“The aim of the metaphysical movement is to teach the practice of the presence of God.” – Emmet Fox
The Equivalents “remain photography’s most radical demonstration of faith in the existence of a reality behind and beyond that offered by the world of appearances.”
– Andy Grundberg, New York Times art critic
When I was working in the HR field, and also pursuing my bachelor’s degree, I worked and attended classes at Regis University in Denver. Regis is a Catholic and Jesuit university, which served as a topper for my early education, which also took place at a Catholic school. While enrolled at Regis, as well as working there, I learned a few things about what The Jesuits teach, and I must say, that while I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I remain a fan of Jesuit teachings and spiritual practices. I guess you could say that “Finding God in All Things” is a tagline of The Jesuit order, and one I personally resonate with. The Society of Jesus was formed in 1540, so it’s hard to say that this idea of “Finding God in All Things” is a new idea but “Finding God in All things” is at the core of Ignatian spirituality.
Many other religious and spiritual traditions also make a claim to this idea that God is present everywhere and in all things. Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite friar, wrote a book entitled “The Practice of the Presence of God” in the 17th Century as well, but this idea that God is present in all things is not limited to Catholic theologians. One of the greatest New Thought spiritual leaders of all time was Emmet Fox, who taught and wrote short books and pamphlets about these concepts and was very popular during the great depression. At his most popular, he spoke to up to 5,000 people at a time about these concepts through The Unity School of Christianity. He wrote a great classic pamphlet entitled “Mental Equivalents,” which is required reading for any student of spirituality or New Thought. Interestingly, Emmet Fox was a student at a Jesuit college in Ireland, where he was born. He attended St. Ignatius College, which still operates. At the time Emmet Fox was enrolled, it was a secondary school for boys. This is most likely how this concept of finding God in all things made its way from a Jesuit school to The Unity School, possibly through the conduit of Emmet Fox.
Probably the most integral teaching from his booklet on Mental Equivalents, is the idea that we live in a mental world and that understanding that is the key to life. In order to create the life you want then, you must create a mental equivalent of what you want first. This makes me think of the project management courses I took in college, in which we created a step-by-step plan for completing projects. When doing this, you do what Franklin Covey recommends, and “begin with the end in mind.” This beginning with the end in mind is the key to project management as well as life. Franklin Covey calls this, “The Habit of Personal Vision.” In order to do this, you must use your imagination to envision with your mind, what you can’t yet see with your own eyes. Once again, I would consider that this idea of Mental Equivalents is having a viral moment here, jumping from The Jesuits, to New Thought, to a New York Times Best Selling business book, but it’s really a classic idea.
The idea of creating a mental equivalent is so prevalent in spiritual and philosophical circles, that it is also found in many eastern spiritual teachings, including Buddhism and Sufism, even though, strictly speaking Buddhists don’t believe in God. This quote from an article I found online, shows how Buddhist and Jesuit meditation and mindfulness practices intersect:
Buddhism’s meditation techniques, like Ignatian spirituality’s, also employ mindfulness. For example, one can sit for ten or twenty minutes and simply focus on the breath coming into and out of one’s nose.
Meditation can also lead us to a mindful love and appreciation of the things around us: a butterfly, a strand of grass, our spouse, our job. Awareness like this is the root of the Ignatian principle of God in all things. There is sacredness in everything. None of these things themselves cause suffering since suffering does not originate from things but rather human attachments and unfreedoms.
The Buddha and Ignatius meant for their spiritualities to be applied to everyday life. The Buddha had promised himself that once he found the way out of suffering, he would share it with others so they could practice it. Mindfulness in our daily moments gives way to profound insight. Awareness of the world’s suffering, our reactions, the reactions of others, and our brokenness, can foster greater love and ethical living—or in Ignatius’ terms, glorifying God.
Mindfulness and self-awareness: these are the main and most important parallels between the spiritualities of Ignatius and the Buddha. (1)
So how does the practice of mindfulness intersect with the idea of forming a mental equivalent of what you want? The main connection is through the practice of meditation, which both spiritual practices recommend.
Minor White, one of the great photographers of his era, was an ardent follower of a philosopher by the name of George Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic, spiritual teacher, writer, and musical composer, active in the first half of the 20th Century. He was a contemporary of Minor White, although he was older, they both were adults for over 30 years during the 20th Century. I don’t know if they ever met. Minor White also studied Zen Buddhism and other forms of eastern spiritual ideas, which brought mindfulness and mysticism into his photography practice and he included these ideas in the classes he taught to budding photographers of the time. Oddly, he absorbed the idea of equivalence in photography, from the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who’s abstract photographs of clouds were shown in the 1920’s and 30’s under the title “Equivalence.” To my mind, this is equivalent to any of us looking up at clouds and seeing that they resemble shapes of animals or other known objects. Stieglitz often showed these images by turning them in different directions because it didn’t matter what direction they were facing, like clouds floating by in the sky. This was very avant garde in the 1920’s and 30’s, considering that photography itself hadn’t even been around for that long yet, and the view of photography as an art form was only about 15 years old at the time.
So, I would say the idea of mental equivalents in photography has more to do with personal interpretation of abstraction than with forming a mental equivalent of what you want and then creating it, although the use of the terms could be interchangeable in the metaphysical world. If you use the metaphysical meaning of mental equivalents too stringently in photography, you’re likely to miss out on some very cool abstractions that may be possible once you are in the process of a photo shoot. Rather than trying to control for every possibility to create the perfect image, I prefer to arrive at my location and then see what draws my attention when I get there. This is the opposite of the out picturing of a mental equivalent, and more like the allowing of equivalencies to emerge naturally. These two things are at the opposite end of the spectrum from one another.
Meditation and mindfulness is where they meet. Minor White expressed it this way, “Be still with yourself until the object of your attention affirms your presence.” This is like a Native American shaman entering a holy place in the forest and asking permission from the grandfather tree to enter. Do not enter until you have permission. This is important when practicing any outdoor activity. I felt this very strongly when walking through a forest of bristlecone pines in The Rocky Mountains. When you are sure you have permission, walk in a humble manner. Spirit is present here. As Minor White also said, “Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.” There is no need to rush when looking for photographic equivalencies.