First Thought, Best Thought, by Michelle Welch


Sometimes interesting coincidences happen. I was browsing the Phoenix Shambhala Twitter feed and came across this posting from Lion’s Roar:


The photographer included this comment: “In this monochromatic moment, as birds take flight, dark lines dissolve into textures. It’s a rich example of fresh seeing.”

Here’s the interesting coincidence: I happened to be taking a digital photography course at the time, and I had just done an assignment working with shutter speed to create blurred effects like this. I looked at this photo and said, “I know exactly how the photographer did that!” But then I had another realization, about how contemplative art works.

When the Dharma Arts Delek was meeting**, we had some discussions of Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings about contemplative art. “First thought, best thought” was his primary approach: the idea that art should represent what we see around us as directly as possible, without the artist meddling too much and diluting it with his or her preconceived notions or desires about what the piece should be. “Fresh seeing” is another way to put it, and it’s what contemplative artists are working toward.

I was befuddled when I first heard this. I’m a writer; I can’t possibly put things I observe into my medium without molding them in my head and matching them up with words, turning the words over and hunting for the best ones, then putting them on the page and editing the words some more. Is it hopeless? Are there some arts that just can’t be contemplative?

The Delek discussed this, and someone mentioned that fresh seeing doesn’t mean the artist can’t use his or her skill. Okay, I thought, but I still wasn’t convinced – until I saw this photograph and realized how the artist took it. He had years of practice in mind, all his knowledge about shutter speed and exposure, and he relied upon that to capture his fresh perception. Skill is a basis you use to support contemplative art; you just have to quit thinking about it so hard.

** The Dharma Arts Delek is no longer meeting regularly due to members’ scheduling issues, but we hope to plan some events occasionally, and we still have a presence on Facebook. Come visit, let us know about your works in progress, and share your artistic finds!