondered if I had made a mistake. How would the plain facility and grounds translate into a day of photography? I had brought my camera and spent about ten minutes photographing outside prior to my meeting. This exercise began to ease my concerns. The grounds held enough diversity to allow for interesting shots without being so dramatic and obviously beautiful as to render any effortless, mindless shots successful. The point of contemplative photography is to pay attention, to cultivate a receptive, intimate way of seeing that allows the shots to reveal themselves. Drama and obvious beauty aren’t the point. The more mindful the photographer is, the more he or she will perceive the surroundings with a clear and fresh perspective. At times the conditioned mind melts away into the unconstrained intimacy of camera and surroundings. Often this practice yields remarkable photos, but that’s not the goal.
Our small group of 11 (two additional people had to drop out last minute) spent nearly two and a half hours in the morning immersed in contemplative photography. The day also included several rounds of meditation. In the afternoon we went out to shoot again for about an hour. Some people reported that they were more connected with the activity in the morning, while others found the afternoon shoot (even in bright sun) to be the most fruitful.
At the end of the day I gave everyone access to a Flickr account where we could all load our photos to create a slide show. Over the past week I have truly enjoyed seeing the images as each person added his or hers. What amazes me the most is how people see the same things so differently, or simply see different things. Each individual’s contribution is unique.
I’m offering another contemplative photography and meditation retreat next fall, at a different location: Penuel Ridge If you’d like to see a slide show of the day’s photographs, go here.
Post Script: Thanks to Shelley Davis-Wise, we created and sold a beautiful calendar based on the photographs from our workshop. The first batch sold out and we had to get a second order in to fulfill demand!