Mindfulness encourages you to see things as they actually are in the present moment. As the present moment plays out, you practice noticing your feelings, your physical sensations and the thoughts that flit across your mind. It may well be that you do not like what you are experiencing. You may try to avoid, distract or just deny the experience.
Acceptance is the quality that allows you to be with all the difficulty, without turning away. Acceptance encourages you to turn towards the difficult experience. To sit with the feelings, sensations and thoughts, allowing them to ebb and flow and slowly, bit by bit allowing them a little space in your life.
“Just accept it,” friends may say after you have spent several days moping about after the end of a relationship, “There are plenty more fish in the sea.” Helpful? Of course not. Those wise friends know that you have to accept the situation to move on, but you are caught in the moment, trapped by the loss you are experiencing. Acceptance is part of the cycle of adjusting to loss.
This was first described by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross as the Grief Cycle and related to the stages we live through after the death of a loved one. Kübler-Ross pioneered methods in the support and counselling of personal trauma, grief and grieving, associated with death and dying. The stages she identified are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They are equally transferable to our adjustment to other losses; the end of a relationship, being made redundant or serious ill health.
I never realised that I was living through a grief cycle until more than two years after the initial acute ill health and the end of my college career. It only became clear after I had written a memoir, it had lain about for a while, and I later returned to read it and realised that I was describing myself in a depressed state. When I was living it and writing about it, I was unaware. It was only after I had experienced distance from the changes that I could look back at my behaviours and identify that I had been adjusting to great loss: the loss of my health and the loss of my career.
Mindfulness offers a practice to support living through this experience. In the secular mindfulness practice this can be described as a meditation that invokes wishing yourself and others well. This was developed from the Buddhist practice of Maitri – loving kindness or compassion for oneself and others.
This practice encourages you to be compassionate with your present experience. To accept and love yourself, in all the glory and the grime. Tara Brach (meditation teacher and psychologist) describes this as “Radical Acceptance, which means clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion.”
This is challenging. To regard the experience with compassion, first you have to understand, to witness what you are feeling. I don’t know about you, but I have always found this difficult.
Maybe it’s my British upbringing. What I do know is that I have had to spend many years since my loss, learning how to talk about what I feel and believing that it is OK to do so. Only with a cultivation of this ability to notice what I was feeling could I then begin to explore the possibility that I could be compassionate to myself, to recognise my feelings and not be judgemental about them. I have found this radical, maybe you will too, or maybe you find it natural.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Carl Rogers (psychologist)
As applied to photography
We can practice acceptance through photography in two key ways. The primary opportunity is to use a photography practice as a method of understanding and processing your current experience. In many of my courses and books I offer mindful photography activities that encourage you to attend to your present moment experience, particularly how you are feeling and representing these experiences through photos.
This can be achieved with an understanding how of the elements of photography composition can be used to embody emotion. This includes knowledge of representational ideas for colour, shape, line and so on, as well as the use of visual metaphors and symbols to communicate ideas and feelings.
On a more instinctive level you can also practice responding photographically to your environment when you are experiencing a strong emotion, creating photographs that spring from an intuitive response. These may well include knowledge of the visual language of a photograph, as described above, or your response maybe less planned and controlled. It may run contrary to popular ideas, resting instead on how the visual experience echoed how you felt.
The second opportunity is to understand and accept the kind of photographer (and person) you are. This is partly about what it is that you like to create photographs of, and partly about what those photographs can say about you, as well as about the subject. It is a study in how the outer world can reflect your inner world.
Mindful Photography Activity – One Object
The purpose of this Mindful Photography Activity is to remind you that things are how they are. Moving towards acceptance is undermined by your dislike of how things actually are and your attachment to how you would like things to be. When the cause of this is some kind of significant change in your life, your habitual thoughts, ideas and beliefs can obscure your ability to see how things really are.
Moving towards acceptance initially requires tuning in to your sensations: what you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. This reality is often your anchor in a mindful practice and it provides a foundation from which to notice how you feel, think and are acting.
You will cultivate this ability by attending visually to an object that you are attracted to. I suggest that you choose something in nature, a tree, rock, bush, hill, mountain, stream, river or beach.
• Set aside at least an hour for this practice.
• Use your usual camera setting and lens, and turn off the review screen.
• Go for a walk at a favourite location and find an object you are drawn to.
• Spend time with your object.
• Sit. Have a picnic. Have a cup of tea from a flask. Settle.
• Spend time looking at your object. Notice its colours, patterns, structures, shapes, smell, feel and so on.
• Take this process slow, very slow.
• Create photos of your object that you are drawn to. Do NOT review them. Do not delete. Just be with the practice.
• When you feel the practice is finished go home. Download your photos and review on a large display.
• Notice your thoughts and feelings as you review the photos.
• Choose a few photos that best reflect how your chosen object made you feel.
• Looking at the other photos you have not chosen, consider how they make you feel and why you did not choose them.
• Repeat the activity.