Saturday, August 20, 2011

Staring into the Abyss

I must admit, I am confronting my mortality and I am afraid. This is not a morbid daydream of mine, but it is now in my everyday experience. My eighty year old father had a stroke last September and although he is recovering, he will not be the same man than before his stroke. And my mother, who is healthy for her age, has to be checked for cancer. But even more immediate is a friend of my age having stage 1 stomach cancer which he was lucky enough to find and remove. And a younger friend who has stage 4 cancer. By some miracle chemotherapy worked and she is well, thankfully. And also a photographer friend has had a tumor removed from her brain. No, I do not think I am being morbid, mortality is on my thoughts. To think that death is something that will only come to others is a denial. Somehow consciousness of my own mortality is something that I have to deal with.

Maybe thinking about death is also a luxury of my circumstances. I am financially stable and I do not have a family to bring up at the moment. In the midst of day to day struggles, mortality may not impinge on people's consciousness because they have more immediate issues on their minds, children to raise, rent to pay. I also have had friends who have told me there is a reason why people need religion. I understand that sentiment, life on earth, in spite of the advances of man, is still painful and brutal. Even the most fortunate people will have to deal with the end of their lives, there are no exceptions. But my rational mind simply cannot accept the promise of a heaven based on faith. I have no talks with God to soothe my troubled soul. The pillar of my life, my spiritual guide till now, my father has had a stroke. The stroke is on the right side of his brain and after being a meditation master and healer for many years, he is now unable to meditate. As happy as I am to still physically have my father, who is adorable at eighty and in his second childhood, I have lost my closest councilor. My father is facing his own predicament and now it is my turn to hold his hand and tell him that everything will be OK.

My immediate response to this trauma has been typical of myself. It is to work harder. I am no longer working for other people in photography. But I have a long list of personal photographic projects and I have launched myself into them. Desperately filling my mind with practical concerns instead of unavoidable existential ones. I think that I am clutching at life, at any sign that there is breath in my body and my heart is still pumping. Work is having to attend to practicalities, needing to get my camera kit in order, needing to negotiate the terms of my photographic engagements. It is about doing things that is within my power to do. But I am no longer young and naive. I have been fortunate to have my share of success. I was a popular wedding photographer and I have been published in International magazines. And as nice as all that is, it is true that a photographer is only as good as his last photograph. Success does not give one immortality. Recently I read that Nan Goldin used to take photographs of her friends in order to keep them alive, but it did not work. Money, success, pleasures of the flesh are but mere diversions from the finality of death. It is the nature of the world to move on, and as famous as anyone can be, they will at best be a footnote in some history book. But for most of us mere mortals, we will live on for awhile in the memories of friends and loved ones, also to disappear when they disappear in turn.

And is it depressing and black to consider these thoughts? Shakespeare was right when he said,

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages."

On some level we are just acting our roles in life, filling the time between birth and death. But I think if we can cast aside the ego that tells us we are some divine being with the possibility of life eternal or that we are capable of greatness, then we can begin to truly appreciate life. The wonder of life is in each moment of our living.

What do I mean by that? For example, each weekend now I spend time taking my parents out for meals. And as much as eating is a mundane affair that we can go through as a functional necessity. But sharing meals with my parents are important to me. Sharing time with the couple that birthed me and brought me up. It is not a national event or a great scientific discovery, but each moment of sharing a meal is the definition of being human. It is a true sacred exchange between one generation and another.

I think that accepting the temporary nature of life, one begins to truly understand the meaning of 'Yesterday is but a dream, tomorrow is in the imagination, we have only the present'. When we stop living in the past or keep looking for a future happiness, we can concentrate on now. Each breath we take, each sip of coffee and each conversation we have becomes a true experience. And it is transitory. We cannot cling on to the memory of a love or live for a future love. In the midst of now, we simply are, and that is wonderful in itself.

And then I realize also that throwing myself at various projects was an act of blind panic. And while it can help me forget for a moment mortality, it does not help deal with the underlying fear. I have to stop the emotional hysteria and simply accept what life is. I have actually started on awareness meditation daily, but I am not the type of person to give my whole life over to meditation. At least not the type of meditation where I simply sit the whole day in meditation. But I have decided to live my life more deliberately and being more aware as I undertake my photographic projects and daily routines. I also begin to understand that it is not about my projects gaining validation by winning awards or be lauded by critics, it is about taking photographs that are meaningful to me, that increase my awareness of the world and my place in it. And I believe that living my life with focused awareness will make me more alive and give meaning to what I do. In some ways I am paraphrasing 'The Power of Now' by Eckhart Tolle. But it is only by being confronted with death and accepting the nature of life, then does living in now make sense to me. As long as one has the means to live, then fame, status and huge fortunes are ultimately meaningless.

I believe that life is temporary and that it will end. People have died before me and people will die after I have died. And all that is okay! It is good to simply live each moment, experience it for what it is and then let it go. All moments, good or bad, will pass. And now I am more accepting of all of my life, including its ultimate end. And I respect each moment of my life more than I used to.