I have been coming to this three or four-mile stretch of Taughannock Creek for many years now, usually with the sole intention of doing some serious looking around. During these frequent visits I have also attempted to record photographically what is plainly there for anyone to see at just about any time of any day. There is nothing particularly heroic in this enterprise. I am not out to photograph perfect plant specimens or capture a salmon disappearing into the mouth of a grizzly bear fishing at the edge of a waterfall. I usually bring with me a beat-up single-lens-reflex digital camera, one or two lenses, and a tripod sturdy enough to steady a shot even in the middle of a strong spring current. I come here frequently because it is a beautiful place, and also because it is well within my bicycling reach whenever I feel the urge to spend some time where the wild is still apparent despite the ever-growing encroachment of human activity. The beauty and mystery of the wilderness pull me in, but awareness of the chaotic state of human society and the limitations of my own mind and actions also nudge me toward the creek. I am all well aware that what sits in the space between these two ears is not “my” brain, but the brain of humanity, a peculiar self-reflective organ overwhelmingly conditioned by the violent and sorrowful experience of the species during its entire pre-historical and historical journey. So, it is also the pain of my conscious participation in the appalling psychological, social, and ecological consequences of a largely irrational human mind that brings me into the silence of nature, seeking solace and healing. Far more than recreational relief, in my treks up and down Taughannock creek I seek an unvarnished perception of myself as an integral part of the human condition, and perhaps some insight into our mysterious presence in the cosmos. I do not know if there is a real solution to all the conflict and suffering that has afflicted the species since is first appeared on the face of the Earth, but it is clear that if such a solution is possible, it must involve an end to the deception and alienation affecting every individual brain and mind.
From the moment I enter the space enlivened by the little stream, I feel a subtle relief and a surge of energy, both of which grow with the amount of time I stay there, looking at everything. These effects did not come easily to me. After having spent the first forty years of my life in large urban centers, I lived off the grid for over a year in an isolated cabin in the Catskill Mountains. It was there that I was finally able to overcome the experience of boredom or fear that prevents so many people from ever spending any significant time in direct contact with nature. The characteristic craving for certainty and security of an overly self-concerned and culturally programmed mind had to somehow subside before the solemn indifference of the natural world would stop eliciting reactions of restlessness or dread that would cut short my excursions into the wild or debase them with mental chatter. A fully attentive visit to the wild denies the gnawing sense of loneliness and insecurity that typifies the overly civilized mind, the mind isolated, conditioned, and atomized by accumulated experience and book knowledge.
It took time and determination, but it finally became clear that to be at peace in nature required me to accept that the world, which is clearly not of my own making, cares nothing at all about what I know, think, fear, suffer, or desire. I am now able to remain quiet and alert when I am by the creek simply because I embrace the fact that to this place―and more generally to that immense part of reality that is not me―I am nothing. None of the cultural attributes and personal traits that make up my separate identity—who I may think I am and may want to become in the future—can resist being directly confronted with the withering anonymity of any part or aspect of the natural world, let alone with the impersonality of life as a whole, actual and potential. To be more specific, to the cosmic stream of life and death, as to the little stream that is the subject of this collection of photographs, it means absolutely nothing if I identify myself with any particular form of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism, or with any of the countless flavors of the spiritual or the atheistic. Matters and claims of personality, temperament, character, gender, age group, race, educational level, social class, nationality, political persuasion, professional specialization, or artistic or sporting preference so dominant in social life, are all irrelevant here. The creek and the universe that cradles it will not congratulate me for the achievements and gains of my past, nor console and council me about its many traumas, losses, and disappointments. Neither will anything here be in the least concerned with whatever labors and worries may be demanded by any dream I may harbor regarding future security and personal fulfillment. The point being that when the insignificance of one’s psychological presence is finally seen in the implacable mirror of nature’s indifference, resistance to the inscrutable all-inclusive embrace of life comes to an end. Then, with a spacious silence replacing the noise of self-concern in the mind, something else comes into being, something that cannot be captured by thought.
Total, undivided and unconditioned attention denies the hold that previous experience and future want habitually have on the mind. As a result, words and images (the currency of self-centered thought) stop constraining and distorting the open field of awareness. In that state of fearless, non-projective being, sitting quietly on some rock or walking up and down the flowing waters of the stream, solitude is not loneliness, but the timeless awareness of the anonymity of the whole of life. It is not that “I” witness a grand spectacle, but rather that, in the absence of a knowing observer, it is as though the stream of existence were seeing itself through the impeccable optics of attentive human eyes and a mind made lucid by the disappearance of past memories, present obligations, and future expectations.
