Fall Bay

Last weekend Beci, Monty and I planned to walk out to the end of Worms head. For those of you who don’t know the area this feat does have an element of danger. The Worms Head is only accessible 2.5 hours each side of low tide. Outside of that there is a fearsome rip that runs between the end of the peninsula and the mainland; it has claimed lives.

Unfortunately, we got a little confused, thinking that the period was 3 hours after high tide. When we arrived the Worm was still an island. Instead we walked east along the coastal path and visited the gorgeous beach that is at Fall Bay. This is a great spot for surfing – favoured by Taylor (son) – but there was no surf, just a lovely beach fit for a picnic and some mindful photography.

These photos are the ones I felt were best suited to a B&W edit

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All the gear: no idea

If I am honest the thought that a different or ‘better’ item of photography gear will improve my photography is never far from my mind. Do you have the same experience? Or are you happy with your camera and lenses? I have over the last couple of months been thinking about changing some or all of my camera gear and I have also reflected on how this change can be a positive experience that will help improve my photography.

The key question we must answer when making changes to our camera and equipment is, ‘Why are we making the change?’ If the answer is because that new item is brighter, shinier, better, quicker, sharper or cooler then that change may not be necessary. In fact we may have a full on version of GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

However if the answer is that we have closely looked at the photography we do and that there are some items we do not use, and others that would support our ability to create photographs that we desire to create, then the change may be a wise one.

Motivation

The question that we are really considering is, ‘What is our motivation?’ My motivation to change equipment was born of a desire to make my equipment lighter, less obstrusive and I did like the look of the Fuji X-T1 and its range of high quality lenses! It is a fabulously cool, retro and quality bit of kit, but would it support my development as a photographer?

I started listing my existing equipment – a Canon 5D mkii, various Canon primes lenses (most the professional L lenses) and one or two old manual lenses (like the Takumar Pentax 135mm above). I then trawled through ebay looking for the prices that this equipment might garner and arrived at a total potential value. This then I used to calculate which lenses I could afford to accompany my new shiny XT-1 and created a desirous list.

Fortunately, I then caught myself wrapped up in this gear acquisition mode and spent a little time thinking about why and what would really make the difference to my photography? This thought was fueled by misplacing one of the Canon prime lenses. I could not find my 35mm f1.4 anywhere and is its value was around £650+ this was a significant dent in my budget.

At the same time I received an email from Eric Kim, Street photographer guru, which shared a fabulous ebook. This resource triggered a realisation that as street photography was one of my motivations for photography creation I should first consider the equipment I had and what I could use now. This thought then broadened into a deeper consideration of the type of photos I choose to create now and how I see that developing.

Conclusions

I came to the following conclusions:

  • I use a light, high quality lens with a focal length similar to our eyes’ focal length a lot (Canon 50mm f1.4)
  • This lens, whilst ideal as a walkabout lens for my general mindful photography practice, was a little large and obtrusive for street photography.
  • My 35mm f1.4 (if I could find it) would also be a suitable focal length for street photography, but it is even larger and heavier than the 50mm.
  • I would benefit from a small, pancake type lens of a similar focal length for street photography. This would be less obtrusive and lighter to carry around.
  • In trying to find my 35mm I reviewed my stored photos in Lightroom and did a search to reveal when I last used the lens. I hadn’t used it for over a year and then only sparingly.
  • My other interest is to develop my landscape photography. I have a 20mm wide angle lens that I use for this but if I sold the 35mm was there something that could cover a range of wide angle focal lengths that I might use more and would be great quality?

Fortunately, buried under a load of boxes and equipment I found the 35mm. I researched pancake lenses and found that Canon made a highly regarded 40mm and that it was only around £120. If I sold the 35mm and the 20mm I would have enough to buy the 40mm and the new 16-35mm f4 lens for my landscape photography interests. Keeping with the Canon 5D mkii (for now!) would also provide higher resolution photographs than the Fuji X-T1.

Finally, I had reached a conclusion that supported my creative photography intentions and at zero net cost. The process had been a helpful one, that’s why I’m sharing it now! Sure it’s OK to desire new equipment, after all that’s what the advertising is encouraging us to feel. But noticing that in us and then reviewing what we like to take photos of and considering what would support our future development as photographers, that is a mindful practice.

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Every cloud has a silver lining

Often I create photographs to illustrate my posts. The idea for this post though was inspired by the panoramic photo below. It is a composite photo of Caswell Bay Beach which, if you click on the photo below, you can experience at full size.

The title of this post and its theme leapt into my conscious mind whilst I was editing the photo: a literal example of the proverb that is the title of this post. The meaning of the proverb, ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ is an encouragement to remember that every seemingly bad situation has a good aspect to it.

I thought that it would be interesting to reflect on this proverb from the perspective of mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy and to relate this to my own experience.

Judging Mind

The proverb is an encouragement to look on the positive side of every situation. This could be seen to be helpful, but it implies that the truth is that there are ‘bad’ and ‘good’ situations, events and happenings in our lives. From a Buddhist perspective this would be an example of the judging mind in action.

The judging mind is a quality of mind that has certainty and rigidity at its core. It is a quality that imagines that we know how things are and that we are attached to our likes and dislikes. As a consequence when something happens that we do not like we judge the situation as ‘bad’.

In traditional Buddhist terms the judging mind is a manifestation of one of the three intoxicants; aversion, attachment or ignorance. This means that beneath our judgement of the situation as ‘bad’ we are either keen to not experience the situation, or we are attached to the idea of it being different, or we do not understand what is happening.

The judging mind is something we can notice arising when we meditate or take photographs. In meditation we sit, follow the breath and our mind continues to experience thoughts, sensations and feelings. We may simply judge this experience as a ‘bad’ meditation and that when our mind is quieter as a ‘good’ meditation. Alternatively, we may get caught up in one particular thought and notice that it is a replay of a recent experience and that we are judging how we acted or spoke.

In photography the most common manifestation of our judging mind is when we review our photos. Whilst a constructively critical approach is essential to skills development, a strong judgement that photos are ‘good or bad’ may discourage experimentation, limit creativity and hold back the learning process.

A judging mind is a small mind, closely attached to our smallest self. It reinforces the idea of separation, that we are different. Meditation and mindfulness are the opposite of this. They encourage the development of non judging attention; that we notice what we are experiencing, the thoughts, sensations and feelings but that we do so in a forgiving manner. We hold our experience with compassion. We experience our world with loving kindness and equanimity.

Real world

Of course this is great in theory. It is an ongoing practice. My current experience is that a long term chronic health condition, plus recent acute attacks, has provided rich ground for practice. Sure I get caught up in my personal experience. It sends ripples through every aspect of my life. I do get attached to beliefs that my interpretation of situations is correct and this then leads to judgement, difficulty and disharmony with those who do not share my perspective.

Mindfulness provides me with the opportunity to sit quietly and notice the thoughts and feelings that arise attached to these experiences. It provides the space for compassion to flourish. Within this practice is the possibility of not judging, of noticing, not reacting, but holding the experience with loving kindness. It is challenging and I remind myself that compassion starts for my own reactions, my own judging mind.

I know that these reactions are patterns of thought that have been repeated and reinforced over many years. Mindfulness provides me with the opportunity to notice and to remember that there is another way. It is a practice, a practice for a lifetime.

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The Autobiographical Self

We have a strong sense that we are who we are. This is reinforced and explained by a series of ‘I am’ statements. I am Lee Aspland. I am 54 years old, I am a photographer. I am a husband, father, son, brother etc. Each statement provides further clarity and determination that we are an entity, that somewhere inside of us resides a self. An independent human being, separate and distinct from every other human being.

But as you take a closer look at those statements you will note that each one of them is subject to change. Through the passage of time each one of our ‘I am’ statements can dissolve. Our notion of who we are is created over time by place, circumstance and events. It is created and reinforced by memory to become this thing that is described as the ‘autobiographical self’

“What we sense as a “self” emerges from stimuli both from within and without our body through complex levels of neural integration. The integration of memory and self is not a one-time occurrence but involves lifelong development. The autobiography of self is the accumulated unique mental narrative that emerges from our experiencing and participating in the flow of events and interpersonal encounters that reach a level of awareness critically facilitated by emotional tone. Autobiographical memory plays an important role in the construction of personal identity. An individual’s construction of themselves through time serves the function of creating a coherent and largely favorable view of their present selves and circumstances.”
Barton J Blinder MD PhD

Me, selfies and the self

I created the photo in this post to represent this idea of an autobiographical self. Each individual photo represents me at a different age and in a different role. Attached to each photo is also a memory. Each memory is both reinforced and created by the photo. I may remember the time and place of the photograph, or I may have memories attached to that time and place, or I may only have memories of the photo itself, its existence freezing a self that no longer exists.

This process where we create our identity is reinforced by time. We imagine a strong web linking each moment from our lives, each event and circumstance further defining this notion of ourselves. Photography plays a key role in this process. Each portrait captures forever a momentary self. Each photograph supporting the memory and creating a narrative of our lives.

But the reality is that each moment is gone. The person I was 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago is longer who I am now. Each moment is transitory, each aspect of our self is already fading as we think of it.

The idea that the self is a product of our consciousness, our mind, constantly created, adjusted and developed is one that is well explained by neurological theory. And yet we don’t want to let go of this notion of who we are: this individual self. And why should we?

The answer to that question underpins our raison d’être – our reason for being and fuels our interest in who we are and why we are here. It is the stuff of life and has been the motivation to explore the idea that the self is an illusion. If that is something that intrigues you there are a couple of resources below you might find of interest.

Interesting talk

Here is a link to an interesting talk by Leela Sarti that explores several of these themes. It is has a Buddhist philosophical perspective, but is very much rooted in our current world and life. The talk can be listened to on the website or downloaded and replaying at your leisure

The Illusion of Self, Equanimity and Beyond the Abyss

Two overviews of the Illusion of Self

A blog post by Sam Harris: Interview with Bruce Hood author of Self Illusion

A personal reclamation of the self by Steve Taylor

Scenes from a London hospital

I have recently spent a few days at Charing Cross Hospital, as part of my ongoing care and investigation into my laryngeal condition. The stay was unplanned and helped to allieviate an acute situation.

Having not planned to stay I was unprepared. Fortunately Beci was able to gather suitable, clothing, food and some reading material for me. But I was without camera.

I have never been impressed by the camera on my mobile phone, but the best camera is the one you have with you! I also found it enlivening to push the boundaries of what was possible with the Sony Xperia phone camera.

Using the manual features of software and careful technique, particularly for longer exposures, I was able to create a few evocative and abstract photos I really liked.

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Illusion of Self 2

My intrigue and interest in this topic has kindled whilst cultivating a mindful approach to photography and recent life experiences.

In developing The Mindful Photographer I touched on how mindfulness provides a doorway to self enquiry and an investigation into how the concept of self may just be an illusion.

Recently I have experienced a loss of self. A severe constriction of my breathing left me unable to be anything beyond the next breath. Over many days I felt unmanned, adrift and disconnected. I lost a little sense of who or what I was. I found this deeply unsettling and it caused huge difficulties.

Now, in an oxygenated place, I am reconnected. But the experience has caused me to reflect. What was it that I lost? Was there something of an opportunity arising from the experience? 

Research

I have continued my reading on the topic and have also started listening to relevant Buddhist Dharma talks. The prose below is from a talk at Gaia House, Devon by Leela Sarti entitled ‘The Illusion of Self. Equanimity and Beyond’. I found it resonated with my recent experience and hinted positively at how dissolving the ego can make us whole. I hope you find it useful.

There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken.

There is a shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterred.

There is sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy.

And the fragility out of who’s depth emerges strength.

There is a hollow space to vast for words, through which we pass with each loss. Out of who’s darkness we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sounds, who’s serrated edge cuts the heart, as we break open to the place inside which is unbreakable and whole.

Whilst learning to sing.

