When I was ten, I had a manual camera that I taught myself to use. If you had told me then that someday I would have a camera that took excellent pictures without film, shot video, and was small enough to fit in my pocket, I would have thought it magic. Now, of course, everyone has magic iPhones, another facet of modern life we take for granted.
I love my iPhone not only because it can go everywhere with me, but because it's my meditation partner. To take a good photo, my attention is fully in the moment. When framing a photograph, I only notice the here and now, which is what the shutter snaps - never the memories of the past or the fantasies of the future. And the motivation behind every photograph is the same: this is a good moment. This present moment is enough.
Although the blessing of photography is in seeing the details of this moment, the experience can be enriched through sharing. I am talking less about posting photos on social media and more about connecting with the context of the photograph. Because when one simply hides behind the camera, snaps and leaves, the process becomes lifeless. For this reason, I have gotten in the habit of showing the photos I take to people nearby so I can strengthen the relationship between myself, the photo, and the place where it was taken. I am feeding the soul as well as the eyes. For instance, I asked the man behind the counter at this restaurant if I could snap this fish, and afterwards, I showed him this:
"Fish," he said with delight.
"Fish!" I said, also delighted.
"Fish!" said another man, sitting nearby.
Same with the man standing near his boat:
"Heera," he proclaimed with pride.
"Good name," I told him, even though I believe "Heera" means "Cumin." Maybe it was also some South Indian queen.
I have been asked why I keep coming to India; one answer is that there is so much to see, so many moments to enjoy. And yes, part of my meditation involves pratyahara, the yogic practice of sensory withdrawal. I do my best to look past the trash and the cow dung to see what is beautiful. Although there is beauty to see all over the world, I know of few places where one can find so much eye contact as here in India. People here will stare without compunction and don't look away. I used to feel unsettled to walk into a train compartment and have dozens of eyes on me; now, I am likely to raise my eyebrows and smile, throwing in a head waggle just for fun. At home in the US, eye contact is rare; even during toasts, people tend to look down into drinks until I remind them of the superstition that skipping eye contact during a toast will bring seven years of bad sex. (Is it true? Who wants to take the chance?)
Every relationship begins with a look, at least in the real world off-line. I became friends with this boy on the train because he was the one looking at me, and in his laughing eyes, I could see that he also appreciated the absurdity of riding a train standing up, crowded in the foyer with 17 other people.
And how did I reach out to him? By asking if he would take my photo on the chair I made out of my baggage:
After that train ride, and a night in Trivandrum, and a rickshaw ride to the airport, and a cross-country flight, and then another rickshaw ride, I entered the capital of Rajastan, the Land of Kings. I only had one day in Jaipur, the Pink City, so I picked one place to really see and enjoy. I went to the Hama Majal- The Palace of the Winds-billed by my guidebook as "Jaipur's most distinctive landmark". The more I read about it, my choice seemed even more relevant. Maharaja Sawaj Pratap Singh had it built in 1799 as a place where the royal ladies could look out and see the city from a place of safety.
The Hama Majal turned out to be a refuge for my royal self also. Within ten seconds of descending from the rickshaw at the entrance, I was accosted by a local merchant who didn't want to sell me anything, just show me a nice view of the place. "Free of charge," he said more than once, so I went.
As we took in the nice view, he told me about his studies of yoga and Ayurveda medicine. Then he asked me if I wanted to see his shop. "Five minutes," he said.
Carried along by the current of his personality, I went with him into a back room filled with jewelry, tapestries, and Rajastani puppets. He had offered chai, and now also offered "rum, vodka, whiskey?" He added that he'd smoked all his marijuana, but he could get me some by evening. I stuck with the chai.
Of course my new friend did want to sell me something, opening dozens of boxes of jewelry for me to peruse while he got the tea. When he returned, we drank the tea and he offered me a free massage so he could practice his skills. I hemmed and hawed, not having a quick excuse at the ready.
"Don't you like massage?" he said.
I looked at my watch. "Palace is almost closing," I said, grateful for this. Fortunately, the Palace charged admission, so I was able to leave without my eager new friend. (Though I did now have his card, a dinner and/or massage invitation, and two pair of earrings.)
Inside the Hama Majal, I immediately thought of my photographer friends, how I wished they were there to dig into the visual feast with me. The smooth curves of scalloped doorways, the tiny peek-a-boo shuttered windows, the honeycombed windows of flower design--all served as wonderful details for my meditation.
This is a good moment.
This is a good moment.
And this, too, is a good moment.
My favorite moment was at the top, looking out over the Pink City. I expected to see the pink stone glowing in the setting sun, but I was surprised by the hundreds of kites lifting up into the sunset winds. Too small to be captured on my screen, the kites danced in the air like bits of confetti, celebrating the victory of our living through another day.
I realize that I'm posting this blog on the first day of a new year, a time of hope and promise when some of us resolve to be better, and some simply try to recover from holiday celebrations. However, the masters tell us that there are no years, but only moments. Our duty, then, is to frame each one so that we can fully absorb its beauty.