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Boredom

Boredom is an experience that is avoided. The distractions available are numerous: smartphone, TV, work, household chores and friends are but a few. But how would it be to experience boredom by choice?

I wrote this post whilst I was on what was planned to be a 3 day retreat in the farmland hills above the Welsh market town of Brecon. I have spent many retreat breaks over the last 8 years at the centre at Llannerchwen. It is very quiet, in beautiful rolling wooded hills and visited by pheasants, rabbits, hawks and much more. But it is my experience that every retreat is different; the external landscape changes with the season, and my internal landscape changes both with season and its own rhythms .

It was on my mind that there would be opportunity to experience boredom, even though I had brought books, podcasts and my camera. And so I chose to sit on the cabin’s most comfortable chair and gaze through the large patio doors at the dank welsh countryside, and I notice.

I notice the voice; my internal commentator suggesting I do this, or that. It is a quiet insistent voice, no doubt fueled by my normal behaviour, which in turn has been shaped by our doing culture. Stopping for a while, not reading, not even meditating is an enlightening experience. The voice is very strong. This post is a product of its insistent suggestions. But in between the activity, the doing tasks, there is space to notice.

I have sat for a while – not timed – and observed. I notice the movements outside my window; the thrushes fighting over territory the occasional rabbit foraging through the bronze bracken, and the last leaves from the long passed Autumn clinging on to tributary branches.

In between the visual stimulation I notice my mind’s habits. Thoughts of action and activity wander in and beckon in an alluring manner, like an old friend suggesting a visit to a favourite haunt. I note the thought and go back to the visual. This is a cultivated habit from my mindful photography, but the thoughts are relentless. Like the waves they return again and again.

I know that the practice is in the noting and not reacting. In honouring the thought or associated feeling and returning to the moment. This is itself a mindful practice and is part of the reason I am here, cultivating the habit of paying attention. Why do I do this? I am choosing to re-wire my brain. This is how Dr Barbara Mariposa explains it in ‘The Mindfulness Playbook’

“The brain changes shape according to how you use it. We can intentionally change our brain and nervous system for the better. Regularly using mindful (activities) the prefrontal cortex increases in size and activity……..promoting greater self awareness, the essential building block for emotional intelligence. We are giving ourselves a mental and emotional upgrade.”

Stopping and noticing provides the opportunity to connect to a fundamental truth; “I am not my thoughts. I have thoughts.” Dr B Mariposa

So I will stop this activity now and return to my boredom, my observation of how I am. But I will leave you with a supportive mindful photography practice that I will complete my self later. (The photo with the post is the product of the practice)

Mindful Photography Practice – Boredom

  1. Imagine that you can only create one photograph
  2. Take yourself and your camera out to a quiet location where you will not be disturbed.
  3. Set your camera to a mode that you are comfortable with and requires little technical photographic thought from you.
  4. Turn off (or cover) the review screen.
  5. Sit at your location and pay attention to your mind
  6. Notice the thoughts. Recognise the feelings that arise. Do nothing, just sit. Sit for at least 20 minutes before you even pick up your camera, but notice your drive to complete the task, the consideration of your space and its photographic opportunities.
  7. Create one photograph. You can move to do this. Do not look at it. Just sit and notice your thoughts
  8. After a while go home. Sit quietly and look at your photo. What thoughts and feelings arise?
  9. Share it with me

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Using photography to express how you feel

One of the key areas I explore in Mindful Photography is how mindfulness opens a door to a connection with your feelings, and how you can choose to communicate those feelings with photographs. The short answer to how you can do this is twofold. Firstly, develop a knowledge of how to apply visual design principles to convey an emotion or mood. Secondly, through allowing an intuitive response to what you photograph to inform your choice of how to frame your photo.

The long and detailed answer is part of the landscape I will explore in my forthcoming Mindful Photography Online Course. In the meantime I leave you with a question. How can you learn and hold all the technical and compostional ideas for great photography and also allow a connection to how you feel about the scene or experience before you? It is in your answer to this that you will create photographs that truly say something about you and your life.

By way of illustration I include here a few photos from my recent retreat in the Brecon Hills. How do they make you feel? Why do they stir those feelings in you? I will be reflecting on my retreat experience in a future post.

 

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Patience

I am currently recovering from a cold. Nothing unusual about that, but as a consequence my mind is foggy and writing a blog post is challenging. Patience is the word that lept to mind. Patience Lee, it will all return. Then I had a simple idea. Why not share the excerpt from the Mindful Photography Book I am writing about patience. It’s a win win. You get a great article and a mindful photography practice, I don’t have to think (too much!) Here it is.

