Photography & Yoga 1. Intro Seeing the Self Everywhere, In Everything

Photography and Yoga   ~ Part 1 ~ 
Seeing the Self  Everywhere and  In Everything   
I began practicing Siddha Yoga Meditation in August, 1987 after taking (reluctantly, at the time) a two day meditation program known as an "Intensive" with Gurumayi Chivilasananda  On the second day of the intensive I had an amazing and classic heart-opening experience, known as shatkitpat.  It was a life-transforming experience for me, the beginning of a new and truly great spiritual pilgrimage that has been guided by the traditional knowledge of the ancient yogic teachings, especially Kashmir Shaivism, the direct spoken as well as written teachings and guidance of a living meditation master, Swami Chivilasananda--lovingly called Gurumayi, and the spiritual power of an entire Siddha Yoga lineage which includes Gurumayi's teacher Swami Muktanandaand Baba's guru, Bhagavan Nityananda.  

Also, very importantly, my creative process in photography has become an integral part of my yogic spiritual practice, and this project is dedicated to an in-depth exploration of the relationships between the yogic teachings, my experience of Siddha Yoga, and my creative process in photographic picture-making.

I have already written several "personal stories" regarding my experiences of Siddha Yoga, and they can be found collected in the Epilogue of my photography project entitled "An Imaginary Book."  (see stories #13-18  The Epilogue also includes stories on other themes including the Epiphany I experienced when I was nearly ten years old that led me to a life in photography.  (see story #3)   I have also written several additional stories especially for this Photography and Yoga project which you will encounter as you proceed through the various parts or "chapters" of the project.  For example my shaktipat experience is presented in part 4 of this project.   

My photography website TheDepartingLandscape contains online versions of practically every photography project I have produced thus far, and I present the projects in the spirit of trying to shed light upon my creative process.  In the last four years, beginning with my project "An Imaginary Book" (2011-13) I have more frequently than usual been making references to the yogic teachings as an influence upon my creative process.  This Photography and Yoga project (begun in May, 2015) will be the first project to focus exclusively on the relationships between my creative process in photography and my yogic practices.  It is also the latest in a series of five projects in which I have been exploring the idea of Sacred Art, and the sacred in art, in relation to my photography.   The other projects, beginning with "An Imaginary Book," are The Angels (2014),  The Photograph As Icon (2014-15) and Snow: Photographs from the Silver World (2015). 

How I became involved in Siddha Yoga
My sister-in-law, Florence introduced me and my wife Gloria to Gurumayi and the Siddha Yoga Path.  Florence would tell us about her yogic experiences over the years, and we would see the many pictures of the Siddha Yoga Gurus all around her house.  Florence actually met Baba Muktananda before he died in 1982 and she witnessed his passing of the power of the Siddha Yoga Lineage on to Gurumayi as his successor.   

Gloria and I were very skeptical and even fearful about Florence's involvement in Siddha Yoga.  When she generously offered us both the gift of an intensive with Gurumayi so that we could experience this form of yoga for ourselves, we could not refuse the offer, though the idea of going to the ashram in South Fallsburg, NY made me feel quite uncomfortable.  However, even before I took the intensive, as I had several very intense inner experiences that were clearly associated with the writings and teachings of Baba Muktananda and Gurumayi.  I had an amazing experience of Gurumayi's grace during that first intensive with her in August, 1987, and experiences of grace have continued with regular frequency over these past 28 years or so--not only for me. but for my wife Gloria, as well.  I now can see--more clearly than ever before--the many ways in which grace manifests through my life and especially in my creative process in photography.  I will be sharing some of these insights with you here in this project which consists of multiple parts, or "chapters."    

The Symbolic Photograph
In 1972 I wrote my MFA thesis on the Symbolic Photograph, and it was essentially about the making and contemplation of photographic symbols as a process leading toward the goal of what Depth Psychologist Carl Jung called Self-Knowledge.  Fifteen years later, after  I got involved with Siddha Yoga I was surprised to discover that the goal of yoga, Self-recoginition, was very similar to the ideas Jung had put forth.  My personal experience now convinces me that it only through a relationship with sadguru--a true teacher, such as Gurumayi--and her grace-bestowing power, that the goal of Self Knowledge is attainable.  Making photographs is not enough in itself.     

After meeting Gurumayi and receiving shaktipat from her, photography became for me a natural and spontaneous extension of my yogic practices.  Indeed, photography is for me a form of meditation, a means by which I experience what is known in yoga as darshan.  Photography has always been a spiritual pursuit for me, and that was made quite clear in my MFA written thesis, but now it is imbued by the yogic teachings and the grace of the Siddha Yoga Lineage.  I consider my best work to be in the great tradition of what has become known as Sacred Art.  But, I must emphasize the fact that if this is indeed true, as I believe it is, it is only because of the guidance, inspiration, and grace I have received from a living meditation Master, Gurumayi, who received this power of grace, this Knowledge of the Self from her teacher Swami Muktananda; and he received it from his sadguru, Bhagavan Nitananda.  I feel certain that the ideal or goal I had set for myself in my MFA written thesis is not achievable by my individual effort alone; that the creative process, the sadhana that leads to Self Knowledge must be guided by a true teacher, one who has accomplished the goal him or herself.   

