Iceland - As Above So Below

Magnificent 'God Rays' illuminate the landscape in the Highlands region of Central Iceland.

The term As Above So Below has been around for a very long time. While its origin and meaning are beyond the realms of this photography site I still believe we can appreciate the poetic and spiritual aspects associated with this simple phrase.

The Three Great Questions

The need for religion, by which I mean a formal, rule orientated belief system seems to have come about, primarily, as a way of making sense of that which is largely intangible. Three great questions have challenged mankind for millennia. They are as follows:

  • Creation - where did we come from?
  • Death - where are we going?
  • Identity - who are we?

Religion and the Sublime

Religion has done its best to answer these questions. But, along the way, bureaucracy, power, politics and, on occasions, market share have, to my mind, adversely affected the potency and legitimacy of the original message.

Let's not forget that what are regarded as the world's great religions came into existence when most of the world was uneducated. Myths were incorporated into the teachings as a way of trying to explain the unexplainable. As a way of clarification, to my mind, myths are both true and false. And when I speak of truth I am not, necessarily, implying an actual factual event. However I do understand and respect that other folk approach their belief system in a more rigid manner. The problem is when that degree of conservatism leads to an us and them or my way or the highway approach. As a result the ability to increase tolerance, understanding or co-operation is significantly lessened.

While some folks believe that Jonah did, in fact, live in a whale, others see that and other such writings in all manner of holy books as myths and metaphor that, while strictly speaking, may not be particularly factual are, nevertheless, meaning and message rich. And that's where truth resides.

Soft, gentle light illuminates this scene of a fast flowing river cutting its way through a rocky landscape in Southern Iceland.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

I know some folks rally at such a suggestion. But I think a large part of the problem is that we misunderstand the value of myth in our contemporary world. Might it not have been the case that folks from long ago were better able to separate the message from the myth. This is why I personally believe that a literal interpretation of what is written can be dangerous as it leaves certain believers with very little flexibility when it comes to dealing with someone who adheres to a different belief structure and, in extreme cases, to someone of the same faith who approaches the text differently.

But, please, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying any one way to the source is better. I respect that other people think differently to me. And they have a right to do so. As long as they practice love, peace, compassion, forgiveness, respect, pluralism and equality for all I have no argument.

I first became aware of the verse "separate the wheat from the chaff" in the song Almost Cut My Hair on the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album Deja Vu. It's probably my all time favourite album, although there are a couple from The Band that are right up there as well.   

Understanding Within Our Contemporary World

Today we live in a world that is largely absent of ritual and metaphor. We deal, everyday, with symbols that help us navigate our way through life. But most of these symbols are little more than signs (e.g., go, stop, turn around, be quiet, don't walk on the grass) with no spiritual significance.

Science and its offspring, technology, are the new gods by which so many endeavor to discover meaning. We are, after all, reason seeking people. Yet I often despair that, in order to navigate our contemporary world, we heavily favor our left brain. The more you favor a particular way of doing things the more likely you'll be to gravitate to that way or method or approach in the future. So, for many folks, the left brain may be more dominant than it otherwise would be. As a natural consequence of this behavior the more intuitive, creative and spiritual side of our natural self is repressed. As a result we deny ourselves of so much of who and what we really are. Is this not the primary cause of our world's spiritual malaise? How can we ever hope to be complete, enlightened beings?

My friend, Tony Jackson, at the gates of an abandoned cemetery in rural Iceland.

But All Is Not Lost

You might know the joke that follows:

A young girl passes an old Jewish man in the street.

"Excuse me sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?"

The old man replies.

"Practice, practice, practice."

Now there's a metaphor for you. No matter what you want to do it's essential that you pay attention to it. Make it a bigger and more important part of your life. The more attention you pay and the more practiced you become the more you'll begin to associate yourself with that skill, technique or way of thinking or behaving. And I feel this is true whether you want to be a better musician, photographer or simply a better person.

There are lots of ways by which we can better integrate with our more intuitive, spiritual self. And it doesn't have to cost money either. Make it a point of getting outside and going for a walk on a regularly basis. And forget about burning off substantial calories, for which you have to walk a very long way indeed, or building muscle power. Such outcomes will come in time and through repetition of effort. In this case you don't want to sweat, pound the pavement or accelerate past other people. You simply want to slow down, breathe and, by communing with nature, get in touch with what's going on around you. As a consequence you'll be tapping into your other self.

 A huge iceberg in the shape of a submarine on Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Iceland

This is Not a Photographers Free Zone

Does all this seem a little wishy washy? Photographers, are you with me. Next time you're out and about just look at the light. The word illumination isn't just associated with exposure.

I like to categorize the world's 3 belief systems, and not in any particular order, as follows:

  • Believer
  • Non-believer
  • Unsure

While folks with very firm and definite beliefs must derive a considerable degree of certainty from their faith, I'm glad that I was born in a country where I was both permitted and, in some ways, encouraged to question the belief system into which AS A BABY I was initiated into. Is it not a uniquely human trait to question? After all, isn't that the very basis upon which science, art, philosophy and religion are based.

The world is a beautiful place and, regardless of your own belief system, the easiest way to get in touch with the sublime is to, dare I say, tune in and drop out (even for a few minutes a day).

Some folks relish community and ritual as a way to touch the divine. Just look at the massive growth of Pentecostal churches throughout the western world. It's amazing how powerful a positive message and a youthful band can be for those seeking community. For others, like me, a more personal approach is preferred. I find connection in the landscape, in the faces and openness of the very young and through the faces and wisdom of the old. And, as is often the case, photography is the vehicle by which I can both connect and record my impression of the sublime.

And Now the Photographs

Iceland, geologically speaking, is a very young country. Its landscape is beautiful, often sublime. There's no wonder the landscape forms such a dominant part of Iceland's local mythology.

You can bet that, while I was thinking (left brain) about issues relating to composition, exposure and focus while making these images, I was also feeling (right brain) that which had drawn me to make them in the first place. On one level it was the transforming nature of light, rather than mountain, cloud, water, or sky that, intuitively, drew my attention. As to where that transformation leads, now that's what can't be understood, at least through any definitive, measurable, logical framework.

But that doesn't mean we can't connect with it and, as a consequence, with our true inner selves. And whatever it is (names can be both powerful and problematic) I can assure you it's working on a level that's entirely different to the way most of us go about our day to day existance. Which is kind of a shame, don't you think?

Here's an interesting post that discusses the whole notion of left and right brained. 

Final Tips

Get up, get out and get about. Breathe the air, take in your surroundings and still your mind. The rest will follow in due course. Like most change it comes when most needed, but rarely when expected.

For photographers I'd simply suggest that you endeavor to make light the primary subject of your photographs. You might be interested to discover how far that little tip will take you and your photography along the path of your own life long creative journey.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru