Photo Essay

Paradise (hooks)

by Emiliano Zúñiga Hernández
In this edition of his essay Paradise, Emiliano shares his experience after intuitively surrendering to that which shined in his inner world and that led him through a journey of shadows and transformation.

I would live in a house in the mountains, next to dogs and cats. A very bright, orange light spreading across my room would wake me up early, illuminating a glass cup of last night's water, a wooden chest that holds my coat, a framed photograph of a garden in progress, next to it a polaroid of Dad in front of the volcano, a blank page on a typewriter sitting on the dresser my mom inherited from my grandfather, a big dog would yawn as he watches me get up, he gets out of bed at about the same time I do, shakes himself and stretches.  

I would come out of the room, which is at the same time the whole structure in which I live, a thick-walled white dome, made of superadobe. Out of another dome comes another person, and out of another, yet another person. We would walk over the grass covered with dew towards a large structure in the center of the property. There would be a communal kitchen where we would have breakfast before beginning the session. Session of what? We would be giving a workshop on shadow work, various methods of confronting the ego, lightening the weight of the past, reacquainting ourselves with that sense of wonder and gratitude for being who we are. A group of people would have come to the session, somehow things would work with the contributions that each person can leave us to continue doing what we do, somehow some people decide to stay longer and help with the garden, they stay for the evening session and for the next day's, somehow there is a community encounter that seeks to initiate a paradigm shift, an important step towards an empathic society, a direction that feels hopeful, correct and revolutionary. 

This is what I wrote several years ago in response to the question: What would my life look like if there were no obstacles? In other words, what would I wish to do with my life if everything was possible.

Today I review my answer and it astonishes me to feel alien to that desire. I feel that whoever wished it, lived in another life that was not this one, the one I now inhabit. I can see that this desire was perhaps just a hook, something that shone and led me to believe that I would find the answer to all my questions.

Still, the truth is that the exercise opened my eyes to the realization that a large part of me felt that I was not living, and that if I wanted to reclaim my presence in the world I had to listen to that desire, explore it and, above all, assume it, regardless of whether it had logic or not. I understood little or nothing about why I desired it so badly, but I did know that I woke up and went to sleep knowing that I had not yet set my footing on that vision, it had not yet been executed.

Just a few months after this exercise, we started living in a house in the foothills of a mountain in Atenas, Alajuela. A house with a pointed roof and a balcony with stylized iron railings from another era, behind it a mountain populated by coyotes, cicadas, a blue and green bird with an elongated tail that constantly came to the rocking chairs on the terrace, iguanas and a bat that our cat crushed under my bed in the middle of the night. I woke up to the sound of bones being broken by her sharp teeth, in the distance a cow was giving birth to what we discovered in the morning to be a scrawny white creature that could stand up just seconds after coming into reality.  

We were in that rural world to develop a healing center and the beginning of what we envisioned as a self-sustaining community. We had spent some years learning about the concept of "The Shadow," a term from the Jungian psychological approach that refers to those parts of our identity that we are ashamed of, that we constantly seek to hide or deny.  

Most of us wear a mask, we adopt a way of being with which we have felt accepted since very early in our lives. The logic of the process we facilitated was not to improve that mask but to question it to the point where it became pointless to continue wearing it. The advantage of the method we used was that it consisted of forty focused meditations and psychodrama dynamics aimed at inquiring, in detail, how that mask had been built up over time. When there was a moment of clarity through these meditations that invited a deep self-criticism and honesty, almost all of us came to understand that what we model in the world had not necessarily been chosen by us, but had been a result of an unconscious agreement we had made with ourselves, with our family, society, culture... and that above all, it obeyed defense mechanisms and a search for belonging that allowed us to find some comfort in exchange for authenticity. 

We lived without a specific income of money, the center was supported through donations. We never knew what we were going to have or how much, but we always had more than enough. It was a very important way to resignify abundance, to understand the huge difference between what you want and what you need. 

Surrendering to this lifestyle felt like wanting to make a place for the irrational in a context that constantly mocks whatever is not exact science. Atenas was the perfect space, it was magical realism: yellowish rays of sunshine bounced off the rubber tree leaves's glow at three o'clock in the afternoon, the tree had an aura at that hour that any skeptic had to recognize. 

We had not finished settling in when we received our first guest. She stayed at our house for eighteen days. As soon as she arrived, we asked her to find a new notebook and pencil so that she could write down everything she was discovering about herself through the meditations we provided. Meditation number ten invited her to look into what she desired and how much her behavior obeyed to what she was looking for. She realized that, as with many of us, what she most wanted for her life was a sort of mental narrative, which was not being matched by actions. We learned that this is a very common thing, some call it cognitive dissonance, others call it resistance. It means that what you desire is not aligned with what you do on a day-to-day basis.  

During three years we received approximately eighty people and changed centers three times (one of them is the house where Natsuko, three dogs, three cats and I still live). 

This whole phase was for us a period of reshaping ourselves, but this time from a perspective in which we had the possibility of understanding and giving life to a paradigm through consensus, empathy, and above all, a certainty that we were taking responsibility for what we really wanted to contribute to the world. Being in service to others made us aware that everyone is going through something in silence, unfortunately those who seek spaces or opportunities to externalize it are a small minority.  

