The 4th Human - Richard Munn of Southeast England - Photographer

Image: Richard Munn
Sitting here, three weeks after interviewing Richard via Facebook video call, I'm entertained by the fact that neither of us can pinpoint the year we met.

Could have been as far back as 2006? Or maybe as recently as 2013? Neither of us know.

We do know with certainty, however, that we met online through our mutual friend, Stuart Davis. And we connected through a shared interest in arguing about aspects of Ken Wilber's integral theory. Though both of us have distanced ourselves from the world of integral to varying degrees, we continue to debate matters of politics, philosophy, and psychology on a relatively regular basis.

It feels like I have known Richard for a very long time.

The day of our interview, January 24th, 2017, Richard is in the middle of moving "one town over."

Space and Time

Richard was born in "the George Orwellian year of 1984" and grew up in a town with the headline of "the world's first garden city." The location was "designed to meet three cornerstones of a good town, which was being urban and being rural, and having a good eye for design."

As a child, he was free to explore in large areas of nature and in a place where everything was in walking distance. "I had quite a lot of time as a kid," he says, "and quite a lot of space to form my own ideas and, you know, to quite obviously live in a peaceful climate, and very reasonable climate."

A child of a British mother and Finnish father, whom he didn't meet until he was 15, Richard's schooling was "fairly idyllic." His primary school was "church-run, but it was Church of England ... so it was a very moderate kind of Christianity." Everyone was "very nice and polite, friendly and all of that, but without the more hard-core dogmatism."

The general atmosphere at school was "culturally diverse, but culturally relatively homogenous as well," in that "there was never a sense of divides between people."

He pauses, sometimes for several seconds, before answering my questions. Richard's shortest response is only two words long, while his other responses carry on for several minutes. He laughingly mentions his tendency towards verbiage, but his responses never seem longwinded to me. They are contemplative, thorough, neither fast nor slow in speed, and just enough.

Waiting for Meadow

Richard talks to me from his mobile phone, so all I see is his face floating on the computer screen in front of me. From time to time, I catch a glimpse of the collar of his sweater, and small details of his home.

Laughing, he begins his interpretation of the final scene of the final episode of The Sopranos. "I kind of interpret it like--how does that song go, (sings) Big wheels keep on turnin'! You know, it's like it just carries on."

The Soprano family is in the café, waiting for Meadow, but we never see her arrive. The scene ends before she comes in from parking her car, but Tony Soprano is "always basically paranoid, checking everybody out, you know, 'Is there gonna be some kind of extreme violence about to erupt any minute?'" And at the same time, Richard continues, "as he's scanning, checking things out, his family are just carrying on as normal--oblivious really--and I just thought that kind of summed up so much of his life, his experience." There isn't any resolution, and "tomorrow, it'd just be the same."

The Joy and the Sorrow

In most Humans of Earth profiles, the "joy" and "sorrow" subheadings are kept separate. With Richard, I find it more appropriate to write these portions under one, unified heading. As I'm interviewing him, his retelling of an experience prompts me to share an experience of my own, one that also fits into that brazenly odd category of being at once extraordinary and mundane. In response, Richard provides an account of Trungpa Rinpoche's notion of the optimal space of being human.

He describes this optimal experience of emptiness, "which is huge grief and huge joy at the same time." What is more, he continues, "the vulnerability and fleetingness of our situation is heartbreaking and, at the same time, the emptiness of it is so joyful." It's a real mix, he says, and "if we lose touch with either of those, things start to get a bit rocky."

Photographer, Light and Dark

Richard is a portrait photographer who has been "fortunate enough to work with what you may call creatives or entrepreneurs." It's only recently, though, that he's become more aware of his sensibility as a photographer. No matter who or what he photographs, his interest is in a "mixture of neurosis and inspiration, pathos and luminance."

With his portraits in particular, it's been about "working a lot with lighting, and paying a lot of attention to lighting." There is a dark side to this, however. "I've recently felt somewhat constrained by being so lighting heavy," he states with a laugh. "I can't just walk around with a camera and take pictures; I have to go through this whole rigmarole."

Richard, Word for Word

Q: What is your favourite TV show?

A: "Well, I suppose I'd have to say The Sopranos. I watched the whole thing three times, which is quite an investment. (laughs) It almost has everything, for me. And I also developed a real fondness for James Gandolfini. When it first came out, I was about 15 years old, and so I just saw this thing on TV, like, 'Oh, cool! Gangsters and strippers, and like, yeah!' And then I re-watched it fairly recently and was still operating under the assumption that James Gandolfini was just like Tony Soprano, and I didn't realize that he was--it's such an obvious thing--but he was completely different as a person, including how he talked, how he spoke, you know. And it kind of hit me like, wow, this guy is just a fucking amazing actor, and he was so dedicated to his craft and really communicating the humanity--in all of its good and bad aspects--through his character."

Q: I know you're into meditation. How did you get into that?

A: "I started studying Buddhism when I was 13, kind of fairly diligently, really, and the first book I read on Buddhism was a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Matthieu Ricard--he has the headline of 'the happiest man in the world'. He's a sort of French scientist turned Tibetan Buddhist monk, and they had a dialogue in this book called The Power of Buddhism, and I read that book in a period of time that was quite tumultuous for me. My stepfather was dying and my mother was experiencing mental illness, and I read this book and I particularly read this passage where the Dalai Lama said--well the idea in Buddhism is that the mind is like a leaf, but we have all these winds of confusion, so that this leaf can never be still. And I still remember, I read that passage, and I looked out the window at the plum tree in the garden, and it kinda hit me like a lightning bolt, like wow, that's actually the nature of the mind, you know, and that's why I kinda feel so crappy (laughs) right now. So that sparked a real kind of deep interest in understanding that more."

Q: You mentioned that the head-only kind of meditation was making you blocked. Can you describe the head block in more detail?

A: "In the yoga sutras, they say that the mind controls the pranas, and the pranas control the mind. In the West, we have largely incorporated Buddhism through a sort of philosophical, psychotherapeutic framework ... so it's kind of been secularized and then adopted through the rational intellect, and I think there's lots of good things about that. At the same time, meditation is a sort of non-conceptual endeavour, and most of us spend a huge amount of time in our highly-sophisticated, conceptual, over-stimulated (laughs) ... experience, right. And the most potent experiences I've had in meditation have been when something non-conceptually has shifted. It's not because I've been thinking differently, or even really that I've shifted around inside my head, my attention, or something like that. It's been more of a whole body experience, or a kind of experience with the spine. So I realized that sitting still on top of a dry mountain peak, which is what I was doing, was kind of overworking all the wrong circuits. I'm already kind of predisposed to be quite heady," so that kind of meditation was throwing things out of balance.

Q: What is your most prized possession and why?

A: "Mmm. Yeah, I'm just kind of drawing a blank on that one. (laughs) Yeah, I feel like I'm going to be a bit of a Buddhist cliché there. (laughs) I don't think I have one. I can't think of one."

Q: How about your most prized or cherished memory?

A: "Same. (laughs) I can say one experience that was quite formative for me. ... There was a period of a couple of days when I was about 17--and I'd had these kind of experiences from childhood that the boundary between me and the outside world just kind of dropping away. ... When I was 17, there was a period of a couple of days where this experience would kind of crop up, and kind of come and go, and then it sort of reached this peak of intensity where I had to go outside at nighttime, and then that same experience happened with the night sky. So it was like the night sky was like the inside of my eyelid. Do you wanna see my dog?"
Image: Richard Munn

He turns his phone towards the centre of the living room, and his dog, Theo, is happily bouncing around, looking towards the front door that Richard's girlfriend is just about to enter through. She is home from work.

Richard moves to the kitchen and continues:

"So that was kind of a strong experience and quite a formative experience for me. ... [The night sky] was as close to my face as my eyelid. ... It wasn't like a drug trip. It wasn't like a kind of far out, psychedelic experience. It just felt like, 'oh, this is a more direct perception of reality,' you know, how things are, it was that kind of quality to it."

Q: What's one thing that some people would find surprising about you, that they might not know about you after seeing you only a few times?

A: "Probably actually that I'm quite playful and humorous, but I don't really show that to people very much. (laughs)"

Q: What are the little things in life that you love the most?