In the breaching of the imaginary wall of existential separation by undivided attention, more than the creek and its cosmic moorings are illuminated. It also becomes evident that the same phenomenon of mental isolation that blocks proper perception of the complexity, cosmic scale, and beauty of nature is also the source of the irrationality of the human mind—the lunacy that has obstinately prevented the peaceful integration of the species. It is perhaps the greatest paradox of human existence that only a mind free from the particular point of view of a given identity can be fully aware of the personal and cultural atomization of humanity and the chronic disorder and suffering this absurd division necessarily generates. The same cognitive and sensory dullness that impedes seeing the universe in a sparkling drop of water also blinds us to one another, and to life itself, with terrible and self-perpetuating consequences. Only the shock of this realization can bring sanity to the mind and open our senses to the actuality and integrity of existence. There is no other way to properly regard and understand ourselves as the primary cause of our innumerable mental and social problems. Unless each one of us comes to see and understand our direct contribution to the species-wide illusion of separate personal and tribal existence, this illusion will continue to sustain itself over time through all the absurd attempts we make to find exclusive solutions to the very real physical and mental insecurity suffered by all.
It is nothing short of insane that after thousands of years of “progress” every human group still generally assumes that other groups and other life forms are separate, less valuable, and possibly threatening forms of independent existence. Is it not demented that so much of our individual time and energy is still dedicated to strengthening and expanding the cultural, economic, and psychological enclaves fragmenting humanity and keeping it eternally at odds with itself? Do we need better proof of the extent to which sectarian self-centeredness is still dimming our minds and senses than the lingering lack of global consensus regarding the threat to everyone’s physical security (and perhaps to the very survival of the species) posed by the damage our wildly overcompensating psychological insecurity is inflicting on the planetary web of life? The division between the largely isolated entity everyone calls “me” and most everything else bunched together as “not me” is not real. It is the product of a process of thought gone mad with ethnocentric egotism.
It might seem terminally depressing at first glance to realize that our own personal and tribal isolation is part of the general division of the species responsible for so much antagonism and sorrow. And there is no denying how difficult it is to see ourselves as personally responsible for the chronic suffering of humanity and our just as chronic incapacity to do anything decisive to put an end to it. But whatever pain may be involved in having the mask of personal innocence abruptly ripped off is more than warranted by the true intelligence and sensitivity that only this insight makes possible. The world does not come to an end with the realization that all our mental, relational, and global problems are caused by personal egotism and cultural dogmatism (both secular and religious), and that this causation will never be adequately seen, let alone deactivated, through further development and refinement of the same self-centeredness and dogmatic tribalism. In fact, something unthinkably different and infinitely more intelligent comes into being when the tight shell of the separate self is shattered by seeing things as they are. Only full awareness of the irrationality and consequent impotence of the self isolated by its particular mental programming has the power to reintegrate the human mind into the general matrix of life. This merging back of personal life with life as a whole certainly crushes our common sense of separate and unique existence, but the loss of an illusion is no loss at all, especially if it serves to place the enigma of impersonal human intelligence and love in the flowing stream of life where it naturally belongs.
Back in the creek nothing seems to care that it is a bright autumn afternoon in the middle of the week and that this man is just looking around and taking some photographs, when he ought to be doing something to improve his precarious financial and social standing instead. So, after some time wasted fretting about these things and making bad exposures despite the indifference of his host to issues of personal respectability, the self-consciousness of the guest starts to fade away, along with its attendant uncertainties and insecurities. As this happens, a certain quality of unknowing attention is suddenly present. Having no particular source and no certain object, it has the strange effect of calming the brain and sharpening the senses. This empty, impersonal mental state with its enhanced perception is not a rare mystical phenomenon. Everyone occasionally experiences moments in which the compelling vibrancy of whatever is actually happening clears up a mind habitually preoccupied with self-referential images and ideas. But such direct glimpses of life unmediated by mental representation generally end when the extraordinary stimulus that generated that level of attention goes away, or when after a while it triggers predetermined sanctions that automatically return the mind to the well-trodden path of self-centered and culturally controlled consciousness. Today at the creek however, the apprehension that millennia of mental conditioning have created for the preservation of the artificial self is strangely inoperative. In the absence of the guard dogs of fear and social norm, the fluid immensity of what is actual and therefore unknowable simply overwhelms the abstract flimsiness of the known. In other words, the mystery of what is actually happening at every instant imposes itself over the symbolic representations of the past, the present, and the future that create the self-propelling illusion of a unique identity with separate existence. When this occurs, when the observing subject located “inside” the mind disappears, along with its propensity to know and control a disparate collection of “outside” objects, all that is present is the undivided stream of life.
