The Inner Path to Mindful Photography

A photographic adaptation of Eugen Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery”

Intuition, resonance, vision…the decisive moment.  These are the goals the mindful photographer strives for in their unending and almost mythical quest to move beyond looking into seeing.

But how are we to become mindful when we are constantly mired down in technical execution.  For no matter how philosophical our approach, there are certain photographic realities, limitations and constraints that can’t be ignored.

One cannot simply aim the camera in some random direction based on an intuitive feeling and nothing more—and expect that the image will somehow transcend itself.

So how then, can the mindful photographer move beyond these limitations—allowing the spiritual, intuitive and self-actualized side of the craft to reveal itself?  Yes, we can never fully detach ourselves from the technical.  But we can embrace and move beyond it.

In my adaptation below, I attempt to explore and answer some of these perplexing questions on what it means to be a mindful photographer. I do not attempt to provide all the answers, but rather a greater path to our own understanding.

One of the most profound books I have ever read on the subject comes from a renowned German philosopher named Eugen Herrigel.

From 1924 to 1929 while teaching philosophy at a Japanese university, he underwent an intensive six-year course of Kyūdō  (archery) instruction from a prominent Master named Awa Kenzo—hoping to further his understanding of Zen.  In 1948, he published his findings into “Zen in the Art of Archery,” which is widely regarded as one of the most insightful books ever written on the topic of Eastern Zen arts philosophy and spiritualism.

Although this book is primarily about archery, I was able to draw many parallels to photography—and have attempted to adapt some of Herrigel’s original thoughts so that we may further our own spiritual understanding of the craft.

When adapting this, I asked myself…what would Master Kenzo have said to Herrigel if he had been aiming a camera instead of a bow and arrow?  Surprisingly, the answers were remarkably similar.


Like in archery as in other revered Far Eastern arts such as the tea ceremony or flower arrangement, photography should not be intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyment, but as a means to train the mind; to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.  Mindful photography, therefore, should not be practiced solely for the goal of capturing the perfect image, or even as a means of becoming more visually attuned to our surroundings, just as the swordsman does not wield the sword just for the sake of outdoing his opponent.  As Herrigel points out, the mind has first to be attuned to the unconscious.

If one really wishes to become a master of mindful photography, technical understanding is not enough.  One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an “artless art” growing out of the unconscious.

Frew Mill, PA
Frew Mill, PA

So what does this mean for the mindful photographer?  In Zenful terms, it means that the photographer and the process of image capture are no longer two opposing objects, but one reality.  The photographer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaging in the act of taking the picture.  This state of unconsciousness can only occur when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill. As soon as we reflect, deliberate and conceptualize, the original unconsciousness is lost and thought interferes.

Man is a thinking reed, yet his great photographic works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. “Childlikeness” in vision has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness. When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think; he presses the shutter with intent; yet he still is able to draw upon this action with intuition and spontaneity. He thinks like the tree sprouting forth from a seed; the wind blowing through a field; the water streaming over rocks; or the bird gracefully soaring over treetops. Indeed, he becomes the tree, the wind, the water and the bird.

Essence of the Elk (Hoh Rainforest, Washington State)
Essence of the Elk (Hoh Rainforest, Washington State)

In photographic terms, we aim not to hit the tangible goal such as achieving perfect exposure or composition, but the spiritual one—one which requires us to essentially aim at ourselves.  To achieve this, one must be “pure” in heart and untroubled by subsidiary aims such as where to focus or what aperture to use.

To aim at oneself photographically speaking may be a difficult and intangible concept to grasp—for the goals of image capture are so plainly obvious. And no matter how Zen-like our approach, technical execution is still required—just as a race car driver must control the wheel, braking and acceleration when circling the track—or otherwise face injury and even death.

For in Zen, aiming at ourselves essentially means focusing on what our soul reflects, yet not on ourselves; to become simultaneously what our spirit projects and at the same time what we are looking at.  Eastern masters relate this to the archer who finds it necessary to, in spite of themselves, to become an unmoved center.  And in doing so, art becomes “artless.”