A: "I love seeing how the sunshine changes through the day. And that's quite a big one for me, actually. I love the way my dog has these-- I love the way he communicates with both of us. I love intellectually connecting with people. When those little moments happen, that's something I really enjoy. Joking with my friends. It's kind of a measure of friendship for me, I guess. The more kind of crude (laughing) I can be with somebody, and the more lighthearted that is, then the better the friendship is."

Q: When you're not working, what are some of your hobbies?

A: "At the moment I'm really interested in studying culture. For much of my life I've been disinterested in politics, and I've just started to become more interested in politics, because I feel that things I care about are getting fucked with, and that's kind of annoying. (laughs) I'm becoming very interested in this whole thing of the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern, which are obviously very broad terms, but I find them quite useful in lots of conversations, to get a kind of ballpark of where people are coming from ... So, tonnes of studying, really, and obviously walking my dog. (laughs)"

Q: And with the modern/postmodern, where would you put yourself, if there's a spectrum?

A: "That's something I've been kinda questioning, really, because in a certain sense I don't find a home in either. But I think I'm definitely more modern-leaning, because what I'm seeing a lot in the postmodern sphere is that identity politics run amok, and I feel that it's contributing a lot to this post-truth age, which I think a lot of people on the left just wanna point to Trump and sort of say, 'Well, Trump is post-truth and post-fact,' and all of that, but actually I feel that it's going on as much or even more so on the left. In the postmodern left, it's not really about if something's true. It's about who is saying it, which I think is really regressive.

"I think of Martin Luther King's quote. 'I have a dream. One day people will be judged by their character, not by the colour of their skin.' And I basically feel like that's becoming inverted, and it's no longer about people's character. It's about these kind of micro-identities, which ultimately becomes very divisive. So I'm in this weird position at the moment, where the things I'm saying I think a lot of people are perceiving as almost against tolerance and against plurality. And that's so not where I'm coming from. I find that kind of hard.

"One example is I read this article on Buddhism recently by bell hooks. I don't really know her work, but she published this article through Tricycle, a Buddhist publication, and she said that Buddhism was founded on white supremacy and colonialism. And I sort of read this article and I thought, 'Come on, I just don't understand what you're trying to say here, or I do and I just disagree.' And she was like, 'There's no use providing any proof, because there's never enough proof.' ... Well, white supremacy for me means an ideology that says white people are inherently superior than every other race, and I've never met anybody like that in a Buddhist context, because all Western Buddhists are obsessed with India and Tibet and Japan, and if anything they suffer from an inferiority complex, because they're not Indian, Japanese, or Tibetan. 

"[bell hooks] was saying that she, as a black woman, feels less able to travel abroad, or less inclined to travel abroad to study, than her Western counterparts. And again I thought, well, the way that Buddhism came to the West was either Buddhist teachers came to the West and taught, which is the opposite of white colonization, or white people went there and did as much as they could to assimilate Buddhist culture, you know, not impose their own culture. It was actually to be subservient to the culture they found themselves in.

"So, articulating that in the threads, people were saying, 'Fair enough.' But I could quite easily see people just replying to that and saying, 'Well, that's because you're white privileged and you don't understand our black experience,' which people did say. That really did get into tricky territory, because I feel that understanding one person's experience, like I'm totally open to somebody saying, 'Hey, a lot of Buddhist cultures in the West are predominantly white, therefore I as a black person feel estranged.' That I'm totally open to. I could get that. But to me, that's a very different claim than saying, 'And therefore it's white supremacist and colonialist.' That's such a huge leap for me. That imports a lot of negative intentions, or certainly negative consequences.

"And then within that identity politics framework, if I as a white person disagree with it, it's very easy for somebody to essentially say, 'Well, you're just racist, or at least you're an apologist for racists,' without any kind of reference to something that's true or rational or reasonable. It's that kind of atmosphere that starts to block rational exchange of ideas, which is something I really value."

Q: What would you perceive to be your top virtue and your top deadly sin or vice?

A: "Patience and pride. Very proud about my patience. (laughs)"

Random Richard Facts

His favourite book is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

If he were to pursue another profession, it would be painting. He loves the sculptural quality of painting and the uniquely human passage of time evident in the work: "In the painting, it's kind of all these compounded instances of seeing a person making a mark, and then making another mark, and then making another mark, and making another mark, and how that accumulates to a response is something I really love." He also enjoys writing and business strategizing.

Richard's one message to the world is: "Pay attention."

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