As though in response to this nonverbal and impersonal vision, the creek reveals its beauty with characteristic immodesty. After all, there is no one watching now. Again, with the limited and aberrant optics of representation no longer marring the line of sight, it is as though the stream itself were flowing through the eyes, carrying and revealing within and around itself the infinity of actual and potential existence. Everything appears related and infinitely revealing of everything else. The fallen leaves strewn everywhere seem especially evocative as they lay in splendid settings enlivening with their slow death the water of the stream and thereby the soil of forest and field. There is hardly any sense of where or who the one who is looking is, and in that highly attentive unselfconscious ignorance, the psychological distance between the seer and the seen melts away. Never again will there be a way to tell with certainty what and where the boundaries separating some parts of life from others are, let alone any insolent pretense of knowing how these parts are ranked in order of importance and causal power. Never again will the human body be seen as an isolated form determined by a localized set of relations and a skin sheath. Nor will the mind ever appear again as the psychological and cultural mirror in which the self sees itself distinguished by the dubious pedigree of a dead past and the false promises of an imagined future. It is somehow evident now that the body is one with the material universe, and that the mind is an integral part of the unthinkable unfolding of life and death as a whole.
Any profoundly intimate encounter with the wild (or with any other expression of the perceived “other,” for that matter) has the power to reveal to anyone that the multiple and contradictory realities created and sustained by tribal and personal thought are hardly even related to the living truth of existence. Contrary to what most traditions would have us believe, we are not primarily psychological entities belonging to particular cultural groups and existing in relative or absolute separation from the totality of life. Before anything else, we are —without exception— life itself. The notion of a separate personal and cultural existence is, of course, dominant in the realm of thought, and as such overwhelmingly corroborated by the equally atomized psychological, social, and physical reality of our world, but this reality is not truth. It is rather a powerful delusion created by the dysfunctional extension or infusion of the faculty of thought (with its otherwise useful abilities to abstract, identify, compare, rank, and project) into an imaginary entity claiming relative control of a separate and continuous existence. The isolated and self-mirroring psychological being produced by thought turning back upon itself has now for millennia unwittingly used the power of thinking to create and manipulate by means of words, numbers, images, and ideas, its own representational reality, as well as that of others, and of life itself. The countless mental maps that at every point of time and space replace the ever new (and therefore largely unknowable) flow of life are always limited and incomplete simply because cumulative knowledge and thought are in their very nature limited and incomplete. In knowing and projecting the world and itself, the self creates a prison of conflicted division, which it is then unable to leave. The individual person cannot escape the atomized thought on which it depends for its very existence. It literally cannot exist free of the division between itself and the attributes and content of the psyche, the physical and mental reality of others, and the nature of reality at large, all perceived as external to itself; that is, as objects relatively open to its knowledge, manipulation and control. Nor can the self escape the further division within itself created by a sense of psychological time in which three different versions or stages of “me” co-exist—namely, the self that was and is remembered; the self that interprets and evaluates the present with what it remembers of the past; and finally, the self that the same accumulated knowledge of the past imaginatively projects onto the future.
The division between the memory-based “me” and everything else necessarily creates confusion, conflict, and fear, and as a reaction to these unpleasant realities this division also generates the on-going process of gradual becoming presumably leading to better circumstances and a more pleasant state of mind in a made-up, idea-based future. In other words, caught in the very real insecurity, insufficiency, and uncertainty intrinsic to its existential and cultural isolation, the self compels itself to move toward an idealized version of itself expressed in terms of the security, status, love, power, and certainty that are now lacking and that only an illusory future can offer. So our fundamental problem is not only that the self is a dangerously alienated entity that exists mostly in the isolated realm of experience and knowledge-based mental representation, but that it forcefully sustains this imaginary existence through an intrinsically conflictive process of gradual becoming, determined by equally exclusive goals of imaginary self-realization. Whatever anyone projects onto the future as an improvement of the self—be it love, wealth, fame, nirvana, or a post-resurrection place at the right hand of god—is necessarily in contradiction with the conditioned and isolated reality of the self, and with similar goals guiding and motivating the private “progress” of other individuals and other groups. Recognizing that the pre-programmed mind is wired to miss direct confrontation with facts deemed unpleasant or dangerous, please allow me to restate this perception. Most human beings are engaged throughout their life in a permanent process of personal becoming through which each one hopes to maximize his pleasures and minimize his pains, giving little consideration, if any, to the fact that such psychological projections often contradict the fairly fixed memory from which they emerge—and in one way or another also clash against the claims and dreams through which others sustain their own version of the same exclusive and evolving fantasy of separate existence, struggling for a better state of consciousness. What is even worse, the disparate and contradictory “pursuit of happiness” of several billion self-centered individuals operating within equally separate and opposed nations and groups is increasingly on a collision course with ecological constraints—constraints that, barring a radical change in consciousness, will continue to make life more difficult, perhaps up to the point where it becomes outright impossible. Fortunately, this phenomenon of gradually evolving psychological isolation and cultural fragmentation is not totally invulnerable even though it is hermetically closed upon itself. A deep enough perception of its ideational roots and their self-projective malignancy can bring self-centeredness down, provided such insight does not emerge from memory and acting on behalf of a predetermined psychological goal. When personal memories and the dreams and ambitions they generate are finally seen for what they are—mental figments without actual substance but with dangerous consequences—they stop being the dominant feature of an otherwise naturally empty psychic field. In the ensuing vacancy of the mind, an entirely different mode of existence becomes apparent. In it, awareness is not an exclusively personal faculty, fruit of previous experience projecting self-serving modifications of known pain and pleasure onto the future. It is, rather, a most precious bloom of life permeating and in countless ways witnessing the unimaginable breadth and depth of its flow.
An impersonal awareness of life as a whole is not a difficult and distant goal demanding immense sacrifice and effort. It is rather something already firmly in place that manifests in full force with the realization that we have been conditioned to reduce our sense of actual participation in being mostly to the mental residue of what we have each experienced and learned, and that this reduction of life to proprietary knowledge has tragic mental, social, and ecological consequences. Let me unpack this a bit further. To know is to isolate and represent something with words, images, and numbers, and within certain limits our capacity to learn and to project our knowledge is essential, given that our physical well-being and very survival depend on a certain amount of scientific and practical knowledge. However, a self-reflective psyche that exists and acts primarily on the basis of personal experience and desire (biographical memory and the self-serving projection of that memory) is a permanent source of serious mental and relational problems, problems that as we have already mentioned will never be conclusively solved through further reforms and innovations that, being particular and limited, leave untouched the fundamental corruption of whole psycho-social system. It is fairly obvious that the knowledge used to repair a broken machine or heal a sick body often achieves the desired objective, but it is equally evident that knowledge and desire regarding oneself, another person, or the nature of reality itself are not equally useful in the elimination of mental distress, the creation of good relationships, or the final setting aside of the ideological and economic differences responsible for the everlasting grief of humanity. We desperately need to see that more and better knowledge and more ardent beliefs will never bridge the distance separating and antagonizing sectarian enclaves—all equally and tragically responsible for the sorrow of the species and for its habitual alienation from the mystery of life. Nor will proprietary knowledge and faith ever stop being a source of conflict between individuals bent on defending and imposing on others what they think and desire. At the most intimate level of the self, more and better knowledge and belief will never put an end to the futile struggle to heal the personal past or to realize the image of an absurdly idealized self.
Again, we may hate to be confronted with all this, but there is no way of getting around the fact that the more we know and own, and the more fervently we believe in anything, the more distant we stand psychologically from one another and the more meaningless and fragile everyone’s existence comes to be. If it were true that greater knowledge and more ardent faith are the key to our redemption, after so many centuries of “progress” should not we be healthier in mind, more compassionate in our relations with others, and less destructive of the environment? If identification with different secular and religious groups and ideologies were the true source of our physical and psychological security, as we generally think it is, should we still be living in a world racked by conflict and violence, and continue to be as prone as we still are to fear, depression, and other forms of mental suffering? Clearly, if exclusive attachments (to ideas, ideals, private property, and particular persons) were the key to freedom, security, and joy, we certainly would not be as trapped as we still are in substance abuse, overwork, and mindless secular and religious entertainment.
The current of life flows through the infinitely large and the infinitely small; it is subtly multidimensional and interpenetrating in ways that will never cease to resist representation, and hence never fail to boggle the knowledge-based mind. Existence is an unthinkably complex movement, simultaneously both living and dying, both giving birth and destroying what it has brought forth, all with the same unfathomable energy and creativity.
