It All Happens in a Flash

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Have you ever found yourself walking down the street, lost in thought when suddenly you notice a flash of perception, such as seeing a reflection in a plate glass window…and you pause?

One moment you are thinking of what you’ll prepare for dinner that evening, and the next, without shifting your gaze, you are looking at the sky, or trees, or buildings or people reflected off the shiny glass.

For a moment, your thinking mind stops thinking and you enjoy an instant flash of perception. Within seconds, you are back in your head again, where conceptualizing thoughts stir round and round in the great washing machine of the mind.

These small gaps in thinking occur all the time, briefly, where you are shot out of conceptual thought and into a pleasant, vivid perceptual experience.

Many years ago, when we were house hunting in the Eagle River valley, where we live now, I experienced a very vivid flash of perception that stayed buried in my mind. We were looking at a house deep in the valley and all I remember about the visit is the flash of perception I experienced there.

I was standing outside looking around the yard when my attention was drawn to the expansive “great room” window facing east. The glass reflected the alpenglow of white capped mountains and the Eagle Glacier at the valley’s terminus. For just a few moments, I was stunned by the beauty and I knew clearly, all at once, that this was where I wanted to live. The moment was captured. This was the so called “money shot.” Gone was the deliberation of floor plans, well logs, property lines and in its place a sudden rich flash of perception connected the dots. Even though we didn’t buy that particular house, I knew instantly (but not consciously) I wanted to live in this valley, in a house that reflected trees and mountains and sky.

In The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Andy Karr and Michael Wood explain further: Flashes of perception occur only when there is a gap in the thinking process. They happen in natural breaks in the flow of conceptuality where you stop thinking and just observe.

When a strong perception provokes a break in thinking, conceptual mind stops in its tracks. Staying with the flash of perception has a quality of motionlessness; you are not distracted, jumping at every little thing that happens and getting caught up in it. You don’t project out. You just allow yourself to be in the stillness of the moment, appreciating whatever you see. These breaks take place all the time, but generally slip by unnoticed. When we have the intention to recognize them, these breaks become much easier to spot.

The mind is free from preoccupation, and this is when the eyes clearly see.

The thinking comes a few minutes later, though. Consider this photo. I am standing on the deck, shooting back into the house. An interesting array of objects come into view; you can see the stained glass window and a lamp in the house yet you are also aware of the chairs and table out on the deck…and further out, the trees and mountains. Items appear to be floating in space and are not connected to each other in a meaningful way. Interesting. There were no expectations about whether I was getting a good or a bad shot; this juxtaposition of objects is simply what I saw, what was unexpectedly perceived.

Here I am shooting into the bedroom, my eye goes in one window and out another revealing brown trees and a cold gray sky. Mountains tower over framed photographs on the wall above our bed. The  landscape here has not yet revealed all things green. The crocus and daffodils are still stalled under an icy ground. Snow still shawls our mountains.

But I wait patiently, with camera in hand.  I will watch for new and rich experiences in real time,  in the flash perceptions I’m aware enough to notice without labeling, categorizing and over thinking.

Just get the shot with a refreshed mind and the images will speak for themselves.


0 thoughts on “It All Happens in a Flash”

  1. You are right, this is interesting. You have given me something to think about as well as to attempt myself. ‘Reflection' as a word can mean several things at the same time.

  2. Yes; I've had an interesting recurring dream for about 10 years with reflections in a mirror as the main scene…will have to explore that sometime in a post. Thanks, Friko

  3. That was such an interesting and creative way to use your camera. Love the way you describe instant flashes of perception – the first one I vividly remember having was when I was six years old and I'm always awe-struck whenever they have occurred since then.

  4. I have a vivid memory of one that occurred in childhood too; I was sitting in the arms of a big old oak tree and a stream of sunlight burst through the leaves…I remember being astonished at the wonder of it all….

  5. Poor Jonah Lehrer faded pretty quickly because of his tendencies toward plagiarism, but his article called "The Eureka Hunt" still is one I read from time to time. (You can read a bit here, and check out the archives if you're a subscriber.) The visual perceptions you describe seem perfectly analogous to the "flashes" of insight I've had from time to time and which Lehrer chronicles.

    To sum it up rather poorly, his point is that allowing the brain to function as a whole allows insight to happen. Too often our response to something like writers' block is to focus even more intensely, which only makes the problem worse. Getting out of the way of our own brain allows new and more creative connections to take place.

    It's a fact that I can be struggling to find a word, a sentence or a way of organization when I go to bed, and when I wake in the morning, there it is. There's nothing quite so weird – or pleasing! – as finding a fully formed sentence waiting to be written down!

    To summarize his point, there are reasons that our best ideas often come to us in the shower, after sleep and so on. Those are the times when we've gotten out of our own way, and allowed right and left brains to have a little chat without playing chaperone!

  6. Letting go of the 'thinking brain' long enough to let those flashes happen is really the heart of creativity. Even if Jonah Lehrer got really sloppy in putting together his book, "Imagine," re: how creativity works, I culled a few tidbits that resonated. In a word, I relish those moments you call flashes of perception.

  7. It is in those flashes where total contentment is possible as well; I love being in that space…but you can't run after those moments… they slip away like water through a sieve.them Thank you for your considerations Linda and Deborah.

  8. Great reflection, Monica. I love the first photo most but they all are intriguing. And magical because they show something which is and isn't real. 🙂 I'm more aware of these flashes of perception when I take my camera and go out, I become more perceptive to those moments which otherwise may go unnoticed and uncaught.

    Once I read an interesting book about brain functioning and it was said there that the left hemisphere is responsible for thinking while the right hemisphere is responsible for perceptions of various kinds. The thinking hemisphere is dominant and if we want to give room to the right hemisphere we need to subdue the thinking. It corresponds with the gaps in the thinking process you write about. I have such an experience that in the evening, when I go to bed and should fall asleep, I stop thinking, empty my mind and after a while of quietness clusters of thoughts come back but from different angles and bringing new information. Like something was observed in the quietness.

  9. Perhaps when we engage in right brain activities like painting, cooking (it can be creative, but also can be a chore) and drawing, the left brain takes a break…I feel such contentment during these activities, and make more room for them in my everyday life. Thank you, Petra.

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Welcome to the creative playground of Image, Sculpture, Verse.  I live in a river town nestled in the Chugach Mountain Range of Southcentral Alaska.



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