I am pleased to introduce to you Christine Valters Paintner and her new book Eyes of the Heart. I read the book because of my belief that photography can increase both our mindfulness and our ability to attend to ourselves, others, and our world. The book shows us why and how the way of seeing facilitated by photography can be valuable. I asked Christine a few questions that may be of interest to conflict professionals.
The law can be a very stressful profession. In Todd Kashdan's book Curious, he talks about the relationship between curiosity and anxiety: the more curious one is, the less anxiety he or she will be experiencing. In your book, you talk about the promotion of curiosity through photography. Will you say more about that, please.
Curiosity is a wonderful quality which promotes spacious inquiry. Rather than needing to figure everything out and extract the answers, through curiosity we can hold ourselves open to new possibilities. To be curious means to let go of my own expectations about how things should be and discover what is really there. It means softening my desire to be right and listen into new ways of thinking and being.
Since reading your book, I have repeated in conversations several of the points you made. People seem uniformly intrigued with the notion of receiving photos rather than taking them. Please explain that to readers.
This is one of my favorite aspects of talking about photography specifically as a contemplative practice. Our favorite and common language for photography is “taking” a photo. We use it all the time without much thought as to the deeper meaning of the words. But we live in a culture of taking, where we often grasp at things we want, look for life to meet our desires of the moment, feel impatient when things don’t go our way.
To “receive” a photo means to shift our intention in the process of creating an image. For me, receiving is about acknowledging that all of life is a gift. When I go for a walk with my camera, rather than look around me thinking about what images I can take, what kinds of beautiful things I can record as a trophy to my experience, I try to cultivate this sense of receiving gifts. I pay attention to moments that shimmer before me, even if I don’t understand exactly why. Something calls to me, stirs my energy, quickens me and I create a sense of spaciousness to receive that through the lens of the camera to see what might be revealed to me.
Mediators and other conflict professionals often use the process of reframing. How can your approach to photography help a person to become better at reframing in other arenas besides photography?
My hope is always that the practices in the book will spill over into daily life. We move through life telling ourselves a lot of stories. Some of these stories might be true, but more often they are based on our own limited vision of life, or from a wound we experienced long ago and we have frozen ourselves in that place.
Think about something simple, like you are running late for an appointment. Perhaps your mind starts to construct stories about what will happen if you arrive late. You will disappoint your boss, you will be reprimanded and humiliated, you will not get the promotion you wanted, and you will disappoint your spouse again. Your own version of this story will differ, but we all create this kind of narrative in response to anxiety in our lives. When we reframe, we acknowledge that the story we are telling ourselves may not be the full truth, and as such may not be especially helpful.
Another example from my own life: I spent many years dealing with a serious chronic illness. The story I had developed about myself took into account this reality and my limitations. For a long time, this was actually a helpful way for me to honor what I could and could not take on. However, as I gradually began to heal and have more energy and ability, the old story still stayed for a long time, until one day I was able to “reframe” my experience and begin to see what I am really capable of.
We can learn this from photography by paying attention to how we frame things within the lens and noticing the patterns and thoughts which arise in response. Slowly we might become more aware of the lens we use in daily life and which patterns are helpful, and which are restricting our freedom or creating even more anxiety.
Conflict is often seen as a problem and lack of perfection in a situation. Your description of wabi sabi reminded me of broken relationships. Do you think an understanding of wabi sabi could be helpful to parties in conflict?
I think that is a lovely connection Stephanie. I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that way before. The beauty of wabi sabi for me is the reminder that there is much grace in the things that are decaying or dying, in the scenes where things feel messy or in disorder.
Conflict is a healthy meeting of different needs when both parties are allowed to have their own experience, but also honor the other person’s right to have a different experience. If we see the beauty in the conflict, perhaps we could approach it with more reverence and respect, and see that we actually need to move through the discomfort of it to come to a place where everyone is heard and mutually honored. I am a big believer in the grace of being uncomfortable and how that can stretch us in new ways, to welcome in new perspectives.
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, is the online Abbess at Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery and community for contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of 7 books on art and monasticism, including her latest, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (Ave Maria Press). Christine currently lives out her commitment as a monk in the world with her husband in Galway, Ireland.
The "grace of being uncomfortable." What a nice description of true conflict resolution! I thank Christine for her thoughts above and for her excellent book. If you have not already done so, I recommend that you read Eyes of the Heart.