Yoga : Putting Together
The word "yoga" means "putting together;" it invokes the mystical practice of joining the finite with the infinite.  Even, in graduate school, when I was working with Carl Jung's theories of depth psychology, including his theories of synchronicity, I had the strong sense that photography was about putting together.  My MFA written thesis argued that a photograph which functioned in the highest symbolic sense was a visual image that conjoined or "put together" the archetypes of the deep unconscious psyche with their outer-world corresponding visual counterparts.  My theories about the creative process in photography had become--even in those early years--intuitively aligned with the yogic teachings, though it would take me fifteen years to realize I could not reach my spiritual goals through photography alone.

One of the primary teachings in Siddha Yoga is: "God, Guru, and the Supreme Self are One and inseparable.  Everything, every place and every person is a form of divinity, or divine Consciousness."  To actually have this vision of the world, to see and to experience the divinity everywhere and in everything is I believe the highest goal of all true creative activities--such as poetry, painting, music, photography, etc.--despite the fact that the word "divine" and "spirit" has fallen out of fashion in recent times.  When I was writing my MFA thesis in 1972 I was careful not to fall into religious terminology.  I knew I was walking a precarious line with academia even by investigating the depth psychology theories of C. G. Jung.   


Gurumayi stated in a talk:  God has no form.  God has no name.  You won't be able to locate God in any one place or time.  But if you worship Him within, then you will see God in the very form you want most.  That is meditation on the Self.  This doesn't refer to the egotistical, small self that we lug around.  It means the purest Self.  "I am the way"-- it is that "I" that is the supreme Self [the purest form of God].  ~  When we enter into contact with the supreme Self, we experience bliss.  It's not just a preconceived idea of the experience, its not just a fantasy, its an actual experience, a complete stillness.  ~  We put down worldly things, thinking worldly things bind us.  But if we see the Truth in everything, then everything can take us higher and give us the experience of the Supreme Reality.  Montreal, 1985 - published in Darshan magazine #46/47  "Pilgrimage"

Photography is for me a way of seeing the "Truth," the Self in everything.  There are various yogic terms for this "vision" but I like best the word darshan.  I hope to make quite clear what darshan means, beginning here, in this first introductory part of the project, and then throughout the project as a whole.  My personal story below about the Shiva Nataraja is about the experience of darshan, and it should be quite helpful in beginning to define how "seeing photographically" and "seeing the Self everywhere and in everything" correspond to each other.  

The Five Creative Acts  Shiva & Shakti
At the very heart of the yogic teachings (and any creative process) is The Five Creative Acts or Functions.  These five acts are: Creation, Maintenance, Destruction, Concealment, and Grace.  Lise Vail, who is a Ph.D in religious studies, and for many years served as an editor and contributor to the Siddha Yoga monthly publication, Darshan magazine, wrote a very good article for the December 1996 issue (#117) entitled "The Five Acts" and I will be quoting extensively from it below.

Dr. Vail begins with this quote by Baba Muktananda:
The entire world comes into manifestation from Shiva, who is Consciousness.  Shiva unfolds this universe from Himself, and then He takes delight in playing all kinds of games.  His play is very strange and unique.  He makes some people laugh and others weep.  He makes some rich and some poor, some beautiful and some ugly.  He makes some hate each other and some love each other.  In one place someone is being born, and in another place someone is dying.  Shiva loves this game; it is all His lila, His dance.

According to the Shaiva philosophy of Kashmir, all that exists in the universe, all its places and things, all its people and their dramas, are God's creations.  This entire world is a manifestation of God's creative energy or Shakti which assumes the five creative functions.  Through the divine creative power, Shakti, God is the writer of the "play," the actors, the director, the stage, the props, and the audience who watches it.

Dr. Vail explains that in Indian iconography, mythology, philosophical verse, and poetry, Shakti, God's creative energy, is often personified as a beautiful goddess, the wife of the god Shiva.  She says there is a kind of duality between husband and wife, and yet underlying this duality and the variety of the universe (mountains, hills, oceans, rivers, books, poems, photographs, etc.) there is an indissoluble unity.  

In unity, there is little to behold 
But She (Shakti) of good fortune 
Brought forth the world as a play.  
                                   Jnaneshwar, 13th century saint and poet 

Shakti's creation of the world as a beautiful, multicolored adornment for her husband, Shiva, requires of her to play all the parts: She wears the mask of the man in a business suite, the mask of the night watchman, the mask of the mother, the student, the infant just born.  She is the "face" of all the appearances and all that is invisible in the world.  Dr. Vail writes: "[Shakti] is the presence behind the mask that each one of us sees in the mirror. . .   There is a Truth concealed behind the mask of the normal everyday 'me'--a truth hidden beneath the mask beneath the mask. . . This is what the Shaiva scriptures call the Lord-in-hiding, in us.  This concealed Self is the one Jnaneshwar calls 'the Master of the house who sleeps.'"  

This "master who sleeps" is often symbolized by the snake or serpent that is coiled, asleep, in the base of the spine of every human being.  It is known as Kundalini Shakti.  When the sleeping serpent is awakened by the grace of a true Guru, a sadguru, the veils of the play are lifted or dissolved and the Divine Creation is seen for what it truly is, a form of God.  This unveiling, this seeing of the truth behind "the masks of appearances," is known in yoga as darshan.  

Grace is the greatest mystery of all; it is the means by which God reveals Himself to Himself.  And the sadguru, the True Guru, is the human embodiment of the Grace Bestowing Power of God.  The poet Jnaneshwar portrays Shiva as the Creator asleep; when he awakens, when Shiva's eyes are open, the illusions of the world dissolve.  Dr. Vail explains:  "When a person realizes that beneath all masks, he is God, not just an individual being,   . . . what once looked like a world is now revealed to be nothing but God's energy." 

