Coming Alive: One Encounter at a Time, Part Three - Contemplative Journal

Coming Alive: One Encounter at a Time, Part Three

One Encounter at a Time

Coming Alive: One Encounter at a Time, Part Three

What photographers are looking for is the life force, the heart of what we encounter. While we cannot know in advance what shape that force will take, we recognize it instantly when we are in it presence.

—Jan Phillips, God Is at Eye Level: Photography as a Healing Art

Sheets of wind climbing off of Lake Sagatagan sliced through me as I trekked through the soggy, not yet fully frozen ground behind the prep school at Saint John’s University in central Minnesota. I was on a quest: to find an object or scene, and only one, to photograph, a discipline I had first learned through the work of Jim Brandenburg. Correction: I was on a quest to be found.

That particular morning, I found myself drawn to the trees that skirted the lake shore. Almost immediately, I noticed a fallen tree whose branches were being held up by a neighboring tree. A story began to surface. It was a fine story indeed, one that I could easily tell the retreat group I was facilitating, about this potential picture. It would start with, I am both the fallen tree and the supporting tree. It would end with a beautiful tribute to a both/and way of seeing.

Yet I knew this was the voice of my ego wanting to remain in control. Our egos leave little room for unexpected revelation, and prefer to stick with the rehearsed. Per my instructions to the retreat participants earlier that morning, the invitation to each of us was to keep looking for something that stirred our heart without our fully understanding why.

As I walked on, I continued to hear fragments of various narratives arising. As I turned to head back to the retreat house, a peculiar looking assortment of orange and cream cylinders on a hill in the distance caught my attention. Initially, I found the scene garish and disturbing. In the midst of so much natural beauty, I wondered: why orange and why cream? As I looked more closely, I detected that there were trees inside those tubes. Riveted to the sight of that grove on the hillside, it soon dawned on me. Those plastic containers were protecting saplings from the fierce winds that buffeted the hillside (which I later learned protect the saplings from hungry deer). I lifted my phone and walked around, trying to determine the best angle at which to capture the full breadth of the hillside. I knew that this was to be my picture for the day. I also knew that there was an even deeper message that this scene wanted to convey to me if I took the time to linger with it.

A Clue for our Life’s Journey

Many of us venture out into nature looking for signs of life with our cameras. We’re moved by something as we shoot, unaware that there’s more to the image than meets the eye, that it contains, perhaps, an answer to a question, a clue for our life’s journey.

—Jan Phillips, God Is at Eye Level: Photography as a Healing Art

As I lingered with the image I had received, something clicked: I love working with saplings. Just like the harsh winds streaming off of that lake, the young adults with whom I have worked have a lot of noise streaming through their everyday environments. My calling as an educator is to help them learn how to build their own protective containers so that they can attend to the sound of the genuine within them. While this wasn’t a new discovery, it was an important reminder of why I do what I do. However, my picture offered me one more clue that is especially pertinent at this point in my life: it wasn’t just one sapling that I saw, it was a hillside full of saplings. When I first started teaching and advising college students over 25 years ago, I focused primarily on cultivating each student’s personal potential. Yet over the course of the past decade, my focus has shifted to working with communities to increase their capacity to hear the sound of the genuine within themselves and within one-another. My picture offered a confirmation of the calling I am hearing to tend hillsides so that eventually the maturing trees can offer shelter to one another.

Look Closely, Listen Deeply, Linger Intentionally

The act of looking consumes my consciousness. The mind quiets down, giving way to the eyes, and the world enters through the silent portals. What thoughts occur in that timeless movement seem not to come from outside myself, but to surface from a place deep within, rising from a soul in search of expression.

—Jan Phillips, God Is at Eye Level: Photography as a Healing Art

Many of us work in environments where we feel pressured to scan quickly, listen selectively, and hurry habitually to the next person or thing. This photographic exercise encourages us to counter those tendencies. It invites us to practice looking closely, listening deeply, and lingering intentionally with the things we encounter in order to discern their significance for us at this moment in time.


I invite you to try this contemplative exercise on your own, with a friend, or in your community. Begin by closing your eyes, turning your attention within, and breathing deeply. Allow yourself time to settle into stillness before embarking on your photographic quest.

Look closely at your environment. Notice the objects and scenes to which you are drawn, those that seem to speak to you and captivate your attention.

Listen deeply to your internal commentary (e.g., thoughts, feelings, memories) as you explore your environment. As you listen, notice which particular object or scene resonates most deeply for you, even though you may not understand why. Photograph that object or scene.

Linger intentionally with the image you have photographed. Consider:

  • How does your picture connect with what is going on in your life at this time?
  • What message does your picture convey to you? For example, does it offer an affirmation, a clarification, an invitation, or a challenge?

Reflect in your journal, or through conversation with a friend, what you have discovered through this encounter.


In an age when we can readily secure a seemingly infinite amount of images on our camera phones, this activity is as much about the process of waiting in expectancy for something to beckon for our attention as it is about the photograph itself. By honing our attention to what we encounter through the lenses of our cameras, we learn to see more of the persons and things we meet through the lenses of our hearts.

Editor’s note: The featured image for this article was taken by Ludo Rouchy and is reused under a Creative Commons by-attribution license. The original is available here.

Diane M. Millis
Diane M. Millis

Diane M. Millis, PhD, is a spiritual director, teacher, and inspirational speaker. She is the author of Deepening Engagement: Essential Wisdom for Listening and Leading with Purpose, Meaning and Joy and Conversation–the Sacred Art: Practicing Presence in an Age of Distraction. She is the interviewer and producer of Lives Explored. Diane brings to her ministry over twenty-five years of teaching and consulting experience in the fields of spirituality, communication studies, and human development. She is the founder of the Journey Conversations Project, an educational initiative for people of all faiths to cultivate their capacity for dialogue, discovery, and discernment. Diane facilitates retreats in classrooms, congregations, and corporations throughout the United States and in Canada. To contact Diane, visit