, ,

My favourite place is right here right now

The photo above was my one of my first thoughts for an image that represented a Favorite Place. It suggests that I have been out with my camera, creating photos and have now settled to review the photos whilst consuming a quality cup of tea and possibly the best Apple Cake in the world!

Firstly, you want to know about the cake, I know. It’s provided at Brynmill Coffee House, my local café. A little stop on the way home after a stroll around the park. Secondly, the photos – they follow at the bottom of this post, or a favourite few do. They’re from this morning’s practice, actually in a park in Porth – nowhere near the café. That’s artistic licence for you!

My second thought, after some reflection about what made a favourite place was a connection with mindfulness. It was the moment of creating this blog post that provided the inspiration. For whilst I do have special places that I love, and people that I love to be with that turn any place into a favourite place (you know who you are), the present moment is my favourite place of all.

If I am totally present in this moment then I am really here. Completely inhabiting my mind, body and place. I am completely immersed in the one thing that I am doing. I am aware of the sights, sounds and smells. I am tuned into the thoughts whizzing through my mind and occasionally when I notice this I remember to connect back to what I can see, or the ground under my feet.

Sometimes I am present enough to be aware of how I feel. As an English middle aged man this ability is a work in progress! But supported by my photographic practices, meditation and mindfulness practices it is developing.

This morning I went out to practice mindful photography originally with the intention of creating photos whilst I was experiencing feelings of uncertainty. However as soon as I got outside in the sharp morning air and brilliant sunshine those feelings dissolved and I was there, present with the day, my camera and my dog. Another favourite place.

Mindfulness, Photography and Change

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Lao Tzu

Change is inevitable and yet I often hear people say, “I don’t like change.” What is it about change we don’t like? And what opportunities does it present?

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.

Some of us embrace and seek out change. Drawn by the delusional comfort of change’s new clothes; we may harbour the belief that changing something externally will change us internally. At other times we seek stability and familiarity, avoiding precipitous decisions. Our instinct knows that change will come and that the waves will sweep us where they may, but whilst possible we seek safe ground.

Perhaps we climb so high, to avoid the rising tide of change, that we are left clinging to an uncomfortable pinnacle. We know that we cannot hold on forever, but letting go is beyond our habit. Inevitably, we fall or are swept away by the change that now has risen beyond avoidance.

We are aware that there are distinct stages of life, yet often we find the adjustment necessary to live harmoniously through each stage beyond our choice. Instead of embracing or adjusting to the challenges within each stage we canter through the early stages, with one eye the next. Then, beset by early indications of our mortality, we cling to the middle stages, unwilling to let life slip, refusing to accept the inevitable. Finally, an ignominious descent through the final stages leaves us unprepared for the terminal change.

What force impels us? What is it that blinds us to reality? Even though our instinct may tease at this wall of familiarity. The answer is both simple and complex. It is our mind’s habitual thinking. That is the simple bit: knowing what it is. Responding differently to change, rather than reacting in our characteristic manner is the complex bit. That is where the opportunity and the practice is.

My Opportunities

The last 3 years of my life, seen from the outside, could appear to be a catalogue of major changes. Acute health attacks, operations, diagnosis of diabetes, marriage dissolving, uncertainty of living arrangements, going self employed, new relationships, kids embracing university and still it thunders on.

I prefer not label this period as one of great change, because I do believe that change is a constant, it’s just that the speed of change appears to have increased; a lot.

The difference this time round is that I am making every effort to pay attention; to what is happening, to how I am feeling and how I could respond: rather than remaining entrenched in old patterns of behaviour, repeating the same mistakes and reacting habitually.

This approach is an ongoing practice. You might call it mindfulness, perhaps it is clearer to call it paying attention. It is a lifetime commitment and one which, whilst I have been a daily meditator for more than five years and an occasional one for twelve, I have only in the last couple of years begun to completely understand, commit and engage with.

In Spring 2015 I started to blog about how I was feeling, how I was trying to understand what was happening in my world and how I was using photography to support me. During this shift I redesigned my online business, let lots of other commitments go and began to connect more closely with my friends and my family abroad.

The more I shared my vulnerabilities and uncertainties, the more friends and family shared theirs. Friendships deepened, new opportunities presented themselves and the more I began to remember to pay attention to what I was sensing, thinking, feeling and experiencing.

Since I split with my wife at the beginning of 2016 change has continued. The house is been up for sale unsuccessfully, the kids seem to have adjusted to the changing circumstances and my divorce will be finalised in April. My working life has changed hugely, I love working for myself and I seem to have been able to generate enough income to survive. All of which brings me to the future.

Future Change

One of our common behaviours is to plan for the future. This is of course essential to manage a balanced and harmonious busy life. I use various tools to help me do this, the primary ones being an online calendar and To Do list. Both are accessible on all devices and both can persuade me that all is in hand.

Then life takes a hand and much is thrown in the air. As Mr Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” Juggling becomes a useful skill! The idea that we are in control of our lives is revealed to be a fallacy and we may struggle to respond skillfully.

