Q & A with Jon Kolkin, author of INNER HARMONY: Living in Balance

1. Your new book is INNER HARMONY–what is it about and how did it come to be? 

INNER HARMONY: Living in Balance explores universally relevant principles central to living a less stressful, more balanced, and fulfilling life, regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, ethnicity or racial background.

It is a collection of over 200 rare and intimate photographs of Buddhist monastics and laypeople, whom I had the privilege of living among and photographing during seventeen extended stays, over thirteen years, in ten countries throughout Asia, primarily while engaged in medical humanitarian work through Health Volunteers Overseas (www.hvousa.org). The images are complemented by poetry and prose written by Buddhist scholar, Paula Arai, PhD.

INNER HARMONY’s photographs, stories and poems gently invite people to take a fresh look at what factors might contribute to greater happiness. A sampling of subtopics include cultivating compassion for self and others, calming the body and mind, maintaining focus, thinking more clearly, and clarifying our values. 

2. You have met with the Dalai Lama on a number of occasions, and share His Holiness’ commitment to spreading compassion worldwide. In fact, the Dalai Lama has contributed a Foreword to INNER HARMONY. How does the concept of compassion influence your work?

First, I would like to give credit to His Holiness for inspiring me to embark on a number of Compassion-centered initiatives, which include Inner Harmony. During my first private audience with the Dalai Lama we held hands while He asked if I would partner with Him in promoting Compassion worldwide.

To clarify, I view ‘Compassion’ as intentional acts of kindness for the benefit of those in need, motivated by a true concern for their well-being. This includes all sentient beings and Planet Earth. I feel that compassion, guided by wisdom, is central to achieving the illusive state of ‘Inner Harmony,’ which is the best barometer of ‘true happiness.’

This book and my artwork is in line with my commitment to promoting compassion, because the underlying themes for most of photographic projects are in some way connected to promoting a healthier, more balanced, and fulfilling life.

3. How can photography become not only a creative outlet, but also a means of growth — even a spiritual discipline?

When faced with challenges, in order to be most effective when engaging in compassionate acts, it is important to first calm the body and mind, focus, assess the situation, consider multiple perspectives, formulate a plan, and then act. For me, photography has been a wonderful ‘training ground’ for developing those skills. Spiritual growth requires these same fundamental skills.

4. INNER HARMONY explores universally relevant practices that can enhance our ability to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. Why is this important to you and what do you want readers to take away from the book?

As a physician, I focus on how I can contribute to improving peoples’ physical and emotional health, which in turn increases the probability that we will live a more balanced and fulfilling life. We know that chronic stress is endemic in our society with a pre-pandemic incidence among US adults of over 60%. We also know that chronic stress is a major contributor to the skyrocketing levels of many physical and emotional illnesses experienced worldwide. If we don’t have the skillset needed to effectively address the underlying causes of stress, we cannot achieve true happiness. INNER HARMONY highlights many of the fundamental principles central to developing a healthier mindset, which can lead to living a less stressful, happier, and more fulfilling life. 

5. How do you identify a moment when something creatively special is taking place?

With regard to my photographs, the creativity is mostly instinctive. I become focused and immersed in an environment, not only taking in what my eyes see, but also sensing and absorbing the emotional attachment I have to my subject. Once I recognize something with great potential, I often feel a heightened excitement, imagining how I might better position myself in order to capture the experience with my camera. I mentally transport myself to different vantage points within the space, and then gradually move toward a designated location while being flexible and intuitive.

It is very similar to the process I use as a physician who specializes in helping people with hand and arm maladies. After listening to the patient and reviewing pertinent information, I begin a careful examination, while simultaneously mentally visualizing the area of concern in 3-D. I use the same process while navigating through a surgical procedure, making adjustments dictated by the findings. 

6. How has your experience as a physician and an artist influenced your ability to communicate certain concepts and emotions through photography?

A well-taken photograph can be worth a thousand words. This is true whether trying to illustrate the diagnosis and treatment of a malady or creating images for the Inner Harmony series. The potential benefit of a good photograph is even greater when engaged in humanitarian work in under-resourced countries where few doctors, nurses, therapists and students have a good command of the English language. As a result, my 30+ years of private practice in the US and 20+ years of international medical volunteer work have served as wonderful opportunities to hone my skill at communicating concepts and ideas through photography. 