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"Shiva loves this game; it is all His lila, His dance."
Baba Muktananda

 Shiva Nataraja
click on image to enlarge

The Shiva Nataraja
Dr. Vail continues:  "Indian iconographic forms of Shiva are amazingly packed with symbols of his divine power.  The Shiva Nataraja or "dancing Shiva" image, for instance, is a graphic map of the five universal forces. . . .  Here the Lord's continuously moving creation is seen as a wild dance. . . "

"The Lord's five creative powers are symbolically portrayed as the capabilities in his arms and hands.  Shiva is and always will be manifesting his eternal energy through his gestures, or mudras, and through his powerful movements in the dance.  In his upper right hand, Shiva carries a drum, shaped like an hourglass, from which the vibratory hum of creation [OM] is said to have originally sounded out of the element ether, and from which human speech eventually emerged."

"Shiva Nataraja's upper left hand has its fingers placed in what is called the "half-moon" position.  On its palm is a tongue of flame, signifying the fire that will destroy the world at the close of this cycle, in preparation for a new creation.  The activity in this hand symbolizes the power of destruction.  The two opposing upper hands are outstretched, in careful couterpoise, symbolizing the way in which destruction and creation, death and life, naturally counterbalance one another in our existence. 

"Shiva's lower right hand symbolizes God's power to maintain everything in the universe.  Its palm is raised to face forward, a mudra called "have no fear."  This hand symbolizes the promise that God will sustain our lives and provide us continued support--whatever we need to live, learn, and grow into our own sustaining strength."

"Shiva's right foot is dancing on a dwarfish demon . . . 'a forgetful or heedless person.'  This demon symbolizes not some dreadful devilish force outside of humanity but rather our own tendency as human beings toward spiritual blindness.  As part of the statue, the demon of forgetfulness represents Shiva's concealment function, here kept in check by the Lord's own right foot. . .  Another term for this blindness is maya, illusion and ignorance, the tendency to forget our divine nature and become lost in our roles on this earth. . . . Without illusion, without forgetfulness, there is no play, no lila, at all."

"The lower left hand of the dancing Nataraja is placed across his chest; it points down toward his raised left foot, signifying spiritual refuge and the power of grace.  To anyone who wishes to come under its protective shelter, it is lifted up as an offering of blessings.  The lower left hand links the powers of creation, maintenance, and destruction in Shiva's hands with the powers in his feet--concealment and grace.  Our task is to remember that the Lord's raised left foot, that vehicle of grace, is always here, a protective reminder to ask for blessings to help quash the demon of mental illusions, to keep problems and identification with our roles from overpowering us."

"Shiva's beloved Shakti is the most eminently beautiful actress in her fifth role as grace-bestower. . .   She helps all human beings by disentangling our awareness from her own constructed illusion and by disintegrating the roots of our karma.  Some of the most beautiful poetic verses to Shakti in this role address her as Kundalini Shakti, the cosmic energy of grace that always nurtures human life, the subtle yet powerful energy lying dormant near the base of the spine."  [Note: the Kundalini Shakti is symbolized in the Nataraja above as the snake or serpent coiled around Shiva's lower right arm, and another snake is also wrapped around Shiva's waist.  Not all Natarajas contain this snake-Kundalini symbolism, however the Natarajas in the two main Siddha Yoga ashrams do.~ SF]

Dr. Vail concludes: "When an enlightened master awakens this [Kundalini] power within through grace, this divine energy begins to make its way through the mind and body, destroying ignorance and karma, renewing our experience of divine Self-awareness.  It is Kundlini Shakti's greatness that is brought to life in Shaktipat initiation, that precious gift of the Siddha tradition."  Dr. Lisa Vail, "The Five Acts" published in Darshan magazine, #117, The Self Is the Actor, December 1996

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A Personal Story Darshan of the Shiva Nataraja
In the summer of 2001 I spent the first week of July at Shree Muktananda Ashram (located in the Catskill Mountains, near South Fallsburg, NY) where my Siddha Yoga meditation teacher, Gurumayi Chivilasananda was spending the entire summer.  I had planned my visit so that I could be with this extraordinary saint and shaktipat Guru from India for the special yearly celebration known as Guru Purnima, which is held on the night of the fullest and brightest moon of each year.  This year, Guru Purnima fell on the day following the 4th of July.

I had been visiting the ashram (the "abode of grace") once a year since I first met Gurumayi in 1987.  Though I had always been intrigued by the statue of the dancing Lord Shiva, known most commonly in India as the Shiva Nataraja, which is located near the front entrance of the ashram's main building, I never really paid close attention to it.  I would sometimes write a prayer on a small wooden prayer stick and throw it into the fire that was continually alive and smoldering at the base of the large statue, but other than that my focus at the ashram was always on being with and serving Gurumayi.  This year, however, I began noticing the Nataraja more and more; I began to feel a magical pull from the statue which seemed to be drawing me closer and closer to it.  I would make special trips to visit and study it; I began spending quite a lot of time looking at the fine details of the sculpture.  

