Silence

“There is a love no one remembers” Jon Fosse

In his book Silence – In the age of noise, Erling Kagge the Norwegian explorer asks poet Jon Fosse what he meant by the line, “There is a love that no one remembers”. Kagge wondered if he meant silence.

“In a way it is the silence that speaks”, Fosse replied. “Perhaps it’s because silence goes together with wonder, but it also has a kind of majesty to it, yes, like an ocean, or like an endless snowy expanse,” he said. “And whoever does not stand and wonder at this majesty fears it. And that is why most likely why many are afraid of silence (and why there is music everywhere, everywhere).”

Do you recognise the fear that Fosse describes? Is silence something that you would avoid because you have a vague knowing of this fear? And I don’t mean just the external silence, but the internal one too. Instead do you keep busy, have the radio on, keep doing tasks, send a text message, rather than just sitting in the quiet for a moment and allowing yourself to settle?

Do you think that the fear that Fosse describes is the fear of getting to know yourself better? If you stop and sit, and do nothing would the silence open up parts of yourself that you have firmly locked away? Perhaps you can’t answer these questions for certain, but maybe you do have an instinctive knowing that the silence could be uncomfortable.

We have learnt to be busy. It is our normal way of being. Lately I have taken to occasionally just sitting somewhere, in silence and doing nothing – or being. I am not meditating formally, I am not doing anything apart from sitting and noticing what happens. I have a recollection that before smartphones I used to do a lot more of this. I’m pretty certain that when I travelled on a train, coach or as a car passenger I often just looked out of the window. (Sometimes I get motion sickness and can’t read). Now I would reach for my phone, plug in my earphones, listen to music, check something or send a message. Technology is marvellous and I love how connected my life is, but I have allowed it to steal my silence.

Stopping

I have started to cultivate the odd moment of sitting in a quiet space. It is usually after a cup of tea in the house when no one else is there. Sometimes if the sun is out it is on a park bench with my dog at my side. It seems that Monty is also quite happy to sit and be present. (If you haven’t read my post about how your dog can teach you mindfulness you might pick up some tips!)

I notice that my mind keeps shooting about; thoughts, and sometimes feelings, rise up unbidden. I don’t need to do anything, it just keeps on leaping about. Sometimes I notice where I have gone and return to what I can see in front of me. Other times I just allow my mind to wander and see what emerges. But what remains constant, is that it does not go quiet. Not for a long time. For that a longer stopping is required.

I call my longer stopping a retreat and you can read some of what I have learnt and experienced about a positive retreat here. It is a longer period of stopping, of silence that allows you the space to reflect and to consider how you are living.

Reflection and connection

The longer stopping allows for the possibility of reflecting upon how you are, of connecting with honesty and openness. This maybe difficult to achieve and to experience. It is undeniably true that my ability to do this has been deepened by my regular meditation practice and supported by my intention to be mindful in all areas of my life. However, after a dozen years or so I recognise that I am still a beginner at this and that my experiences can vary, but there do seem to be two approaches that help for me.

My (in)experience seems to indicate that these two broad approaches overlap and interweave through the stopping and silence. Firstly, there is the extended just sitting and doing nothing (an attempt to just be), which melds into the walking in nature and observing what is seen and what arises in the mind.

Secondly, there are the activities that support self enquiry. These may be creative in some way. Maybe you write about what has been happening, or what you would like to happen. Maybe you take a large piece of paper and write everything on it that you would like to happen in the next few weeks/months/years.

Perhaps you pick up a camera and create some photos whilst you are walking in nature, or whilst you are sitting in silence. Perhaps you draw whatever comes to mind, or write a poem to the person that you miss. Maybe you just sit there with a blank page and a pen and write or draw whatever comes up. Maybe you read a book that supports your enquiry to how you are living.

Perhaps you have some yoga guidance you can follow, or your own practice. And maybe you meditate for longer than your usual practice.

Perhaps you do all of the above, I have at one time or another. Now I find it most helpful to start with a lot of informal sitting in silence. To sit whilst the sun goes down and the light fades. Then later I read, sleep lots and start the next day with something creative (this was written on my latest retreat). Then maybe some yoga and meditation, before a long gentle walk in the country, with or without a camera.

Over a day or several I become quieter – usually! I slow down and my mind quietens. It is in this space that clarity sometimes emerges, clarity about how I am doing, how I am being. And from this I know how I am, or maybe I just remind myself that everything is OK. Whether I am happy is something of the moment. In the space and silence sometimes I get a glimpse whether I am deep down content with how my life is. Without the space, the silence and the stopping, this knowing remains elusive.

At this time and place of quiet and connectedness I know and understand the difficulties I am living through. I am able to work on how to be with them and to move towards accepting them. The art of making wise choices about how to live through the difficulties remains a practice.

In the silence wisdom may arise, the trick is being with that knowing when it is noisy. So it seems logical to me that the more I practice with silence the more the knowing informs my day to day living. The more I develop internal silence the closer I move to my authentic self.

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Understanding how mindful photography can help

This article comes from a desire to share how I use mindful photography to support an intention to live a mindful life. It is an accompanying piece to my last post Accepting Difficulty and considers how a mindful photography practice can be my intention.

Practice

Over the last two years I have slowly come to the realisation that it is life that is the practice. Every aspect, every element, every event, every difficulty provides opportunity to be with how it is and respond skillfully. That is for me, the heart of mindfulness. It is not just a practice, but a way of life. The practice is life. Life is the practice.

It is helpful to relect back on a current definition of mindfulness.

“Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way – with balance and equanimity, and without judgement. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.” Sharon Saltzburg

Sharon Saltzburg perfectly distils it down in that final sentence. ‘Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.’ The ability to do this, to be this way, is born from daily meditation practice and a commitment to pay attention to each moment of the day.

It is the paying attention that is difficult to maintain. Meditation is the training ground. We sit and we pay attention to our mind leaping about. We use an anchor (breath, sound, sight) to come back to ourselves in the moment.

Modern scientific understanding of the brain’s functioning helps us to understand how meditation creates neural pathways which we can then use throughout our day to support our intention to pay attention. If you’re interested in this concept take a look at this simple explanation of neural plasticity

My own experience of meditation and mindfulness echoes this. I have had a daily practice for more than 5 years. Before that I meditated 3 or 4 times a week for 7 years. Only in the last 3 years have I started to notice it infiltrating the rest of my life, as I have slowly developed the ability to pay attention more often in the rest of my life.

Of course, I regularly fail. I fall back into old behaviours, habits and ways of thinking. I know why; those neural pathways have been around longer. I often liken them to motorways. I’m used to using them and they get me places quickly. Or so I imagine.

The intention to practice paying attention throughout my life has a simple goal. Sharon Salzburg called it creating space for insight. Another Mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, talks about us developing the ability to respond skillfully, rather than reacting habitually. I intend to continue to develop my ability to be with each moment, fully accepting how it is and responding skillfully. That is the life practice!

So if that is the intention how can a Mindful Photography Practice help?

Mindful Photography Practice

I meditate daily, walk mindfully occasionally and intend to follow a mindful photography practice once a week. Any activity can be an opportunity to practice mindfulness, to practice and develop the habit of paying attention. As Mr Kabat-Zinn says, “Applying mindfulness to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation.”

I generally keep my practice simple and I’ll explain what I do and how now.

Camera and lens choice

Firstly, I always use the same camera and lens set up. I favour a prime lens that echoes how we normally see. A 50mm focal length or equivalent is the way to go. My current camera, the Fuji XT2 has a crop factor of 1.5. so a 35mm lens is equivalent to 52.5mm on a full frame sensor. Confused? get a simple explanation here….and then check out your camera a lens combination here. Warning: you’ll need to know your sensor size.

If you use a zoom lens that’s fine. You can carry on using it as is, or you could tape it up at the 50mm equivalent and just use one focal length. Why do this you ask?

If you use just one lens regularly and it is similar to how you see, it will support your ability to create photographs that are similar to what you see. Wide angle and telephoto lenses distort the photo. For me the essence of the mindful photography practice is to represent what I see and how I see it.

Camera set up

My regular set up is Aperture Priority with a mid range aperture as my walk about position and ISO appropriate for the light. The basic intention is to choose a simple set up from which I can create photo that represents what I see, that is exposed correctly and with a good depth of field. If I want to make creative choices about depth of field, focus, white balance etc I can do so mindfully from this position. After creating the photo I then return to the original camera set up.

Four Stage Seeing Practice

My own Four Stage Seeing Practice is the anchor for a mindful photography practice. This involves coming back to what I see every time I notice my mind has gone elsewhere, much in the same way as you return to the breath when meditating. The four stages are Anchor, Seeing, Resting and Creating. I explain them fully in my Online Course.

Time

I generally practice for an hour, choosing to walk around a location and just notice what I see. The heart of the practice is to not look for a photo opportunity. That may sound contrary. After all I do expect to create some photos. My suggestion to you is, don’t look for a photo, just observe what you see. The photo will come to you.

If you practice this regularly one day this simple instruction will become part of how you photograph and you will have established a mindful photography practice as part of your intention to live a mindful life. Until then keep practising!