A Mindful Attitude – Patience

I believe that patience is the underpinning attitude of mindfulness. It is a quality that is both known and elusive. It is the place that allows us to rest in the moment and await the world’s unfolding. The challenge is that your mind, your life and your whole culturally shaped way of being impels you to do stuff.

This western world carries an implication that we are “ok” if you are completing a task or achieving an outcome. You may define yourself as, “good, ok or not bad” if you feel that you are purposeful, if you are doing something. Having a purpose for the day is a positive and life affirming experience. However, if you are to truly experience your activities in a non judgemental way, patience is the quality that allows you to fully integrate the experience.

Patience in the moment allows you to be with whatever the experience is. It allows you to rest with your sensory experience. To notice the thoughts that swirl and pass through your mind. To recognise the feelings that arise. With patience you rest with the present experience and don’t rush off to experience “better” ones.

This can be particularly true of “unpleasant” experiences. In these circumstances your coping mechanisms may include delusion (pretending or convincing yourself that the experience is not unpleasant), avoidance or distraction (not thinking about the experience, doing something else) or destruction (when you take action to remove or obliterate the experience!)

Patience is the attitude that allows you to rest in each and any moment. It allows each moment to unfold in its own time. In that space you can then know yourself by becoming attuned to the body’s responses and sensory information, by noticing the thoughts and feelings that arise in your consciousness. Patience supports the practice of being, or living holistically.

My development of a chronic health condition has provided ample opportunity to practice patience: patience with the immediate struggle to breathe; patience with the slow healing process; patience with my feelings of frustration, fear and anger; and patience with others reaction to me, their judgements, their behaviours and their inability to appreciate what is going on for me. Sometimes I imagined that I could be with all of it, that I was patient. Perhaps this was not patience, but numbness. Sometimes it was pure stoicism, a learnt behaviour from all those miles and miles pounding the roads enduring the discomfort, the pain and the desire to sit down.

My experience tells me that true patience, rather than numbness or stoicism, comes hand in hand with understanding and acceptance of the situation. And that is the lifetime practice and at the heart of my book.

 As applied to photography

Patience supports your development as a mindful photographer. You need to be patient in the moment of creating a photograph. When you bring the camera up to your eye to compose and press the shutter there is a drive fuelling your action. This drive is the same one that impels you to keep doing stuff in your life. It is the drive to capture the moment in a “good” photograph. You believe that your purpose in that moment is to create a photograph. It is more than this.

All of the processes, thoughts and actions that are necessary to create a photograph – from learning all the technical and compositional theories, to truly seeing all that is front of us (the shapes, colours, patterns etc) – are just part of the process. You need to be patient over many days, weeks and years as you acquire and deepen this knowledge. You then need, in the moment of pressing the shutter, to let all of the associated photographic ideas and thoughts to wash over you, to release the drive and just be with the experience.

Only then, in a quiet and connected place, will you instinctively reflect your inner experience in your outward view (the photograph). Perhaps this is better explained by a master of the art.

“I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between the two worlds – the one inside of 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 that we must communicate.” Cartier-Bresson ‘The Decisive Moment’ 1952

Patience forms the loving hands that embrace your desire to create personal resonant photographs of your world.

A Mindful Photography Practice 8 – Just Sit

The purpose of this practice is to develop patience. Choose a location and scenario to photograph where the creation of a personally resonant photograph will require patience. Here are a few examples

  • A sunrise – getting up super early, getting to the location in plenty of time, sitting and waiting. Create photographs throughout the sunrise.
  • A technical aspect of photography that you find challenging. This could include panning, intentional camera movement, night time light trails, freezing fast moving objects eg sport, nature.
  • A portrait photograph of someone you know but find challenging (patience with your feelings of discomfort)
  • A sunny day moving shadow. Choose a location where a shadow of an object is cast. Set up in a fixed spot, use a tripod if you have one. Sit next to the camera and create one photograph every 20 minutes. Only sit, wait and observe for each 20 minutes; no reading, no smartphone, do nothing. Just be present.

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Guest Post by Alan Wood

The following post has been generously shared by Alan Wood and details his own exploration of mindfulness and photography

A Personal Journey to Mindful Photography by Alan Wood

I have been a photographer since, as a child of 7 or 8, my grandfather gave me his box Brownie camera. Over time other cameras followed but I eventually found that work and then family commitments were such that there was very little time, or perhaps energy, for actual photography. But I did read books and magazines about photography, its equipment and techniques. I would daydream of being like my photographic heroes, going where they went and capturing the sort of images they did. However, when I did get out with my camera the reality seldom lived up to the dream and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I was frequently disappointed with the results. I became increasingly frustrated until, after many years, there came a moment of crisis.

