NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Illumination” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
- a. The act of illuminating. b. The state of being illuminated.
- A source of light.
- Spiritual or intellectual enlightenment.
- Clarification; elucidation.
- a. The art or act of decorating a text, page, or initial letter with ornamental designs, miniatures, or lettering. b. An example of this art.
- Physics: The luminous flux per unit area at any point on a surface exposed to incident light.
Starting an essay with a dictionary definition may be a throwback to fifth grade, but here it seems right. It was when I was in fifth grade that the interweaving strands of illumination all began.
I took my first pictures with my family’s twin-lens Brownie camera when I was about 10. It’s difficult, now, to remember what I photographed, and no pictures I took remain from that time, but I do recall the thrill of seeing the scene in front of me projected onto the tiny viewfinder’s ground-glass screen and then, some days later, reappearing as a booklet of square, deckle-edged, black-and-white prints, frozen moments preserved for all time.
At that age, most of my non-school time was spent with science. Activated by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, I grew preoccupied with space, rocketry, fossils, magnets, electricity, chemical reactions, and the movements of tiny, squiggling creatures illuminated beneath my microscope’s objective turret.
At 10, I also took my first faltering steps into spirituality by entering Hebrew school and, simultaneously, reading Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. In that year, I began to think consciously about time, consciousness, the boundaries and origin of the universe, and mortality.
My first experience of time as a continuum occurred when I was riding my red Schwinn bicycle past a neighbor’s house. I stopped, suddenly, and as I gazed at the simple brick facade, the white trim, the unkempt bushes, I became aware of myself looking. I thought, “This is just one second in my life, and I’ll never remember it again.” But that moment is one of my more vivid memories from childhood.
Perhaps I remember because that was the year both of my grandfathers had died and I had seen each of them nearing death in the hospital and their dead bodies in the funeral home. Or maybe it was the readings in the Book of Genesis, or the science stories, each of which must have opened my mind to an understanding of time beyond the immediate. Or perhaps 10 is just when most boys begin to understand time and death; I don’t know. What I do know is that from that point on, time had a kind of linearity and my own life an end point.
In my family, you had to be crazy to go to a therapist. But, as one of my supervisors once observed, most therapists start out as child psychologists, in that we become attuned to the emotions surrounding us as a way to cope with difficult childhoods. I must have sized my situation up very early, because my subconscious strategy was to sink deep into a protective cover and then to focus my seeing on the external world. I quickly become proficient in reading, math, and science at levels far beyond my chronological age, but fell further and further behind in how to interact with people and emotions.
In high school, I graduated from box cameras to serious photography. I was one of the chief yearbook photographers and also its editor. We shot with Rollieflex twin-lens reflex cameras and competed for the one SLR the school owned, a Pentax Spotmatic with its interchangeable lenses. My first personal camera was a Yashica twin-lens, followed quickly by a Miranda Sensomat SLR and a Robot Star, a spring-wound camera used by Luftwaffe pilots to record kills.
I learned to process and print black-and-white and color film and discovered I had a knack for capturing expression and for composition. I photographed friends, family members, street scenes, nature and found occasional portrait work, taking pictures of babies, children, and aspiring actresses and models. Seeing people through the eye of the camera was both a shield and a way to connect.
In my six years in New York City, I carried with me a tape recorder, a notepad, and two or three cameras in a homemade camera bag. I photographed the bums, bag ladies, vendors, muggers, pimps, prostitutes and others who roamed, like me, the streets and subways of Manhattan and Brooklyn. A self-styled anthropologist, I blended into a world largely ignored by native New Yorkers but shockingly vivid to me and tried to bring back something of value. Before I put camera to eye I saw images framed in my mind, sometimes mentally shooting hundreds of pictures in a single walk downtown from the five-floor walkup on West 98th St. and Broadway I shared with two Israelis. I longed to have a camera embedded in my forehead, a third eye.
I soon began to combine photography and writing, largely completing a book that married stories of street people with the images I was shooting – illuminating the words with photographs in what I now see was akin to the illuminated manuscripts created by monks in the Middle Ages.
