MBSR Week 3 – How is it going?

Week 3 of the MBSR begins the sharing of ideas and practices to help ground us in the present. My post from 2015 follows below and then I share some of the practices I follow now and the changes it has brought to my life.

 

How it was

Week 3 centered upon practices that support us to be more grounded in our body and the world around us. By being more aware of our physical sensations and our mind states we are allowed to be more present – right here and right now. The key practices we were introduced to were mindful movement practices and a practice that encourages us to take time to pause.

Mindful Movement

Sinead provided an introductory taste to 3 mindful movement practices: yoga, qigong and walking meditation. Each practice has the capacity to bring us totally into our body.

I have been practicing yoga for over 10 years, once or twice a week. I find that during the normal 1.5 hour class it can often take 1.4 hours before I find that the mind has quietened. Sometimes, even this is elusive. However, it is true that by focusing on guided body movements and postures in sync with the breath that we do come more into the body and often the mind’s chatter is reduced, slowed or calmed as we come totally into our body.

Qigong is a Chinese practice, much like yoga, intended to align body, breath and mind for health and meditation practice. It is practiced with slow rhythmic movements in time with the breath and is designed to move Qi (body energy) through distinct areas of the body. There are many forms of Qigong but all have key principles in common, these are: intentional movement, rhythmic breathing, awareness, visualisation, chanting/sound, softness, solid stance, relaxation, balance and counterbalance. There are also advanced goals: equanimity, tranquility and stillness.

Walking meditation is a practice I find very grounding. My experience is that is best done barefoot in a quiet flat space. Each step is moved through in a slow attentive manner, feeling the stretching, bending, changing balance and weight as your body adjusts and moves forward. Last night I walked on the warm bare concrete slabs of the balcony area of our venue. Through each step I felt the warmth of the stone moving across my skin. The pull of gravity as the rootedness moved through different parts of my feet: the pads, the toes, the heel. Rolling through a balanced awareness I came totally into my feet, oblivious to what surrounded me.

Time to pause

The ‘Three Step Breathing Space’ is a practice to bring you back to the moment. The first step is awareness and brings us into the present moment by adopting an upright posture. We can close our eyes and ask ourselves, “What am I experiencing right now?” We tune in to our bodily sensations, our thoughts and our feelings. We acknowledge this experience, stay with it and don’t try to change it.

The second step is gathering. In this step we return to feeling our breath in our body. In the rising of the belly/chest or the cool passage of air at our nostrils. we are aware of the breath in and the breath out. Totally in the present moment.

The third step is expanding. Now we expand the sensations of the breath to the whole body. We feel the whole body being breathed. We are totally in the moment and in this moment we make our decision based on where we are right now.

This practice is perfect when something unexpected and unwelcome suddenly occurs. In the moment that we would react outwardly, we go inward, and follow the three steps. At the third step then we decide upon our action. It’s like an upgraded ‘count to ten’ practice!

 

How it is now

Mindfulness and it’s application throughout my life has grown since 2015. But I’m not kidding myself, it remains both a practice and a habit that is developing.

It is my intention to sit daily. I generally get up at 7 do some yoga stretches and sit on my mat. Yesterday I did not. I was up a little late and had some work development stuff on my mind. Instead of sitting I attended to the work, but there was a difference. I was aware of both the choice and the attention I paid to the work task. I was immersed and attentive to how I was and what I was engaged in.

Having a specific activity when you practice Mindfulness helps you to burn new neural pathways. You develop new habits, new ways of being. These then begin to influence how you are during other times and activities. Practicing is contagious. Creating positive habits and behaviours influences your ways of thinking, feeling and living. Or perhaps I should say it has that potential. It is a practice and you need to continue to pay attention. This is the heart of Mindfulness.

Now I get it. I understand what is happening. I still fail. Fail to pay attention. Forget something. But I do not beat myself up. I am practising, it is ongoing. I am ongoing, an ongoing creation. So are you. Keep practising it will pay off.

 

 

 

MBSR week 2: How is it going?

Awareness

Week 2 is all about awareness. Awareness of the body and mind. In your busy western lives you move quickly through your day from task to task, achieving and doing. You are often so immersed in this task driven world that you pay little heed to its impact upon your body or the patterns of thought and feeling that your mind follows. If you are anything like me you may be doing a task or job, but your thoughts probably slip elsewhere from time to time; reviewing a past event or imagining a future happening.

Week 2 is about raising your awareness; paying attention to how you are, what you are thinking, how you are feeling. This attention can be practiced during any task or activity, that is what makes it mindful.

What follows below is my post that I wrote just after the week 2 session. This explains my initial reactions and places it in a time and place in my life.

In the section after that I will consider how this mindful practice is progressing. How am I doing? Do I pay attention all the time? (clue here: don’t be daft!)

Week 2 thoughts from 2015

Week 2 of our Mindfulness based stress reduction course (MBSR) started in entirely different circumstances and continued in quite a different manner to Week 1. Last week the weather had been howling: gales and thundering rain showers. This week the sun was shining and the 5th floor balcony beckoned on arrival whispering, ‘come and soak up my sunshine’.