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The existence of a thing that we call ‘self’ has been discussed, investigated and argued about for more than two millennium. Philosophers, Buddhists, Christians, psychologists and biologists all have shared their thoughts and theories.

What the ‘self’ is and how an understanding of its influence can support us has recently begun to intrigue me. I am interested not only in the views of those aforementioned specialists but also how I can use photography as a tool for self enquiry (pun intended!).

Photography and the self

It seems pertinent and practical to use an artistic process, in this case photography, to relate my inner world to the outer – using all those visual tools to communicate thoughts, ideas, feelings, concepts and sensations. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “A balance must be established between two worlds – the one inside us and the one outside of us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world we must communicate.” H. Cartier-Bresson ‘The Decisive Moment’ 1952

Right now

Right now, in this moment, I know that patience is required. Whilst I’m living through this challenging period I shall content myself with reading, research and photographic investigation that resonates – when I am able. I will blog about progress and in time hopefully develop some meaningful content that others can relate to and use.

The photo

The photo is from my hospital window and inspires feelings of positivity.

 

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Rhythms of Life

Life is full of rhythms. From the seasonal to the physical. External to internal. We live through many processes. Some of these rhythms are slow changing yet immutable, like the seasons. Others are triggered by events or actions and play out in a cycle.

Often we are so immersed in our happenings that we are not conscious of the role a rhythm is playing in our life. Mindfulness provides us with the opportunity to observe life. To slow, to breathe and maybe even to stop. Then in our moment of stillness we may feel, see, notice what is playing out.

When we meditate we observe what is arising in our consciousness. We may use the breath to attempt to slow and anchor the mind, and occasionally we may experience a moment or longer when we are simply noticing what arises. The thoughts (always the thoughts), the sensations and we can just be with this practice.

This is helpful practice that can influence how we go about our day. At least I hope it is! I meditate with the aspiration that the practice seeps into my everyday living; that I become more aware of what is happening, how I am being. Perhaps then, I will feel the rhythms that are carrying me along.

This is a thought that I have entertained this week as I have noticed the seasonal change towards autumn. This awareness has also caused me to reflect upon the physical, emotional and habitual rhythms that are part of my current experience. Not that I have reached any epoch making conclusions. It feels enough to be slightly more aware of some of what is playing out. And just like meditating, this present moment awareness is transitory.

However, the glimpse provides a play of light over elements that are sometimes in the shadows. This clarity of vision maybe momentary, but at least I know it is there and available.

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Meditation guidelines

I recently picked up a book at our local library called ‘Waking Up – Searching for spirituality without religion’ by Sam Harris. What follows is a sharing of the author’s summary of meditation and some personal reflections. It is not a review of the book, which is a philosophical, scientific and atheist investigation into the cultivation of a spiritual life without religion.

The author, Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and philosopher who has published several bestselling books. He keeps a blog that shares irregular podcasts and has written articles for The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Newsweek.

I meditate to support my intention to live a mindful life. Practicing mindfulness in every aspect of life and truly being present with each moment is an undertaking not to be underestimated. That being truly present bit is the challenge: being attuned to what is arising on our consciousness. The greatest challenge we have to this intention is our thinking mind. Try a little test now. Close your eyes and try not to think of anything for 1 minute.

What happened? I would suggest that you started thinking (maybe about noticing your thinking!) almost immediately. If you focused on your breath and tried to follow it for a minute, did any thought arise? Did you notice?

As a regular meditator I am alert to the possibility of developing my practice. I believe that it is helpful to reflect upon how to meditate and I found the summary that Sam Harris shares on pages 39- 40 of Waking Up most useful.

How to Meditate
  1. Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
  2. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting – feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc
  3. Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most distinctly – either at your nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen.
  4. Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (You don’t have to control the breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
  5. Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the breath.
  6. As you focus on the process of breathing, you will also perceive sounds, bodily sensations or emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear in consciousness and then return to the breath.
  7. The moment you notice that you have been lost in thought, observe the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath – or to any sounds or sensations arising in the next moment.
  8. Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness – sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, even thoughts themselves – as they arise, change and pass away.

What I found particularly helpful was the last two points. I would suggest that points 1 – 6 form a solid foundation for a meditation practice. Point 7 then suggests that we start to view the thought itself as an object of consciousness, something that has just arisen in our awareness, much as any external object (sound, sight etc) might. This naturally leads then to the instruction (point 8) to witness all objects of consciousness as they arise, change and fall away.

It is perhaps in this instruction where the practice deep and ongoing practice lies. Where, as we practice, we cultivate a mind that is full of the present moment and aware of our thoughts, habits and behaviours. Here is the ground.

My meditation

The most helpful aspect of my mediation I can share is that a regular routine is most supportive. It is my intention to meditate for 20 minutes every morning. When I am living a standard 9-5 day this will usually be the very first thing that I do after waking up. Even where the day is more flexible I find that a morning routine is most supportive for the remainder of the day.

I am now nearly three years into this practice and I notice when I miss the odd day. It feels an essential element of my way of being and is particularly supportive at this time of great change.

This morning I was fortunate enough to combine my meditation with Monty’s morning walk. We sat for 20 minutes at the spot illustrated below on Swansea Beach. Monty sat peacefully at my side the whole period, including when I took the photo above. I only realised how unusual this was when I uploaded the photo. The dog being walked directly in front of us is one of a small number of dogs that Monty attacks! I know, not something you would expect of a Bijon, but he really does not like this Staffi. So that he sat peacefully observing, off lead, can only speak volumes for the positive effect meditation is having in his life!

This much I know

I was tempted to leave this paragraph blank! For whilst it seems that wisdom may be acquired as one lives through life experiences, I often feel that the longer I live the less I know. Perhaps I am confusing knowledge with certainty. Maybe it is not that I know less, more that the certainty of youth is replaced by a wider understanding that life is complicated and there are many possibilities and alternatives.

Richard Osman, the quiz master on Pointless (my favourite TV quiz it has to be said) when talking about this issue, said “In life, you’re like a rocket. For the first 35 or 40 years you’re being fired up into the air, and whatever your fuel was – ambition, money – you’re burning it up to get the rocket higher. But then at some point you fall to earth again.”

This I can relate to. I am very much on earth, at base camp and truly exploring that ground. And here, amongst the foothills is a thought that is slowly coalescing into a truth. There is but one guiding principle that determines what it is all about. It’s all about love or fear.

Love and Fear

Love and fear are the two main emotions that we are capable of experiencing. Every other emotion is a sub set of either one of the two. Not only are they polar opposites they are each also linked to one key hormone that regulates our body. Fear produces cortisol and is part of the fight/flight response. It is the hormone that helps our body facilitate a rapid response to danger. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles and culture have created circumstances where it is a response to stress, rather than danger that is the primary reason for the hormone’s production.

Love, on the other hand produces oxytocin, which is our body’s natural antidote to stress and the effects of cortisol. If this area is of interest to you take a look at this article which identifies clearly the effects of lifestyle and hormone and ultimately love and fear.

Back in the foothills of understanding; it’s all well and good understanding something, it’s in the living of it where the challenge lies. This is where mindfulness can help. By practicing mindfulness we can become closer to our emotional experience. Living in the present moment, noticing what is happening in our mind and body provides us with the opportunity to identify whether it is from love or fear that we are living.

 

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The Present Moment

Writing this has achieved two things. Firstly, it has brought me into this present moment. I have realised that fear is very much part of my experience right now and runs right through all aspects of my life. Secondly, this realisation has reminded me of the new understanding I am developing of fear; how it shapes our behaviour and how I can change this. I actually read, studied, listened and shared thoughts about fear on my blog in June and July, but much of that knowledge has dissipated.

This is normal. New learning takes a while to assimilate and behaviours take practice and time to change. I have re-read my Fear 3 blog post and will be listening to Tara Brach’s talks again about moving beyond the fear body. If you have not listened to them yet and if any aspect of what I have written resonates with you then I recommend them to you. If time is tight then just listen to the second talk as it summarises the first talk and recommends two approaches to dealing with the fear. The second of these explains how love is the antidote and how we can compassionately support our experience to change our fearful reaction.

