Contemplative Photography and Meditation Retreat Recap

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!



Talking Through the Trees

This is a moving essay from Sharon Safer, the director of 12 South Dharma Center. She wrote this essay as her dear friend Cynthia Schell was dying of cancer in 2006. Cyhthia’s trust provided significant seed money that allowed us to establish the 12 South Dharma Center as a dedicated Buddhist meditation space in Nashville.

Talking Through the Trees

“Are we talking through the crepe myrtles right now?” she asks.

“Yes, sweetheart, we’re talking through the trees,” I reply.

My friend is dying, and she is teaching me about talking through trees, and rainbow exercises for saying goodbye.

Lately, in every conversation, she asks, “What is in your soul today?  How is your heart?”

I tell her about my son’s seventeenth birthday; about arguments with my husband; about the Sears repairman’s fourth visit.  Of course I know that these are not answers to her questions.  It’s just that sometimes it’s really, really hard to cut to the chase and know where my soul is, or if my heart is open or closed.  So, I use the events of my daily life as the path inward.   Sometimes the path is pretty straight and short, sometimes it winds around and around, and sometimes I take a wrong turn and can’t quite get inside.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the feelings that arise from the events of my life can be a shortcut into my heart.  How do I FEEL about my son’s latest birthday?  “Oh, that’s the way inward.”  So many feelings:  pride, joy, regret, curiosity, fear.  How do I FEEL about those arguments with my husband?  “Oh, there’s another path inward: grief, fear, curiosity, anger,” or, “I don’t feel anything right now because my heart is so protected.”

But now, my friend is dying, and every day she wants to know what’s up with my heart and soul.  She won’t be around much longer.  She hasn’t the luxury of time, and I don’t want to keep her waiting.  So, I’ve returned to practices that will help clear out some of the mental debris.  I meditate daily, and write, write, write.  I want to be free from the drama of life so like my friend, I can cut to the chase and know in every moment where my heart and soul are.

There’s nothing like a dying friend who speaks through trees and about soul and heart and rainbows to bring focus to what’s truly important.  She no longer has the need to protect her heart and soul, and from this peaceful place, she speaks directly of her desire to move on; of her love for her beloveds; of the beauty of her petunias and gentle breezes.  Next summer, when she’s gone and the crepe myrtles are in full bloom, I will listen closely for her voice on the breeze, “What is in your soul today?  How is your heart?”

Sharon Safer is founder and director of 12South Dharma Center.  She has a Masters in Social Work and trained with Sanchi Reta Lawler in end-of-life contemplative practices.  For the past few years she has served the dying and gravely ill as a hospice and an oncology social worker.  In service to opening the conversation about end-of-life issues, she serves as an Advisor to The Gift Initiative (

A Day of Mindfulness Retreat in Nashville

A Day of Mindfulness Retreat
Awakening Joy
Sunday, October 21, 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Led by Lisa Ernst








Please join us for a  day of sitting and walking meditation at the 12 South Dharma Center. We will cultivate insight and lovingkindness through awakening our minds and hearts to the present moment.

Led by meditation teacher Lisa Ernst, this silent retreat will focus on mindfulness meditation. We will practice bringing mindfulness to the breath and sensations in the body, cultivating awareness of the pleasant and unpleasant states that arise. Through this practice  we gradually awaken the joy of meeting all that arises with compassion and friendliness.

This retreat is suitable for both beginning and experienced meditators; it will include sitting and walking meditation, practice instructions, and a dharma talk. Please bring a sack lunch. Refreshments will be provided at the end of the retreat.

Cost: $35, plus dana (donation) to the teacher. A deposit of $35 will reserve your space and is due by Monday, October 15. You may bring your deposit to the center during one of our meditation sessions, or mail a check made out to One Dharma Nashville to: 12South Dharma Center c/o One Dharma Nashville, 2301 12th Ave. South, Suite 202, Nashville, TN 37204. Please include your email address. Directions and additional information will be emailed prior to the retreat. Please contact with any questions or to reserve your spot.