The ashram's version of the Nataraja--which can be found everywhere in India--is quite large and imposing.  For some inexplicable reason, this year it's "cosmic dance" seemed not just a metaphor but a living presence for me.  For the first time I wanted to know the meanings of the symbols associated with the statue.  I was most especially attracted to the dwarf, the snake around Shiva's arm and waist, and the snake-like forms behind Shiva's head which radiated out toward the circle of flames.  At times, it seemed to me the circle of flames just barely contained the tremendous visual energy of the dancing figure inside it. 

The ashram's Shiva Nataraja was certainly beautiful, but clearly my response to it was not just about aesthetics.  I wanted to understand why I was being so attracted to the statue; perhaps there was some meaning in the symbols that would help me to better understand this?  By the third day, my visits were being driven by what seemed like an obsession which had grown more and more intense.  Finally, on the forth day, the first of several mysterious events associated with the Nataraja manifested.  I have written about four separate but related visionary encounters involving the Shiva Nataraja image below.  I consider each to be a form of darshan.   (A note about the Shiva Nataraja pictured above: this is not the actual statue placed on the ashram grounds at Shree Muktananda Ashram, though it is similar in many ways.  You can click on the image--and every image presented in this project--to get a more detailed, closer look.)


First Encounter  4th of July Darshan 
Guruamyi offered an evening program on the 4th of July for the many people who had come to be with her at the ashram.  Huge numbers of people from all over the world, as well as from within the United States, had made the trip to South Fallsburg, NY to be with Gurumayi for Guru Purnima, so attendance was unusually high for the July 4th program.  I had never seen such big crowds at the ashram before.  Gurumayi's popularity had been growing and many were recognizing through their experiences that she was a true Indian saint, or sadguru.  Not only Siddha Yoga devotees were coming to the summer programs; many visitors were coming from many religious traditions, or some were there just out of curiosity.   Some were there perhaps to try to feel her divine presence, and hopefully experience her divine energy or shakti.  American Indians had been having visions, of Gurumayi, and her teacher, Baba Muktananda, on their reservations, and were beginning to come regularly to the ashram to honor the "Woman in Red" and her teacher.  Catholic and Buddhist priests were coming to meet her and honor her.  The ashram had become an international destination for both true seekers and for what the great poet-saint, Rumi termed "spiritual window shoppers."     

At the evening program Gurumayi lead us in a wonderful chant and asked us to offer the grace of this beautiful, musical yogic practice to the well being of the world and the entire universe.  She asked us to sing God's Name with a "luminous heart," and to send our radiant purifying light to the center of the earth . . . and beyond.

After the program I decided to walk the Silent Path that went from the mandap (outdoor auditorium) past the main building, through the woods, along one edge of Lake Nityananda, and then on to the dinning Hall.  The bus shuttle would have been very slow going because of the big crowds, and I needed to be quiet and alone to absorb the great energy I felt from chanting God's Name with Gurumayi and so many enthusiastic open-hearted people.  

On my way I stopped to visit the Shiva Nataraja.  Many prayer sticks had been thrown into the fire, so it was blazing hot and making loud and lively crackling sounds as I looked at the circle of fire that surrounded Lord Shiva.  The snake on Shiva's arm seemed to have more presence for me than usual this time; though it always fascinated me, this time it seemed more "alive," and I felt some fear welling up inside of me while I looked at it.  The serpent represents the Kundalini Shakti, the spiritual energy of the Divine Self, which is said to be coiled up, asleep, in the base of the spine of every human being, waiting silently to be awakened by the grace of a true Guru.

I finally moved on along the path that went through the woods.  At about the half-way point I saw a group of people stepping off the main path on to a small, rustic dirt path that went into a thicker, darker area of the woods.  I had never noticed this path before, and though I knew we were supposed to stay on the main path, because it was wider, paved, and well lit for safety reasons, I felt a strong impulse to explore this unfamiliar, more rustic path.

The sun was setting, and so it was much darker inside this part of the woods, but it felt good to be more secluded in this way. I was enjoying the feel of the earth beneath my feet, the coolness of the air, being closer to the trees and further away from the crowds.

At the end of the dirt path I came upon a set of old wooden steps that led back up to the main path.  As I approached the top step I saw something moving across the piece of wood . . . 

It was a snake!  I jumped into the air to avoid stepping on it . . . and at that moment everything stopped; time and space, mind and body . . . everything became suspended, still, silent . . .   An image of the Shiva Nataraja flashed into my awareness; then I saw an inner image of my body frozen in a leaping motion that resembled the angular legs, arms and hand mudras of the Dancing Shiva!   I said to myself silently:  "I am Shiva"  . . . then I landed on the ground.  The snake had disappeared and I, bewildered, exhilarated, walked on to the dinning hall. 


Second Encounter  Guru Purnima Darshan
The next day was Guru Purnima.  The moon would be the fullest and brightest of the entire year of 2001 that night.  Yogis call it "the Guru's moon."  Even more people had come into the ashram during the day for the evening's celebration program with Gurumayi.  The crowds were becoming a bit overwhelming for me, and yet it was wonderful to be with so many people who were wanting to do the yogic practices together and extend their heartfelt gratitude to Gurumayi for all that they had received from this amazing living saint: her teachings, her love, her grace--the divine power or shakti of the entire Siddha lineage. 

Usually after each formal program with Gurumayi she would offer Darshan.  The word can mean many things: having a spontaneous internal vision of the Guru, or it could take the form of a ritualized formal meeting with the Guru.  Darshan could be merely a chance sighting of the Guru in his or her physical form, but it could also mean experiencing the divine Shakti that belies the appearances of the things of the world.  

