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Suffering & Transformation

with photographer Susie Lang & performance artist Mark Stevens

The first of the four noble Truths of Buddhism is that life if suffering. In the fall of last year, performance artist Mark Stevens and photographer Susie Lang and I embarked on an intense photo shoot that for me exemplified this first Truth.

The afternoon was cold and rainy when we arrived at our destination, an abandoned homestead that I’d wanted to shoot at for several years.

My hope was to embody and capture the typical trajectory of Relationship, which could equally be applied to nearly any endeavor, pursuit or desire. It’s an old and simple story that is too often repeated. But I’ve lived it enough to be driven to try to “show” it.

The dilapidated house seemed a perfect site for our exploration. Despite the newness of any  relationship, we are always working within the deteriorating structure of our own minds and bodies, which carry the baggage and disrepair of what has come before. We are always already falling apart before we even begin.

At the start of every compelling connection is the freshness of hope that this new interplay will somehow be different, better, or richer than the last and the last and the last. There is a childlike imagination that it will take us to the places of joy and freedom that we haven’t felt but want to reach or that we want to touch some semblance of again and again.

The promise is overflowing. The passion is palpable as we endeavor to reach ephemeral goals of happiness, unity, redemption, or even salvation.  It’s magical child thinking. And it’s all consumingly brief. You want more. It’s never enough. Restlessness creeps in. The itch never quite gets scratched, or if it does the relief is fleetingly brief and the moment soon passes.

The efforts falter and the results fall short. Dissatisfaction and disappointment prevail. Frustration, hurt, and anger take hold. No matter how good it once was, separation sets in.  You may be together in the same physical space, but you feel alone.

Eventually, if the inclination is there, reconciliation efforts may be made. Perhaps healing and a greater understanding takes place. Maybe some kind of love even finds a way to shine for some shorter or longer period.

These cycles of coming together and separating repeat. Over and over. Every time it begins again, it feels compelling and fresh. You want that good feeling back and you want it to last.

Meanwhile, the house continues to decay.

At some point, you can’t go on. Maybe the house burns down or someone you are in the dance  with, gets sick, leaves or dies. As the poet Mary Oliver said, at last and too soon an ending comes. Sooner or later, one way or another, we find ourselves literally alone again, perhaps both inside and out.

Shift happens. We’re forced into a deeper soul searching, and we want to be somewhere more like home than our familiar failing and failed structures.

How does the second Noble Truth, where understanding the origins of suffering, take place? Or how about the third Noble Truth where suffering ends? Or what about the fourth, which is about embarking on the True Path?

This was a disturbing photo shoot for me. Afterwards, I kept asking myself, where is the redemption?

The next day, Susie and I hiked to a cave where I hoped to find and shoot if not actual answers, then at least some kind of a transition. I had a dress that reminded me of a cocoon that I wanted to use in the cave to embody the idea of an internal transformation.

I have moments of insight where I grock that my attachment to people, to my physical “stuff,” and to the way I think things should be are what cause me the greatest suffering. I have moments of clarity where I am deeply and profoundly in touch with something greater than all of that. Sometimes I even feel, with some semblance of certainty, that I am on a higher path. I like to think that adjustments of this magnitude are permanently taking place within me, and if we are truly all connected, then maybe they are taking place for others too.

These realizations mix and blend with old wounds, memories, cravings and all that I’ve known. I have faith that in the commingling, a transmutation unlike any other has begun. I trust that  gradually, a fully developed wiser person will emerge. Meanwhile, I continue just trying to be more quiet inside, to witness the small changes, and to give thanks for this magnificent journey with its multitudes of chances, choices and opportunities for insight and slow metamorphosis.

Photos by Susie Lang