Let go, and you’ll see the vast array of beauty all around

A wave breaking on a Molokai beach. Dewitt Jones was singularly focused on getting this image. As the light changed and shooting conditions deteriorated, his mind was freed to take in the entirety of the scene to give him both an experience and a great photo.

What is love?” someone asked the Dalai Lama. His reply? “Love is the absence of judgment.”

Well, that sounds quite lovely, but seriously, without judgment, I wouldn’t be much of a photographer. I make a huge number of judgments every time I take a shot—what’s the right lens, the best angle, the proper exposure, the correct color balance, the perfect moment to push the shutter? Without all those judgments, would I ever get an image?

No, I wouldn’t, at least not a good one, but I’ve wandered around in nature enough to know that the times I’m happiest are the times when I’m feeling connected to everything around me. And, if I look carefully, those times are indeed without judgment. One leaf isn’t better than another; the sky isn’t more perfect than the grass; there’s no “best” angle to view it all from. I feel both in and of the landscape. I observe that things are different from each other, but there’s no judgment. I’m in “love” with it.

Darn, I want both. I want to fuse with the universe and I want to take photos. I want to have a great experience and capture a great image.

It’s a fascinating and rather delicate dance.

The other day, I went to the beach to shoot waves. The surf report was good, my confidence was high. I arrived and found the ocean flat-calm. Then, way down the beach, I saw waves breaking in one very small area. Immediately, I was locked in like a cheetah after a gazelle. I forgot about the folks who were with me (never thought to even ask them if they wanted to make the long trek down the beach). No, I just set off on my own little death march, with no intention of stopping until I had reached those waves.

Have you ever left your house to go to the grocery store or your office and found when you arrived there that you had absolutely no memory of the drive? That’s what my hike was like. I was so locked in on my goal, so certain of my judgment, that the place I was going to was far, far better than the place I was, that I stopped noticing or experiencing anything around me till I reached my destination.

Would it have been possible to enjoy the journey and still reach my goal? Certainly, if I had just been a little more conscious of how my judgments were blinding me, I could have enjoyed every step of my journey and still arrived at the same time. I could have allowed myself to delight in the wind against my face and savored the warmth of the sun on my shoulders. As I walked, I could have reveled in the feeling of the sand beneath my feet and between my toes. I could have done all this, with love, without judgment, and still have arrived at my goal at the same time. I could have, but I didn’t.

That realization brought me up short, and I decided I would try and do a better job when I started shooting. But that was even harder. Obviously, I wanted to capture the most colossal wave just as it broke. I’d wait, pick what I thought was the best one, and shoot like crazy, then look to the next incoming wave and find myself disappointed if it wasn’t bigger than the one I had just shot. Judgment again. Big waves were good. Other waves, not so much. It became long stretches of disappointment punctuated by moments of glee and frantic shooting. If I tried to break the cycle and just enjoy each wave for what it was, I found I wasn’t as ready for the big ones when they arrived. My judgments were definitely helping me get the shot, but just as definitely messing with the experience. Okay, let the experience go for the moment and get the shot. I did. Many of them. I shot until I was exhausted and the best light was gone.

Now, Dewitt, sit down. Sit down and just enjoy. No judgment. Just discernment and observation. Just mindfulness. Just love. Aaah, delightful.

The walk back was the same way. I let myself do everything I had neglected to do on the hike out. In the end, I felt I had met my real goal for the day—great photos and a great experience.

To some of you, this might all seem like one big “duh.” Of course, there are times when we need our judgments and times when we need to let them go. We all know that. But there are many things we all know. They’re simple. Simple, but not easy. It takes mindfulness and practice to recognize which state you’re in and then be able to move easily from one to the other.

Our judgments help us to learn the elementary lesson of photography: getting the beautiful shot. The letting go of judgments helps to experience the advanced lesson of photography—that it’s all beautiful and there for us to enjoy.

Dewitt Jones‘ new ebook Celebrate What’s Right with the World! is now available on Amazon and the iBook Store. It’s a wonderful collection of the best images and words from the Celebrate Facebook page, www.facebook.com/celebratewhatsright.

Dewitt Jones is one of America’s top professional photographers. Twenty years with National Geographic photographing stories around the globe has earned him the reputation as a world-class photojournalist. As a motion picture director, he had two documentary films nominated for Academy Awards before he was thirty. Dewitt has published nine books including California! and John Muir’s High Sierra. His most recent book, The Nature of Leadership, was created in collaboration with Stephen R. Covey.