After formal programs Gurumayi would usually sit in her chair as people would line up and file by her.  During this brief encounter most people would bow [pranam]at her feet in silence, perhaps offer a silent prayer or blessing to her, perhaps make an offering of food or a treasured gift to Gurumayi as an expression their gratitude.  Some would come before her as individuals, or some would come in small groups.  Sometimes Gurumayi would say something or ask a question.  In rare cases a brief conversation might ensue.  I have even seen people who were new to Siddha Yoga offer to shake hands with Gurumayi, and she would extnd her hand to them with great love.  Gurumayi would sit in her chair with a wand of peacock feathers in hand and she would touch each person with her feathers as they stopped and bowed before her.

People often wrote about their magical experiences which occurred in the Darshan line with Gurumayi.  Many of these stories are published in the monthly Siddha Yoga magazine entitled Darshan.  Meeting Gurumayi in the Darshan line is a very intense and quick moving process, but for each participant it is a profoundly different though sacred event.  To be touched by the Guru's physical form is an auspicious event.  And equally auspicious would be the unlikely but possible experience of having eye contact with the Guru.  Gurumayi would look into some peoples eyes, perhaps even speak to individuals, but she was usually doing ten things at once as people in the Darshan Line bowed and moved on.  But most everyone would look up at her in hopes of making eye contact.  The "Glance of the Guru" is a special, precious gift, and this too is considered a particular form of Darshan.  

Because there were so many people at the ashram for this year's Guru Purnima celebration it was decided that it would be best to not have a formal Darshan Line.   Instead Gurumayi would meet informally with a few special visitors and the ashram would televise these meetings over the ashram's closed circuit video system for all to see.  So, I left the mandap and started back to to the dinning hall, like I did the night before, via the Silent Path.  

I stopped at the Nataraja and wrote a blessing for Gurumayi on a wooden stick and threw it into the fire.  Then I heard some people excitedly talking loudly and and even yelling to each other:  Gurumayi had stayed in her chair after everyone had left the mandap and began swaying slowly, ecstatically to the Darshan music that was being played by the ashram musicians.  The music and the images of Gurumai swaying in her chair was being broadcast throughout the ashram via closed circuit TV.  Everyone was rushing to find one of the large monitors so they could see her.

I rushed into the main building, found the closest TV monitor, and joined the others who were already watching Gurumayi.  She was swaying very gracefully to the music with her eyes closed; it was as if she had silently merged with the music itself.  After a while the musicians gradually began increasing the tempo of their playing, and as the music speeded up Gurumayi's movements transformed before our very eyes into what became quite literally an ecstatic kind of dancing--though Gurumayi remained seated in her chair.  

It was an amazing sight to behold!  I have seen Gurumayi dancing at other programs, but never like this, not as her movements began to appear to defy physical limitations.  She was moving so fast at one point that I thought it was impossible for her to be performing the actions I was seeing.  There were moments when her legs and arms were in angular mudra-like positions which reminded me of the Shiva Nataraja!  The chair she was sitting in was rounded at the top and resembled the ring of flames that surrounded the Nataraja!  

The intensity of the experience was building and building.  Gurumayi was ecstatic, the music was ecstatic, and the people around the TV monitors were becoming more and more ecstatic.  Gurumayi's body language seemed to be expressing a secret form of communication . . .  and I was mesmerized.  She was giving everyone her Darshan in this new, very special and amazing way.  For me,  it was an experience beyond words; as if a magic spell had been cast upon me.  Was this really happening?  Was this some spontaneous, interior, imaginative experience of the shakti that I was having?  

At one point, I saw Gurumayi looking directly at me: she had stopped dancing; everything had come to a standstill.  I felt the power of her presence and her glance; her divine energy seemed to be flowing from her entering me through my vision of her.  My entire being felt full with her presence, her grace.     


Third Encounter  The Darshan Magazine
The next morning Gloria and I checked out of the ashram, and as we were about to begin our seventeen hour drive back to Milwaukee the thought occurred to me to stop at the bookstore just outside of the ashram grounds.  The store was privately owned by devotees of Siddha Yoga and I thought maybe they would have a book on the Shiva Natarja.  I had earlier checked at the ashram bookstore and nothing like that was available.    

The woman managing the store looked everywhere for me and found nothing, but as a last resort she suggested I look through their large magazine rack.  She thought there might be some articles on the Nataraja in one of the many yoga magazines they had collected and made available for sale.  Several issues of the Siddha Yoga Foundation's monthly magazine, entitled Darshan were scattered on the large rack.  I had been subscribed to the magazine for several years, so I decided to look at some of the issues on the rack in hopes of finding one or two back issues that I had not yet been able to obtain to help complete my collection.  

As I was looking over the magazine rack . . . there it was, right in front of me!  Darshan issue number 117, The Self Is The Actor, published December, 1996, with a picture of the Shiva Nataraja on the cover.  It was a picture of the statue in the gardens of Gurudev Siddha Peeth, the Mother Ashram, in Ganeshpuri, India. (click on the image below to enlarge)

Darshan Magazine, issue 117, December, 1996

I had never seen this issue of Darshan before!  So I was delighted to have not only the image of the Nataraja but I was happy to be able to add this issue of Darshan to my collection!  It then occurred to me that perhaps there would be an an article in magazine that related to the image of Nataraja on the cover, explaining all the symbolism, so I quickly opened the magazine to look for the listing of articles in the issue.  Indeed, Dr. Lisa Vail's article, "The Five Acts" was in this issue!  