Although I migrated out of engineering in my first year of college, I never lost interest in technology as a way of apprehending the world. From the start, I experimented with ways to push the boundaries of the photographic medium. I often roamed the streets at night, and when the level of literal illumination was insufficient to fully capture a scene, I enhanced the negatives to obtain harsh, grainy photographs. Sometimes I took things further, printing on black/white Kodalith film stock, sandwiching negatives with moiré patterns, and solarizing images by exposing partly developed prints to light. As each picture emerged in the developer tray, I felt again the fascination I’d had as a child viewing a scene as projected light on the Brownie camera’s viewfinder.
During this same decade, I began to let go of Judaism and to become attracted to Eastern religions and practices. In the summer following my sophomore year in college, I hitch-hiked across the United States, learned Transcendental Meditation in Berkeley, CA, and traveled back home through Canada, arriving with 25 cents in my pocket and an expanded outlook. I began to read seriously in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, and the works of G. I. Gurdjieff, an Armenian/Russian mystic, as well as the seminal writings of psychologists from Sigmund Freud to Fritz Perls.
That year, I spent a semester volunteering in a state mental hospital and also briefly entered therapy. I came for help with a difficult breakup but soon delved into childhood issues I had managed to push aside by forgetting everything that had happened to me before I was 10.
My personal illumination on multiple levels continued during my time in New York City. I revisited therapy with a pastoral counselor, the Bible with a story I wrote about a man who believed he was God, and, in preparation for teaching children at the Brooklyn Museum, read widely in the mythology, art history, and folktales of China, Japan, India, and Egypt.
By my early 30s, however, I was like Daedalus flying too close to the sun on wax wings. I crashed, and everything went dark.
I left New York City, drifted around Europe, lived in artist colonies in New York State and Virginia, and finally landed in a small apartment in Cambridge, MA, as a graduate student in creative writing at Boston University. But the masters degree in writing I had hoped would usher me into a teaching career proved insufficient for a full-time college job. I had injured my back in Virginia and could no longer support myself with construction work, so I took a crash course in computer science, combined it with my writing history, and found work as a technical writer for Digital Equipment Corporation. Although creative writing had flared briefly and brightly while I was in the writing program at B.U., once I started to write about computers, the flame went out. Without a darkroom, I lost interest in creating photographs, and along with writing and photography, conscious spiritual pursuit also came to a halt.
I descended into the darkness of depression.
Robert Bly, in his landmark book about men, Iron John, talks about how in many indigenous cultures, men are required to live for a time in the ash piles surrounding their villages. Time in the ashes, he says, is time for the death of the ego-bound boy; it prepares him to be more resilient and accepting when difficulty shows up in later life. Similarly, William Blake, in his illuminated book The Songs of Innocence and Experience, depicts a necessary fall from innocence, with concomitant despair and, simultaneously, an opening of the eyes to the darker side of life.
My ten year period as a technical writer was my time in the ashes. In its darkness, I sought relief through psychotherapy and began my first serious round of digging into my shadow side. In some ways this decade paralleled my childhood, with the lighter parts of myself submerging and preoccupation with the technical becoming dominant. But now I was not going it alone. I entered, with my therapist’s guidance, a submersible vehicle, and together we explored the depths, retrieving both the tragedies and the treasures buried on the sea bottom of my soul. A necessary consolidation occurred.
The pinpoint light of therapy helped me create not only changes in my actions but also to make deeper transformations of awareness. It led me out of the darkness and paved the way for a more resilient response to what was to yet to come.
My 40s marked an almost literal death and rebirth and a consequent re-illumination of creativity and spirituality.
At 40, I quit tech writing and moved to Albany to start a PhD program in English and to complete a novel. The near-death experience I had the following year, despite its many difficulties, accelerated this illumination by enabling me to directly experience an inner light in myself and others, which nothing since then has extinguished.
Therapy, too, went to a deeper level in the hands of a gifted, seasoned psychotherapist who was also practiced in most of the major spiritual traditions. With his help, I was able to put more of the pieces of my fragmented self back together, as well as to acquire tools that enable me to continue to generate light from inside and, as both therapist and artist, to illuminate not only my own dark corners, but also those of others.
At 50, after a 20-year hiatus, photography returned. I bought a digital camera and found myself preferring to photograph patterns of color and light to the harsh, stylized street people photos I had shot in my black-and-white, film-camera days. I quickly embraced the digital darkroom, learning to manipulate images in Photoshop and print them on inkjet printers. Because of my long experience with computers, digital technology came to me easily and it opened previously unimaginable photographic possibilities. I eagerly tinkered with images, hoping at first merely to improve them but soon realizing that once an image file was on my hard drive, I could do anything I wanted with it.
With my new, near-death-inspired internal light and the set of both technical and therapeutic/spiritual tools I was acquiring, I strove to create forms that felt beautiful and meaningful in a more universal way than my earlier, documentary work. Phototransformations such as the Flower Mandalas emerged, and I transitioned into to artist, integrating both the left-brain and right-brain sides of my nature.
This decade was also the launch pad for spiritual illumination.
In 2003, in group therapy, I worked through the remaining trauma of my St. Peter’s Hospital experience. As I was leaving the group, the leader, herself a Buddhist, suggested I attend a five-day retreat at a nearby college where Thich Nhat Hanh and 50 of his monks and nuns were to lead some 850 retreatants in what I would later think of as “Buddhist boot camp.” There were two slots left; I took one. A decade later, I am still practicing what I learned there.
That retreat occurred the summer before I began my first therapy internship at the counseling center for Massachusetts College of Art. When I’d interviewed for the position, I’d had only one counseling course under my belt, but I was selected from among a pool of many candidates and regarded my selection as the final sign that this would become my profession. In a counseling session the previous year, I had realized that the post-near-death changes in my personality made academic life a poor match for who I was becoming. Rather than complete my PhD exams and dissertation, I had put one foot in the water of becoming a psychotherapist by taking a class in Rogerian therapy. Now I put the other in by accepting the MassArt internship.
I threw myself into therapist training, attending institutes and workshops on top of my schooling, but I was aware that the metaphorical “seeing” of psychotherapy was only part of the illumination I needed to carry forward, so I continued to deepen my work in digital photography, fully embracing what Blake might have called the “dark Satanic mills” of high tech. The summer of the Thich Nhat Hanh retreat, I broke with realism and made my first Flower Mandala, the Dandelion Head mandala that concludes this book.
It was mandala-making that helped me take the first steps into working as a therapist, and this activity has continued to provide centering and balance as I have developed my practice as a healer. Making mandalas helps me process the pain I pick up from my clients in a way that is reminiscent of the Tibetan Buddhist tonglen practice. In tonglen, on the in-breath, the practitioner visualizes taking in the suffering of others, then holds the breath and transforms it, and finally, on the out-breath, gives back loving kindness. In a parallel manner, through mandala-making I convert my own suffering and the suffering of others into something beautiful and, by displaying the resultant images in my office, in galleries, and on the Internet, offer them to the world.
My 60s have started out as a decade of integration, of pulling together the interwoven threads of illumination of prior decades. This book project is itself a product of integration of 50 years of grappling with illumination. It brings together the means I have used so far to apprehend reality: science and technology, photography, writing, spirituality, and psychotherapy. It includes both light and shadow, and in tonglen fashion transforms both into something I hope to be of value to others.
Twenty years ago, my brush with death provided a window into spiritual illumination. At the time, I thought it had saved me 20 years of study and meditation, but now I see that a window is all it really was. But it is through windows that the light gets in.
I am catching up to that near-death vision one season at a time, sensing now that the multiple strands of illumination which have run through my life are all, ultimately, one. Like a fall rose, I am a late bloomer. Pulling this all together has taken me 50 years.
It will be interesting to see what happens next.