For photographers, capturing images becomes not-shooting; image capture without a camera; the master photographer a beginner; the end the beginning; and the beginning perfection.

The roots of mindful photography can be traced to Zen (Dhyana) Buddhism, where through methodical immersion in oneself leads to one becoming aware in the deepest grounds of their soul.  And through much practice, repetition and trial and error, the art of photography can move to the “artless arts.

These mystical exercises in no circumstances mean accomplishing anything outwardly with our camera, but only inwardly through ourselves. The act of using the camera and taking pictures therefore becomes a pretext for something that could just as well happen without us—and should be viewed as only the way to the goal, but not the goal itself.

Throughout his six years of archery training, Herrigel was constantly amazed at how Master Kenzo made the drawing of the stiff bow seem so effortless, so beautiful, so spiritual.  For Herrigel, the motions required tremendous effort. For like a camera, how is it possible that some photographers can take compelling images with so little effort; can see the masterpiece hiding within the tangled branches of a tree—yet others seem to struggle as if they had a different set of eyes?

If Master Kenzo were talking to us, he might explain that the key to letting go and relaxing can be found in the breathing; to slow the breath into a rhythm that allows it to gradually settle itself. If it is done properly, the seeing will become easier every day.  For through this relaxed breathing, you will discover the source of all spiritual strength, which will also cause this source to flow more abundantly, and to pour more easily through your limbs and eyes. The breathing binds and combines; by holding your breath you make everything go right; and the breathing out loosens and completes by overcoming all limitations.

So why then, are we still unable to relax to the point where the subject and composition reveal themselves to us?  As Master Kenzo explained to Herrigel, “That’s the problem, you’re making an effort to think about it.  Concentrate entirely on your breathing, as if you had nothing else to do.”  After much practice, the concept started to sink in for Herrigel.  He even personally reflected that, “I sometimes had the thought that I myself was not breathing but—strange as this may sound, being breathed.”

“You must hold the drawn bowstring like a child strongly gripping a mother’s finger,” said Master Kenzo to his pupil. “It grips it so firmly that one can only marvel at the strength of the tiny fist.  And when it lets the finger go to grab hold of something new, there is not the slightest jerk. Why?  Because the child does not think. The child does not think because it does this unconsciously, without purpose.”

If Master Kenzo were speaking to a photographer, he might say, “The right shot at the right time does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfillment, but brace yourself for failure. So long as that is so, you have no choice but to call forth something yourself that ought to happen independently of you. And so long as you call it forth, your finger will not depress the shutter at the decisive moment and your vision will be obscured.”

Still confused, Herrigel explained to Master Kenzo that ultimately, he draws the bow and lets go of the shot in order to hit the target.  The drawing is thus a means to an end, and therefore a connection Herrigel couldn’t readily ignore. Could a photographer not make the same argument when discussing the technical requirements necessary to take a picture?  For how is it possible to take a picture if there is not a conscious decision to press the shutter, or the technical intent required to achieve a certain creative outcome?

The “right art” is purposeless, aimless said Master Kenzo to his willing student.  The more obstinately you try and learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one, and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have too much willful will.  You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.

Still confused, Herrigel asked the Master for advice. “You must wait properly,” said Master Kenzo.  “The key is to let go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeful tension.  If the shot is to be loosed right, the physical loosing must be continued by a mental and spiritual loosing, so as to make the mind not only agile, but free; agile because of its freedom; and free because of its original agility.”

The demand that the door to the senses be closed is not met by energetically turning away from the sensible world, but rather by a readiness to yield without resistance. In order that this action-less activity may be accomplished instinctively, the soul needs an inner hold, and it wins it by concentrating on the breathing.  The more one concentrates on the breathing, the more the external stimuli fade into the background.  The only successful way to render disturbances inoperative is to keep on breathing quietly, to enter into friendly relations with whatever you’re gazed on—whether a tree or a street scene.  If you do this correctly, the soul is brought to the point where it vibrates of itself into itself—a serene pulsation which can be likened to a rare dream—where one feels extraordinary lightness, and the rapturous certainty of being able to summon up creative energies in any direction.  Mindful photographer Minor White called this feeling “resonance.”