But there is more.  Most astoundingly . . .  when I excitedly turned over the cover page expecting to find the table of contents, instead, this is what I saw:

Darshan Magazine, issue 117, December, 1996   Inside cover 

On the inside cover of the magazine, back to back with the image of the Nataraja on the front cover, was a photograph I had made of a flowering tree for a photography project entitled Images of Eden 1982-83.  I was shocked to see my photograph there!    

A few years earlier (around 1989) I had mailed a large selection of my photographs to the Darshan editorial staff for them to see and consider for possible use in the magazine.  I was happy to allow them to use any of my images in whatever way that would be useful to them and Gurumayi's mission.   

Indeed they published several of my photographs in at least five issues, but they had always notified me first and asked permission to use the images; and they often sent me a copy of the issue as a thank you gift for the use of the image.   However, in this case, for whatever reason, I had never seen this #17 issue before, and I had never been contacted by the ashram about the use of my photograph which was published inside!  

After having had two intense darshan experiences at the ashram associated with the Shiva Nataraja, the coincidence of finding my photograph of the flowering tree back to back with the image of Nataraja felt like another experience of grace, another form of darshan.  When I was able to truly apprehend the synchronicity of this event, my heart once again  opened and overflowed with gratitude and love.  To this day the miracle of this entire story continues to invoke the presence of the Guru within me.

The juxtaposition of the two images, the cover image of the Nataraja and the image of the flowering tree--manifests a wonderful visual transition that offers many visual insights.  For example, the two images mirror each in their roundness of form; both contain images of flowers; and there is a formal echoing in the limbs of the tree with the lines of Shiva's arm and leg movements and the radiating snake-like shapes behind Shiva's head.

Also, the quote on the page facing the flowering tree is of special interest.  It is an english translation of the Tao Te Ching, and the translation was written by Johnathan Star, a student of Siddha Yoga and a frequent contributor to Darshan Magazine.  His translation refers to the Tao as a "She" which for Siddha Yoga students would also reference both Gurumayi, and the Divine Goddess Shakti, Shiva's female counterpart and the Lord's active aspect.

I had used this same quotation in my previous project's Epilogue.  In fact the idea for this Photography and Yoga project took solid form when I was looking through this particular  issue of Darshan Magazine.  When I saw my photograph in it, and began remembering my series of experiences associated with the Nataraja, I took it as a sign--as "news from the universe"--that the time had finally come to devote an entire project to the relationships between my practice of yoga and my creative process in photography.    


Fourth Encounter  Darshan through a Photograph 
There is another, peripheral story I want to share with you here; it's related to the flowering tree photograph above, which is from my series Images of Eden, 1982-82.  I had given that photograph and many others from the Eden project to the editorial staff at Darshan Magazine a few years after I started practicing Siddha Yoga, probably  around 1989.  Several of the Eden photographs were published in at least three issues between 1990-91.  See the three illustrations, below.    

Darshan Magazine, issue #43 , October, 1990 

Darshan Magazine, issue 46-47, February, 1991   

                                                                                            Darshan Magazine, issue 53, August, 1991   Inside cover 

Shortly after I had completed the Images of Eden Series, probably between 1984 and 85, I gave my sister-in-law, Florence and her husband a print from the series as a gift.  She framed it and placed it on a wall together in her house on Long Island, NY.  The image I gave here was one in a series of three photographs I had made a little water falls in a beautiful Milwaukee County Park.  One of these three images was eventually published in issue # 46-47 for an article entitled Places I Return To (see the middle illustration, right side, above)

At that time Florence had been offering the use of her house for weekly Siddha Yoga programs for people in the Long Island region.  (The early 1980's had been a time of real growth in Siddha Yoga, and local "Centers" were coming into existence all over the world.   Each week this growing "global community" of devotees would have satsang programs in which they would read and contemplate the same yogic texts and teachings, and chant the same chants.  This coordination of program content by Gurumayi's ashram staff allowed the entire global community to be connected with each other and the grace of Gurumayi's Sankalpa.)

One weekend, when Gurumayi had gone to the Center in New York City to attend a program, the Long Island Center invited her to come pay a visit, to see their meditation hall and bless the space with her presence.  Gurumayi accepted the invitation!  

Florence told me that when Gurumayi was walking through her house, she happened to see a display of some of my photographs hanging on the wall and went over to look at them.  Florence said that Gurumayi spent "a long time" standing quietly in front of the photographs, and in particular the image of the little water falls. 

I have contemplated quite seriously this encounter between Gurumayi and my photographs.  Was this yet another form of Darshan?   When Gurumayi looked at my waterfall photograph, for example, what was she seeing?   Was she simply looking at the photograph or was she seeing something more, something deeper?  Was she looking into me in some subtle way?  Could she see through the photograph into my eyes?, into my soul?, into my heart?  It is said there is nothing a true Guru (sadguru) does not know about her devotees or any person for that matter when she focuses her attention on him or her.  It is said that she can see lifetimes into that person's being.  

Had she given me her Darshan through her looking (a long time) at or into my photograph?  Did her shakti, her grace, enter into the photograph?  Did her presence in any way affect or change the image on some subtle level?  Did I or others who viewed the photograph--after Gurumayi's encounter with it--receive her grace through looking at the image?      