7. INNER HARMONY provides a window into the otherwise hushed world of meditation and mindfulness. How and why have Buddhist practices come to inspire and enlighten people worldwide?

I can only speculate. I suspect it might be due to the practical nature of time-tested Buddhist principles, which in many cases, are backed by science. Buddhism and science suggest that the key to Inner Harmony is focus, removing bias and ego, a clear mind, considering multiple perspectives, and then acting with compassion guided by wisdom. This step-by-step approach does not require fancy gimmicks, and there are practical ways of seamlessly integrating them into one’s daily life. 

As a side note, mindfulness is a practice I frequently observe among patients throughout Asia, regardless of their spiritual beliefs. After surgery, even though narcotics are available, it is rare for patients to request anything stronger than Ibuprofen. They accept the reality that some pain is inevitable and use mindfulness to calm their body and mind.  

8.  What impacts our ability to truly “see” things?

For me the key is seeing reality, unencumbered by habitual responses. A child is born without bias, responding with purity to its surroundings. Unfortunately, over time we all develop counterproductive, destructive tendencies such as an inflated ego, greed, bias, and unrealistic expectations. They cloud our vision. It takes courage to follow our conscience, look in the mirror, acknowledge our weaknesses, and move forward with compassion guided by wisdom.

9. INNER HARMONY is an artistic compilation of your powerful, sensitive images taken while immersed in Buddhist communities across Asia for over a decade. What drew you to each particular location?

Most of my Asian experiences were a side benefit of my work through Health Volunteers Overseas. This organization develops longstanding working relationships with medical teaching hospitals worldwide. Within the Orthopedics division there are typically 12-16 programs that provide solo volunteer opportunities to work side-by-side with healthcare providers for 2-4 weeks. Though I also volunteered in Moldova, Malawi and Peru, I often sought assignments in counties that not only provided excellent opportunities to exchange medical concepts but also had a reasonable number of Buddhists. 

Prior to each immersive experience I often network with people in the US and overseas to explore opportunities to interact with local Buddhist communities. As an example, I was planning a trip to Myanmar. When I mentioned my upcoming assignment to a good friend who was a nun at a local Buddhist Temple where I had exhibited the Seeking Wisdom series, she contacted a monastic colleague in France who had meditated for 13 years at a remote Meditation Centre deep in the forest of Myanmar. Together they arranged special permission for me to stay at the Meditation Centre and photograph.

10. What is your next project?

The most ambitious project is the North American traveling museum exhibition, Shades of Compassion, which includes 50 photographs by some of the world’s leading photographers, including Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Nick Brandt, and Joyce Tenneson, while also including works by a diverse group of lesser known artists worldwide. Two Inner Harmony pieces are included in the exhibition. 

Shades of Compassion seeks to inspire participants to more fully integrate Compassion into their daily lives by including multi-sensory, interactive educational elements in the museum experience. The educational elements were created in collaboration with educators at MoMA, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Emory University and Life University. More information about the exhibition can be obtained by contacting the Shades of Compassion Foundation at https://www.shadesofcompassion.org/initiatives/art-exhibition/.

A new photographic project I am working on is Perceived Realities, which looks closely at complex issues that have contributed to political polarization within the United States. 

About Jon Kolkin

Dr. Jon Kolkin is an internationally recognized artist with a lifetime of experience pursuing his passions while simultaneously maintaining a healthy balance between his personal and professional life.  His unique strategies have allowed him to achieve a high level of success as a professional fine art photographer, physician, educator, global humanitarian, and international speaker. Kolkin’s images have won numerous awards, are widely published and have drawn the attention of private and corporate clients worldwide. His artwork has also been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions within the U.S. and abroad.  He has served on the faculty of the prestigious Maine Media Workshops and is a frequent guest lecturer at major universities and other venues worldwide. INNER HARMONY is his first book. For more information visit  www.kolkinphotography.com.