I was on holiday in Devon, out for an early morning walk with my camera before the rest of the family woke up. I stood on a footbridge across a stream in a beautiful wooded valley trying to find a composition for a photograph. But my mind was in turmoil, thinking, thinking, thinking about the camera, its settings, the lens to use and the right technique, and beyond that to where I was going to go next, what I was going to have for breakfast when I got back and on and on. I felt as if I were not really there, completely separated from my surroundings. Even the camera in my hand seemed to have become a physical and mental barrier to my being able to see the reality of what was in front of me. The frustration became unbearable. I stopped and there and then vowed that I would not take another photograph until I learnt to see and to be truly present with what I was seeing. I kept that vow. I put my camera away and also stopped reading the photographic books and magazines through which I seemed to have been living vicariously.

There was of course more going on in my life. The relentless pressure of my work, amongst other things, brought me close to breaking point. Then, one day during a lunchtime browse through a bookshop, I came across a book, called “Teach Yourself to Meditate” by Eric Harrison. On the back cover I read “Many people are turning to meditation as an effective way to relax and bring inner peace.” I thought that I could certainly do with some of that and bought the book. I soon established a practice of daily meditation. I would get up early and in the quiet of the morning sit for 20 minutes, following the breath as my focus. I quickly found it invaluable as a means of calming the mind and becoming grounded and ready for the day ahead (although I have since discovered that meditation goes much further than that).

After a couple of years I decided I would like to go on a meditation retreat. That brought me to Gaia House, a retreat centre in the Devon countryside for my first silent retreat. I was nervous to start with, fearful in case my self taught meditation practice was wide of the mark. Fortunately it wasn’t and I benefited from the deepening of my practice. There then followed further retreats including a one month silent retreat attended during a sabbatical from work, a prelude to a run down and eventual early retirement.

Influenced by my meditation practice, I was finding that I could now go for a walk and, being mindful, see and experience more directly what was around me, aware too of my emotional response, to be present in my surroundings.

I wondered then if I was ready to pick up my camera again. I did and tentatively started to re-engage with my photography. The camera no longer appeared to be a barrier to seeing and I found that I was able, not only to use the camera to reflect something of my response to what I was seeing, but also to be more focussed on that seeing and to be more deeply engaged with it. I am grateful for that and am enjoying my photography more than I have ever done. I don’t see the final image so much as a goal in itself (although I do get a sense of satisfaction if I produce an image with which I am happy and if that image is appreciated by others) but rather as part of a process from the mindful seeing, responding and then using the camera and even the post processing on the computer to reflect that response.

I am now at a point where, as well as it being a reflection of my response to what I see, I would like to use my photography to explore how my inner world affects that seeing. And who knows where that will take me.

Below are three simple images from one of my retreats which I feel reflect something of my emotional response to the seeing.

Photo Walkshops!

“What’s it all about?” you may ask. A Photo Walkshop is like a photo workshop but most of the tuition happens on the move. I have designed a series of three Photo Walkshops for Spring, all in Swansea. In fact they will all be based from my house in cosmopolitan Brynmill. I’ve chosen to offer these from my home as there are fantastic walks that can be used to deliver the skills and adventures in photography that I want you to explore, from my front door.

The next Photo Walkshop in the Spring Series ‘Adventures in Photography’ is on Saturday 22nd April. Each Photo Walkshop will begin with some theory and a challenge. Each will then provide a guided walkshop, with a route map and photography guidance as you walk. Each will then return to base, provide homemade cake (yum!) and hot drinks, before we review your favourite photos.

Places are limited to 10, to provide opportunity for 1 to 1 tuition as you follow your photo challenge.

This  walkshop is titled ‘Inner vs Outer World’ for a very obvious reason! Your photo challenge will encourage photographic exploration that reflects your connection to the scene in front of you. Prepare to have your creativity fired.

Take a look at the rest of the Walkshops and if you like the sound of them you can book NOW!

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Balance

Balance is not only a key part of photographic composition it is a key element in life. How do you keep your life in balance whilst the world appears to be going a little crazy? How do you stop it all from becoming a little bit overwhelming? 2016 brought us Brexit and Trump. 2017 is sure to follow up on these massive changes. How do you keep your life in balance surrounded by media madness and major changes in your own life?

Change

Our lives flow against a backdrop of continual change. There is nothing that remains constant or static. A few of these changes are instant; with others the speed of change is so slow that we can convince ourselves that all is as it has always been.

We do seem to be living through a period of tremendous change. Many people feel personally affected by these worldwide changes. You may also have major change playing out through your life right now. Is a balanced approach the way forward? If so how can we develop one?

When change happens we often feel uncomfortable, uneasy or plain scared. This is particularly relevant if the change is unexpected, but can be just as difficult or challenging if it is planned – like a house move or ending a relationship.

When change manifests in your life you react. This reaction is driven by your patterns of thinking. It is influenced by the messages you have received throughout your life from others and the messages you tell yourself. This can often include negative statements like you’re not good enough, or simple derogatory name calling! Either way it is a product of habitual thinking. You are used to thinking a certain way.

The good news is that this can be changed. Every pattern of thinking, every habit can be changed. They are just neurons in your mind that have got used to following a certain path. All you have to do is re-wire them. I say ‘all you have to do’, of course it is not easy. Changing any habit is not easy, but it is possible and there is a way forward that encourages a skillful response rather than your habitual response.

“Neurons that fire together, wire together” Donald Hebb 1949, Canadian neuropsychologist

Responding Skillfully 

What you need is a little space. Space to connect with what is going on for you. Space to notice how you feel. This is at the heart of mindfulness. Creating space, just being present and paying attention to how you are. Mindfulness, and the training you can do to develop a mindful life (that’s meditation!), provide the space; the moment for you to breathe and connect to how you are.

In the moment that the change first manifests STOP. Sit and notice your bottom on its seat and your feet on the floor. Breathe and notice what you are thinking, what you are feeling. Don’t follow the thought, worrying at it – like a dog with a bone! Come back to your breath. Notice how this change is making you feel physically. Check out your belly, your chest and your throat; these are the key areas where change that is stressful will play out. It may be that you have butterflies in your belly, or that your heart is pounding in your chest. Sit with the feeling, breathing into where you feel it.

As you do this thoughts and feelings will still play out. Return to the physical. Don’t follow your thoughts. Pay attention to your physical feelings. As they begin to fade stay with them. When the physical feelings dissipate return to your breathing. Slowly and almost imperceptibly the thoughts and feelings will soften and eventual dissolve. I know, they will return. This is a habitual thinking/feeling pattern. You will need to follow this practice again, and again, and again.

But that is why it is called a practice. You keep at it. Not expecting instant results. Not expecting to even get it right. There is no right. There is only the practice.

Why not watch and listen to an expert talk about this? Tara Brach’s talk on ‘Learning to respond not react’ is a great start.

Balance in life

This is just a beginning; a practice that can support you at the edges of change. What about the rest of the time as you pass through each day? Is a balanced life the way forward?

This is a question that is very much on my mind. It seems to me that finding a way to navigate this sea of change, so that I can continue to grow and develop to become the best possible version of myself, is both an intention and a commitment to a balanced life. It is one that requires that I pay attention to the challenges, my reactions and my responses. Following the practice I discussed above is strategy that can support me, but it is in noticing what happens when the old patterns reassert themselves that the growth and development is to be found.

I have recently had a couple of health wobbles. In each case (and every one before) the pattern of behaviour is the same. I am well. I gain in confidence in my stamina, abilities and ideas. I take on more. I get busy. Somewhere around this point there may be signals from my body that I am overstretched. Sometimes I notice and either back off or, more likely, I plough on. Most often I don’t even notice how I am. I am completely immersed in my activities.

I am also immersed in my pattern of behaviour. I am striving to do each activity, each task, to the best of my ability and there are many to be done. I strive to be effective, efficient and provide a high quality outcome. This is a positive drive, I get lots achieved, but its boundaries are transparent. My body eventually says ‘enough’, my breathing stumbles and I have to slow down or stop. And of course in the slowing down or stopping I have to let things go.

The trick is to notice the signals. Or to notice the pattern of behaviour. To check in to how I am feeling physically and mentally. This way of being is supported by practicing mediation and mindfulness. But both these and the change practice I described above are just that, practices. I know I will fall down. And when I fall down there is only one thing to do. Oh ok two things!

One: Get back up
Two: Pay attention to what happened and why

It is in the response to my failures that the greatest lessons are to be found. Living a balanced life is finding a way through opposite extremes of behaviour. Of knowing who I am and how I am. It requires that I pay attention to myself. For it is in the paying attention that the path between the mountains is revealed.

Developing the ability to pay attention is what mindfulness is all about. My tools are meditation, yoga, mindful photography practices and mindful attention to the one thing that I am doing. How do you navigate through your stormy sea of change?