So many questions!  When I imagine Gurumayi looking at the photograph of the little water falls I feel her energy, her presence within me.  Surly the Imaginal World must be yet another means by which Guru's Grace can function, and thus be yet another means by which one may encounter the Guru, have her Darshan, experience her "Glance," receive her grace.  


The Glance of the Guru
 "The glance of the Guru" is an important concept in the ancient Yogic literature, and it is elaborated upon in two consecutive verses, numbers 59 & 60, of the Guru Gita, which according to Baba Muktananda is "the one indispensable text" in Siddha Yoga:

59. The Guru's glance creates all the worlds, makes everything flourish completely, and perceives the essence of all Holy Scriptures. It perceives that wealth does not lead to liberation, and it purifies devotees of all deficiencies. The Guru’s vision beholds the Self in the midst of ever-changing Nature and illumines the path to liberation. 

60. The Guru's glance is the pillar that supports the stage where all worlds are exhibited; it showers the nectar of compassion. It is the sum total of creation, evolution, and dissolution. The Guru's glance creates past, present, and future, and bestows the vision of sat - chit - ananda: truth, knowledge, bliss absolute. May the Guru's Divine grace always be on me!  Note: English translations of the Guru Gita can vary considerably.  The translated verses above are from the only online version I know of--and I believe it to be reasonably good--though it is not the one used in Siddha Yoga.  http://www.yogalifesociety.com/GuruGita.html


The Act of Perception
According to an important Shavite text The Splendor of Recognition the very act of perception is an act of creation, an act of grace.  I have been contemplating this idea and the whole of this remarkable text for many years, and I feel I am just beginning to understand how The Five Creative Acts applies to me both as a student of yoga, and as a visual artist.  I recently found the following words of Baba Muktananda in a Darshan magazine in which he speaks about perception in relation to the Five Creative Acts.  Since the text sheds light on the one and only photograph I have made for this first part of my Photography and Yoga project, I thought it important to provide this rather lengthly quotation from Baba's text:       

We perceive an object at a certain instant of time, a certain point in space, and in a certain form. . .  In the moment of perception we create the object; its appearance in our mind is its creation therein. . .  Whatever throbs in our mind comes into existence.  When an object in the mind is replaced by another, the space, time, substance, and form all change.  That is the [initial] object's destruction in the mind.  ~  An object exists as long as we perceive it without any break; it may be for a moment or longer.  If the image of an elephant remains in our mind for twenty minutes, we have sustained it for that amount of time.  ~  When the objects that are undifferentiated within Chiti [the Supreme Self, the Absolute, Divine Consciousness] appear as different entities, that is concealment of Chiti's true nature.  ~  When after hearing and seeing many different objects, we suddenly become aware of their identity with Consciousness, we accomplish the fifth task: grace.  Grace is nothing but seeing objects as one with the self-luminous Chiti, even though they many appear to be different.   published in Darshan magazine #138

Baba taught over and over again, and in various alternative ways: "See God--the Guru, the Supreme Self, Shiva--Everywhere, In Everything."  Since 1987, when I received shaktipat from Gurumayi and began practicing Siddha Yoga Meditation regularly, I have devoted my photographic practice to the idea that picture-making is a form of spiritual practice, a form of "meditation," and a form of darshan.  When the impulse to make a photograph comes to me, no matter how subtle that feeling is, I understand that I am being touched by grace and that I must honor that impulse, that inspiration, first by recognizing it as consciously as I can, then, if possible by making a photograph of what I am "seeing" and feeling with my camera.  Later, after finishing the photograph, I then contemplate the image and try to integrate, absorb the grace and the meaning which is embodied within the image.   

The image below is the very first photograph that I made specifically for the  Photography and Yoga project.  In the commentary section that follows I will share a few of my insights about the image. 

     Photography and Yoga    Image #1      "Seeing the Self Everywhere, In Everything"   ~   Symmetrical Photograph - Comforter

Commentary My first photograph for the Yoga Project 
When I began the Photography and Yoga project I had no idea about how to proceed in terms of making images for it.  Unlike my previous project, Snow: Photographs from the Silver World, for example, I had no particular subject matter or concept in mind for the Yoga project by which I could be directed toward the making photographs.  I had simply committed to the idea that I would contemplate and write about my experiences of yoga and its relationship to my creative process in photography and trust that, intuitively, grace (the creative shakti) would direct me in the making of images necessary or appropriate for the project when the time and place was right. 

Shortly after I started the Yoga project I had washed a comforter and was hanging it outside on the clothesline to dry in the sun when I noticed the light skimming across its surfaces.  Though I "knew" I was looking at the comforter, at the same time, what I was seeing or experiencing was translucent space; it was as if I was seeing through the comforter's surface which had become a luminous, abstract image of repeating lines, curving patterns, and dancing shapes of light and various tones of black and gray.  I could no longer see the comforter; I had come face to face with a numinous field of pure visual energy.  

I went into the house and got my camera, returned and made a few exposures of the comforter.  Later I played with the digital file and transformed the image into the symmetrical photograph you see above.  Later, when I found Baba's words quoted above about grace, and "seeing objects as one with self-luminous Chiti . . ."  I realized this photograph and my perceptual experience that led to the making of it, was an affirmation of my decision to go forward with this project, and that yes, the images indeed will come.