Our role was to accompany people who trusted us in their healing processes, and this, far from turning us into servants, brought us closer to finding an enormous potential within ourselves. We understood that being healers does not necessarily mean being persons with a lot of knowledge, wise, or enlightened, it means having the ability to put ourselves in the other's feet, to show them that we care about what they are feeling and, at some point, make the reminder that we can all transform ourselves if the intention is sincere enough.

The project started to stop working when the core members began to wish for different things. It is not so simple to maintain a collective desire.  

Shortly after the dissolution I began to experience a state of mind I was not familiar with and a constant sense of urgency. It was months before I realized that I was depressed and that this urgency to solve things that I didn't know how to solve could reach panic peaks. I began to experience the darkest time of my life. I came to feel bad even when everything around me was fine. I came to think that this was going to be my state of mind forever. I had never felt so alone. The idea that I was in a hole where others were not, the idea that maybe I was too fragile, that maybe I was a lost child in a world of adults who already knew how to do things, and the worst, the one that scared me the most: "that maybe I was getting what I deserved".  

Our way of life in the years of the initiative had been atypical and sought alternatives in a world perhaps too rigid to seek to alter its order. Suddenly I felt that perhaps I had sought to rebel against a complacent and safe way of life and that this was taking its toll on me. Added to all this were beliefs that had been implanted in me decades before in religion classes at school: that there is a God who punishes, who demands, who is in constant vigilance, something like an authority that is outside of you and that you can only approach through rituals, obedience and suppressing desires for anything that is not altruistic. Self-contempt began to build up, a frozen emotion that dominated me, but to which I had no access, something like an incredibly uncomfortable guest in my own home. 

A state of guilt began to permeate everything. An analogy that came to my mind a lot was that of starting a garden, getting excited about watching it grow and then assuming that it will maintain its beauty without one's effort. What weighed on me the most was the contrast between that first vision, a vision so full of love and good intentions, and the stark reality of being immersed in a totally hopeless state. The guilt was something irrational and based on an inaccurate perception, but it had a certain logic: I felt that I had failed myself and that translated into feeling defeated by my own desire. I lived isolated in a garden that gave me back flowers, butterflies, tomatoes, but that I could not enjoy. Curiously, the etymology of the word "Paradise" is 'enclosed garden'. An exclusive garden for those who managed to enter. It was an ironic meaning for me, I was in what appeared to be a paradise, but it was closed... closed for those who we tried to help in the past, closed for myself, but with me inside and feeling like an intruder in a space that could only be enjoyed by others.

Three years of great confusion went by. I found in photography a way to at least react visually to what I was feeling. It became my direction.   

Natsuko, the dogs and cats, the river water, the gourd in the yard growing deliberately and erasing the metal fence that separates us from the neighbor's lot, they were like characters in a luminous film that ran parallel to my depression. Characters that were not governed by what felt to me like a condition. That film was like a veiled screen to which I had no emotional access but which was reminding me of a freedom that I had tasted at some point and which was constantly inviting me to feel that, maybe someday, I would be able to be part of that present, which for me was like a longed-for past and a yearned-for future.

When the book “Paraíso” was published, for me it was something like a form of revenge against the overwhelming confusion in which I was submerged, a strange form of catharsis. Photographing in those days was an almost fable-like gesture for me, it was to go into the cave to extract the luminous object, or at least that's how I wanted to play with the complexity of what was happening.  

It may be that often we are unfair in judging what we desire. Sometimes we reduce the ideal we want to reach to something that is only going to be convenient or inconvenient in our lives, as if they were sterile ideals without the capacity to mutate. Looking back to that moment when I wrote about what my life would be like if there were no obstacles, it occurs to me that perhaps in our human experience there are moments when we see hooks: shines that invites us to give ourselves intuitively to ideas, connections, ways of life or quests, even if we don't know where they will lead us. Sometimes we have a vision and what we see attracts us. We may see a specific scenario, situations we want to be living, ideals we want to achieve. When we start walking towards that shine, things begin to be resignified, we realize that what we saw was just a mirage that was inviting us to enter a much more complex reality. The colors and characters of that initial vision vary, the times lengthen and little by little we realize that the hook came from much deeper inside us than we thought, it was a guide that was calling us with a code that we could understand at the moment and it was showing us images that were going to seduce us. We were not seeing a place to land but to depart.

It might be that back then that compelling vision was not inviting me just to participate in the creation of a community that was going to dissolve, it was not calling me just to create a book in the midst of a sense of failure, nor to lead me to experience moods of exaltation or depression. I firmly believe that I will never know what the purpose of that shine was, the only thing I can distinguish is that, from the moment I paid attention to it, another life began for me, one that I consider my own.

Paraíso was published as a photo-book, which you can purchase here.



Photography & Text
Emiliano Zúñiga Hernández

Costa Rica, 2023

Published in January, 2024
Volume 8, Issue 7



About raptors, cycles and hope in a changing landscape.

A Universe of Possibilities

The space between what is and what could be.

Can Volcanoes Love?

A close look into Fire of Love.

The Slow Path Home

A filmmaker's desire to make peace with the place she once called home.


In Wimblu, we believe in the power of stories to reimagine a fair and healthy world for all life forms.

support our magazine