Kebler Pass, Colorado
Kebler Pass, Colorado

This state, in which nothing definite is thought, planned, striven for, desired or expected, which aims in no particular direction and yet knows itself capable alike of the possible or impossible, so unswerving is its power—this state which is at bottom purposeless and egoless is called by masters as “spiritual.” It is charged with spiritual awareness and is also called “right presence of mind.”  The mind and spirit is present everywhere, because it is nowhere attached to any particular place.  And it can remain present because, even when related to this or that subject, it does not cling to it by reflection and thus lose its original mobility. This state is basically a primordial state, and its symbol, the empty circle of Zen, is not empty of meaning for him who stands within it.

Out of the fullness of this presence of mind, disturbed by no ulterior motive, the mindful photographer who is released from all attachment must practice the art.  But if he is to fit himself self-effacingly into the creative process, the practice of the art must have the way smoothed for it—so that the art becomes instinctive.  For this is the key to becoming a mindful photographer.

Practice, repetition, and repetition repeated with ever-increasing intensity are necessary to find the way.  One cannot just pick up the camera and expect to take a compelling image—even if the technology practically takes the picture for us. One must learn how to speak the technical language of the camera, mastering foundational and artistic concepts such as depth of field, dynamic range, design, composition, lighting, exposure, behavioral nuances and more.

Autumn in West Virginia
Autumn in West Virginia

The first task therefore is to become a skilled photographic artisan with sovereign control over ones craft and camera; to grow more capable of following inspiration without technical effort.  Like a painter, the hand that guides the brush must catch and execute what floats before the mind at the same moment the mind began to form it—and in the end, the painter no longer knows which of the two is responsible for the work (the hand or the mind).

Sunk without purpose in what he is doing, the mindful photographer is brought face-to-face with that moment when the work, hovering before him in ideal gestures, moments, lines, shapes, colors, tones, textures, contrasts and light, realizes itself as if of its own accord.

Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park, Maine

The right frame of mind for the mindful photographer is only realized when the preparing and the creating; the technical and the artistic; the material and the spiritual; the project and the object; flow together without a break.

And once one finds photographic success, one has to be careful not to get stuck in the achievement, which is confirmed with success and magnified by renown. In other words, behaving as if the artistic existence were a form of life that bore witness to its own vitality.

This requires a state of true selflessness, in which the doer cannot be present any longer as “himself.”  Only the spirit is present; a kind of awareness that shows no trace of ego; a state in which the photographer, the art, the work are all one.

Like snow falling from a bamboo leaf, the shutter must be pressed at the point of highest visual tension (the decisive moment), before you even think it. But often, this does not happen because the photographer worries unnecessarily. Put the thought of finding the perfect shot right out of your mind. You can be a master even if every shot is not perfect.  Our best shots are only the outward proof and confirmation of our purposelessness at its highest, of our egolessness, our self-abandonment.

Herrigel still confused, asked the Master, “how is it possible to hit the target without aiming?”  To which the Master replied, “There are correspondences in nature that can’t be understood.  The spider dances her web without knowing that there are flies that will get caught in it.  The fly, dancing nonchalantly on a sunbeam, gets caught in the net without knowing what lies in store.  But they are both united in this dance.  So, too, the archer hits the target without having aimed—more I cannot say.”

It is not at least conceivable that after all your years of practiced photography, you involuntarily raise the camera with the certainty of a sleepwalker, so that, although you do not consciously take aim when depressing the shutter, you must achieve the perfect shot—you simply cannot fail to get it.

You already know that you should not grieve over bad shots; learn now not to rejoice over the good ones.  You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity, to rejoice as though not you but another had pressed the shutter.  This too, you must practice unceasingly.

