Cirrus Above Thiksey

In the summer of 2013 I had the fortune of travelling to Ladakh, India, a remote Himalayan kingdom that is now far Northwestern India, bordered by Pakistani controlled Kasmir and Chinese controlled Tibet.  Ladakh’s high desert rises from valley floors at 12,000 feet to the mountain peaks at 20,000ft. Water from the Indus River is skillfully directed through lush fields then on to irrigate countless other valleys in India. The Ladakhis live in carefully organized communities of adobe homes where they maintain cattle and yak, pashmina goat herds, make mud bricks for export, hone their traditional crafts, keep cultural ways of life and practice an intense spirituality.  It is a place where monasteries seem to float above military bases and vast expanses that shimmer in the intense, clear light. Translated as “The Land of High Passes” Ladakh is a region of sunshine and snow, of dark temples and bright spirits.

I happened to meet fellow photographer Christopher Michel in Delhi when he was doing what he does best, photographing people with his happy-go-lucky-how-could-you-say-no direct approach.  We happened to have the same somewhat unusual camera and lens combo so I struck up a conversation.  Little did I know we would be traveling to the same place and often shooting standing shoulder to shoulder with several thousand other people.

Faster and Faster

One hundred and fifty thousand ethnic Tibetans were gathering in Ladakh for the ancient Kalachakra ceremony, a two thousand year old ten-day teaching given by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.  I went as a student of life, to see and experience with camera in hand but no specific assignment or shot list.  It was not easy.  The mid-summer heat of India was as hard on the equipment as it was on the attendees.  It was difficult to breathe, move, and photograph in the dust, smoke, heat and an international crowd of so many, packed into a tight space and hurrying over long distances to get there.  There were near mob-scene moments as well as times of great kindness that transcended language barriers.  The intense sun cast deep shadows in the desert while the traditional adobe architecture had dark interiors often only illuminated with butter lamps and a single strong shaft of light.  The experience was overwhelming and required great openness to each moment, the physical stamina to endure heat and altitude as well as the willingness to play well with others.  

Every extra moment from sunrise to starry night was spent exploring the stupa fields, monasteries, city of Leh and village life with friends met along the way.  Chris’ focus on the essence of each moment was an inspiration and his photographs reflect his incisive eye, whether the subject was people or place. During the two weeks in Ladakh we did not share work or even review our own images.  There was limited electricity for anything beyond charging batteries.  Several weeks later I happened to come across a blog article about Chris’ work in Ladakh and immediately suggested a collaborative show to benefit Tibetan culture at Tibet House US.  Fortunately Chris agreed to my out-of-the-blue request and the curator of Tibet House US, Zola Nyambuu, was happy with the show we proposed.  So began the coincidental collaboration of “Envisioning Ecstasy.”

The show has forty black and white photographic prints of landscape, portraits and details of Ladakh during the Kalachakra.  These range from arid desertscapes to lush irrigated fields reflecting the mountains.  There are images from the Kalachakra as well as incongruous graffiti overlooking the capitol city, Leh.  Curious camels, luminous nightscapes and the famously painted Indian trucks balance the spiritual iconography.  A traveling circus with a lotus-decorated ferris wheel loomed above the vast desert providing an unforgettable personal and photographic experience.

“Envisioning Ecstasy” also has a conceptual aspect in the form of eleven large-scale lumenographic prints based on illustration based photographs originally sketched during the Kalachakra.  Two projected animations bring these drawings to life and complete the show. The story behind many of the documentary images was captured in Chas Curtis’ keen videograpy.  Chas’ evocative timelapses and captivating clips from ceremony to circus were seamlessly edited into a luminous video interview by Kyle Ruddick. The video is a multi-media presentation of “Envisioning Ecstasy” and will be screened at the opening. The show is accompanied by a catalog, Envisioning Ecstasy and a clothbound book, 108 Visions : Ladakh During the Kalachakra, thoughtfully designed by Michael Motley, which offers glimpses of the journey from small details to sweeping vistas.  Books and print sales benefit Tibet House US, which brings the concept of collaboration full circle. 

CCrowell_ClearLightMind_425px copy

All of this work was greatly enhanced by John Paul and Seth’s dynamic duo Art of Processing and Art of Creativity. The workshops are an intense immersive experience for honing artistic vision, voice and direction.  And of course any workshop with JP and Seth is a lesson in that all important art of playing well with others, one of my favorite photographic mantras.  Photography is often seen as a solitary pursuit and though it has it’s quiet moments, communal creativity widens the collective perspective. This golden rule underpins the entire show of “Envisioning Ecstasy.” 

“Envisioning Ecstasy” opens at Tibet House US, New York, May 20 from 6-8pm and is on exhibit until June 26. Two publications will be released for the show: a catalog, “Envisioning Ecstasy,” and a hardcover book, 108 Visions: Ladakh During the Kalachakra.  Please contact Tibet House US regarding show information and books. 

Learn more about Envisioning Ecstacy on The Leica Blog.

Find out more about Cira Crowell here.

Read more Alumni Success Stories here.

All Religions Practice Forms Of Meditation

August 27, 2012 | Comments Off on All Religions Practice Forms Of Meditation |

All religions practice forms of meditation.

While many religions offer the same essential practices, each religion has its unique orientation; drawing on its own special symbols, stories, and teachings; favoring certain practices, subjects, and goals.

The five major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all practice forms of meditation.

Meditation in Hinduism

Meditation plays a part in all aspects of Indian spiritual life, to greater and lesser degrees depending on the individual practitioner, his or her chosen path and stage of life.

The term Hindu means India, a highly diverse country with a long history that has many interwoven traditions, including Buddhism. Hinduism does not have one founder or a single text. It’s central texts include The Upanishads (a treatise on the nature of God-head), The Bhagadva-Gita (a treatise on man’s worldly duty), and the sagas of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata (spiritual principles described through action).