My experience is that the difficulty, or challenge, lies in our emotional response to the planned and unexpected changes. Let me give you an example that I am currently living through.

My breathing has over the last year or so become more challenging. By that I mean that there have been more regular situations when I have needed to take steroids to open my airway. The most recent of these was quite scary and led to me asking the London Hospital team to bring forward my planned appointment for throat surgery.

This work has taken place (laser work on my scar tissue and balloon dilation of the airway) and has resulted in an improvement in my breathing. However, my improvement has not been as significant as on previous occasions and it looks ever more likely that a more significant operation will be required soon to widen my airway. There is also a slim possibility that I will not be suitable for this operation and other significant options might be necessary.

This is a great example of the future change I would like to plan for but I can’t completely. The operation will open my airway, but result in a diminished voice and whilst I can predict some of the repercussions from that I do not how I will feel about this significant change to who I am.

Change reminds us that we are human, fragile and ultimately will die. Significant change that alters how we interact with the world, threatens our perception of who we are. Our self image is quite rigid, often inhabiting a version of ourselves that passed a few years before. When change occurs, unexpected or planned, that changes us significantly – physically or mentally or both – this self image is shaken. It is our emotional reaction to this that we have to live through, to feel, to own, to be with and finally to accept the version of who we are now.

Mindfulness and Photography

This is challenging and difficult work. Mindfulness and photography can help. Mindfulness encourages us to be with how life is. To notice our busy, capricious mind. To pay attention to our feelings. To be with how we are. This is not easy.

We meditate to help train our minds to respond skilfully in our day to day life, rather than reacting habitually. The noticing what we are thinking and feeling is at the heart of this. When we experience great change this practice provides the possibility of a foundation for developing a way through the difficulty.

Mindful Photography provides the opportunity to use our camera to explore the feelings and thoughts we are living through. I have included a practice below that I have shared before that is specifically designed for this life experience.

This work is the hardest work you will do. I know I will struggle with it when my change comes. I know that others I teach are struggling with it (see posts about my Mindful Photography course with people with traumatic brain injury). However it is the stuff of life. It is the root of self understanding and acceptance, especially in the midst of great change. It is the work that will support you to be the most authentic and honest version of yourself that you can be, and that my friend will in turn support everyone you know and love to do the same.

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny.” Paulo Coelho, The Devil and Miss Prym

Mindful Photography Practice for living with difficulty

Feel the photo

This practice is designed to support you through a time when you are experiencing thoughts and feelings that you do not like. You may be angry, upset, annoyed, frustrated, fearful or confused. Whatever it is that you are finding uncomfortable this practice is for those times.

  • Set up your camera in a shooting mode that you can use instinctively. Auto is fine, or if you prefer a little more control use aperture priority (choose an aperture of f8 and ISO auto).
  • Turn off your view screen so that you cannot see or review what you are creating. If you are not sure how to do this tape a piece of card or paper over the view screen, taking care not to cover any essential buttons. You can create photos by looking through the viewfinder or just shoot blind, from the hip!
  • The purpose of this is to tune you in to what you are feeling and release the control you may experience about creating photos.
  • When you are experiencing strong emotion, set your camera up as explained above, and go walking with your camera.
  • Choose any location you feel drawn to.
  • As you walk do not look for a photo opportunity, just walk, paying attention to what you can see
    Notice the thoughts and feelings that relate to your difficulty.
  • At some point something will catch your eye. Stop and consider what it is.
  • Move closer. Frame tightly. Create the photo and move on.
  • Repeat this, paying attention to your feelings and the visual feast before you.
    Act instinctively and release your attachment to what your photos look like.
  • Finish when you feel ready.
  • Return home and DO NOT LOOK at your photos! Leave it a day.
  • Next day review your photos and notice the feelings you experience.

It you find this practice useful please share it with your friends.

The space between

The photo at the top of this post was taken last weekend. The one lower down was created this morning as Monty revelled in the fresh snow. In the space between these photos much has happened.

Sometime life is full of events, change and activity. You may call these spells demanding, or challenging. Or you may use more colourful language. However we all experience these periods and I know that they provide me with rich territory to practice being present with how things really are. I know I write about this quite a bit, it’s been a difficult period of late, but it is helpful for me (and hopefully you) to discuss difficulty openly. For from that conversation processing of events, changes and challenges can begin to occur.

In the space between I have been to London for an operation on my throat by the specialist team at Charing Cross Hospital headed by Mr Sandhu. The purpose of the operation was to improve my airway and that has happened, although it is still too close to post op recovery to be sure of the final improvement.

Now I have to be patient, allow everything to settle and hope that in a week there is some improvement that will last a while. As I reflect upon my travels and travails I am find myself hugely grateful for the skill and care of Mr Sandhu’s team, and the love, nurture and support of my family, friends and girlfriend. As always it is these human qualities that decorate the space between.