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Nov 26
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Covid–19 and the Color Red: On Contemplative Mind

by John McQuade

During this period of the covid-19 event , with its emphasis on social isolation, I have engaged more than usual the contemplative practices of Nalanda Miksang contemplative photography. Through these practices, I realize that contemplative mind is completely free of covid-19 and more decisively free of the covid-19 mind-set.

The mind-set of covid- 19 tends to be the mind-set of suffering in various ways and degrees: from the actual contracting of the disease and its consequences for oneself and others to the degrees of fear and anxiety at personal and social registers: concerns about health, finances and what the future may hold. Conversely these very challenges , difficulties and fears are intensified conditions for the manifest of noble qualities of courage and perseverance.

Contemplative practice is in large measure an engagement of harmonization and enriching presence. It works to harmonize the distinction between the perceiver and the perceived. In speaking of contemplative mind we prefer the word harmony rather than “ peace”. The word “peace” can suggest a substantive state of mind – tranquil and free of struggle – that is somehow separate and special. The orientation to “free of struggle” is accurate but the notion of “ another state of mind” can be misleading. For the contemplatives the distinction is between struggle and harmonization which more fundamentally is based on the dualism or non-dualism of the perceiver and perceived. This distinction is very subtle : there cannot be the distinction between dualism and non-dualism since that itself would be a dualistic distinction. It is not a matter of dissolve to some kind of Whole. It is as the Zen’s say “not-two”. A harmonization and intimacy.

Since my main contemplative practice is Nalanda Miksang photography I present experience and insights from that discipline. Miksang is a Tibetan word that translates as “ Good Eye”. It is a contemplative engagement of the Eye that connects with what the Shambhala teachings present as “ Basic Goodness”: a primordial and sustaining harmony.

We work through the medium of the eye and the visual. What’s the visual? It could be said that it is everything we see. However everything is a vast and endless subject matter and also contains the presupposition of “things”. So we ask: does the visual have forms? ( is it composed of elements) . This turns out to be the case: what we see – the visual – has features of color ( we include black/white) and light. Also surface: our seeing always “stops “ somewhere – we do not have x-ray vision. There is the element of space. Also we do not see “ in general”. ( although it might seem that way since we put it together quickly) We always see something. Or more precisely seeing is a perception: the formation of a figure on a background.

Here we enter the way of seeing: how seeing issues. It issues through these phenomenal forms of perception. Here we move from the orientation to the “ thing” world to that of the phenomenal world. The phenomenal world is how the world appears or manifests. In visual terms the way the world looks. This manifestation is always changing: it is fresh and free. The contemplative way engages this phenomenal manifestation and thus is fresh and free. This is the contemplative mind.

For example in Nalanda Miksang the first exploration assignment is color as color. Pure phenomenal color as color. Not a colorful thing. Nalanda Miksang has a slogan for this assignment : “fire engine Red not a Red fire engine”. Through the practice one comes to engage color as color: red. This engagement of the perceived – red – includes the engagement of the perceiver: the mind of red.
The color red neither registers nor is affected by the covid-19 virus. The contemplative mind engages this register of the color red. There is a reality register and way of being that is free of these covid -19 concerns and all such concerns.

The way of seeing is a way of harmonization. There are two aspects to this engagement: synchronization and the “flash of perception”. Synchronization is the discipline of harmonization. Synchronization works through the spiral of intention and attention. One has the intention to see color as color. This intention focuses ones attention: color. One begins to notice color, then look at color, then see color as color. The more one sees the more the intention is gathered and intensified: it is a spiral of attention. It is a practice of Looking and Seeing.

In the disciple of synchronization sometimes rather than seeing color it just “ flashes out of space”. It just happens. This seeing just happens and we register that happening. We call this the “ flash of perception”. It is a big topic. For now the main point is that this seeing can manifest in a somewhat unconditioned way. ( fundamentally it is unconditioned). In practice that means it is happening before you have any “ thought” or “ interpretation”. It is completely free.

The more one attends to color – or any phenomenal manifestation – the more one is not attending to other aspects of mind – especially discursive and interpretative mind. More and more ones attention is gathered – harmonized – through the seeing of the phenomenal world. The eye freefalls through the phenomenal world.

With this intention and synchronization other aspects of mind – discursive mind, conceptual mind, interpretative mind – are in effect “ put on hold” like a “pause button”. They are just not in play.

Instead one experiences the qualities of harmonized or contemplative mind. One is calm and cool and clear; at ease but very alert. There is a suspended free floating quality of being sustained with a delicate effort of attention – like walking on water or air. There is a bubbling cheerfulness and quiet joy. There is a sustained stillness and a space of stillness. There is a vivid clarity and through that clarity the phenomenal world is tremendously enriched: the reds are redder.

This is the surface of the contemplative mind. This surface has a depth that is depthless. That would require another essay but the teachings from the ancient Chinese contemplative artists call it “ Quiet Mystery”.

John McQuade is a Shambhala Training teacher. He is the founder of Nalanda Miksang Contemplative Photography and co-author of Looking and Seeing and Heart of Photography.


The photography in this article is the author’s work, shared here with the Shambhala Times.

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4 responses to “ Covid–19 and the Color Red: On Contemplative Mind ”
  1. charles blackhall
    Nov 28, 2020

    A deep bow for this essay John, your timing is good. I particularly resonate with your phrase “spiral of intention-attention.” …double helix… Practising and studying contemplative photography has been a passion of mine for some time and you have refreshed it altogether with this clarity. Thank you again for pointing out the quiet mystery. May all tap into that quiet joy that is always there.

  2. Trudy Stern
    Nov 28, 2020

    Thanks for this concise and enjoyable article. It inspires me to see clearly today.

  3. As a Nalanda Miksang practitioner, who recently trained to become a teacher with Miriam Hall and John Mc Quade, I’m happy to see John’s reflections published on the relevance of the Dharma Arts in our daily lives.

    What attracts me to this contemplative way of insightful seeing is the fact that this creative practice is founded on the work of an enlightened spiritual master. Based on the Dharma Art teachings as experienced by Tantric Master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, his humorous and beauty-filled way of being encourages us to see beyond what and who we think we are…

    With a lot of time on our hands, the tendency of the conditioned mind is to worry. We habitually fret. We continually imagine. We are creative creatures used to being entertained and distracted from our boredom, doubt, and discomfort.

    In an unsuspecting manner, and without causing a threat to our egos, Nalanda Miksang photography tickles our funny bone. Once the act of taking pictures is pursued on a daily basis, the practice enables us to see our ordinary world in a refreshing way, from a different point of view. Miksang opens us to the world of perception through our senses.

    Ultimately, continual practice with synchronizing mind and heart, we begin to feel the freedom in the release of our own seriousness. We gradually accept our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, and yield to circumstance. Through this practice, we slowly dis-identify with the struggle, and discover “joy” arising in the moment.

    We’re fueled and energized by the act of seeing and the action of non-doing that pumps an array of endorphins through our bloodstream. From such visual nourishment we benefit physically, emotionally, and spiritually. No wonder when we’ve managed a two hour shoot (John well knows!), we find the courage to smile.

    I am so very grateful for this work.

  4. Richard Peisinger
    Nov 27, 2020

    John-What a delightful, intimate and intriguing romp within contemplative perceptual fields you share with us from your many years of Miksang exploration.

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