To see the totality of life is to perish in its creative fire for many reasons, but principally because the whole (manifest and non-manifest) does not grant the separate space and time needed for some “one” to stand apart “knowing” and attempting to control its unfolding nature. We are mortally afraid to look, and so do not generally ask how significant is the one who would suffer or even perish in this seeing. What treasure could we be possibly risking if we are all similarly limited and isolated, and equally blocking with our particular learned opacity the radical newness of everything at every instant and at every place? Coming even closer to the bone, it is imperative that we see that the division, violence, and sorrow that has characterized human existence for one hundred and fifty thousand years will never cease, unless what we each think we are and feel entitled to become is resolutely negated. What is there to fear, if our true common ground in life as a whole is infinitely greater than the fixed ideas and cruel ambitions that characterize, sustain, and antagonize our respective personal and cultural identities?
When the subject-object distinction created by the representational back-and-forth of self-centered thought disappears, the seer and the seen fuse in a common and vital innocence. This innocence is not idiotic obscurantism or mere naiveté. It is rather the natural and healthy state of a mind that, in abandoning the struggle to defend and fulfill a fraudulent separate existence, finds its real ground in the quiet rapture of undivided attention. For a mental field free of the compulsive labeling and comparative judgment characteristic of thought, there is no time-bound, self-conscious separation, only raw awareness—awareness that being all-inclusive, is not continuous, nor anything in itself. In this state of attentive impersonality, nothing moves, senses, or exists independently of anything else. Every “thing”—from elementary particles to full-blown galaxies—is alive and dying in energetic relation with everything else. Complete perception of this ultimately formless living relationship of unimaginable complexity, naturally cannot co-exist with the puny images and ideas with which self-centered thought has forever protected its false separate identity while attempting to satisfy its bottomless need for psychological security and social status.
The beauty and grave humility of the cosmic wholeness that anyone can see by spending just a few hours at a place like Taughannock Creek is overwhelming, its goodness and creativeness heartrending. Thought cannot touch it with its symbolic representations and its half-arrogant and half-anxious desires. Only the actual truth living beneath the veil of knowledge and belief can end the nightmare of an artificial existence forever hoping and striving for more or less of what it already knows and possesses, and at a given point in self-inquiry the mind cannot but yield to this truth. In this insight into the falseness of existential separation and psychological becoming, time ceases to count, because its source is not in memory or in any of memory’s branching into the future through fear or desire. What is at issue here is not the endorsement of yet another time-consuming effort that would merely prolong into the future the isolated existence of a made-up personal identity, but rather the annihilation of this illusion of a separate and continuous existence in progressive control of its fate.
The real ground of the human presence is not in personal consciousness, but in the timeless unfolding of life as a whole. And when this fundamental truth frees the mind of self-centered knowledge with all its limitations and impossible demands for on-going certainty and security, all that is left is a moment-by-moment awareness, burning with the vitality of life and illuminating its undivided nature. This insight is not something that can be earned by merit and so be possessed by some and not by others, because it is essentially the end of the “one” who would crave such egotistical privilege. Insight is the instantaneous depersonalization of awareness by an unsought and therefore effortless irruption into the psychic field of the undivided stream of life and death.
Just as a map is never the territory it represents, this collection of photographs made of Taughannock creek is far from being an adequate representation of it, much less the creek itself. In the same vein, this brief text’s announcement of undivided awareness as the revelation of the all-inclusive, ever-changing stream of life is infinitely far from being the revelation itself. Nevertheless, what the photographs and these accompanying words attempt to portray––however insufficiently––may just be enough to trigger in whomever is ready the transgression of self-centered knowledge that makes manifest the sacred unity of life, our most intimate reality, our essential birthright.
All of life a boundless stream
a sigh of infinite waves;
all of life trembling, pulsating,
timelessly flowing renewal and decay
And you and I, my friend
—venture of ventures—
here and now
to be nothing
but its selfless sight.
The images used for this book were culled from a large body of photographic work made from 2006 to 2012 in a relatively small section of Taughannock Creek in Trumansburg, New York, mostly upstream from the famous waterfall of the same name. This is the same place where I collect most of the material used to make my Stone Poems.
Julia Lon Grimsman commissioned a first prototype of this book when it was just a dream. Without her generous support this subsequent edition would have never come into being.
There are a few smaller, classically rectangular images that are single photographs. The rest are generally more elongated or square composites comprising from three to nine different exposures of different sections of a single scene stitched together using Adobe Photoshop. I used a Pentax digital camera and two inexpensive zoom lenses: a 50-200mm. and an 18-50mm. A single image was shot with fill-in flash. The prints were made in-house with an Epson Stylus Pro 3880.