Also, as I was just now re-reading Dr. Vail's article quoted from above, when I came across the particular passage--which I'll repeat once again here--her words seemed yet another affirmation of my experience that generated the photograph: "When a person realizes that beneath all masks, he is God, not just an individual being, . . . what once looked like a world is now revealed to be nothing but God's energy."

The Space Between
This photograph is like an explosion of energy, the spontaneous creation of a new visual world, that simultaneously is being held in timeless suspension: the image depicts an event that is unfolding somewhere between it's initial spanda--its originating flashing into existence--and its full dissolution into pure visual energy and infinite space.  Indeed, the image seems to have originated, and is in the process of expanding, from within its own center point.  

Having said that, I am reminded of the state I experienced (in the "second encounter" which I described above) when, upon seeing the snake at the top of the wooden stairs, I leapt into the air and found myself held suspended in that space of timelessness between the peak of the leap upward and the beginning of the descent downward, back to earth.  In this suspended moment the thought came to me: "I Am Shiva!"   

One of the more challenging Siddha Yoga teachings regarding the practice of meditation involves focusing consciously on the space between the breaths.  When the in-breath turns into the out-breath there is a suspended moment, a center point of timelessness, when the in and out breaths merge and the meditator experiences the oneness or Unity of Being of the Self, Shiva, the God within.  To consciously become identified with that space, that point between the in and out breaths, is to become centered in a state of luminous consciousness, perfect stillness and silence . . . which the yogic teaching say is the true nature of the divine Self.

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                      Photography and Yoga    Image #2      "Seeing the Self Everywhere, In Everything"   ~   Symmetrical Photograph     

Commentary 2  A surprising addition to the project 
In mid August, 2015, two months after having completed this first first part of the Yoga and Photography project, I decided to add the above symmetrical photograph to the page after having constructed it and realizing there seemed to be no other thematic page I could place it in at the time.  After I had re-viewed parts 1 through six of the project, and three other project pages--on the themes of Light, Time and Seeing--that I was working on and were nearly finished, it become clear to me that the symmetrical image above of the vent pipes, though it at first seemed to aggressive and dynamic for the Yoga project, nonetheless seemed to resonate for me and that I should look harder to find a place for it.  Finally I saw how it related formally to the Shiva Nataraja!    

It occurred to me that the vent pipes were very similar to the legs and arms of the Dancing Shiva.  At first I thought the juxtaposition was simply light hearted fun; but the more I have contemplated the symmetrical photograph the more I have realized that the image has a darker, mysterious and even intimidating character for me.  The feeling of the image related to some of the feelings of fear and intimidation I experienced while standing in front of the large figure of the Shiva Nataraja at the ashram.  This surprising insight about the photograph and it's relationship to my earlier experience of the Nataraja adds depth to this project, it seems to me, and indeed should be included here.


As I now conclude this first part of my Photography and Yoga project I can't help but wonder how and when this project will conclude.  It is beginning to take on a life of its own, which is something I love about my creative process in photography.  I feel good about the way things have progressed and I look forward to seeing how the project completes itself.  Thanks for visiting this page, and I hope you will continue on to the other parts of the project.   ~   SF

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to Part One

The idea of a project like Photography and Yoga had begun to haunt me after I completed "An Imaginary Book."   I had infrequently made references to the yogic teachings in my writings about earlier photography projects, but I did so very carefully, reluctantly, for I feared that references to yoga and gurus would intimidate potential viewers of my work.  The rise of cults and the notion of false guru's in our contemporary American culture have made people feel increasingly suspect when they encountered such references.  Even the concept of the spiritual associated with art can make people squeamish despite the fact some of the greatest artists of the world acknowledged the relationship between artistic creation and the spiritual world.  

Swami Muktananda wrote quite clearly in his wonderful book Where Are You Going? that only false Gurus try to draw their student's attention to themselves.  That true Gurus would instead focus on the yogic teachings, rather than their own physical form and personality.  Baba wrote that every person who calls himself a guru should have been the disciple of another, True guru, or sadguru.  Baba Muktananda and Gurumayi have always taught: test the guru; make sure your teacher is a sadguru.  You will know from your experience if the teacher is a True Guru.  Real transformation is only possible with a True Guru.   

I tended to keep my yogic practice rather private and separated from my photography in the earlier years, between 1987-91, unless occasion presented itself where I felt I could trust that my disclosures would at least be respected and considered.  But in 1992, when Gurumayi Chidvilasananda came to my hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin . . . all that changed.  I am planning to write about this experience in detail, and share many of my experiences associated with Gurumayi's visit to Milwaukee in a later project chapter.

There is a turning point in any creative process when one's lived experience transforms one's doubts or fears and there is a surrender to something greater and more powerful than the small self.  This Photography and Yoga project is a testament to my experience, my love of both the yogic practices and my practice of photography, my longing to know the higher Self, and the transforming power of Gurumayi's grace which has merged the two practices, yoga and photography, into one.   ~   SF

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This first part of the Photography and Yoga project
was announced in the "Latest Addition" section 
of my website's Welcome Page on
June 18, 2015
Though I had pretty much completed this chapter by 
May 23, 2015 my wife Gloria fell and suffered multiple cracks 
in her pelvis and so I was unable to spend any time on the project 
for nearly a month. Gurumayi and Baba Muktananda have consistently 
taught that serving others (seva) is a yogic practice that must take precedence 
over all other yogic practices.  I have tried to honor that teaching as best I could and  have been learning much from caring for Gloria.  SF 

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.