India is best know for is unique contributions to spiritual practice, Yoga and its accompanying teaching the Sutras of Patanjali. There are Eight Limbs Of Yoga; Abstention – Yama; Observance ¬– Niyama; Posture – Asana; Breath Control – Pranayama; Sense Withdrawal – Pratyahara; Concentration – Dharana; Meditation – Dhyanan; Contemplation – Samadhi. Each limb of yoga is emphasized in different forms; Jhana – intellectual study; Bhakti –devotion and love; Karma – religious performance; Hatha – physical mastery; Raja control of the mind; Laya – activating subtle energies. Equally valid, each approach is considered better suited for different types of people, yet all people may practice all forms of yoga, to varying degrees and at different stages of life.

Hinduism’s belief in reincarnation is essential for their philosophy. It would take many lifetimes to fully experience all of the Hindu spiritual practices; cloistered monks, devotees of specific deities, practitioners of yoga, wandering ascetics, and psychic showmen.

Meditation in Buddhism

Meditation is so central to Buddhism (a long-standing and varied tradition which offers the most highly developed systems of meditation) that many people think of meditation as a Buddhist practice.

Buddhist meditation practices include …

Buddhism evolved from the meditations of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who renounced his status opting for a life of ascetic practice that led to his becoming the Buddha or fully enlightened one. Buddha identified eight principles (The Noble Eightfold Path) that develop the fully realized state of a person; right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, right meditation.

There are three major schools of Buddhism – and many minor ones. The Hinayana School (considered the “lesser vehicle”)(Found predominantly in Asia, its texts are mainly written in Pali.) aims at bringing enlightenment to individual practitioners. The Mahayana School (considered the “greater vehicle”)(Found predominantly in Tibet and Japan, its texts are mainly written in Sanskrit.) aims to bring enlightenment to all sentient beings. The Vajrayana School (considered the “indestructible vehicle”) presents the most esoteric practices.

Another notable school, Zen Buddhism (a branch of The Mahayana School) began in the 6th century with the teachings of Bodhidharma. Zen attempts to reveal truth by disrupting the illusions, strengthened by conventional concepts and philosophies, which influence our perceptions, expectations, and responses. Zen offers a unique form of meditation call the koan, a puzzle without an apparent answer.

Meditation in Judaism

The Hebrew word Qabalah means both to receive and to reveal. Both a metaphysical doctrine and philosophy, the tradition within a tradition of Qabalah is a symbolic code designed to further practioner’s spiritual development. Students of the Qabalah transform their essential inner natures with the essential external Nature, by internalizing symbols and gradually absorbing their characteristics through meditation.

The central symbol of Qabalah is a cosmogram The Tree Of Life (Otz Chim) composed of eleven spheres (sephiroth), one of which is hidden, interconnected by twenty two pathways. Each sephira bears a different God-name, representing different aspects of the divine; The Crown, Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Severity, Mercy, Beauty, Victory, Glory, Foundation, Kingdom. Symbols are assigned to each sephira including title, name, image, color, and number.

Meditation awakens the higher faculties of the individual, transcending reason, and bringing the symbols to life.

Meditation in Christianity

Christian forms of meditation have a long history, though not all practices are accepted universally in all churches (including but not limited to Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Protestant, Episcopalian, Quaker, Shaker, and Gnostic). The Desert Fathers, early hermits who established the basis for the Christian withdrawn life either individually or in groups, used repeated prayer, either spoken or sung, with synchronized breathing to internalize the spiritual truths contained within them. The Eastern Orthodox traditions practice creating and using icons as a focus for meditation. The Jesuit traditions use visualization and imagination to respond in a deeply felt personal way to scenes from the life of Christ (including Nativity, Passion, Crucifixion, and Ressurection) and internalized the lessons that can be found within them. The simplest and most universal form of Christian meditation can be found in the practice of repeating prayers, either individually, together, or in a cycle.

Whether expressed through song, prayer, study or contemplation, focus is generally directed first towards the heart, producing a deeply felt understanding that suffuses the whole being.

Meditation in Islam

Rooted in the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad, Islam’s mystical path Sufism includes commentaries by masters and teachings from a wide range of esoteric traditions including the Zoroastrian, the Hermetics, and the Pythagoreans. It is further supplemented by a rich literary tradition that emphasizes poetry, allegory, and symbolic story. The arts reveal universal principles and everyday activities become vehicles for meditation – writing, calligraphy, geometry, architecture, dance, weaving, etc. Everything is considered sacred and unity is expressed everywhere.

The pupil teacher relationship is central to Sufi spiritual practice; only those who have been recognized by previous masters as masters (a chain that goes back to the prophet) have the authority to initiate pupils. Masters dictate meditation practices, which can vary substantially in the final form they take. The aim of meditiation (fikr) is to prevent the mind from going astray while the heart is focuses on God. The spoken word (prayer, chant, song) is heavily emphasized as an active invocation of God through repetition of the Holy Names (zikr).

Meditation in Other Religions

Many other spiritual traditions have practices that are identical in form and function to these practices. And they offer many more. How similar these divergent practices are to meditation is often a matter of degree. The discussion of how similar some of these practices are is useful. While not unrelated, trance states, often involving a loss of self-awareness, can be distinctly different. Similarly, altered states of mind induced by chemical agents can be similar in many ways but are also distinctly different in others. Meditation rarely, if ever, involves a loss of self-awareness or control; quite the opposite, it almost always heightens both.

Despite the fact that meditation can take many forms, universal principles can be found in all systems. The whole being (body, mind, emotion) is actively applied, through a variety of focus points, to develop awareness, insight, and transformation.

Find more posts on meditation here.


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