Truth and the camera

What is truth? I can’t pretend to answer this in its complex philosophical entirety, but I could try to talk about my memories of a walk at sunset. I did this walk alone. I did not meet anyone at all. I carried a camera. If I hadn’t used it, the only truth would be my memory of the walk. The core of that truth is that my mind was roiling when I started, and at peace when I finished. The truth of the images from my camera should then capture the events that changed my mind. It was the sunset and my attempt to capture that fading light. The deliberate concentration on a problem I could solve was what settled my mind.

The mind is very fickle, turbulent, strong, and obstinate. It is like the wind, impossible to control. … When all desires vanish in a state of thoughtfulness, when the inner self is satisfied within itself, then one is a master of a stable mind.

Dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, Bhagwat Gita

If you had little time, you could be satisfied with the simplest part of the truth, that a walk during a nice sunset put my mind at rest. The featured image would be enough. Nice lake, wooded path, colourful sunset. Restful. But that story hides a further truth. The image did not appear by itself. I worked at it. First, by selecting a viewpoint: have I got enough of the water? No, move a few steps. Now? Yes. But the colours in the camera are not what I see. So I’ll have to recreate them in post-processing. The featured photo is both memory and process. That is a larger truth.

Uncovering the image inside the shadows is hard. The inset in the image on the right shows what I could do quickly. Doing better than this might require a lot more time than I’m willing to spend.

But there is more to it, of course. The idea of capturing the reflection of the sunset in the lake came out of an idea which would not work. I took a photo of the fiery sky, the one which you see above. I meant to bring out the details from the darkness in software. That works often enough, but I realized that might not work here. So I would need the back up that you saw. I was right, and my earlier experiences taught me the necessity of the backup. I was completely immersed in the sunset I was participating in. So much so that I had dragged a part of my past into this sunset, forced the larger me to take part in that.

The truth that capturing what my eye saw required more than the software in the camera came a little earlier. As the sun set, the last lights fell on leaves high above me. My camera could not capture what I saw. If I zoomed into the leaves, the background became black. If I took a wider shot, then the dazzle of backlit leaves disappeared. So I decided to take the wider shot (the one on the right), then crop and edit it to get what I really saw (the shot on the left). The truth is the entirety of these photos: that it was concentration on what I saw, being in the moment, while being anchored in the continuity of myself that settled my mind.

But why was my mind unsettled to begin with? Because I had spent the golden hour of the day looking out on a brilliant landscape through the windows of a moving car. Separated from the world around me in this way, being able to connect only through random shots taken with my phone, I had been reduced to the role of an automaton. Was I merely a CCTV camera, programmed to record what came into view? A photograph is not just a record of what is in front of you, but a result of constant evaluation of many possibilities, discarding most, and capturing what is the truth in the mind’s eye. A photo requires a still mind in knowledge of itself, and a seeking towards an expression of that knowledge. That’s a zen truth, isn’t it?

Cut and paste

The Family makes a wonderful chana masala. Every time she makes a bunch I lap it up. When I meet a long lost friend from her years in the US, the second thing they say is how much they miss her chana masala. She uses very little oil these days, but the taste has remained the same. I asked her what the secret was, and she said “Cut and paste, that’s all.” Cut the onions and tomatoes. Puree them separately. Fry the onion paste till it is done. Add the tomato paste and cook it. Add a ginger and garlic paste; she makes it in bunches and stores them in jars in the fridge. Give them the same treatment. Add in the masala. “Which?” I interrupted. “The usual. Turmeric, jeera and dhania powder. Cook. Add the chana. Cook. Sprinkle powdered garam masala towards the end of the cook. Add some tamarind paste for the sour tang, or sometimes a bit of amchur (the mango gives a very special taste). You are done.

“No tea?” I asked. No, she likes the colour as it is. “It always tastes better the second day,” I told her. She’s noticed. Maybe if she smashes the chana a little during the cook, she muses. I don’t mind eating it the second day. “You didn’t say anything about the microgreens,” I persist. She’s still trying them out, and hasn’t arrived at something satisfactory.

The real secret is the time. She gives each ingredient the time and temperature it needs. You have to treat your food with respect and attention. I won’t be able to reproduce the same effect, because I haven’t felt the odour or seen the colour which tells me when to turn the heat up or down. You cook with your whole being, fully in the moment. It is zen. It is such a wonderful way to relax, almost up there with washing dishes.

Zen and the art of dish washing

Now in the lockdown, I have rediscovered an old joy, the joy of washing dishes. In my twenties, when I first started living by myself in a flat, I first discovered that nothing calmed me down as much as washing dishes. I would stand at the sink, in good light, and clean for an hour every evening, and feel wonderfully relaxed after that. I would lose myself in the simple process of scrubbing everything in the sink, then looking at each piece once more to see if it needed a second scrub to get rid of some stubborn stain. There was nothing automatic about it, my mind was constantly busy, examining differently shaped objects, looking for spaces where food could hide, changing scrubbers according to need, sometimes simply using muscle. There was no reason why this should have been calming: the constant identification and solution of a stream of problems. But it was.

Gratuitous photo of the door to a beautiful bungalow on a cliff in Landour; a reminder of inner peace achieved on a holiday spent walking and eating. Yes I found more than one path to contentment.

Many years later when I re-read Robert Pirsig’s cult classic (for a certain generation) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, it all came together for me. Zen, dhyana, is being mindful of the moment, immersing yourself completely in the simple flow of things, something that you find so absorbing, that it drives every thing else out of your mind. Zen can be anything: archery, chopping vegetables, mathematics, washing dishes, copy-editing a manuscript, cleaning out a cupboard, learning to play music just beyond your capability, mopping the floor. There is no need to listen to the obscure words of sages (If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, … Blake). The coronavirus has given me a wonderful new shot at achieving inner peace.