Camera, vision, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that you can no longer separate them.  And even the need to separate has gone.  For as soon as you take the camera and aim, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so ridiculously simple.

Ok, let me pull you back for a second.  Herrigel’s book also includes a passage from Zen Master Takuan, who wrote a piece called, “The Unmoved Understanding” where the connection between Zen and the art of swordsmanship were explored. It was translated by D.T. Suzuki.  Like with archery, there are many parallels and similarities to draw upon…

Among photographers, on the basis of their own and their pupils’ experience, it is taken as proved that the beginner, however driven and creative he is, and however confident he may be at the outset, loses not only his lack of self-consciousness but his self-confidence, as soon as he starts taking lessons or learning more about the technical underpinnings of photography.

He gets to know all the technical possibilities by which he can envision and capture a photograph. And although he soon becomes capable of straining his attention to the utmost, of keeping a sharp watch on life unfolding before his eyes and other photographic possibilities at every turn, he is really worse off than before (when he would photograph at random under the inspiration of the moment and as his joy suggested).  He is now forced to admit that his mastery (or lack thereof) is at the mercy of everyone who is more creative, more technically versed, and more practiced than he.  So he sees no other option than to ceaselessly practice.  So the beginner photographer stakes everything on surpassing the others and even himself.  He acquires brilliant camera technique which gives him back some self-confidence, and he thinks he is drawing closer to the desired goal—although the instructor thinks otherwise—since all the skill of the beginner only leads to his “heart being snatched away by the camera.”

Why does the pupil not become a master photographer despite his zeal and inborn skill?  Because the pupil cannot stop looking for the perfect shot; that he is always thinking how he can best come at any given scene technically, waiting for the perfect moment to reveal itself.  In short, he relies all the time on his art and knowledge.  By doing so, he loses his presence of heart.  The decisive moment or clear vision always comes too late.  The more he tries to make the brilliance of his camerawork dependent on his own reflection, on the conscious utilization of his skill, on his photographic experience and technique, the more he inhibits the “free” working of the heart.  He must learn to become purposeless and egoless, self-regardless.  He must be taught how to be detached not only from his environment and his camera, but from himself.  He must pass through the stage he is still at and leave it behind him for good, even at the risk of irretrievable failure.

The pupil must develop a new alertness for all his senses, which will enable him to move beyond looking into seeing. Once he has mastered this art of passive visual sensitivity and enhanced acuity, he no longer needs to watch with undivided attention the movements of nature and life unfolding before him; he no longer needs to be tethered to his camera and all his settings.  Rather, he sees and feels what is going to happen without there being “a hair’s breadth” between perceiving and acting.  This, then, is what counts: a lightning reaction which has no further need of conscious observation.

Like archery, much patience, much heartbreaking photographic practice is needed.  But once this practice has led to the goal, the last trace of self-regard vanishes in sheer purposelessness.

What is true of archery and swordsmanship indubitably applies to photography and other arts. Thus, mastery in ink-painting is only attained when the hand, exercising perfect control over technique, executes what hovers before the mind’s eye at the same moment when the mind begins to form it, without there being a “hair’s breadth” between.  Painting then becomes spontaneous calligraphy.  Here again the painter’s instruction might be:  spend ten years observing bamboos, become a bamboo yourself, then forget everything—and paint.  Under the influence of Zen, his proficiency becomes spirit, and he himself, grown ever freer through spiritual struggle is transformed.  Looking at Zen through this lens, the camera becomes our soul—and photography truly embodies the concept of “painting with light.”

Lincoln Creek, CO
Lincoln Creek, CO

Every master who practices an art molded by Zen is like a flash of lightning from the cloud of all-encompassing truth.  This truth is present in the free movement of his spirit and in his nameless essence.

If he is irresistibly driven towards this goal, he must set out on his way again, take the road to the artless arts.  He must dare to leap into the origin. He must become a pupil again, a beginner; undergo a new transformation.  Only then, can he emerge reborn as the Mindful Master of Photography he has always aspired to become.

Tagged with: