The Illusion of the Self

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 you is intriguing. 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 your 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

Photography creates an opportunity to visually represent the ideas of what and who you are. You can use the visual elements of design to convey emotion, you can make imaginative use of symbol or metaphor and you can create self portraits that convey something of your self, your world and your views on who you are.

My intrigue and interest in this topic has been kindled whilst cultivating a mindful approach to photography and life experiences. In developing my  Mindful Photography Online Course I have touched upon how mindfulness provides a doorway to self enquiry and an investigation into how the concept of self may just be an illusion. I have also explored those ideas I listed in the last paragraph to investigate how you can represent your world in photos. All of this has helped me personally and by sharing my experiences through the course it can help you.

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

When my breathing rebalanced I felt reconnected. But the experience caused me to reflect. What was it that I lost? Was there something of an opportunity arising from the experience? I don’t have the answer for you, but I continue to explore this land through my photography and writing. Do you?

 

Research

I have continued reading around 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 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.

Look Again

I met up with Mindful Photographer Ruth Davey today. Ruth runs Look Again, a photography business that ‘uses stillness, mindfulness and a connection with nature to help clients look again at themselves and the world around them.’

Look Again combines therapeutic and mindful photography in walks, workshops, projects and training. Most intriguingly it is Ruth’s lived experience of using photography in her recovery from mental health difficulties that lends such authenticity to her work. This I could relate to and it reminded me that by discussing our own difficulties and relating how mindful photography can support our self understanding and acceptance we provide a safe space for others to do the same.

I have invited Ruth to contribute a blog post about her work, so you’ll be able to read more soon. In the meantime if you are interested in learning about her work visit her website.

 

Weekly Mindful Photography Challenge – Summer

Every week throughout the summer I will be posting a photography challenge that is designed to bring you into the present moment. They can be completed with any camera, even your phone. Your favourite photos are posted to our Facebook group, which is a public group so that you can invite your friends to join in.

This week’s mindful photography challenge is ‘Summer’ and is an invitation to create one photograph that represents an element of your summer. Maybe go for a walk with your your favourite camera/lens on a lovely sunny day, we’ve had a few lately (even in damp Wales!). Imagine that you can only create one photo, walk and observe. Wait until a photo opportunity stops you. Look at the scene. Consider how you will frame it (what is in the frame and what is out?) Consider how your camera will see the scene. Then create one photo.

Share your favourite photo here. This is mine. I like to include myself quite often, the photographer in his world. Here I have created a reminder of my day, relaxing in the sun after a walk along the beach. With an element of summer play in the background. I look forward to seeing yours.

 

12 inches

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – Ansel Adams

This is my most often repeated quote. I ask the question, “What is the most important part of the camera?”, a deliberately misleading question, I know. It illicits answers that reveal a technical focus and occasionally compostional awareness. Once in a while someone will answer. “You are.” And I smile.

The camera is a tool. Bewitched by advertising and media reports about the latest camera developments we become immersed in the idea that a particular camera or lens will lead to ‘better’ photographs. The Ansel Adams quote is a reminder that it is you who is the creative agent, you who make the creative decisions. Sure high quality equipment can make a difference, but knowing how to use the equipment effectively (smartphone or DSLR) and learning how to truly see are at the heart of personal resonant photography.

Mindful Photography is all about photography that is personal, resonant and true to you. It places clear seeing, learning how to see like a camera and using seeing as an anchor, at the heart of the creative art. It uses mindfulness approaches to learn and hold gently all the technical and compositional stuff, whilst you are learning. It encourages an exploration of using photography to represent your emotional experiences, and it provides a creative vehicle for personal growth and self exploration of how you are living now.

Ansel Adams was right. You are the most important component of a camera.

The Photos

I thought I would illustrate this quote with photos from my most recent practice, with my faithful assistant. All of these photos were created with a small high end compact camera. It has full manual features so I can make creative choices. But these photos illustrate clearly that the heart of an engaging photo is an emotional connection and clear seeing. When there is an alignment between your eye, your heart and your mind the photo created resonates for you. What the viewer thinks or experiences is always out of your control. Create photographs that mean something to you.

These photos, in chronological order follow our walk through, park, lane and beach. And the final one tells the tale of its impact. Monty’s version of savasana (corpse pose)!

 

10 more things you don’t know about me (probably)

I was browsing through my old posts today and came across 25 things you don’t know about me (probably), which I wrote whilst on holiday in Canada 16 months ago. I thought it was time for an update!

  1. I have learnt how to be in (and out) of a new relationship with a woman. Has it been easy? Sometimes. Also fun, interesting and challenging.
  2. I am now working freelance – for the first time in 56 years. Scary and exciting.
  3. I have recently taken my own advice and simplified my camera equipment. I now use a Fuji X-T2 and currently have just two lenses. It feels a positive move.
  4. Continuing a daily gratitude practice with my sister in Canada has helped us to stay involved in each other’s lives.
  5. I have appeared as a film extra in the forthcoming movie Show Dogs (January 2018). I even got to play a photographer’s hands. It was tricky!
  6. Mindfulness is slowly becoming a key feature of all aspects of my life.
  7. The men’s group I started with local friends has proven to be hugely supportive for all members. Despite (or perhaps because of) some particularly challenging issues and differences it continues to be a crucible for personal development and self exploration.
  8. Since I allowed myself to be vulnerable, by writing about my health and other challenges here, my openness has spread into the rest of my life and through osmosis infected others! It is a powerful permission.
  9. I have no idea how the changes in my personal and work life will develop over the next few years, but I have a unshakable confidence that they will be rich in experience, abundant in opportunity and continued personal development.
  10. I love walking barefoot on the beach. Not just in the summer!

My Mindful Photography Practice

I am aware that I write more about mindfulness than photography. I reckon that is OK as my focus is teaching mindfulness through photography, but I thought that you might find it interesting to read about my regular (mindful) photography practice. What I do and how I do it.

A couple of days ago I followed a mindful photography practice to produce the one photo for this week’s Mindful Photography Challenge. What follows here is a walk through of my practice, the camera set up, the intention of the practice and my feelings and reactions to each photo. I have included all 10 photos here so that I can reflect upon the idea that it is the practice that is most essential rather than the outcomes (the photos).

A Mindful Photography Practice – A Part of the Whole

The title for this practice was just a moment’s inspiration, an idea that sprung to mind. Usually I do not use a theme for the practice, previously I have used “Blue”, but it is more usual for me to centre just upon the observation of what is in front of me.

I chose a simple camera set up that I can now use quite instinctively, not needing to move the camera from my eye as I adjust exposure settings. I use Aperture Priority, an ISO appropriate for the light (200 on this day) and start with the camera in a mid range aperture (f8). Bryan Petersen in his books on exposure calls this a ‘who cares’ aperture, one where the depth of field is not a big issue and the object that you focus on will be super sharp. From this point you can choose to change the aperture, without removing the camera from your eye, knowing which way to move the relevant ring/button – because you have practiced! I also chose to use my 35mm lens (a 50mm equivalent on my camera) to encourage a literal creation of photos that were a part of the whole.

I decided to create 10 photos in 30 minutes on a short walk to a local park. I also set myself the intention of not looking at the review screen after each photo and keeping count of the number of photos created in my head. The purpose of this is to centre my mind upon the visual, to use seeing as my anchor, the thing I return to whenever I notice my busy mind.

This is the first photo I created, only a minute from my front door. As I reached the corner of the first road I have to cross, I looked up. I was drawn by the blue, blue sky and saw the tenacious plant clinging to the building, framed against the sky. I chose to change the aperture to a wider one to focus the eye upon the subject and used the edges of the building to create lines that lead to the plant. All of this decision making happened in an instant. Only now reflecting on it am I aware of that process. The more you practice the more instinctive that process becomes. The photo opportunity also resonated as a symbolic representation of nature and man made parts of the whole.

A few yards further on the red of this dismembered tennis ball caught my eye. Red is the strongest colour to include in a photo and in retrospect my decision to keep the wide open aperture was not necessary. Perhaps the wiser option would have been the mid range aperture, the subject is bright enough and the background, which has its own interest a little lost.

At the entrance to the park I saw this opportunity. I do like to include myself in photos; part of the whole! But my eyes deceived me. They of course have a higher dynamic range than the camera, which struggled to make out the faded word at the bottom of the frame. I didn’t know until I reviewed the photo at the end of the practice that the exposure compensation button had also been left at +1.75, from recording videos the previous day! Wisdom learnt: check all settings before starting practice. As I was shooting in raw, as well as jpegs, I was able to rectify the impact.

The simplicity of this opportunity stopped me. I like a diagonal in composition and the way the leaf shadows broke up the line suggest that they were part of the puzzle (the whole) that could be remade.

More diagonals, and sun and shadow attracted my attention here. By choosing to use my 35mm lens including just part of different elements, through deliberate placing of the frame, suggests part of the whole. It also creates triangles of shape in structure and light, which are a feature of my work.

I had wandered for a while before I came across this bench. It was the word ‘loved’ that drew my attention. That the bench was dedicated to a lost loved one reminded me that we are all part of the whole, that every element of what we are becomes something else in time. I chose a wide open aperture so that I could draw the viewer’s attention to the word that first caught my eye. Choice of point of view created the diagonal lines that lend dynamism to the composition.

The water in the lake is quite low at present, due to low rainfall (in Wales, who’d have thought it!) These old foundations the ducks are sunning themselves on are usually underwater. Of course because of the high dynamic range, the shadow and bright sunshine, some rescuing of detail has had to take place. Whilst these photographic mistakes were made during the actual practice they do not detract from the value of the practice in centering me in the moment. Fortunately some of the errors can be recovered with a little editing!

I got up real close to this plant. Creating lots of lines and shapes, with a decision to use a wide aperture to draw the viewer’s eye to the leaf that caught my eye.

Leaving the park I turned back and noticed this interplay of gate and its shadow behind. The rusted, unused chain was part of the attraction. The instinctive ‘who cares’ aperture lent itself to the opportunity.

Walking back up the hill to my house I was pretty sure I had one shot left to create. I was initially drawn by the texture and patterns of the wall on the left of this frame, but as I moved closer I saw the potential of the dead leaf. A kind of counterpoint to the first photo created. Man made and nature, also illustrating that everything is impermanent. Ironically this photo opportunity is just 5 feet from the first photo.

Normally I would not share all my photos from one practice. I would probably choose just the one or two I thought strongest. But here I wanted to share the process, warts and all. For it is the practice that is important. Mistakes helps us learn, both photographically and in life. A photography practice is providing opportunity to practice seeing like a camera, this is at the heart of photographic creation. Whilst there are also opportunities to practice and learn about our technical and compositional choices, it is the seeing that is the foundation of mindful photography.

 

 

 

I am a bridge

I am a bridge from one part of my life to another. Sometimes I can see the structures (events, happenings) that connect one part to another. Often I can see the beginning, but the end and the security of land remains out of view  – like crossing the Firth of Forth in a sea mist – I keep going, certain that my feet are placed on a solid structure, one in front of the other. Eventually I will reach the other side and arrive where I arrive.

Sometimes when crossing other bridges I find myself stepping off into a new land and my recollection of the journey across the bridge is unclear. But here I am. Present in new circumstances.

I now know that I can remain aware and present on my journey across the bridge. It is but a trick, a paying attention; to each footstep, to the view ahead and the view I am passing. It only requires a simple paying attention, but I get distracted by thoughts of how it will be when I arrive. If I arrive.

I am crossing a bridge now. From full time employment to freelance self employment. I am not certain where I will arrive, but I am travelling. I occasionally think, “What is the worst that could happen?” It’s probably that I can’t secure enough income to live and then can’t get back into employment. I know the fear is out there,  but I really believe that the land I arrive in will not be like that.

I will arrive on the other side of the bridge and there will be opportunities that I cannot now conceive of. My intention is strong. My belief that my journey across the bridge will arrive in a place that supports, sustains and enriches my life is complete. I just need to keep placing one foot in front of the other and pay attention to where I am and where I am headed.

Weekly Mindful Photography Challenge – Part of the whole

Every week throughout the summer I will be posting a photography challenge that is designed to bring you into the present moment. They can be completed with any camera, even your phone. Your favourite photos are posted to our Facebook group, which is a public group so that you can invite your friends to join in.

This week’s mindful photography challenge is ‘Part of the whole’ and it includes a 30 minute Mindful Photography Practice. This is in response to the idea that everything is part of the whole; you, me, a branch, a cloud, a wall. It is all made up of the same stuff and it is all connected. Your photographs may be tightly framed, implying that there is more outside of the frame.