Last week had introduced mindful techniques that we practiced throughout the class. When I had returned home I found myself to be very still and happily sat in the lounge, dog on lap, in the quiet dying light until all the family arrived home half an hour later.

This week I had a diary clash. The session was always going to be different as I chose to keep a previously arranged and paid for cinema visit with a mate. I was with the group for the first hour when we experienced our responses to a couple of emotive stories. This spurred a discussion about our experience of our body and mind’s reactions to life events, where we highlighted the body’s responses to stress and discussed the kind of emotions and thoughts experienced during the reading of each story.

All of this was designed to raise our awareness of the role our perception plays in generating and interpreting events, emotions and thoughts. We were encouraged to notice the body’s response to an event or situation and note the thoughts; like fear, judgement, possible actions, outcomes etc. In noticing the thought and where it was felt in the body an opportunity to let the thought soften and melt away could be encouraged.

Now, I know that this ‘letting go’ of thoughts, particularly those entrenched in habitual patterns, is not an easy task. But the task of noting that you recognise the thought and where it has come from is the first step in allowing it space to fade away. I know it works. It’s just not easy, to catch yourself heading off on a familiar track, but I am reminded that it is a practice. So I shall continue to practice.

Practicing Awareness in 2015

Today I am struggling to breathe. A combination of the Photomarathon day on Saturday and today’s high pollen count has aggravated my ability to breathe. The thoughts that then swirl are dominated by fear. Fear of not being able to breathe. Fear of the necessity to take steroids and the post medical reaction. Fear of the need for surgery. All of these rise and fall, along with a feeling of helplessness that these episodes generate.

I give myself a little space, get an increase in my hay fever medication and do a little gentle yoga. In this space I feel softer, less fearful. Which in itself also reduces stress on the body and helps my breathing to recover a little.

 

Practicing now

The period between completing the MBSR and now has been one of massive developments and change. In 2015 my chronic breathing condition had reached a crisis point and I was just about to embark on visits to one of the top throat reconstruction specialists in London.

At the first meeting with Mr Guri Sandhu I was very nervous. I remember sitting in his consultation room, laboured breathing and shaking with nerves. However, I noticed that I had the opportunity to practice. I focused on my feet on the ground, my backside on its seat and breathed to my belly. And kept with this focus until we started talking. The consultation was a turning point, but not for the reasons I initially thought.

After examining and talking to me Sandhu stated, with calm assurance, that he could fix me. He promised to return my breathing to a much improved place, but there would be a major compromise, I would be left with a mere whisper of a voice. At the time this felt like a relief and a way forward. Breathing was such a struggle. Now there was possibility of improvement.

Sandhu also highlighted my weight loss (nearly 2 stone – I am of slim build and average height) and stated that this was not connected to my breathing and should be investigated. It was this advice that changed my world. A later diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes was a surprise, but provided explanation for the ongoing acute attacks. Once I was established and used to the insulin the lights came on, a fog lifted from my mind and everything else began to unravel.

Since then the major life changes including; the end of my marriage, an intention to live with authenticity, health stability, new work opportunities, new relationship, new friendships, writing a book and much more have provided many opportunities to practice paying attention. I know that this is integral to how I want to live. However, I also know that it is a challenge and an ongoing practice. I have spent over 50 years laying down neural pathways that take my thoughts and feelings down familiar roads. Travelling along new paths, in the undergrowth off road, is hard going and I often stray back to the main road. But the practice remains. I meditate daily. I practice mindful photography weekly. I notice the one thing that I am doing, thinking or feeling and return to the present moment. It is a lifetime practice and one that will continue to bear fruit.

 

MBSR week 1: How is it going?

Last year I enrolled and completed the MBSR at Swansea University. At the time I blogged a little about my experiences. I will be revisiting these posts over the next few weeks to share my progress applying the ideas and practices to my life. Please share your thoughts and feelings too, the course is now hugely popular and is a fabulous introduction to living a mindful life.

My first week of attendance at the MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) course at Swansea University was in 2015 and at the time I was living with some serious difficulty. My chronic health condition (compromised breathing) was particularly challenging and the reasons for this were yet to be revealed. At the time there seemed to be a serious possibility that I would have to have major surgery that would leave me with the mildest whisper of voice, but improved breathing. Enrolling on the course was very much a support for living through this time. I already had a meditation practice and had developed the mindful photography philosophy that is now central to my life. But I saw the course as an opportunity to embrace mindfulness wholeheartedly through my life and maybe learn something new.

 

The MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) Course

This is an 8 week course which aims to introduce mindfulness practices into our lives, enabling us to be connected to the present moment in all of its glory and grime. It is believed that this connection and acceptance helps to reduce stress by encouraging us to be totally present, aware of the choices we make and their impact on our lives.

It is my intention to write a blog post for each of the eight weeks, summarising what we cover and, where relevant offering a mindful photography practice that supports that week’s intention.