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Photography for love

As an antidote to my fear I sought to cultivate love. The day had cleared after heavy rain to leave a sunny evening and puffy clouds. I escaped down to the promenade and sat on a bench, facing the sea. My intention was to create some more of the ‘Promenader’ photos, my ongoing abstract project, which I do love.

As I sat down I realised that it was actually very quiet. I guessed that most people had just written the day off, after hours of torrential rain, and were now in for the evening. I settled down, set up the camera and waited. Whilst I sat I gazed at the beautiful cloud formations in front of me and decided to create a photo of them.

I only had the 50mm lens with me. However, by holding it in portrait mode, shooting (handheld) and moving horizontally, I took 3 images which I later joined together in Photoshop. With hindsight I regret not taking 5, to create a wider panorama, but the final photo came out OK. It’s at the top of this post (If you click on it you’ll get the full size version)

Eventually, my patience paid off and a few promenaders passed, taking advantage of the lovely evening and providing me with opportunity. I do love the shapes and colours that this project can create.

 

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Paignton – a mindful photography practice

I lived in Paignton between the ages 11 and 16. It was the early 70s. In fact I have just created a 70s playlist to accompany me as I write this piece. I am currently with The Eagles ‘Take it easy’; Neil Young, The Steve Miller Band, Bob Dylan, Supertramp, Thin Lizzy and the Vapours are all on their way!

So when I visited earlier this week there was a nostalgic video of teenage high (and low) lights playing in my head. In fact, many of the memories of actual events were also jumbled up with memories of more recent dreams of the streets, parks and areas of Paignton I frequented. This fragmented video track was stimulated by my route through the town and down to the seafront. Of course it all appeared a lot smaller than it used to be and a lot less busy.

I parked at the back of the town centre park, close to where I recall the library used to be. As a kid I visited this many times and still check out books in my dreams. But the library was long gone, in place was a new development of retirement flats. I wandered on through the park, remembering the shortcut to the seafront I used to whizz through on my bike. This was all much as it used to be, but with an absence of ducks.

My summer memories of Paignton seafront are of a beach and lawned area rammed with grockles (tourists). Often there was hardly a patch of grass or sand to be had by lunch time. This time I wandered through and found it busy, but with plenty of space. Once down on the front I found the photography flowed. I felt comfortable, at home amongst familiar scenes, and I believe that the photos below carry some of that warmth, as well as a curiosity to capture the British tourist at play.

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Gratitude Practice

It is easy when beset by difficulty to loose sight of the positive aspects of our lives. A darker mindset may squeeze out the light from these often simple but uplifting corners of our day. I have for several months been reflecting on my day and identifying the things that I am grateful for. In past times our forebears called this counting your blessings, the phraseology may differ, but the intention remains.

At the end of each day, before you drift off into your night time routine spend a few moments reflecting on those aspects of your day that you are grateful for. These may be of any size, from a special event to a smile from a stranger. They might be quite simple, such as the way light fell upon a stream, or quite momentous, as one of your children exceeds their own expectations. Each night, reflect upon your day noting those moments that your are grateful for.

Lately, I have been following this practice in a more structured and sharing manner. Every night I reflect and identify 5 things from the day that I am grateful for. I then email those things to my sister in Canada. Kim, then at the end of her day (breakfast time for me!) sends me her 5 gratitudes. Not only are we getting positive vibes from our days but we are maintaining contact and involvment in each other’s lives, something that neither of us usually score top marks for!

Those of you who are interested in neuroplasticity, the science that investigates how our activities and behaviours can shape the formation and development of our mind, might be interested in this practice from its potential to change a negative perspective to a more positive one, in a gentle and progressive manner. I can’t speak for the certainty of this, but on a personal level, I do find it a supportive and affirmative way to end each day. Why not give it a go with someone who you love, but perhaps don’t see as much as you would like?

The Science

Here’s an interesting link to the science of gratitude from the University of Claifornia, Berkeley