Using your favourite camera/lens set out for a location close to home. As you walk do not look for a photographic opportunity, but wait for visual stimulation that suggests the theme, ‘Part of the Whole’. You are to spend just 30 minutes on this practice and create 10 photos. No more, no less. Try not to review the photos as you practice. Keep count in your head. Stay present with the visual experience.

Share your favourite photo here. This is mine. I like the combination of man made structure and nature’s conquest. I also like the strong graphical composition, use of colour, shape and simplicity. I look forward to seeing yours.

My four (not so) noble truths

Sometimes life circumstances and events are so challenging, so not what you want that the desire to just sail away to another place, another world, another version of your life is overwhelming. The literal reality is that this is probably not possible. Your commitments, loves and responsibilities may mean that running away to sea (or the equivalent) is just not possible. Then you face your greatest challenge. Staying with the pain, the resistance, the sheer bloody anger and frustration that cries out deep in your soul, “Why me?”

In the midst of all of the messiness, all of the roiling, raging emotion is it helpful to reflect upon the Buddha’s understanding that all of life is suffering? I don’t think so. All you can feel is that gnawing question, “Why?” Why does it have to be this way? Why does this happen to happen now? Why does this have to happen? Why bloody me?

And yet that 2500 year old wisdom contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path is as relevant today and to your present suffering as it was 2500 years ago. For we are human beings and we all live through exactly the same struggles and challenges. Sure they manifest in ways relevant to the era, but the human emotional experience and the way through it remains the same.

I am not a Buddhist, but I do believe that the Four Noble Truths describe how life is and the Eightfold Path offers a way to live that allows you to lean into and accept the suffering, leading to it dissolving. I know it is true because I live it. I live through suffering, just like you and I find the wisdom supportive and a practical framework for life.

What follows is a personal and current interpretation of the Four Noble Truths, you can find many more detailed and wiser explanations online, but as the Buddha may have said (there is some dispute) ‘Do not believe what I say, live the experience and learn for yourself’ (I am paraphrasing).

My Four (not so) noble Truths

1) My life is decorated with difficulty

I do not want to live with a chronic health condition. I have spent many years either ignoring it or trying to fix myself. I know that it may get worse as I age. I know that there are limited medical interventions that help. I now know (through bitter experience) that there are ways I can choose to live that support a stable health condition.

However I do not like it. I have to make choices that I do not like. I have to let opportunities go. I have to turn events down. I have to change my day to day activities. I have to make these choices or there are consequences and the consequences are even more suffering. It’s like choosing which type of pain to suffer with.

2) My suffering is caused by me not wanting life to be how it is

Accepting it is not easy. Accepting anything that I do not like sets me up against myself. My ego believes I am immortal, younger than I am, not ageing. My ego tells me I can play football, go out for a drink, spend time doing busy activities. I believe that I am the same man I always was. I am deluded.

I know that the choices I make that are not helpful now come from old patterns. Old ways of living and old patterns of thinking. My common ways of thinking, my habits, are well travelled motorways in my mind. These roads are wide, fast and easy to use. Habitual thinking is reactionary, almost thoughtless and yet I describe myself as a certain type of person, as though those thoughts and ways of being are all that I am. I imagine that I am a thinking rational person and my reaction, my resistance is normal. And so I suffer.

3) I see a way that I can help myself

I know that I can free myself from my suffering by liberating myself from my attachment to how life was or even how it is right now. I know this rationally. I know this is true. I also know that freeing myself from my attachment to how life was/is is the work of a lifetime. How do I know this? Because it is bloody difficult. Because I regularly fall over. I get caught up in my old ways of being, my old choices and then have an acute health situation.

Knowing something and living something are not the same. However, I now know that there is a path that I can follow that supports the possibility of freedom from my suffering. I am on the path, this blog is part of it, but compared to the motorway I have been travelling on it often feels like an unsurfaced track through undulating terrain. Sometimes it is more challenging and feels like an unforgiving jungle with no path and I have just a machete in my hand.

4) My path through the jungle

My path involves a great deal of paying attention. I know that this is deeply ironic, for it was not paying attention that lead me to the place I find myself. The paying attention includes tuning into to how I am each day. Making wise choices as to how to spend that day. Considering the things I have to do, those I can change or move and those that are optional.

I believe that my path involves following work that echoes my life choices. I have for some time felt that my employed work did not do this. Taking the chance to work freelance may seem a big risk, after all being self employed is more stressful than full time employment, is it not? I am not sure. I am acting on a deeper wisdom. A calling to give this way of working and living a try. A belief that it will sustain me emotionally and financially. A belief that I must engage in work that I live as well. Mindful Photography is part of my path, part of my life practice.

I make choices to engage in activities and with people that support me along the path. Maybe I also help them. After all we are all dealing with the same causes of suffering. I have a daily meditation practice and I use a variety of techniques and practices to come back in to the present most days. Oh yes, it is a practice and I do get lost in the jungle sometimes. I do lose my way and fall back on to the motorway. But I notice and make the decision to move back to the path less travelled.

So if you are suffering, if life is particularly challenging for you right now, know that there is possibility in a 2500 year old wisdom. You do not have to become a Buddhist, but maybe read a western interpretation of the Buddha’s experiences and thoughts and then try something out yourself. But do not expect to get it right. For it is in the getting it wrong and then trying again that the path through the jungle lies.

Be compassionate for your journey. You are a beautiful person.

 

 

3 tips to remember to be mindful

“…it is often more difficult to remember to be mindful than to be mindful itself.”
― Donald Rothberg, The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World

I find this quote helpful and true. The call to be mindful is quite loud. The benefits are known and shared in mainstream media. But knowing and acting are not the same. So how can you remember to be mindful?

3 tips to remember to be mindful

  1. Have a daily meditation practice. Meditation is the practice that trains your busy mind. Meditation develops the neural pathways that you use when you are mindful. Meditation trains the mind to be aware of your thoughts and your feelings. When you sit and follow your breath interruptions are constant. Your mind shoots about through memories and plans, reviewing the past and projecting into the future. Each time you notice the thoughts you return to the breath. I have had conversations with people who believe that because their mind is so busy that they are ‘no good’ at meditating. I point out that they are brilliant, because they noticed. It is the meditation practice that prepares you to be mindful in other arenas of life.
  2. Pay attention to your sensations. The first foundation of mindfulness (from the original Mindfulness Sutra) is to be aware of your sensations. Your five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste are an opportunity to return to the moment. Each one can be used as an anchor to root you in the moment. In Mindful Photography you use what you can see as your anchor. In mindful walking you use the touch of your feet on the floor. Each sensation can be used in place of the breath. Each can bring you into the present.
  3. Use a mindful bell app. If you are a smartphone user there are several mindful bell apps. These can be set to ring a bell, either in a regular pattern or in a random manner. When the bell sounds you practice and become aware of your breathing or your sensations.

Be gentle with yourself. Be compassionate for the journey towards mindfulness. It is a practice, a lifetime commitment. In any practice you have permission to make mistakes, to learn and attend to the practice. You fall over. You get back up. The falling over and the getting up are both part of the practice.

Patience is your watchword. Patience for the experience. Patience for the judgements that pop into your mind. Patience is a core part of the practice.

What is McMindfulness?

I first heard the word ‘McMindfulness’ a few months back. It is being used to describe the increasingly popular application of the word mindful to other activities. For example: mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful anything. There is an element of sarcasm attached to the ‘Mc’, implying that everything is becoming mindful these days. Of course both this opinion and the McMindfulness term are bandied about in the media just to increase sales or website traffic.

What about Mindful Photography?

Whilst I develop my online course in mindful photography I reflect upon my research and sources. Initially, I hope that what I create will be an extension of my own meditation practice. I am aware of mindfulness from several Buddhist books aimed at the western reader and from them I understand that mindfulness, at its root, is about being present in the moment. One could be mindful about whatever one was doing: reading these words, washing the dishes or taking a photograph.

I am also aware of the secular re-interpretation of mindfulness as a practice for stress reduction (MBSR) and for depression (MBCT) and its adoption by organisations and businesses as a support for stressed workers.

I think it is fair to say that I my Online Course in Mindful Photography is a personal reflection of how mindfulness can be developed through photography. Initially I was influenced by the practice of Contemplative Photography, but I felt that it did not go far enough to support the photographer who wanted to improve their photographic skills as well as create mindfully.

I am also aware that mindfulness is most effective when supported by a whole life approach, such as the eightfold path. To say that mindfulness is a panacea for all the stress caused through work is rather too simplistic (politicians and media commentators). One does not have to become a Buddhist, but an exploration of what the eightfold path might look like reflected in one’s own life can only help to support a balanced and harmonious life.

Course Developments

This website centres upon the development of mindfulness through photography. This manifests through a mindful blog and my Online Course that will launch in September 2017. The course will include innovative resources and mindful photography practices that support a mindful approach to photography and life. It will both apply mindfulness to learning photography and help you to develop mindfulness through your photography! It will also support you to start an investigation into how photography can support personal enquiry into your life.

McMindfulness may be a media backlash to the exponential growth in interest and application of mindfulness. But let us not forget that this wisdom is 2500 years old and will still be around when we are long gone. Mindfulness is a support for your busy life. Its suggestion that you remain aware of your sensations, your thoughts, your feelings and the one thing that you are doing now is a reminder of how you can be completely present in your own life. And that can only support you to live an engaged, holistic and authentic life.

Weekly Mindful Photography Challenge – Transition

This week I thought I would combine our mindful photography challenge with the The Daily Post’s own photo challenge which is Deltadelta as in a place and time that represents a transition or sliver of greater change. A river delta, where the river meets the ocean is a place of tremendous transition, and photography of course captures only a moment of that continuous change.

It is true to say that every photo represents a sliver in time. A photograph shows something as it was in that moment. That moment is then gone and the subject of the photo is no longer the same. How can that be true? What if you photograph a mountain? Everything is changing. Everything is impermanent, even a mountain. Everest was once the base of a valley. It is just that some of the changes are so slow as to trick you that they will always be that way.

So this week I would like you to create a photo that represents transition. One that represent’s a photograph’s ability to capture a moment of that transition, a moment that is then stilled for eternity. My photo is of a fragment of Swansea Bay. The photo was taken in the low early evening golden light, itself a period of transition and captures a moment and section of the beach at low tide. By using a wide aperture I have also suggested the tide’s return and the truth that this view will soon be gone, never to return in the same way again.

For your practice consider choosing a location where you feel each time you visit there is the potential for a different experience. When you arrive at the location sit for a while and really arrive. Then start to walk, not looking for a photo, only observing the scene. When an opportunity presents itself stop. Consider what it was that stopped you. Really look at it. Notice how far away the subject is. Breathe and tune in to how the scene makes you feel. When that feeling echoes transition in your heart and mind, press the shutter.

What has abstract photography ever done for me?

There was a time when I just did not get abstract photography. What was its point? Pretty patterns, shifty shapes and creative colour all looked OK, but what did it mean? I was more of the literal photographic field, telling tales of human life. Real people, real lives.

I am not sure when it changed, so I assume it must have been gradual, but I have now swung the other way. I get it. Well, I get what it does for me. Does it work for you? Let me share what it does for me. You might change your mind.

Let’s start with a definition: abstract (adjective) “relating to or denoting art that does not attempt to represent external reality, but rather seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, colours, and textures”.

OK, so it is photography that does not attempt to represent external reality. Instead through choice of shapes, colours, patterns and textures it “seeks to achieve its effect.” And in the case of abstract photography this creates the opportunity for an emotional response to a photograph.

Abstract Photography is a little like poetry. With poetry the words, rhythms and spaces create images in our mind that connect with our heart. With Abstract Photography it is the shapes, colours, patterns and textures we choose to frame that create the emotional connection. We are less concerned with what the object is (because it is not easily defined) and more receptive to how we feel about the photograph.

Fooling the Mind

 

Here’s a little test. When you first saw this photo what happened? In fractions of a second your mind took in the colour, shapes, shadow and lines and tried to find a match to a previously known object. You were searching for a label to name the object. We do like to make sense of this world and of course it is this ability that keeps us alive!

What if you can’t identify what it is? What happens then? Your mind has absorbed other facts. The colours, shapes, patterns, lines etc all suggest ideas and feelings. These ideas and feelings are generated from our personal experience and from our culture. For example: white symbolises purity, cleanliness; the downward curve could be the edge of a sad mouth. We are reading the photo and connecting with how we feel about it.

 

OK, who didn’t see waves here? There we go, our mind trying to conceptualise – to make sense of the visual cues. There is not water of any kind in this photo. It’s all tarmac, concrete and metal. Most importantly though, how does it make you feel?

So are you intrigued? Do you want to learn more? On my Online Mindful Photography Course (available in September 2017) I look in depth at creative abstract photographers and delve into the opportunities abstract photography presents to create photographs that make an emotional connection. You will learn different approaches to representing your emotions in a photograph and how to create photographs when you are experiencing strong emotions. This then provides support for processing some of life’s difficult experiences. Yes, a mindful approach to photography can help and support you!

All you have to do is keep an eye on the website, maybe subscribe to the blog (in the footer below) or download the FREE eBook, which will not only provide some thoughts on Mindful Photography, it will also get you subscribed to my Monthly Newsletter.

P.S. The photos were of a kettle and a car parked by the pavement

The Unruly Mind

With mindfulness, as we practice – be it meditation, mindful photography or simply being present with the one thing that we are doing – our present awareness develops. As our present awareness deepens, our understanding and appreciation of the moment has room to expand. In this moment thoughts may arise and we notice how busy our mind is. We practice by returning to our anchor. In meditation this is often the breath. In mindful photography it is the seeing.

It is helpful to remind ourselves why we do this. Let us take a moment to reflect upon the roots of mindfulness. This paragraph from Lama Surya Das (an American born Tibetan Buddhist Lama) from his book ‘Awakening the Buddha within reminds us what mindfulness is.

“In the original Mindfulness Sutra, the Buddha described what he called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These teachings remind us to be aware of our bodies; aware of our feelings and emotions; aware of our thoughts; and aware of events as they occur, moment by moment.”

The Unruly Mind

Mindful practices – breathing meditation, mindful movement (yoga, qigong, walking), body scan and mindful photography all allow us to be more present in our lives and to connect with our bodies, feelings, thoughts and events. The most challenging discovery is that it is our minds that are unruly. Running about indiscriminately through our past events, memories and future plans. Concocting imaginary conversations and worrying about things that may never happen.

I like this quote that lightens up the challenge ahead!

“Our minds can be wonderful, but at the same time they can be our very worst enemy. They give us so much trouble. Sometimes I wish the mind were a set of dentures which we could leave on our bedside table overnight.” Sogyal Rinpoche

May your practice calm the unruly child that is your mind.

The Photo

As a practicing mindful photographer I know that bringing this awareness to photography allows the possibility that personal intuitive art that resonates with our heart and mind can be created. The photo above was created whilst practicing mindful photography and reminds me of the unruly mind; the confusion of imagery, the depth of vision and the possibility of life.

Mindful Photography Courses

I have recently updated my Mindful Photography Course page to make it a little clearer.

There are two course offers, how exciting! Each is 8 weeks in length and can be delivered to people aged 7 to 70 and for any group. Pupils, students, participants, staff and service users will all benefit.

‘Applying Mindfulness to Photography’ covers an introduction to Mindfulness and Mindful Photography and three key topics.

Clear Seeing – how you can improve your seeing and use seeing as your mindful anchor.

Photo Thinking – how you can hold all those photographic thoughts and remain present with the visual

Mindful Attitudes – how 9 core attitudes can be developed through photography

The course includes Mindful Photography Practices to support the development of your skills and understanding

The second course is ‘Developing Mindfulness through Photography’ This is also 8 weeks and builds upon the skills and practices in the first course and introduces two key topics.

Present Feeling – how you can develop your ability to connect to your emotions and communicate this through your photography

Mindful Living – how you can explore your notion of self through photography, touching upon your living through loss and change and the fear generated through these experiences. You will learn Mindful Photography Practices that support your journey through this challenging terrain.

Take a look and if you would like to know more Contact me

 

Shattered

Sometimes events arrive in our world and all that we know is shattered. Even if we know that nothing is forever we sometimes imagine that it is. Then in a flash it is gone.

Loss, often in the form of death, is one such shattering experience that we all live through at some time. I was reminded of this by my friend Phil who recited (from memory) a short poem by Leon Wieseltier from his book Kaddish. I have not read the book, but I believe it is an autobiography that was written after his father’s death, about his loss and how his faith and exploration supported his acceptance of the shattering event.

Phil has kindly recorded himself reciting the poem. It is less than two minutes long. Do listen.

Relieved

Are you relieved to see a bit of sunshine? If you are UK based then you’re probably expressing delight or misery, dependent upon whether you’re enjoying some well earned rest or working in the heat. It is very warm for the UK. And boy do we let everyone know!

I was looking for some inspiration to go with the ‘relieved’ title and came across this favourite photo of mine from a Paignton Seafront visit a couple of years ago. For those of you with an interest in photographers as inspiration I must confess that this photo owes a debt of gratitude to Martin Parr’s Last Resort. That series of photos truly nails the British on holiday in Britain. It’s the little details, with an edge of caustic humour that I loved in his photos and this one kind of echoes that intention.

I love the irony of the guy on the left reading the Sun under an umbrella. And the Britishness just shouts out: the striped deckchairs, the edge of a sandcastle, the beach huts, the mix of dress choices and those fluffy white clouds against a blue sky. They all lend to the seaside postcard feeling.

Do you think they are all relieved to be on their holidays? Let’s hope so!

Weekly Mindful Photography Challenge – Self

Every week throughout the summer I will be posting a photography challenge that is designed to bring you into the present moment. They can be completed with any camera, even your phone. Your favourite photos are posted to our Facebook group, which is a public group so that you can invite your friends to join in.

This week’s mindful photography challenge is ‘Self’. I would like you to create just one NEW photograph that responds to the theme. But I only want you to press the shutter once. Consider your idea for a photo. Visualise it. Frame it. Think about your technical choices for exposure. Consider what is in and out of the frame. Consider your composition. Then release all expectation and press the shutter.

Notice your thoughts when reviewing your photo. Is there any judgement creeping in? Are you tempted to create another one? How would it feel if you just posted the one you have created?

Share your one photo here. This is mine which was created just now! I went to collect my camera from the lounge and caught sight of myself in the mirror. Generally when I create a selfie I do not have the camera clearly in sight. I thought I would create a photo that celebrated my relationship with the camera. Not only is my new camera front and foremost, but one of my favourite photos is in the background.

See what you can say about your ‘self’ in one photo

 

Focus

Friends tell me I have great focus. If there’s a task that I want to do then I will be attentive to the process and the outcome. Job done! You notice I said, “that I want to do”. If I don’t want to do it then I may procrastinate or be focused on methods of avoidance. Focus is a very useful attribute; though I have, through personal experience, learnt how it can slip in to striving beyond my natural abilities. 

As a mindfulness practitioner I am working on this awareness. The trick seems to be to pay attention to my body and mind. My body may provide physical symptoms of how my focus is slipping into unhelpful striving. These are usually easy to spot, but perhaps also easy to ignore. My mind however requires constant training.

Your mind, like mine, is constantly busy. Even when you are focused on a specific task, and imagine that you are pretty attuned to what you are doing, your mind will still play about. Slipping off into an imaginary conversation, wondering about how your work will be recognised, or simply replaying an incident from earlier in the day.

Meditation is the training that enables you to pay attention to your mind. Meditation burns the neural pathways that support our intention to be aware of our thoughts and feelings. This then percolates through our life, enabling a mindful approach. Focus requires mindfulness like trees require sunshine.

Focus in Photography

In the world of photography focus is usually a matter of how sharp your object or image is. However, I am attracted to using a de-focused lens. This enables a playfulness and a sense of possibility. It throws the need for identification of object out of the window and allows colour, shape, pattern and line to assume prominence. These then can suggest a feeling, or they can just be how you were in the moment and let the viewer interpret the vision you have created.

What is then created, can through your choice of visual elements, create a metaphor for a thing or feeling. Alternatively, the blurring of a familiar object may provide a sense of softness or delicacy that would not have been present if the object had been sharp.

If you are intrigued about this and would like to experiment then you need to do two things. Find out how to turn your auto-focus off (this is not always possible with all digital cameras or phones) and secondly get out there and experiment. Inspiration is also at hand. One of my favourite modern photographers who works like this is Isabella Berr. Take a look and take a chance!

The last act of your life

“Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I’m not sure where I first came across this, I tend to jot down quotes I like for future reference in a little notebook. This was in there.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor in the 2nd century who wrote several books, now known as Meditations, over ten years whilst on military campaign.

This particular quote reminds me that each and every moment is here but once. Whilst the encouragement to ‘do every act…..as though it were the very last..’ is somewhat melodramatic reminder, sometimes we need those dramatic thoughts to shake us from drifting through the moment and day. Perhaps he did not mean it so literally, merely as a call to wake up and be present in our day. Which reminds me of what a wise bear once said about waking up and the day ahead.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.”

A A Milne