Week One: Auto Pilot

Our first week’s theme was ‘Auto Pilot’. Our tutor, Sinead Brophy, explained that the intention of week 1 was to break us out of auto pilot and alert us to the present moment. Sinead explained what mindfulness was (attention to the present moment) and what it wasn’t (counselling, therapy, a happiness regime).

Over the course of the 2 hours + we were introduced to some mindful practices. These included a ten minute guided meditation, mindful eating and the body scan. Whilst I was already familiar with these practices I found the session really grounding and almost a return to ‘beginners mind’. It was helpful to revisit shorter simpler practices and when I returned home I found that I was much quieter (in my head) and content to sit in the lounge sharing the moment with my dog and not seeking any external stimulation (TV, computer, book)

We were also given homework, which includes: a 20 minute meditation, 1 mindful eating practice per day and 1 mindful practice per day (taking a shower, cleaning teeth etc.) This all seems best done in the morning. At least then the busy-ness of the day will not deflect and there is also a chance that the practices will encourage a more mindful approach to the day.

This fine theory was destroyed when before leaving for work, but after meditation, mindful shower and mindfully eaten cereal,  I forgot to clean my teeth! Ah well, it is a practice.

 

My Mindful Life

So after 11 years of mindful practice and the MBSR Course have I got it all sorted? Do I live a mindful life every day, every minute? Oh no. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice. However, mindfulness and mindful photography have changed how I live. Mindful Photography offers a path to becoming a conscious and fully awake photographer, and because we cannot separate the photographer from the person, it also investigates a way of living.

Through my work with mindful photography I balance photography practices that develop mindfulness with an awareness of how life’s choices are determined. I still slip in auto pilot sometimes, 56 years of habitual behaviours has wired some neural pathways that shout to be used. But I do now have more practices, more tools to support my intention, and through this, occasionally more awareness of each moment.

Creative school project progress

With every project there comes a week when all the planning, thinking and plotting has to be recorded and agreed. For the two Lead Creative Schools I am working with on the Arts Council Wales funded projects that is this week.

Last week we had our planning days at the two primary schools, Bryn Teg and Pennard. At both the appointed creative practitioners came in to deliver an engagement activity with the pupils and then spend time with the school team and me planning the delivery next term.

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The photos above show this happening.

This week has been all about the administration, a necessary evil! We have until Friday to complete and submit the documentation. So enough of this sharing, nose back to the grindstone.

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The camera with you

In these smartphone days the camera we always have with us is usually the most pocketable one. I do have a high end compact phone and a brick of a DSLR. Sometimes I do have one of them with me. But I always have my smartphone camera.

I get it. The best camera is the one we have with us and smartphones do have pretty reasonable cameras, limited but ok in reasonable light. I post a smartphone photo a day to my Instagram account. I like the creative limitations imposed by the phone, it’s wide angle and levels of technical control make me think about innovative composition.

All the photos below were created with my compact Xperia Z3 and edited using Snapseed. Fancy sharing your favourite recent smartphone photo?

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The Snapshot Girls

A while back I was invited to share some ideas around Mindful Photography with local photography group the Snapshot Girls. I met one of their founder members Hannah at the Peg Talks and we got talking about photography. A couple of months later I spent a fun evening with them at their monthly meet up at the hip bar Noah’s in the Uplands of Swansea.

The Snapshot Girls were formed in 2012 with the intention of sharing ‘Fun, Photos and Friendship’ and they love all forms of photography and photos whether they’re blurred, brilliant or both!

I spent an hour or so talking through an introduction to what Mindful Photography is and how I came to apply and develop mindfulness through photography. Then I set them a little mindful photography practice and they shared their favourite photo from the practice.

I finished the session by setting them some ‘homework’ which was another mindful photography practice and they were encouraged then to complete it and share their experiences with the group. Yesterday Hannah sent me everybody’s favourite photo and they accompany this post.

So, if you are female, live in or around Swansea and love photography why don’t you get in touch with them?

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Paradise

On a Thursday I work on an Intergenerational Project called BoomerZ. This is part of my Dylan Thomas Centre work and encourages the participants to create new stories and poems. Yesterday Sion, our tutor, lead us through some prompt based freestyle writing. We wrote solidly for 30 – 40 minutes, prompted every five minutes by a symbol of some sort.

My story evolved into one that related to today’s WordPress word prompt, base, so I’ve included that here. Anyway enough of me wittering on here’s my story.

Paradise

I stand at the edge, soup sea lapping my toes, imagining something, anything, appearing on the blood soaked horizon.

The unctuous water flows over my feet like a blanket as they sink into the pearl white sand. I track the bloodline ahead, its edge pristine, unbroken by hope or possibility.

Sometimes I collect driftwood from the ocean’s edge and arrange them to form huge letters spelling my name. Sometimes I close my eyes and I launch those branches with bloodied feet. When I look at what is left I see her name. I always see her name in the wooden detritus and blooded sand. Then the shapes resolve back to chaos and she is gone.

Later in the day, as the suns fall into their scarlet slumber, I sit, propped against the old carved tree stump and imagine another world, another reality.

She always holds my hand as we leave the restaurant. We approach the busy intersection, pausing to allow the gargantuan steel trucks to streak past. The sharp air slaps my face, sucking pleasure from the dusk.

I squeeze Marie’s hand, she squeezes back, then lets my hand go to point at a Slowship ascending over the silver turrets of homebase.

“Won’t be long now Charles.” she says smiling at me

“I know. I’m counting the days.”

Marie turns her face up to catch the first drops of the evening’s fall. “I won’t miss this though,” she says wiping her face with her hand.

Sometimes, at this point, I turn my face to the emerald heavens and plead to whatever deity rules this planet for some rain. I don’t care what colour it is. I don’t care if the drops are misty soft or a thundering monsoon. Any rain would bring her back.

It is the sound that haunts me: the solid thump. One second she was there. The next she was gone. If I had not let her hand go would she have stepped forward? I was gazing at the Slowship, pendulous and inexorable, as Marie left me. The coroner said that she would not have felt anything, it was all to quick, too final, too momentous.

I left earth on the next Slowship. I did not care about the destination. I just had to leave. Part of me imagined Marie was travelling with me. Part of me was still at the intersection.

The Slowship took several lifetimes to reach Wanatu. Maybe those lifetimes were lived by others but when I awoke Marie was still with me. Just like she had always been. By my side.  Holding my hand.

Each morning I fish. I fillet. I cook. I eat. I walk. I gaze at the horizon. Sometimes I see other wanderers, but I step back into the deep shadows. I move on.

Each afternoon I check the traps, clean out the catch and store what I do not need in the deep pool. I eat the charred meat at the sea’s edge and throw the brittle bones into the ink green depths. Each bone is launched with a wish. Each wish is wrapped around a hope that will never be granted. The Gods are unforgiving on this island paradise.

The Photographic Flâneur

I have long been interested in the concept of a flâneur as it has a relationship to my mindful approach to photography. Whilst the dictionary definition of it as an “idler or a lounger” is of interest, Charles Baudelaire’s interpretation of a flâneur is more relevant. He described a flâneur as someone who is a detached observer of city streets, someone who is attuned to the seeing. For him it was not an act of loafing about, but one of sauntering along city streets whilst absorbing the visual feast. So when it came up as the WordPress Discover challenge this week I decided to dedicate some time to living the life of a photographic flâneur.

What follows below is a selection of photos that were created whilst sauntering through the streets and sights of Swansea. I wandered for about 4 hours, stopping for a cuppa and then meandering on. I followed my own 4 stage seeing practice that uses what I see as my anchor; the one thing that I return to when I notice my busy mind has itself wandered off.

Perhaps the concept of  being a flâneur is a useful analogy for your active mind. You follow the streets and practice attending to what you see, then a sight leads you down a thought stream and you are away on some exploration of the past or invention of the future. Somehow you notice, maybe it is another sight that brings you back to the present, and in that moment you are immersed in the seeing.

You raise your camera to your eye, photographic thoughts swirl: where should you frame the scene, what f stop should you use? You notice this, return to the sight that stopped you and somewhere between controlling all the photographic knowledge and being completely present you let the decisive moment to press the shutter emerge in its own time. A photograph is created. You saunter on.

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Lead Creative School Projects

It has been a hectic couple of weeks. The Lead Creative Schools (LCS) scheme has taken off in earnest with consultation events at both of my Primary Schools.

I work as a Creative Agent on this Arts Council Wales scheme. Whilst this is the most fabulous job title I have had to date it is also fascinating and challenging fun. I am working with two quite different primary schools who both have an interest in outdoor education. One is Ysgol Bryn Teg just outside of Llanelli and the other is Pennard Primary on the Gower.

I have worked with the LCS team at each school to set up consultation events with stakeholders (parents and governors) and the pupils who are going to be involved. Being a creative project these consultation events made great use of creative activities and challenges to explore what was important about learning for each group, and how they thought learning could be most effective.

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We used exactly the same activities and games at each school for each group. So the adults got to play and explore and the pupils got to explain how they felt they would learn best. It was all great fun, entertaining and informative.

From this base I then sat down with each team to develop and write the Project Outlines. These are then used to invite Creative Practitioners from any artistic discipline to apply and explain how they would meet the brief. You can view and download the Project Outlines by clicking on the links below.

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Pennard Primary

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The closing dates for expressions of interest for both projects is quite soon and then we have interviews to arrange, which will involve stakeholder, pupil and staff representatives working together to choose the creative practitioners who they feel would create something engaging, imaginative, inspiring and sustainable at their school. Not much pressure there then!

Interesting times are ahead. Delivery of each project is during the Spring Term, so there is a lot of work to be done between now and the end of this term.

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1 to 1 Tutorial

Seeing in colour

I had my first 1 to 1 tutorial for a while last Saturday. Mia is a 15 year old interested in art and photography and her Mum felt that my approach to photography might be something what would help her.

We met on a very wet morning at the bandstand in Porthcawl and spent the first few minutes discussing what she knew and how we could progress whilst the heavens opened. Mia had brought along her sister’s robust compact camera, so I decided I would swap cameras with her. This meant that I was able to set the DSLR up so that she had to use the viewfinder, not the screen and could not review the photos she had just taken.

The first task I set challenged Mia to create photographs that had colour as a theme. I asked her to think about how a camera sees, not knowing the name of anything and respond instinctively. Meanwhile I followed the same task with the compact camera. I was really enjoying the creative limitation when the battery failed! Meanwhile Mia carried on and after a while we reviewed photos at a shelter near the harbour.

These are some of my favourite photos from Mia’s photos

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Mundane can be beautiful

After the review I set the next task and asked Mia to create 20 photos, no more or less, of anything within the vicinity of the shelter. She had 15 minutes for the task, could not see the view screen and was challenged to ‘give the mundane its beautiful due’ (John Updike). She then, after reviewing her photos, was allowed to choose one favorite. This is it.

It is interesting to review someone else’s photos, see what they like and consider what they are drawn to create and what might be missing. I am looking forward to our next exploration in seeing.

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I did the same challenge, but this time with my mobile phone camera. I do like a creative limitation! Here are my favourite photos from the task.

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Tree

Funny this word should come up today as the WordPress prompt. Last night I dreamt that I was walking along a path with friends and found a young tree in my hands. I turned to my friends and passed it to them. They dropped it and it lay abandoned on the floor.

Those of you who like a metaphor could have a field day with that one. But I was left more with the thought that we take trees for granted. How would our world be without them? It would not exist. We would not exist. Trees are the lungs of the world, the breath of all life.

So I decided to look at my recently uploaded photos to this website and include the last 10 photos that show trees in all their variety, invisibility and vibrancy. Here they are.

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Cardiff Mindful Photography Workshop

Book your place

I am delivering a full day Mindful Photography workshop on 15th October at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. We will start at 10.00am and finish at 4.00pm and the cost (including booking fee) is £54. Want to know what it’s all about? Read on.

What is Mindful Photography?

Mindful Photography is an approach to photography and life that applies mindfulness to photography and through photography practices develops your ability to be mindful. Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat Zinn as “paying attention on purpose, to the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding experience moment to moment.”

At the workshop you will be introduced to practices and activities that use the visual experience to root you in the present moment, practices that encourage you to pay attention to what you are seeing and doing and in that moment create a personally resonant photograph.

Why get mindful?

You lead a very busy, active life. You constantly move from one activity to another and sometimes those activities overlap. Your mind is constantly busy, doing one thing and often thinking about others. Mindfulness encourages you to pay attention to the one thing that you are doing. It sounds easy, but because of your busy habits it is very difficult.

During your busy days you may experience feelings of frustration, anger, inadequacy or relentless drive as you try to cram in and achieve ‘stuff’ in your day. You are impelled by a desire to complete, succeed and achieve. Mindfulness encourages you to pay attention to these feelings. To notice what you are experiencing. Then you are able to make a choice. To react or respond.

React or respond?

You are hardwired to react to stressful events. This capacity for action and re-action developed to allow quick reactions when danger threatened. The oldest part of the brain, the limbic system, fires up at the first sign of danger or challenge. You know this as the ‘flight or fight response’. The brain readies the body for action, heart rate is raised as more oxygen is delivered to your muscles, you breathe quicker and your body is flooded with cortisol. You are ready to fight or run. You are ready for action.

This system still fires in our modern world when you are stressed. Being late for work, an argument with a loved one, your day going awry or simply being driven to complete a task so that it is perfect. These and many other similar events fire up the limbic system and you react in old familiar ways. You have, over many years, evolved ways of behaving when you are stressed. You will be familiar with your pattern of behaviour!

Mindfulness encourages us to be present so that you notice what you are experiencing. The first indicator that you are stressed might be noticing something physical (pounding heart, faster breathing) or it might be noticing feelings of anger or frustration – just before you erupt in action. In that moment you breathe. You pay attention to your body, notice the physical sensations; breathe.

Then you a have a choice. You may recognise the feeling, this experience. It is an old familiar acquaintance. You know how you normally react. Your choice now, fully in the experience and aware, is to respond. To respond with full engagement, knowing what is happening and knowing the consequences of your actions. How you respond is your choice. But it is a more skillful response than our habitual reaction and in that moment you burn a new pathway in your mind.

Motorways and off road routes

Your habitual response is like a motorway. It is the route you normally take, it is well prepared and you use it without thought. Engaging in a skillful response is like getting off road, with your machete, and carving a path through new ground. It is not easy. But each time you make that skillful choice the path gets a little more used. The way becomes a little clearer. Imperceptibly you develop a new way of responding. A new habit.

Why photography?

Photography is a familiar and creative activity. Attending to the visual experience as your mindful anchor, the thing that you return to when you notice you have started thinking about other stuff, attunes you to the moment. Applying mindfulness to photography expands your perspective. As you use the visual experience as the one thing that keeps you present, you see more. As you pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that play through your mind you have the opportunity to create a photograph that responds to that experience. Mindful Photography leads to greater personal engagement in the process of creating a photograph.

Why not come along on the 15th? Expand your perspective. Learn about an engaging and stimulating approach to photography. Learn more about mindfulness. Learn more about yourself and create intimately resonant photographs.

Book your place

Mindful Photography Workshop – Your Landscape

Somehow I have managed to avoid bad weather at my photography workshops. The very first one I delivered was visited by a violent hail storm, but since then the sun has always shone. In fact, the last time I visited Llanmadoc to deliver a photography workshop, 2 years ago almost to the day, it was scorchio! That luck ran out on Saturday and challenged the students to create photos that illustrated their inner landscape in dull, dreary, damp weather.

I shared some techniques and ideas for envisioning how we feel through photography that included the elements of visual design and a more personal immersive experience. Despite the challenging conditions everyone embraced the challenge and produced some personally resonant photos. The story behind each photo is not shared here but maybe you get a sense of the photographer’s thoughts and feelings from their photos.

Beginner’s Mind Practice

The first Mindful Photography practice was called ‘Beginner’s Mind’ and encouraged us to look at our environment as if it was the first time we had seen it. In a limited space we had to create up to 10 photos, and the students could not see their view screens, so there was no checking to see how the photos had come out. This kind of limitation slows us down and attunes us to our present moment. One photo was shared from each student.

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Equivalents

The next Mindful Photography practice encouraged us to represent our emotional experience through a photograph. The conditions were particularly challenging as the light faded and the heavens opened. We protected our cameras and ourselves as well as we could and ventured down onto the beach. What feelings do these photos generate for you?

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Finally…

A few of my photos from the session. Let’s hope the weather is kinder at my next workshop in Cardiff next month!

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Blue sky thinking, feeling and seeing

A Mindful Photography practice

I saw the sky and I could not resist: a one hour mindful photography practice with blue sky as the theme. Every photo created to have blue sky in the frame, either as the background, feature or reflection.

It is a stimulating practice to limit your creative options. By choosing one theme this also provides an anchor. Whatever is going through your head (thoughts, feelings or sensations) you can return to the theme, to seeing the blue sky.

I also wandered about with my camera in a particular and familiar set up. I had a prime lens on, so no zooming, only moving my feet and body. I had the camera in aperture priority, f7.1 and the ISO 100 (as it was a bright sunny day). This allows the technical choices to be limited (encouraging you to be with the visual) or to be subject of the practice, an element of being present.

This then allows me to create photos where depth of field is not a concern without further thought. The photographer Bryan Petersen calls this a ‘who cares’ aperture. From this point you can choose to change the aperture for creative reasons; a small aperture (f16 or above) for landscapes or a large aperture (f2.8 or below) where a shallow depth of field would help to isolate the subject from its background.

That’s it. A simple camera set up. One theme. Return to the seeing (blue sky – in this case). Here are my favourites.

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Fragile

I was reminded today of the fragility of life. You would think that after a few life experiences that have demonstrated that it is a truth, I would have it at the forefront of my mind. But the idea that we are immortal is tenacious.

We carry on through our busy lives, racing from one important task to the next. These tasks define who we are. They shape our life and determine how our days are spent. And then, from left field, something occurs to remind us that it is but a gossamer thread connecting us to this entertaining video we call life.

Today I heard from a friend who has recently lost somebody very close to them. In fact over the last few months she has been training and then swimming the Channel to raise money, inspired by the circumstances her friend was struggling with. And then, just after the event, her friend died. As if this tremendous loss was not enough, life had another in store. Very soon after her friend died, the swimming coach who had been supporting their endeavour had a heart attack and died.

Even when we know something is likely to happen, the actuality and finality of death is still a huge adjustment. We have the practicalities, and friends and family, to support us through the early days of adjustment. But then, as life falls back into its rhythm, we may begin to lose our bearings.

The grief attached to any loss has to be lived through. The stages may be well documented: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, but we still have to live through them. We have to live with the confusion and feelings of deep uncertainty. And of course we may be reminded of our own mortality.

Perhaps it is this reminder that can support us through towards the acceptance of the loss of our loved one. For this reminder of the gossamer thread can attune us to our loved ones, to how we are spending our time, towards what is truly important in our life.

We will always have the loving memories of our departed friend, but the most valuable lesson this difficult adjustment has, is to remind us to wholly engage in every moment. To tune in to what we are sensing, thinking and feeling. To be truly present in every glorious and grimy minute, for it will very soon be gone. Carpe diem.

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Fragile

Feeling your edge – learning to fly

The edge is a useful metaphor. Where and when do you feel your edge? Do you notice and carry on? Do you notice and ease back? Or do you not notice and plough on regardless?

Feeling your edge implies that you are tuned in, paying attention to your life. In the moment that you teeter on the edge of something you can notice a feeling of discomfort, just as if you are on the edge of a precipice and looking over. In that moment you can choose to feel your feet on the floor, to breathe in deeply down to your roots – the part of us that is connected to the rest of the world – and then make a decision. To step back or to jump.

There may not actually be a big leap between your edge and the future. It just feels that way at the time. The edge may be acute because of a potential change of environment, the road beneath your feet may not be that which you were used to, or it may be inhabited by strange new people!

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These are often big moments in your life. Moments when your choice may define how your future is shaped. As a long distance runner I learnt to push on beyond my edge; those feelings of huge physical discomfort are noticed but the drive is to carry on, to move forwards. To keep going.

This drive is essential to your life. Without drive you would achieve very little in your life. But when you reach an edge, you are there because of your life, your choices, who you are. Honoring yourself is paying attention to what is at that edge, why you are there and what lies beyond.

Paying complete attention to the edge, how you are and what might lie beyond is the first step in learning to fly. For if you are to leap off the edge you will learn to fly. You may not think that you can. But there is often only one way to find out. Leaping off, leads to flying. It is scary….and it is exciting.

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You can support the experience by paying attention to how you are. Notice the sensations playing through your body; they will be exhibiting in your belly, chest or throat. Breathe to that area and feel your feet on the floor or your bottom on its seat. Attune yourself to what you can see, right now in your immediate environment. Keep breathing deeply. Notice what you can hear, noises that are distant, the sound of your own breathing, maybe even your heart reminding you that you are alive. Notice the breeze on your cheek, the smell of the season on the air and those butterflies in your belly.

By tuning in to our senses and paying attention to our breathing we soften into the moment. Then we have space to notice the thoughts and feelings that are rampaging through our consciousness. Those familiar ones, the ones that are often fueled by your internal critical voice can be noted, just as you would a familiar acquaintance who you really do not like but have to work with. Note the thought, note the judgement, say hello and then breathe. Come back to your breath.

And there you are, stood at your edge breathing into the sensations, attuned to the thoughts and uncomfortable feelings. Slowly and often imperceptibly the sensations will dissolve, the fear will soften. You will look at the edge and know that you are alive and you can fly!

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Edge

My Peg Talk

Three months ago I gave a talk at the now locally famous Peg Talks. These talks are by Swansea people who have an interesting story to tell and occur every 6 weeks or so at the Square Peg Cafe. If you live in Swansea or close and have not been yet then I encourage you to take one in.

My talk was all about paying attention: what happens when you don’t, and how I managed to get myself back to stability by bringing paying attention into my life as a practice. We currently call this mindfulness and I now practice and share Mindful Photography through this website.

If you missed my talk there is good news (or not depending upon your viewpoint!), it is now available to listen to below.  I was supposed to keep it to 15 minutes, all power to you if you manage the full 25 minutes!

If the link doesn’t work for you, Google soundcloud. Then sign up and search for Peg Talks. I’ll be listed. Happy listening.

Still Point

There is a still point between the in breath and the out breath. And another between the out breath and the in breath. Each is milliseconds in length. Each is a time when the world is in balance. You may not be aware of their arrival and passing. But they are always there, always available.

The in breath requires us to do something; our body has learnt to drawn in breath, to extend effort and air is drawn into our lungs. The out breath is a release, we let go and air passes back out through our respiratory system. In between the effort and the release, the release and the effort are the still points.

I am writing a book on Mindful Photography at the moment that is about paying attention to the still point. Staying with that moment when all is in balance. It is about developing a way of extending its influence throughout every breath, in and out. It is about paying attention to the effort that has brought us to this point and paying attention to what we can release. It is about paying attention to our life, our choices and the ripples of consequence that resonate through our being and beyond.

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Mindfulness is paying attention

This paying attention has become known as mindfulness and it is all the rage. But whilst it may provide the media with regular column inches, for me it is more than just a fad, it has become a way through tremendous personal difficulties and a practice that is now central to my life.

Mindfulness is intended to be a way of living through every aspect of our life. The suggestion is that we pay attention to what we are sensing, thinking, feeling, and doing. Through that practice we learn to respond in ways that support us, rather than instinctively reacting in ways that cause us stress.  Most mindfulness books provide philosophy and guidance that allow us to apply the practice to our life. They are often written by Buddhist sages or learned psychologists. I have no such claims. However, I have learnt through personal experience how mindfulness can support a greater understanding of myself; my choices, my habits, my behaviours and the full engagement in every aspect of my being.

I have lived through the study, the reading, the courses, the sitting, the dreaming. I have thought that I was applying the philosophies, the practices. I have imagined that I was mindful, that just because I meditated that I was ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. It took ten years before I began to recognise that this mindfulness thing is an ongoing practice. I knew that’s what it was called; a practice. I understood the idea intellectually, but I was not living it. The possibility that you never really crack it, that there is nothing to achieve, that it is a lifetime’s practice was a slow coalescing realisation. One that occasionally seems obvious and at other times remains elusive.

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A Personal Approach

My book takes a personal approach. It draws upon my midlife experiences of choices and consequences, of striving, of not paying attention and of the health challenges that developed. It focuses upon a particular application of mindfulness and shares methods, practices and activities that I have found of immense help.

I do not claim to be a mindful master, but I have found an application for mindfulness and a way of continuing to develop a mindful approach that I believe is quite unique and may be helpful for others. I call it Mindful Photography.

We are all photographers now. Most of us carry a smartphone with the capacity to create and share fabulous photographs of our world. Many of us also have a digital camera. The potential for creating a visual record is now part of our everyday life. My book is for everyone who wants to create personal and resonant photographs: photos that say something of who we are, what we think and what life is like for us. However, it is not just about how to create profound, expressive photos; it also is about living life, making mistakes, facing unexpected events, understanding ourselves and responding, rather than reacting to life’s difficulties.

In the book I will reflect upon the habits and behaviours I developed in my thirties and the midlife choices I made later that impelled me down the path towards a chronic health condition. Sometimes I may shed a little light on the culture at the time, but this is not shared as an excuse for my choices. It is more an attempt to unravel the impact our modern life and behaviour has upon our well being. I contrast these life experiences with the ideas and attitudes that underpin a mindful life.

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Why Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about paying attention. My life choices clearly demonstrate that I was not paying attention. However, over ten years the message begins to percolate my consciousness and I start to incorporate mindful activities into my life.

Have I got it all sorted? Do I live a mindful life every day, every minute? Don’t be daft. Mindfulness is an ongoing practice. However, mindfulness and mindful photography have changed how I live. Mindful Photography offers a path to becoming a conscious and fully awake photographer, and because we cannot separate the photographer from the person, it also investigates a way of being. Balancing photography practices that develop mindfulness with an exploration of how life’s choices are determined, I will share an intimate and truthful map of our midlife travels, arriving at a midlife manifesto that is my work in progress and could be yours.

Mindfulness has changed my life and developing this practice through photography has been and continues to be one way in which I have explored how I live now and how I can continue to live with authenticity, truth and love. Once you pick up a camera and start using it in the ways that I suggest your life may never quite be the same again.

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Mirror of my soul

It doesn’t take much encouragement to get me to create a selfie. Not only is it a genre I regularly explore, I’ve also done a monthly photo project with FB friends (Beyond the Selfie) and I am just about to write the last chapter of my book about Mindful Photography; and that’s all about me!

So when I saw this weekly photo challenge title from The Daily Post I determined to create a selfie and write a post today. Even though my camera is tucked up at home.

And no, you should know that I am not self obsessed. Any more than the average egocentric human being. But I am fascinated by this thing we call the self.

The Self in the Selfie

There are many interpretations of what the self is, they vary from the classically psychological to the philosophically challenging. But one thing is certain. If you cut me open you will not find it. The core essence that you think that you are, your beautiful self, is not a pearl to be discovered residing in the oyster that is your mind. Perhaps this is what the Buddhists mean when they explain that there is no such thing as self; that it is not a physical thing, not something you can point at.

The explanation of the self that resonates for me is that it is a constantly evolving, multi-layered, and infinitely possible reflection of all that you do and all that you are.

So it seems entirely apposite that the mirror reflects an image of me, but I know that this is merely a physical and momentary sliver of the whole. All that I am and all that I can be resides in the possibility of the evolving self.

Exploring the Self

There is an inevitable consequence of living a mindful life. The more you practice, the more you pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, the better you get to know yourself. Sometimes stuff arises that you thought long forgotten. Sometimes you are unaware that you have drifted away down a side stream of thought, far way from the days happenings.

Other times you begin to notice some of your habitual thoughts. Maybe you notice that small nagging voice that criticizes what you are doing, or how you are doing it, or what you have not done! Or maybe you start to become more attuned to how you feel about the people in your life, your job, how you spend your spare time.

I find that it is an inevitable consequence of meditating and practising mindful photography that I become more self aware, more attuned to how I am in the moment right now. And in that moment I know myself a little better.

The Final Chapter

The final chapter of my book is all about the personal photo project I have been following throughout the last 12 months of my life. Every three months I have spent one week creating only one photo each day. Each photo is intended to represent me, how I am, what is happening and how I am being. It is not easy only creating one photo, and I will be sharing some thoughts on how to best do this, but it is challenging and fulfilling.

As the photos build up over the week, months and year a story begins to emerge; a visual storyboard of the year, one week at a time. So far I have completed the practice 4 times and therefore have 28 photos. It is these photos that I will be sharing in the final chapter and telling the story of the last turbulent and marvellous year.

Many of the photos make use of metaphors to represent a thought or feeling, some document what happened and several make use of reflections. The mirror of my soul!

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September – the second new year

I like September. Do you? I like it because it is a start of new beginnings in the West; it feels a little like a second opportunity at the New Year. Another chance to review where we are at, how we are living, and consider how we might change things.

Of course the truth is that every day brings us that opportunity, but we get so wrapped up in the doing, the striving to keep everything on track that we loose track of the important stuff. Immersed in our tasks and activities we forget to be compassionate for ourselves. We only see what we are not achieving, not completing.

Instead let us take this month, with its new start, to stop a moment and breathe. Consider for a moment all that you have achieved over the last twelve months. Reflect upon the moments of joy and love that have lit up your world. Hold gently those times of difficulty and confusion and know that through it all you are loved and that the sun will still rise tomorrow.

Try a little photography workshop this September

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