May 10, 2018

Empty Your Cup

When we’re full of ourselves, art cannot flow through us, neither can our richest experience of life. Often when I’m teaching a photography workshop, there is an initial discomfort among participants around ’emptying their cup’. Everyone has brought expectations, preconceived ways of seeing, established ideas about photography, themselves, and often a serious agenda for the week ahead. Much of our initial work is around emptying our cups so as to open ourselves to the discovery of letting our subjects speak to us, to see beyond the obvious and ordinary. A Zen tale many of you may have heard speaks to this:

“A scholar went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the scholar talked knowingly about Zen. The master poured the scholar’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The visitor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s full! No more will go in!” he blurted. “This is you,” the master replied, “How can I teach you anything unless you first empty your cup.”

It’s very similar to the concept of beginner’s mind, or ‘no mind’, referring to the most fertile territory for creative expression. It’s about seeing clearly, without filters. It’s about letting the pictures find you. This can be a very difficult idea to put into practice, but when you have the experience of what it feels like, it’s incredibly enlivening, and carries over in to all aspects of daily life. The above image found me, while photographing among the ruins of Ex Hacienda Jaral de Berrio, one of the largest haciendas in Mexico in its day. Certainly not what I was intending, but that much more thrilling nonetheless.

Here’s a tip:

In the early morning, after you’ve literally emptied your cup of coffee or tea, try getting out for a walk with your camera while your mind is in an relatively empty, uncluttered state. I often do this as a form of meditation before I start my day. Empty your mind of preconceived ideas, wander freely; really ‘see’ as a practice—light, texture, color, whimsy, abstraction. You can begin fresh in any moment. Early morning light is magical. Go with the flow wherever your noticing takes you, with no agenda. I promise you’ll surprise yourself.


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